Monday, April 25, 2011

How to clean up the junk on your PC

pc_hp.jpgMUNICH: It's a familiar problem for anyone with an older computer: a PC may run lightning-fast and smooth when it's new, but over time it starts coughing up unusual error messages and unidentifiable icons appear on the taskbar

If the computer also starts getting slower at the same time as well, then it's time for a spring cleaning. 

'When any computer is used under normal circumstances, a certain volume of garbage data is automatically produced,' says Harald Goerl, a professor for operating systems and computer architecture at the Bundeswehr University inMunich, Germany. Goerl nevertheless sees no need for routine clean-ups. 'You only need to do this if you can really feel that the speed has been impaired,' he says. 

The primary culprit for PC slowdowns is software that is installed and then removed again. That's because many programs actually leave behind digital traces after uninstallation. The most common collection spot where junk data collects is the Windows Registry file. It's a database of information about all installed applications. 

Many programs 'forget' to delete their entry in the registry when being removed. That continues expanding the database, which means the computer has to search longer to find a specific entry. 'You can compare it with a telephone book,' Goerl says. 'The thicker it is, the longer it takes to browse through.' 

You can get help in cleaning up those clogged registry files with free programs such as CCleaner, WiseCleaner, and Advanced SystemCare. They search through the registry automatically looking for unnecessary entries, washing away the junk. 

Linux and Apple users are actually no better off in this respect, Goerl says. 'Deleted programs leave traces behind in Linux and Mac OS, too. Because there's no central registry, though, cleaning up can actually be more difficult in some cases,' he says. 

Programs that are not properly removed under Windows can create other problems as well. 'When some programs are being uninstalled, they also delete libraries still needed for other programs,' explains Joachim Geiler, dean of academic affairs at the IT working group at the Mittweida University of Applied Sciences in Germany. 

Libraries are files with information that multiple programs need to be able to access. If they are deleted by accident, then applications may stop functioning, either partially or completely. This problem can generally be fixed by reinstalling the affected program. 

Reinstalling the operating system is generally only needed in exception cases, says Goerl. 'Only in cases involving serious security problems should you have to reinstall the OS,' he says. 'If numerous files have been infected with tough-to-remove viruses, then reinstalling the operating system is probably the only remedy.' 

The best recommendation for boosting speed that you suspect has been degraded as a result of application detritus: clean up your hard drive. 'At least 10 per cent of a hard drive's capacity should always be free,' says Joachim Geiler. 

Otherwise files have to be split up across multiple sectors of traditional hard drives, and this results in data that is scattered in fragments throughout the hard drive, leading to slower access. The Windows defragmentation utility is needed to bring the files back to a contiguous state. 

If you don't push your hard drive to its capacity all the time, then defragmentation need only be a seldom-used tool. 'Routine defragmentation used to be a common thing. Modern file systems like FAT32 create the files intelligently from the start, meaning users don't typically have to get involved,' says Geiler. The exception is for users who frequently work with especially large files, such as those used for video editing. 

A clean hard drive is important beyond just the speed of the computer. It also makes work more relaxing. 'It's all about being able to find important files fast when you need them,' explains Joerg Schieb, who authored a book on keeping computers clean and running fast. For this reason he recommends routine cleanups every three months or so. 

There are programs to help clean up, too. 'Lay users in particular may be better served by those programs,' Schieb says. Applications like TuneUp Utilities, Twin 7 2.0 from Data Becker, or PC Check & Tuning 2011 from Magix cost between 30 and 40 dollars and offer a number of cleanup options.


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