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Keeping Your Computer Healthy


Whether you have a new computer, or, like me, one that is several years old, there are steps you can take to keep it running well. Some of the steps are physical, while others involve preventing your information from being degraded or lost. Iíll focus on the latter in this article, and maybe address physical maintenance in a later article. My comments are from the viewpoint of a Windows XP user; other operating systems may not work quite the same way. I recommend when you should do each of these steps, but your computing habits may dictate different times.

Protecting your information from outside intruders
Virus checker
The first piece of software you buy should be a full-featured virus checker. Norton Antivirus, McAfee Viruscan, or some other programÖall protect your computer against most, though not all, of the latest nasties. After installing your virus checker, go online and update the virus list (and the virus checker engine, if available). The virus list tells your program how to recognize each virus, and itís absolutely essential to update the list at least weekly. Nortonís Antivirus program updates itself without any prompting, if you set it to, and possibly others do, also. Set your virus checker  to scan incoming e-mail automatically, and to run in the background while your computer is on, watching for virus activity in RAM. If possible, have it scan outgoing e-mail also, so you wonít inadvertently send a virus to your friends. 

A firewall protects your computer from intrusion over a network, which for most of us, means the Internet. Windows XP includes a firewall program, but third-party programs like Zone Alarm or BlackIce may provide even more protection. If you are on a high-speed always-on Internet connection, a firewall program is nearly as important as a virus checker. Check for updates to the firewall program monthly. of Zone Alarm provides a free version which is pretty good, along with for-pay versions with even more features. If you have a home network with a router, chances are the router includes a hardware firewall.

Spyware detector
Spyware is a type of program that someone installs on your computer over the Internet, without asking you. Technically, it could be considered a virus, but it doesnít do anything to harm your computer. It reports to whomever installed it where you go when you browse the Internet, valuable marketing information. I donít know if that bothers you, but it annoys me greatly. So I installed Ad-aware, a free program that detects and removes spyware that may have gotten installed when you were browsing. Run it about once a month, or more often if you spend a whole lot of time online.

Spam filter
Spam is defined as unsolicited and unwelcome e-mail. By that definition, an unsolicited e-mail that interests you is not really spam. There are numerous spam filter programs, some provided by your ISP, and none of them work perfectly. My ISP, Earthlink, provides one called Spaminator, that catches 90% of incoming spam, but even so, I still get an occasional e-mails offering to make me rich, enhance my sexual performance, or sell me something. If your ISP doesnít provide a spam filter, find one that works with your e-mail program. Spam filters usually collect e-mails that they suspect of being spam, so you can identify any that you want to read and delete the rest. Check your spam filter accumulation at least weekly.

File and disk maintenance
Disk Cleanup
One of the most valuable utilities Microsoft includes with Windows XP, Disk Cleanup removes files that clutter up your computer. Itís particularly good at removing files left in your Internet cache after you spend a lot of time surfing the net. After my wife indulged in a particularly energetic evening of Internet exploration, there were nearly 100 MB of left-over cache files on the hard drive. Disk Cleanup also removes standard temporary files that Windows creates while youíre working, as well as an assortment of other files that you may not need. I run Disk Cleanup after each dayís surfing the net, and usually wipe out around 10 MB of trash files.

Disk Defragmenter
Files on hard drives tend to get split apart into separate pieces as you work with them over a period of time. The more you use a file, the more pieces, or fragments, itís split into. The operating system keeps track of all the pieces, so thereís no danger of losing the files, but the hard drive takes longer to read fragmented files because the read head jumps around the drive as it reads all the pieces. Moving all the fragments into a contiguous stream makes it easy for your drive to read the files. Thatís what defragmenting does. Windowsí Disk Defragmenter, in the System Tools folder, does that for you. Normally, itís sufficient to run this program monthly, but if you add and remove a lot of files, you may want to run it weekly. Windows XPís disk defragmenter is somewhat puny; for a better version youíll need something like Diskeeper 7.0.

Checkdisk (Scandisk for Windows 95, 98, or Me users)
This program checks all the information on your drives (files, indexes, folders, etc.) for errors, and attempts to fix those errors. Itís especially valuable if you start to see disk error messages. Normally, run it monthly, unless you see lots of error messages. Windows 9xís Scandisk is easier to use, since it runs from within Windows. Checkdisk is still used by Windows XP, and only runs when you boot up your computer. I hesitate to say it runs in DOS, since Windows XP doesnít use any DOS code, but the effect is the same. 

Here are some sources for Programs that could be useful in keeping your computer healthy. I list these as references only, and donít guarantee they will work with your computer or software. I havenít even tried most of them.

Spam Filters
Spam Inspector 
Junk Spy 

Zone Alarm 
Tiny Personal Firewall 
Norton Internet Security 
McAfee Firewall 
Outpost Personal Firewall 
PC Viper 

McAfee VirusScan 
Norton AntiVirus 
PC-Cillin 2003 

Ad blockers
AD Killer 
Ad Blocker 
Pop-up blocker 

Spyware remover
System Detective 
Nitrous Anti Spy 
Spy Ware Remover 

Disk Defragmenter
Norton SystemWorks 2003 

Disk Cleanup

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