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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Speeding up a sluggish HP Mini 110

My mom’s HP Mini 110 Atom-based netbook (with the factory 16GB SSD) was hesitating, a lot. Frankly it was really frustrating to use–it would freeze up for minutes on end, for no good reason. It was so slow, calling it “sluggish” was being kind. But it’s fixed now. I did six five things to it. Here’s how to speed up an HP Mini 110.

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My first Windows 7 build

I rebuilt a friend’s Windows 7 system this week.

The system includes a 30 GB SSD to boot from, and a RAID 1 mirror of 1 TB drives for storage. Aside from the two 1 TB drives, it’s basically a collection of $100 components. $100 Asus motherboard, $100 video card, $100 CPU. It seems like right now, no matter what individual system component you’re looking at, $100 buys you something really nice without going too far over the top. I’m sure certain aristocrats might disagree, but any reasonable person ought to really like using this system. Read more

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.

The best defragmenter for Windows NT, 2000, XP and Vista

Want Diskeeper’s features without ponying up 50 bucks?

Sorry, I can’t help you. The combination of My Defrag, Scandefrag, and Pagedefrag is better and it’s free.

Scandefrag defragments your system during the boot process, as early as it can. It works better on NT-based systems like Windows 2000 and XP than it does on 98 or ME. All it does is launch the other tools.

Pagedefrag is, of course, a classic. It’s just convenient to bundle it up with these other tools. This tool defragments your registry and swap file(s) at boot time, which is the only time the system allows it.

My Defrag (actually Jerrod Kessels’ defrag) is, to put it simply, the best general purpose defragmenter for Windows NT, 2000 and XP that I’ve ever seen. Period.

If My Defrag can’t do an ideal job, it does the best it can do. Some defragmenters leave a file alone if they can’t defragment it, but this one will defragment as much as possible and move it as close to the front of the disk as possible, where performance is much better. On full disks, this is important. Since ideal conditions almost never exist (except when a system is first built), a defragmenter’s performance under less than ideal conditions is very important.

The most exciting thing about My Defrag is its ability to sort files. I like Sort alphabetically.

Sorting alphabetically (the -a7 switch) helps because it uses the full pathname. This means all of your files that are part of, say, Mozilla Firefox will be put as close together on the disk as possible, so when you launch Firefox, all of those files are close together and the disk head doesn’t have to move around a lot. The result is an application that launches faster.

So how often should you defragment? Once a year, I would do a boot-time defragmentation with Scandefrag to whip the Registry and swap files into shape. When that finishes, I would run My Defrag in full optimization mode, with file sorting. If you make a major change to your system (say, upgrading your office suite), do a quick defragmentation after the install and a full defragmentation a month or so after.

As part of your routine system maintenance, a faster, automatic defrag with no options specified is a good idea on occasion. The author says to do it no more than once a day and I agree. In my experience, once a week or even once a month is almost always fine. The way My Defrag works, the system shouldn’t get terribly fragmented on a daily basis, even if you use your system heavily. Defragmenting too frequently can shorten a hard disk’s life expectancy, although the occasional defragmentation seems to help it. I defragment a few times a year (and always have), and I generally get five or six years out of a hard disk, which is a year or two longer than most experts say to expect.

Don’t waste your money on any other tools. Download this trio, install it, use it, and watch your system performance climb.

Ways to keep your NT/2K/XP system defragmented

Defragmenting on a regular basis isn’t the only thing to overall system performance, but it’s a major factor. Fortunately there are some free tools that do a good job of it. Unfortunately they don’t come with Windows.

Here’s how to automatically defragment your system and your registry.

You can defragment the registry using PageDefrag, a utility by Mark Russinovich of WinNT Magazine fame. I’ve been known to set it to defragment the registry and page file at boot time; after the first time it doesn’t add much to the boot time at all. And XP can still get itself defragmented and booted faster than NT4 usually could manage to boot.

I talked a few weeks ago about DIRMS, a command-line defragmenter. I still like it. I recommend that you schedule a defrag at sometime you won’t be using the computer, like 4 AM. It’s easy to do with any version of Windows using the AT command.

at 4:00 /every:Monday dirms c -q

The AT command requires the scheduler service to be running. It does not require Internet Explorer 4.0 or newer to be installed, so it’ll run on NT4 boxes that only have the default IE 2.0 installed. If you want to run on additional days, separate it with a comma.

Now if DIRMS would just sort files by access date when it defragments, it would be the ultimate defragmenter.

Update: I don’t like DIRMS anymore. It failed me once big-time, and then I found something better.

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