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Proper care yields smooth computing


While computers have the ability to bring home users endless entertainment, and fun, anyone who owns one knows that without proper care, computers also offer equal amounts of frustration.

That is precisely why people should protect their investment with routine maintenance. In an age of rampant viruses, spyware and browser hijackings, most owners know that they should have a virus program, spyware catcher and firewall.

Routine cleaning of the fans, defragmenting the hard drives and making sure you use the "Check Disk" feature from time to time can stave off minor and major problems on a Windows-based PC.

Disk defragmenting is an important aspect of helping your computer to run smoothly, according to Microsoft.

"This feature organizes files on the hard disk which allows faster system performance. Disk Defragmenter should be used approximately every six months or when PC users detect a delay in their system's overall performance," says Tracy Overby, product manager for Microsoft Windows' client division.

When a computer saves a file, it breaks it up into many pieces - sometimes thousands of pieces - and spreads them throughout the hard drive. If those pieces are reassembled from time to time into a complete file, the processor has fewer problems retrieving it from the hard drive.

On a defragmented drive, the processor can read the pieces of the file in a logical order. That speeds up access and makes programs run faster.

While Windows has a built-in defragmenter, the Windows version sometimes does not do its job as well as it could, according to Raxco, a company based in Gaithersburg that has developed programs that it says defragment the hard drive more fully, quickly and effectively.

Raxco's Perfect Disk 6.0 program ($44.99 for one computer) defragments all of the files on a computer hard drive, whereas, according to Raxco, Microsoft's built-in defragmenter will skip over some files. Moreover, Microsoft's defragmenter requires 20 percent of the disk space to be free in order to defragment, while Raxco says Perfect Disk needs only 5 percent of the disk space to do its job.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Perfect Disk and the Windows defragmenter is the way that they work, according to Raxco officials. Windows' defragmenter takes several passes at the hard drive, chipping away at the data. Perfect Disk defragments in one pass and makes it harder for the drive to become fragmented again as you use your computer, they say.

Defragmenting regularly can save huge amounts of time and aggravation. Pulling multiple files into specific locations on the hard drive can speed up how a program handles each of hundreds or thousands of files on a hard drive, says Bob Nolan, Raxco chief executive officer. In a corporate setting where a program may need to handle thousands of files, this can be a huge time saver.

"We've seen some absolutely horrible scenarios," Nolan says. "There was a pharmaceutical company with Lotus Notes databases that were in thousands of pieces. We've even seen servers where the disk was so full that it took 15 minutes to log on."

While defragmenting your computer may help it to run smoothly, it is certainly not the only answer to frustrations. Dan Hartman, owner of Discount Computer Services in Baltimore, has a few other recommendations.

"One thing I usually recommend is to run Windows update often. This will often prevent viruses from coming in through security back doors," says Hartman. Users can download and run the latest Windows updates through Microsoft's Web site.

Mike Menefee, owner of A Plus Computers in Baltimore, also recommends cleaning out temporary Internet files.

"Temp files can help load one particular page more quickly, but if it goes for a while, thousands of files will just build up and the computer has to search through them, making it run slower in the end," says Menefee.

Although not generally recommended for casual computer users, cleaning the physical computer can be a good maintenance measure too. Since computers can get very hot, it is good to occasionally clean (or have a professional clean) the fans inside the computer. This requires opening the case and gently cleaning the fan, Hartman says.

Other good maintenance habits that should be adopted include simple things, such as using the Windows operating system to shut down your computer rather than simply hitting the power button.

When it becomes necessary to shut down the computer improperly, it is important to run Microsoft Scandisk when rebooting to check the hard drives to make sure that no files were harmed or rendered unusable. (This feature is not available in Windows XP, but a similar error checker is available called "Check Disk.") The Microsoft programs have the ability to find these files and either fix or replace them.

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