PC Routine Maintenance

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That old adage might seem trite and clichéd, but it’s also true—especially when it comes to your computer system. Spending a few minutes a week on preventive maintenance can save you from costly computer problems in the future.

To make this chore a little easier, Windows includes several utilities to help you keep your system running smoothly. You should use these tools as part of your regular maintenance routine—or if you experience specific problems with your computer system.

Free Up Disk Space by Deleting Unnecessary Files

Even with today’s humongous hard disks, you can still end up with too many useless files taking up too much hard disk space. Fortunately, Windows includes a utility that identifies and deletes unused files. The Disk Cleanup tool is what you want to use when you need to free up extra hard disk space for more frequently used files.

To use Disk Cleanup, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start button to display the Start menu.
  2. Select All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Cleanup.
  3. If prompted, select the drive you want to clean up
  4. Disk Cleanup automatically analyzes the contents of your hard disk drive.
  5. When Disk Cleanup is finished analyzing, it presents its results in the Disk Cleanup dialog box.
  6. Select the Disk Cleanup tab.
  7. You now have the option of permanently deleting various types of files: downloaded program files, temporary Internet files, offline web pages, deleted files in the Recycle Bin, and so forth. Select which files you want to delete.
  8. Click OK to begin deleting.

Make Your Hard Disk Run Better by Defragmenting

If you think that your computer is taking longer than usual to open files or notice that your hard drive light stays on longer than usual, you might need to defragment your hard drive. File fragmentation is sort of like taking the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and storing them in different boxes along with pieces from other puzzles.

The more dispersed the pieces are, the longer it takes to put the puzzle together. Spreading the bits and pieces of a file around your hard disk occurs whenever you install, delete, or run an application or when you edit, move, copy, or delete a file.

If you notice that your system takes longer and longer to open and close files or run applications, it’s because these file fragments are spread all over the place. You fix the problem when you put all the pieces of the puzzle back in the right boxes— which you do by defragmenting your hard disk.

To defragment your hard disk, use Windows’ Disk Defragmenter utility. In Windows Vista, Disk Defragmenter runs constantly in the background, automatically defragging your hard disk whenever your computer is turned on.

In Windows XP, however, you have to run Disk Defragmenter manually—which you should do at least once a month. (You can also run the utility manually in Windows Vista, if you want to perform more immediate maintenance.) To run Disk Defragmenter manually, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start button to display the Start menu.
  2. Select All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter to open the Disk Defragmenter utility.
  3. If prompted, select the drive you want to defragment, typically drive C:.
  4. In Windows Vista, you’re shown Disk Defragmenter’s current schedule; to defragment your hard disk now, click the Defragment Now button.

Defragmenting your drive can take awhile, especially if you have a large hard drive or your drive is really fragmented. So, you might want to start the utility and let it run while you are at lunch.

Perform a Hard Disk Checkup with ScanDisk

Any time you run an application, move or delete a file, or accidentally turn the power off while the system is running, you run the risk of introducing errors to your hard disk. These errors can make it harder to open files, slow down your hard disk, or cause your system to freeze when you open or save a file or an application.

Fortunately, you can find and fix most of these errors directly from within Windows. All you have to do is run the built-in ScanDisk utility. To find and fix errors on your hard drive, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start button to display the Start menu.
  2. Select Computer to open the Computer Explorer. (Or, in Windows XP, select My Computer to open the My Computer folder.)
  3. Right-click the icon for the drive you want to scan, and then select the Properties option from the pop-up menu.
  4. When the Properties dialog box appears, select the Tools tab.
  5. Click the Check Now button to display the Check Disk dialog box.
  6. Check both the options (Automatically Fix File System Errors and Scan for and Attempt Recovery of Bad Sectors).
  7. Click Start.

Windows now scans your hard disk and attempts to fix any errors it encounters.

Keeping Hardware in Tip-Top Condition

There’s also a fair amount of preventive maintenance you can physically perform on your computer hardware. It’s simple stuff, but can really extend the life of your PC.

System Unit

Your PC system unit has a lot of sensitive electronics inside—everything from memory chips to disk drives to power supplies. Check out these maintenance tips to keep your system unit from flaking out on you:

  • Position your system unit in a clean, dust-free environment. Keep it away from direct sunlight and strong magnetic fields. In addition, make sure that your system unit and your monitor have plenty of air flow around them to keep them from overheating.
  • Hook up your system unit to a surge suppressor to avoid damaging power spikes.
  • Avoid turning on and off your system unit too often; it’s better to leave it on all the time than incur frequent “power on” stress to all those delicate components. However…
  • Turn off your system unit if you’re going to be away for an extended period—anything longer than a few days.
  • Check all your cable connections periodically. Make sure that all the connectors are firmly connected and all the screws properly screwed—and make sure that your cables aren’t stretched too tight or bent in ways that could damage the wires inside.


Even something as simple as your keyboard requires a little preventive maintenance from time to time. Check out these tips:

  • Keep your keyboard away from young children and pets—they can get dirt and hair and Silly Putty all over the place, and they have a tendency to put way too much pressure on the keys.
  • Keep your keyboard away from dust, dirt, smoke, direct sunlight, and other harmful environmental stuff. You might even consider putting a dust cover on your keyboard when it’s not in use.
  • Use a small vacuum cleaner to periodically sweep the dirt from your keyboard. (Alternately, you can use compressed air to blow the dirt away.) Use a cotton swab or soft cloth to clean between the keys. If necessary, remove the keycaps to clean the switches underneath.
  • If you spill something on your keyboard, disconnect it immediately and wipe up the spill. Use a soft cloth to get between the keys; if necessary, use a screwdriver to pop off the keycaps and wipe up any seepage underneath. Let the keyboard dry thoroughly before trying to use it again.


If you’re a heavy Windows user, you probably put thousands of miles a year on your mouse. Just like a car tire, anything turning over that often needs a little tender loving care. Check out these mouse maintenance tips:

  • If you use a mouse that has a roller ball mechanism, periodically open up the bottom of your mouse and remove the roller ball. Wash the ball with water (or perhaps a mild detergent). Use a soft cloth to dry the ball before reinserting it.
  • While your mouse ball is removed, use compressed air or a cotton swab to clean dust and dirt from the inside of your mouse. (In extreme cases, you might need to use tweezers to pull lint and hair out of your mouse— or use a small knife to scrape packed crud from the rollers.)
  • Always use a mouse pad—they really do help keep things rolling smoothly; plus, they give you good traction. (And while you’re at it, don’t forget to clean your mouse pad with a little spray cleaner—it can get dirty, too.)


If you think of your monitor as a little television set, you’re on the right track. Just treat your monitor as you do your TV, and you’ll be okay. That said, look at these preventive maintenance tips:

  • As with all other important system components, keep your monitor away from direct sunlight, dust, and smoke. Make sure that it has plenty of ventilation, especially around the back; don’t cover the rear cooling vents with paper or any other object, and don’t set anything bigger than a small plush toy on top of the cabinet.
  • Don’t place any strong magnets in close proximity to your monitor. (This includes external speakers.)
  • With your monitor turned off, periodically clean the monitor screen. For a traditional CRT monitor, spray standard glass cleaner on a soft cloth (antistatic type, if possible), and then wipe the screen clean.

For an LCD flat-panel monitor, use water to dampen a lint-free cloth, and then wipe the screen; do not spray liquid directly on the screen. Do not use any cleaner that contains alcohol or ammonia; these chemicals may damage an LCD screen. (You can, however, use commercial cleaning wipes specially formulated for LCD screens.)

  • Don’t forget to adjust the brightness and contrast controls on your monitor every now and then. Any controls can get out of whack—plus, your monitor’s performance will change as it ages, and simple adjustments can often keep it looking as good as new.


Your printer is a complex device with a lot of moving parts. Follow these tips to keep your printouts in good shape:

  • Use a soft cloth, mini-vacuum cleaner, and/or compressed air to clean the inside and outside of your printer on a periodic basis. In particular, make sure that you clean the paper path of all paper shavings and dust.
  • If you have an ink-jet printer, periodically clean the ink jets. Run your printer’s cartridge cleaning utility, or use a small pin to make sure that they don’t get clogged.
  • If you have a laser printer, replace the toner cartridge as needed. When you replace the cartridge, remember to clean the printer cleaning bar and other related parts, per the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Don’t use alcohol or other solvents to clean any rubber or plastic parts— you’ll do more harm than good!

Backing Up with Windows Backup

One more piece of maintenance can make or break the way you use your computer. I’m talking about the necessity of backing up your data files so that if your computer ever crashes or goes dead, you have backup copies of everything that’s important to you—including your work documents, music files, digital photos, and the like.

Choosing a Backup Device

The easiest way to back up your data files is to use an external hard disk. These run anywhere from $100 to a few hundred dollars, depending on the size of the hard disk. You should get an external hard disk that’s about as big as the hard disk in your main PC; if you have a 200GB hard drive on your PC, get a 200GB external hard disk.

Most external hard drives connect to your PC via USB; some bigger disks use the faster FireWire connection. Either type of connection is fine, and both are easy enough to connect and install. After the external hard drive is connected, you need to run a software program that automates the backup process.

Most external hard drives come with their own proprietary backup programs; these are typically easy to use and get the job done. You can also use one of the many third-party backup programs sold at your local computer or electronics store, such as Acronis True Image or CMS Bounceback Professional. You’ll typically pay from $50 to $100 for one of these programs.

Automatic Backup in Windows Vista

If your PC is running Windows Vista, you have a backup program built into the operating system. Windows Backup (on all but the Home Basic edition) lets you schedule automatic backups of your key data.

You launch Windows Backup by clicking the Start button and then selecting All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Backup Status, and Configuration. When the window shown in Figure 1 appears, click the Back Up Files button; then click the Set Up Automatic File Backup option.

Windows scans your system for a backup device (typically an external hard disk) and asks you to select that device for your backup.

The next screen, asks you what types of files you want to back up. You can choose from picture, music, video, email, and other common types of files. Click Next, and select how often (and when) you want to back up your files.

You can choose to back up daily, weekly, or monthly; the more often you back up, the better. When finished, click the Save Settings and Start Backup button. Vista starts your first disk backup.

Complete PC Backup

In addition to this standard Windows Backup utility, the Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate versions of Vista come with an enhanced type of backup, dubbed CompletePC, that creates an exact image of all the files on your system—including program and system files.

Most backups copy only data files; a system image backup copies every file on your hard drive. When you recover from a system failure, a system image backup lets you restore your complete system exactly the way it was before the crash. (With a traditional data backup, you’ll have to reinstall your operating system and programs from their installation disks before you restore your backed-up data files.)