Cleaning a PC when fdisk-format-reinstall isn’t an option

There are any number of pie-in-the-sky pundits who will tell you when a computer starts to get slow, to format the hard drive, reinstall Windows, and go on your merry way.

Unfortunately it’s not always realistic. I don’t clean up PCs all that often anymore, but here’s what I do when I need to.

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Microsoft is offering some help in migrating off XP

Since there is no direct upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 8.1 or even Windows 8, Microsoft has reacted to criticism by licensing a cut-down version of PC Mover and offering it to latter-day XP upgraders for free. It will only migrate three applications for you, but for most people, that’s probably enough.

The good news is that this version of PC Mover works with Windows 7 as well, so if you want to take the strategy of migrating people to $99 off-lease PCs running Windows 7, it will still help.

The linked article above criticized Microsoft for not developing its own migration tool, but that seems a bit harsh. I’ve used PC Mover before, and found it to be a very capable tool. I’d be surprised if Microsoft actually could do much better. And Microsoft has a history of licensing third-party tools anyway: Every disk defragmenter Microsoft has ever shipped was a cut-down version of something written by other companies.

Of course it’s best to rebuild machines from scratch–it will perform much faster that way–but when there’s a must-have program on an old PC and the installation media is long gone, PC Mover is about the only way to recover it and move it on. Most people probably don’t have much more than three programs in that category.

Deconstructing my conversation with “Computer Maintenance Department”

My tell-all about my encounter with “Computer Maintenance Department” was a little heavy on the jargon yesterday. It occurs to me that explaining what some of the terminology means, and the problem with their reasoning, may be helpful. I’ve also heard a few questions through various channels, and I think those are worth answering. Read more

Yes, SSDs are “finally worth the money.”

Slashdot asked today if SSDs are “finally worth the money.”

I’m wondering since when they haven’t been. I’ve been buying SSDs since 2008. And their price has been falling at a rate faster than hard drives did, historically. Read more

Living with a past-its-prime computer

I’m playing catch-up a bit. This weekend, Lifehacker ran a guide about living with a computer that’s past its prime.

I’ve made a career of that. One of my desktop PCs at work (arguably the more important one) is old enough that I ought to be preparing to send it off to second grade. And for a few years I administered a server farm that was in a similar state. They finally started upgrading the hardware as I was walking out the door. (I might have stayed longer if they’d done that sooner.) And at home, I ran with out-of-date computer equipment for about a decade, just this summer buying something current. Buying something current is very nice, but not always practical.

So of course I’ll comment on a few of Lifehacker’s points.

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What I would do to fix Dr. A’s computer

I left my conversation with Dr. A nearly convinced he doesn’t really need a new computer. The local store is pitching him a new $700 Dell Inspiron with a 1 TB hard drive and 6 GB of RAM and a 17-inch screen. But he could upgrade to a 1 TB hard drive for less than $125. If he doesn’t want to switch to Windows 7, his current Windows XP Professional will only use 4 GB of RAM anyway. Upgrading to 4 GB of RAM will cost less than $40. And looking at the new system, I don’t know that its CPU is all that much more powerful than what he already has.

To me, the clincher was this. I asked myself the question whether, if I were offered a machine exactly like his for $200 or $300, would I buy it. And it was an easy answer. I would.

I haven’t done a thorough analysis of the machine, but I’ve seen enough to have an idea what it needs. Much of it will seem familiar, if you’ve been reading me a long time.
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Is it OK to defragment a laptop?

Yet another question from the big bag o’ Google search queries: Is it OK to defragment a laptop?

Of course it is. A laptop is a computer, after all. The only question is how often, and with what.

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Defrag scareware

This isn’t exactly news, as word has been going around for a couple of weeks, but if you haven’t heard about it elsewhere, there are some fake defragmenters going around.

I heard mention of it today, and it reminded me that I saw one last week when I was working on my mother in law’s computer. This was especially obnoxious, considering that at the time, I was running Firefox and I was visiting a mainstream site.

So there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind.
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Psst… Wanna compete with Best Buy?

Best Bait-n-Switch is offering a service where they’ll remove crapware from a PC for 30 bucks.

You can offer to do the same thing for 30 bucks, but do a better job. Here’s how.Of course, the first thing you do is go into Add/Remove Programs and remove everything in sight, unless it’s something the client actually wants. That’ll take about 20 minutes, tops, and it’s probably the extent of what Best Buy does. That’ll help, but it doesn’t bring back all of the new PC peppiness.

Next, you need to install and run a couple of utilities. Start out with CCleaner to remove any stray registry entries that may linger behind. Hopefully there won’t be too much. Then grab the unbeatable Donn Edwards bundle of JK-Defrag, NTREGOPT, and Pagedefrag.

Run NTREGOPT to remove the slack space from the registry, then run Pagedefrag and reboot. You’ll end up with a defragmented pagefile and a fresh-as-a-new-install registry.

Finally, run JK-Defrag to move all the useless data to the end of the drive, and all the stuff people actually use to the front. It’ll do a much better job than Microsoft’s built-in defragmenter, even on a new system.

The tuneup should take less than an hour, and most of it is time you can just walk away from the system and let it do its thing. You can advertise your service as better than Best Buy’s and compete solely on that, or beat them on price by a few bucks while providing a better and more worthwhile service.

If you’re feeling really industrious, you can even consult the appropriate Black Viper services list and disable unnecessary services to free up a little RAM and CPU time. If you don’t want to do a lot of reading, Computer Browser and Remote Registry are two services that always make sense to disable in home environments. My personal list used to be a lot longer, but Windows’ defaults are a lot more optimal than they were 5-8 years ago. The other stuff I always used to disable is disabled by default now.

And here’s one last piece of valuable advice you can give your clients. Rather than buy the Norton or McAfee antivirus product that’s probably installed on their computer as trialware, delete it and have your client buy NOD32 instead. The price is comparable to the other products, but it consumes a lot less CPU time and memory than the rest. So if you want antivirus protection but also want the computer to stay peppy, that’s the best choice in town.

Registry optimization

I gave my Windows 2000 system a little tuneup today. Nothing major, but it feels peppier now, and didn’t take all that long to do. Nor did it require any expensive utilities.

This works with Windows 2000, XP, NT4, and Vista. For Windows 9x advice, you’ll have to turn to an old critically acclaimed book written by someone you’ve never heard of.First, I ran Ccleaner, which does a general cleanup of temporary files and obsolete/incorrect registry entries. It found more than 300 MB of garbage to get rid of. Be sure to run both the file and registry cleanup, as they’re separate buttons. It found a lot less in the registry that needed to go.

Stage 2 is to run NTregopt. I recommend downloading the all-inclusive collection from Donn Edwards, which includes NTregopt, plus the Sysinternals system file defragmenter and the excellent JK-Defrag. NTregopt packs the registry, removing the empty space formerly occupied by now-deleted entries. In my case, it reduced the size of the registry by about 200K. Not a lot, but I don’t do a lot of installing/uninstalling on this system.

Stage 3 is to run the Sysinternals Pagedefrag, which is included in the Donn Edwards bundle. In my case, most of my registry files were in nice shape, but one of them was in a startling 28 fragments. Pagedefrag took care of that.

Of course, while you’re at it, it doesn’t hurt to do a general defragmentation. JK-Defrag is fantastic–much better than most commercial programs, and it’s free. In my younger days I might do a quick defrag both before and after registry optimization, but one defrag afterward takes less time and should usually suffice.

The registry optimization took about 10 minutes total, including the reboot. The disk defragmentation took another 45 minutes, but there was no need for me to sit and watch that.

The system boots faster now. It also feels peppier, but since the registry wasn’t in horrible shape, I’m guessing the defragmentation did more to help system speed than the registry work. Getting rid of 300 megs of garbage and moving a few gigabytes of rarely used data files to the end of the disk to make room up front for the stuff you do use makes a difference.

The nice thing is that optimization like this used to require a $99 software package, like Norton Utilities or Nuts & Bolts, and both of those packages also installed some junk that really did a lot more harm than good (like Norton Crashguard, which I used to call Norton Crashmaker). I devoted an entire chapter of the aforementioned book to installing and using utilities suites while keeping the problem-causing stuff off your system.

Today, you can download and install two files that do it for free and stay out of your way except when you need them.