This series is for moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, and anyone else in the family tree who has ever asked their geek relative to “fix” their computer during a holiday visit. It’s for the neophyte or casual computer user who doesn’t want to sit around troubleshooting problems and trying out solutions.
This is for when your computer seems to take forever to boot, or when it hangs, freezes, and otherwise exhibits frustrating behavior. More than anything, it’s just for when your computer seems to have lost its pep.
What this series isn’t, is a hardcore advanced guide to Windows tweaking and tuning. There will no mention of the Windows Registry, services, or overclocking. So, if you don’t know what any of those things are, don’t worry, we’re not going to cover them.
What we are going to cover are the most basic techniques and tools to help even the most hapless of technophobes and self-described computer illiterates. We know there’s a million-and-one guides already out there but How-To Geek School wants to be different by teaching you, rather than telling you what to do. We don’t want to overwhelm you with every single possible solution, because in the end, you just need a regular routine and a few simple steps to follow.
Therefore, we take you through only the things you need to know to practice good computer husbandry!
Don’t Spend Money!
We’re sure you’ve seen those ads on TV and across the Internet telling you that they can speed up your computer for as little as $39.95!
Before you think that your computer is running too slow and you reach for your credit card – DON’T! Just stop right there and put your plastic away. Yes, PCs do slow down but there’s no reason to pay to get them running faster. There’s a bunch of stuff you can do to bring your PC back up to fighting shape and it won’t cost you a penny – utilities, free applications, and good old common sense.
Use the Tools that Windows Gives You
The fact is, aside from depriving you of your hard-earned money, these programs don’t do anything you can’t already do yourself for free. Windows comes with an array of tools baked in that can assist you with a bevy of PC maintenance tasks.
For everything else, there are free utilities you can download. Some of these tools include:
“Disk Cleanup” has been around in one form or another since Windows 9x because it’s one of the easiest and fastest ways to clean up your hard disks without installing third-party software.
We’ll talk more about disk cleanup in general in Lesson 2. If you’re looking for even more ways to free up disk space, see our article “7 Ways to Free up Hard Disk Space on Windows”.
When it comes to keeping your system running well, hard drive optimization is important. Windows includes a great tool to keep your drives in tip-top condition.
We’ll talk a great deal more about the drive optimizer in Lesson 2.
The “Task Manager” has always been the geek’s go-to tool for diagnosing and alleviating system slowdowns. Windows 8.x continues this tradition with an attractive “Task Manager” makeover and improved diagnostic tools.
We go into more detail about the “Task Manager” in Lesson 3. In the meantime, here’s a great little article you can read about the “Task Manager” in Windows 8.x.
Backup your data! Backup your data! Backup your data!
We hear this so often that it seems to have lost most of its meaning. Luckily, Windows 8.x includes simple tools such as “File History” and “System Image” so you can protect yourself from catastrophic data loss!
We’ll talk more about “File History” and other backup tools in Lesson 5. If you’d like to know more about “File History” in the meantime, you can read about it here.
Take advantage of Free Software
For every 10 crappy pay programs out there, you can usually find one really good free program. We introduce you to a couple of high quality free programs in this series.
The cleanup tools that come with Windows work well, don’t get us wrong, but if you’re really pressed for space, then sometimes you need to dig a little deeper. CCleaner is a free program that you can download and install, which will root out all those space hogs and safely delete them.
We’ll talk a bit more about CCleaner in Lesson 2 or if you’d like to learn more about it now, you can read up on it here!
Free Cloud Storage
There’s a ton of cloud storage options out there, many of which give you free space for signing up.
Often, such as in the case of Google Drive (15 GB) and Microsoft OneDrive (7 GB), this free space is enough to back up your important documents and photos. And if not, you can always buy more. We discuss cloud services in great detail in Lesson 5.
This series’ target areas
So, knowing that these tools are freely available, we tell you how to use them to maximum effect and define four areas or keys to keeping your PC running smoothly. We will also cover all of the other built-in tools that we haven’t specifically mentioned here.
Lesson 2 – Computer cleanup
First, you want to clean up your PC by removing unwanted or unused applications, and pruning your computer’s startup routine.
Modern computers are magnets for crap. We’re not even talking about all the crap intended to cause harm, we also mean the droves of files and applications that we install over time or that get installed in addition to other applications.
There are also those little programs that start whenever you boot your computer. Ever looked at the tray on a Windows system and wondered what all those icons are for? We call that stuff “tray lint” because it collects and sticks there and decreases your computer’s efficacy. This stuff usually serves no purpose than to give you access to things you could just as easily use a shortcut for.
All this combines to slow your computer down. In fact, you may not even know how fast your computer really is. If you buy a new name-brand model, for example, it may already come installed with a ton of software. Judging by the nicknames we give this software – bloatware or crapware – it’s of limited to no value.
As such, we cover computer cleanup to a large extent including removing software you simply don’t need or want any more.
We also take you through hard drive maintenance, whether or not you should defragment, and the difference between hard disk drives and solid state drives. We’ll take a look at disk maintenance as it exists today’s Windows systems, and how you can help prolong the life of your storage medium.
It’s not simply enough that you perform internal maintenance. You should definitely crack open the case and dust. There’s not a whole lot of technical prowess you need for this, other than understanding how to open your computer, you don’t need to know what is what or necessarily remove any components. Most likely, it’s a matter of clearing dust and hair out of air intakes and exhaust ports, as well as fans and heatsinks.
Don’t worry, we’ll guide you to the resources you need to make quick easy work of that.
Lesson 3 – Security
After you get your computer cleaned up and running better. It’s time to turn your attention to security. Hopefully, you already have something installed that will protect your system from infections but if you don’t, then it’s high time to get started!
Though it’s 2014 and malware is a fact of life, all virus scanners are not built the same. The fact is, Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender (enabled by default on all Windows 8.x installations) may not fully protect your system or prevent all infections.
Still, you have to use something. There are simply too many threats out there to ignore. So we tell you which virus scanner we think will work best for you. We also recommend you install a secondary piece of software to supplement your full time scanner.
Browsers are another source of danger to your system’s security. We’re not simply talking about the stuff you download, we mean plugins and extensions as well. As we have detailedpreviously, browser extensions are particularly insecure, and your plugins can expose vulnerabilities that open you risk.
So it’s very important that you audit your extensions, which includes updating good extensions, disabling unused extensions, and removing malicious extensions. We’ll show you how to do that as well as how to check your plugins, disable them and make sure they’re up-to-date.
Having a great password is definitely one of those things you might not think is necessary to PC maintenance, but without a password, let alone a strong one, you might as well leave the front door of your house standing open. And we all know how quickly your house would last if you left the front door open.
This goes for any device, be it your phone or tablet, not simply your computer. Taking the time and making the effort to create a strong but easily memorable password can go a long way towards ultimately maintaining your system and preventing disaster.
Lesson 4 – Keeping your PC Updated and Running Smoothly
PC performance, or rather the lack thereof is often the biggest complaint we hear from users. Everyone has experienced the slow decline in their system’s speed over time. This can most often be attributed to increasing system overhead versus finite resources.
Think of it this way, you buy a car with more than enough horsepower and it goes fast when you first buy it, but let’s say you skip an oil change, your air filter is dirty, and you buy low quality gasoline. Today is also the day you need to go to the store and buy 10 bags of concrete mix, which just barely fits in the trunk. It’s also summer time, and it’s really hot, so you need to run the air conditioner, especially after loading all the concrete into your car.
So now your automobile is loaded down with a quarter ton of concrete, you’re running the AC compressor, and operating on dirty oil, air filter, and bad gas. What this means is your car isn’t going to run at peak efficiency and perform optimally.
Like cars, computers need to be cared for and worked on. If you install bad software onto it, that’s going to slow it down, similarly if you have a lot of stuff running at once, that too will severely impact performance, as will a lot of stuff in your startup routine.
Keeping your computer properly maintained is a lot like giving your car a tune up. It will feel faster, run more efficiently, and longer.
Operating System Updates
Anyone who uses a computer can attest to OS updates being a regular part of life. Microsoft is notorious for their Patch Tuesdays, which “occurs on the second Tuesday of each month in North America, on which Microsoft regularly releases security patches.”
Operating systems, OS X and Windows in particular, are pretty good about taking care of updates behind the scenes, but that’s not to say you can’t play a role in ensuring your system is always up-to-date. Regardless of whether you have Windows Update set to automatically download and install updates, or you want to be involved at each step of the process, you should know what Windows Update is and how to use it.
Java, Flash, and Reader
Also very important are the unholy trinity of software add-ins: Oracle Java, Adobe Flash, and Adobe Reader. These three items are usually found on nearly every system, and represent serious risks to system security. We’ll tell you how to keep them updated so you don’t have to worry (as much) about them compromising your computer.
Drivers are the little bits of code hardware manufacturers write to get their devices and peripherals to work on a computer. Nowadays, driver maintenance is almost unheard of. Microsoft maintains a massive repository of drivers on Windows Update and nearly everything you use with Windows will typically be recognized and installed in a matter of minutes.
That said, you may not always automatically receive the latest driver updates along with your regular updates. We explain the difference between “Important” updates and “Recommended” updates, and how to ensure all your system drivers are the latest versions.
Lesson 5 – Protecting your data
Finally, we explore the myriad ways you can protect your data from disaster. One might not think of backups as “PC Maintenance” but it most assuredly is. By protecting your data with regular backups, whether they’re offline, using an external hard drive, or online using a cloud-based service, you are securing your digital life from catastrophic loss.
If you back up your stuff, and your computer fails, you can simply replace the part that broke or at worst, the computer itself. Think then how easy it is to get back to the place where you left off. Now imagine or recall how it can be if you don’t back up your stuff – suddenly your poor computer and data management become a very stressful problem.
Thus, by making sure your stuff is backed up, you’re maintaining the integrity of the most important aspect of your PC – everything that is stored on it.
Backup Methods and Mediums
Backing your data up can be accomplished through various methods and across many different mediums. We want to try to cover as many of them as possible including of course, local backups such as to hard drives and DVDs, but also online or cloud backups, such as with Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive or even Dropbox.
In reality the steps to making and maintaining backups have become easier than ever, especially if you know exactly what to back up. Rather than making full system backups, you can save time and storage space by backing up only a few select locations such as your pictures, documents, and music.
We’ll show you how to do both.