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   Nov/Dec 2001


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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE

NOTHING.BUT.NET WITH RICK KLAU

Keeping Your PC Healthy

With a handful of tools and tricks, your computer needn’t be a dinosaur before its time.

Several months ago, my wife complained that our home computer was sluggish. The 333-megahertz machine is a couple of years old, but it has stood up fairly well. We’ve added RAM, a second CD-ROM drive and two network cards. The software is also relatively new: Office 2000, IE 5 and a variety of graphics applications.

I sat down to try it out, and sure enough, it was slow. Whatever you think about Windows, 15 seconds to load Word is excessive. Plus, though we’d recently installed DSL, our connection and download speeds didn’t appear much different from our dial-up connection. Our sound card had stopped working reliably.

I proceeded to get our computer back to good health. As it turned out, quite a breadth of problems had crept into this two-year-old machine. The same may well be true of your PC.

The good news is that fixing the problems—and avoiding them down the road—is surprisingly straightforward. Some effort is involved, but you don’t need a computer science degree. You just need a few helpers. The following applications and services come in handy.

Step 1: Find and Fix the Big Problems

Take a swing by www.iolo.com, the home page of Iolo Technologies. You can download a 30-day free trial of Iolo’s System Mechanic and set about checking out your PC. System Mechanic looks in some of the most common places for problems: your registry (the Windows database of system files, application settings and the like), your temp directory (where many old files just take up space) and your startup settings (which determine which programs load when Windows starts).

Your registry is most often the major reason that performance slows. Over time, as you install and uninstall applications, the registry fills with obsolete information. The bigger your registry is, the more information Windows loads. And if that information is obsolete, it needlessly takes up cycles as the system tries to decide what to do with it.

Deleting old or unnecessary files can also speed up performance. To increase your ability to run multiple applications at one time, Windows uses a "swap" file—unused disk space that Windows pretends is more RAM. The more space available on your hard drive, the bigger your swap file can be—and the more Windows can do.

While System Mechanic offers likeable functionality, I ultimately purchased the perennial favorite Norton Utilities. Go to www.symantec.com for a trial download. Norton digs deeper for common Windows problems (hardware configuration problems, software errors, etc.), and in most cases, it can repair them automatically. It found and corrected 300 such errors on its first run with my home PC.

You also want to defragment your hard drive regularly. Use Norton Utilities’ Speed Disk tool or the defrag program that ships with Windows, but run the programs at least a few times a month. You’ll see a dramatic difference in how fast your computer operates.

Step 2: Tune Up

Another component of an underperforming machine can be outdated device drivers. Device drivers are the small files that help Windows communicate with other devices: printers, audio and video cards, monitors and so forth. In many cases, it’s likely that the manufacturers (or Microsoft) have developed new, faster ways of performing older drivers’ jobs.

The best way to find out if you have outdated drivers is to go to catchup.cnet.com. CatchUp is a service that C|Net provides for free. It will automatically scan your hard drive and then give you a simple Web page with hyperlinks to the download sections for needed updates or upgrades.

On its first pass against my PC, CatchUp found 38 updates, patches or free upgrades for software or drivers on my system. Many of these would require me to download tens of megabytes of data. Gee, if only my DSL connection was actually fast.

Step 3: Improve Connection Performance

How can you tell if your Internet connection is actually working? Go to www.dslreports.com. (Despite the name, this site works regardless of your connection type.) To get an accurate report of how fast your connection is, click on the link titled "DSLR tools," then click on "Speed test." According to the test, my DSL connection speed was 33k (not even 60 percent as fast as a typical dial-up connection)! Though my upload speed was faster at approximately 80k, neither speed was anywhere near the 768k the phone company promised. I called Ameritech tech support and got nowhere. (I now know why so many DSL companies have gone bankrupt.)

The fix to the connection problem, however, had nothing to do with the DSL modem. It had to do with a setting in the Windows registry. It turns out that Windows 98 shipped when broadband connections were rare. A setting in the registry—the TCP Receive Window (or RWIN)—controls how much data Windows can receive at once. The default setting is rather small. Once I changed it (from 8760 to 65535), guess what? I ran the speed test again and my connection jumped to more than 600k (and a full 128k on the upload). Learn more about how to make these tweaks at www.dslreports.com/faq/tweaks.

I now was able to easily download the many patches and updates. A new driver fixed the sound card problem. An update for IE dramatically increased the browser speed. And updates to Adobe Acrobat, Paint Shop Pro, Office 2000 and a handful of drivers all made measurable improvements in the computer’s performance.

Step 4: Protect Your System

Once you’ve got your computer in good shape, it’s important to keep it there. First, if you don’t have an antivirus program, go to www.symantec.com or www.mcafee.com and buy one. The price of $40 or so is worth every penny. The alternative is to risk losing everything on your computer.

Next, if you have a persistent Internet connection—cable, DSL or satellite—you should invest in a firewall. Don’t believe me? Go to www.grc .com and click on "Shields Up!" This will tell you exactly how vulnerable you are. Install your firewall and return to this site: Are you safe? If you’re still vulnerable, return the firewall and get a different program. I’ve used Norton’s Personal Firewall for two years, and it’s a very stable product. Another good one is Zone Alarm, at www.zone alarm.com. In addition to receiving consistently good reviews, it’s free.

What if you have an intermittent connection? The premise of a firewall is to allow only approved Internet traffic (traffic you’ve requested or initiated) to your computer. I sometimes receive 5 to 10 attempted attacks a day. Many of these are automated attacks (not individuals trying to break into my computer but programs scanning for unprotected computers to infect). If you have a dial-up connection, you’re less vulnerable because your connection to the Internet is frequently interrupted and your IP address changes. This doesn’t mean that you’re immune from attack, however, and since ZoneAlarm is free, there’s no harm in installing it on your machine.

Keep Your Engine in Tip-Top Shape

While Microsoft continues to promise a user-friendly, stable operating system, the truth is that it requires work. We’re a long way from a truly simple computing experience. Keeping your computer running at 100 percent is never simple. Just like your car needs an oil change, your computer needs some care and feeding to keep it healthy. With the tips and tools included here, you should be well positioned to squeak a little more life out of the machine.

Rick Klau (rklau@interfacesoftware.com) is Vice President of Legal Markets at Interface Software, Inc. in Oak Brook, IL. He is co-author of the ABA book Law Law Law on the Internet: The Best Legal Web Sites and More.

LINKS

If you’re feeling like a real geek, go to www.regedit.com for a slew of tips about how to manually improve the performance of your Windows registry. Note: Proceed at your own risk.