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Is there a PC doctor in the house?

How to maintain a healthy Windows PC environment. Windows Advisor hed: Is there a PC doctor in the house? dek: how to maintain a healthy Windows PC environment. dek: defragging your hard drive and running a antivirus program are key. by Joe DeRouen

Maintaining a healthy environment, both inside and outside your computer’s case, is paramount to keeping your Windows PC running smoothly and efficiently. There are several aspects involved in creating a healthy environment for your computer, including regularly scanning your PC for viruses, defragmenting your hard drive, and keeping the area where you use your PC free of dust and clutter.

Inside your Windows PC

Computer viruses have been a threat for years, and, as anyone who has fallen victim to something like Good Times or Code Red knows, a good virus protection program is a must for keeping your Windows PC healthy. There are plenty of good antivirus packages out there, and two of the best are McAfee’s Virus Scan and Symantec’s Norton Antivirus. In this age of hackers and viruses, an antivirus program-preferably one that scans your e-mail downloads-is essential. Both packages sell for around $40, and McAfee even offers a version that you can access directly from the McAfee Web site and use to scan your hard drive, all without installing the scanning software on your PC. But–and this is a big but–the best antivirus program in the world will do you little good if you don’t actually use it. Whichever program you use, you need to configure it to download updates and scan your machine every day, including every e-mail and downloaded file that hits your hard drive.

Scanning for trouble

Defragmenting your hard drive is just as important as scanning for viruses–perhaps even more so, because although not every Windows PC gets a virus, every system does suffer from fragmentation.

Fragmentation occurs over time when a hard disk is used frequently for creating, deleting, and modifying files. At some point, the operating system needs to store parts of a file in noncontiguous clusters. This is entirely invisible to users, but it can slow down the speed at which data is accessed because the disk drive must search through different parts of the disk to put together a single file.

Defragmenting (or optimizing) moves files to the most advantageous spot on the hard drive. There are many programs that can defrag your hard disk, but thankfully Windows includes all you really need on your initial Windows XP (or 95, 98, 2000, Me) installation. It’s called, appropriately enough, Disk Defragmenter, and can be found in the Programs/Accessories/System Tools folder.

Sometimes, though, optimizing just isn’t enough. Occasionally, files on your Windows PC may become damaged. This can happen when you’re forced to reboot your PC (that is, when it freezes) without properly being shut down. Damaged files can cause programs to work incorrectly (or not at all) and can cause the loss of important documents and files. If the File Allocation Table (which tells Windows where all the files are located) is damaged, it can cause even more problems.

Enter ScanDisk. A companion file to Windows’ Disk Defragmenter, ScanDisk is also found in your basic Windows installation and in Windows Explorer under the Programs/Accessories/System Tools folder. ScanDisk will scan your drives, find any and all errors, and fix them if so prompted.

But as important as defragmenting and scanning for errors are to the life of your PC, despite your best intentions, you’ll probably forget to do it. Both programs can (and should) be configured to run automatically via Microsoft’s Maintenance Wizard, found in the same directory as Disk Defragmenter and ScanDisk. You should set up both programs to run at least once a month, if not more often, in order to keep your Windows PC in tip-top operating condition.

Note that programs like Symantec’s Norton Utilities (also around $40) will do all these things and more. But if you’re on a budget and just concerned with keeping your Windows PC up and running, the programs supplied with your flavor of Windows should work just fine.

Outside your Windows PC

As everyone should know, it isn’t a good idea to pull the plug on your Windows PC without first powering down the system. Sometimes, though, it isn’t your choice. A blackout, even a brief one, can harm your PC by forcing the system to abruptly shut down without first closing all of your programs. This can cause file damage, damage the hard-disk surface, and, in rare cases, short-circuit your motherboard.

In this age of rolling blackouts, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is a must. A UPS contains a large battery that continues to power your PC for a specified period of time even when juice isn’t coming from your outlet. It also evens out the power coming from the wall, eliminating brownouts that can also damage your PC. Many UPSes also will clean the power coming from your wall, eliminating spikes and other noise caused by large appliances connected to your PC’s circuits.

There are several different UPS systems on the market that protect your PC for a varied amount of time, ranging from two or three minutes to an hour or more. Of course, the point of a UPS isn’t to enable you to check your e-mail while everyone else down the block reads by candlelight, but rather to let you safely close all your programs and power down the PC normally. But what if you’re not around to power down the PC when the lights go out? Several companies offer software with their UPS units that, via a serial or USB cable, can close your programs and shut down your PC for you. When the software detects a power outage, the programs runs through a specified set of commands (such as e-mailing you a notice that the power went out), closes all open windows, then powers down your PC.

There are many nice brands of UPS systems out there, but my favorites are Belkin and APC. Both make high-end systems that allow you to “run in the dark,” and both offer UPS control software with their units for no extra charge. So what’s the price? Depending on your power needs, you can expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $350 to protect your Windows PC.

There’s nothing but dust there

Even if your Windows PC is running in tip-top, virus-free, optimized condition, and is protected from brownouts and blackouts by the best UPS on the market, the environment in which you use your system can still affect its longevity.

Smoke, water, hair, humidity (or lack thereof), and dust: These are just a few of your Windows PC’s enemies. A spilled can of Coke, pet hairs, cigarette smoke, or even simple dust can damage your computer over time. But you can prevent the damage.

Don’t smoke, eat, or drink around your PC, vacuum around the back of the computer, and try to keep the area as clean and regulate humidity. Some of these problems are obvious; a spilled soft drink, for example, can short-circuit a keyboard or even the motherboard. Some, however, aren’t so obvious. Dust and hair can clog on the PC’s fan, and humid weather (don’t operate your desktop Windows PC on the porch) can cause moisture buildup in the monitor and computer itself, wreaking all sorts of havoc; in the meantime, overly dry weather can enable electrostatic discharge, which can fry components.

A little bit of common sense can go a long way toward protecting your Windows PC from outside problems. Treat your PC as you would a rare book, or even a newborn baby. (You wouldn’t let your baby gather dust, would you?) If you take care of the inside, and treat the outside with care, your Windows PC should last you for years, or at least until you trade it in for the latest and greatest replacement.

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