Monday, May 14, 2007

4 Steps to Revive Your PC

Part 2 of "How to give an old PC a new lease on life." Click here for Part 1, "Questions and Answers."

  1. Back it up
  2. Clean it up
  3. Clean it out
  4. Reload it (optional)
Step 1. Back it up
  • Your PC is going to fail one day, no matter what you do to keep it going. You've been lucky so far if it hasn't failed yet. The first step is to back up your data, documents, photos, music and other personal files. And implement an automated backup plan so that when your machine fails you will not lose anything important.

  • Backing up is something that everybody knows that they should do but almost nobody does it. Do it now. You can get online, automated backup for little or no cost. Stop procrastinating and do it.

Step 2. Clean it up
  • To improve your old PC's performance:
    1. Remove any malicious software (malware)
    2. Uninstall old applications you don't use
    3. Get applications you don't use often out of the System Tray
    4. Delete files you don't need
    5. Defragment your hard drive

  • A. Remove any malware : Malware (viruses, adware and spyware) can hurt you in different ways. It can take up RAM, it can monopolize the CPU, it can clog the hard disk with files and messages and/or it can hijack your applications and have them behave oddly. To improve your old machine's performance, you want to remove any and all malware.

  • If you have an "anti-virus" program running, that's good; most of the commercial anti-virus programs (Norton, McAfee, AVG, et al.) provide malware protection.

  • My recommendation for keeping a system clean of malware is to have an anti-virus program running all the time. Then, since no such program will be 100% effective (because black-hat hackers are resourceful and computer owners can be their own worst enemy), periodically scan your computer using products like Ad-Aware and Spybot Search and Destroy. Go to and see what products are available and which are popular.

  • B. Uninstall old applications you don't use: Delete old applications that you don't use because they are using up disk space. And, worse, they may be automatically loaded into RAM every time you boot up, costing you precious RAM. There are two ways to delete applications. First, go to the Start/Programs menu and see if there is a folder or program group for this application. Sometimes there is an Uninstall program in the group that you can use. Alternatively, you can go to the Control Panel and select Add/Remove Programs and select the program and remove it.

  • C. Get applications you don't use often out of the System Tray: Windows' System Tray is on the right end of the bottom task bar. It holds shortcuts to some of the programs that load or run when your PC boots. To improve performance of your old machine, stop applications you don't need from being automatically loaded.

  • By default, many applications install in such a way that they are loaded into RAM every time the computer is powered up. That way the application launches more quickly whenever it is selected from the Start menu or icon on the desktop or bottom task bar. In many instances, the improvement in launch time is not worth the cost of reduced overall system performance -- particularly if an application eats a lot of RAM and is rarely used.

  • Identifying applications that load on startup and stopping them is not always easy. For example, malware usually does its best to hide itself and prevent you from stopping and removing it. At the other end of the spectrum are programs that announce themselves when they load by placing an icon in the System Tray, and you can click on the icon and configure the app to NOT LOAD on start up.

  • So, the System Tray is the first place to look. If you see any applications there that you don't need to have loaded all the time, try and stop them. Usually this means starting the applications and going into the preferences or configuration options and de-selecting "Load on startup" (or something like that). If that doesn't work, you can try deleting the application and reinstalling it to see if you get to choose to have it not load automatically.

  • If you know what you are doing, you may also be able to find and stop applications that are running automatically by checking the Control Panel/Administrative Tools/Services. The problem with this is that there is often not a clear mapping between services and applications you don't need.

  • D. Delete files you don't need: To free up disk space on an old PC, it is a good idea to archive and remove any old personal files that you do not regularly access. Put them on a network drive or on a CD or DVD. You should also delete old temporary files (.tmp), old backup files (.bak), old log files (.log), and old application downloads (.zip and .exe). You can generally reclaim disk space by emptying your browser cache and your Recycle Bin.

  • E. Defragment your hard disk: Over time, as you work with your computer and the hard disk fills up, files on the hard disk become increasingly fragmented. One file may be stored across many different sectors of the disk, causing disk read and write operations to slow down. The older and smaller your hard disk, the more likely fragmentation is to cause performance problems.

  • Defragmenting the hard disk is the last step in cleaning up your PC, after you have reclaimed as much free disk space as you can. Windows has a utility for defragmenting your hard disk. There are also tools available at

Step 3: Clean it out
  • In an old PC, dust and dirt can block the machine's cooling systems, causing the processor and disk drive to overheat. If the components get too hot, to avoid damage, PCs are designed to slow down to reduce power consumption and lower internal temperatures.

  • How dirty can it get inside an old machine? It can get pretty dirty inside a PC, especially so if it's sitting on the floor in the basement or on a shag carpet. One machine that I saw smelled like an ash tray and inside looked like a diseased lung. Cigarette tar and dust mixed together and coated everything. Another machine I saw had been through a flood and the insides were coated with silt. Another machine was brought in for service and it was infested with cockroaches. One woman put a chocolate bar on her laptop, and it melted and ran inside. The chocolate ended up everywhere inside the machine...

  • Open up the case to clean out your old PC. Check the air intake filters and blow, vacuum or rinse them clean. Blow the dust out of the fans and cooling fins on the heat sink. Make sure all the fans are working. Replace any that are not.

Step 4: Reload it
  • You've done Steps 1-3, but you are still not happy with the performance of your old PC. Perhaps malware has hosed your operating system beyond recovery. Then you might want to think about reloading Windows. This assumes that you have a recovery CD with all the drivers you need (many PCs come with a recovery CD). It also assumes that you have the original installation media and keys for the applications you have installed. And you've backed up your data files.

  • If you've got all that, then you can reformat your hard disk, reload Windows from your recovery CD, reinstall your applications, download and install all the updates and patches to Windows and your applications and restore your data. It is not a quick and easy job.

  • How about upgrading to Windows Vista? This is probably not a good idea. So far, people are saying that XP is better than Vista. And unless you've got a “Vista-Ready” PC purchased a few months ago, it is not going to be a “cheap and easy” process to upgrade. My advice is to pass on Vista until you are ready to buy a new PC which has it loaded and once the problems with Vista are resolved.

  • Or, maybe your performance problems are not only due to the fact that your hardware is old. Your operating system and your applications are obsolete too. Microsoft is no longer supporting and patching Windows 98 for example. Norton et al. don't provide virus updates for your old anti-virus program. Websites want you to have browser capabilities your browser doesn't have.

  • In this case you have two options, throw the PC away, or do something interesting and fun. Rather than throwing the old beast away, you could try and install Ubuntu Linux on it. Ubuntu is a distribution of the Linux operating system that is free and easy to install. It has the potential to take your old machine and transform it into a usable, completely modern (software-wise) PC. I have installed Ubuntu on a half-dozen old PCs, and it worked like a charm. And if it doesn't just work, effortlessly, recognizing the hardware and installing the drivers, I wouldn't waste time with it. If it does work, you ought to max out the RAM to improve performance. If it doesn't work, throw the old thing out.

So, there you have it, 4 steps to revive your old PC. We are not talking about transforming it into something that can keep up with a new machine with the latest processor and lots of RAM. But you don't need all that speed and capability to read email, do word processing and surf the web, do you? These steps will help your PC to do these things better, and work more smoothly for you and with the people you communicate with and the web sites you visit.

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