Taking care of your Windows computer

Sue Kayton
(650) 853-1711
Revised March 2013

Most people take much better care of the cars than they do of their computers. Just like a car needs regular oil changes and the tire pressure checked several times a year, your computer needs regular maintenance to keep it running well, and so it will last as long as the manufacturer intended.


Most laptop computers are designed to last for three years of normal office use. Usually the part that fails is the hard drive. To make the laptop last longer, you want to help it to run cool, and make sure to turn it OFF when not in use. If you use a cute screensaver that cycles through photos, you are making the computer work hard. Instead, disable the screensaver and turn it OFF when not in use. Avoid eating food that will drop crumbs into the keyboard since crumbs can lodge under keys and make the keys stop working. Obviously, don’t spill liquids on the keyboard or put the computer in a puddle of liquid. If you accidentally get the laptop wet, immediately shut it off and remove the battery from the laptop. Leave it off, with the battery out, until it is completely dry.

Almost all laptops have a fan which circulates air over the processor (and often over the hard drive) to keep them cool. Two or three times a year, blow air into the opening to keep the fan blades and cooling fins clean, instead of crusted with dirt. Disable or uninstall Windows Search, Google Desktop or other indexing programs which make your hard drive work too hard, and seldom produce usable results. Instead, I recommend the free search program Agent Ransack, which gives superior results without stressing the hard drive.

The single most important thing to keep a laptop running well is to make sure air can circulate inside and under the computer. This means NEVER running it on a soft surface such as a bed, pillow, or your lap. Instead, use it on a rigid surface like a desk, so air can flow under the computer and enter through the ventilation holes on the bottom. To get even better airflow so it will run cooler and last longer, prop up the rear of the laptop by about 1 cm (half an inch) by placing something under the back center edge of the laptop, or two spacers under the back edge, one on each side. Pencil stubs work well for this purpose.

Try to not leave CD or DVD disks in the drive, except when you are using them. CD and DVD drives for laptops are very flimsy, and tend to break when used excessively. When the disk is in the drive, the computer is trying to read the disk, which will make the drive wear out sooner.

Laptop computers frequently break where the power adapter connects to the computer.  Either the cord in the adapter breaks, from too much flexing, or the socket inside the laptop breaks, from yanking or bending the cord while it is plugged in.  To prevent this, unplug the charger before you move the computer, and do not have the weight of the adapter dangling on the cord.  And don't make sharp bends in the charger cord right where it exits the computer.


Netbooks are designed to last for one year before they break.  Back up your data!  (See Backup section below)


Most desktop computers are designed to last for 5-7 years of normal office use, except for the mini desktops that you can pick up with one hand. These mini desktops are designed for 3-5 years of use. Since they are smaller, they run hotter and don’t last as long. The minis also use flimsy laptop-sized CD and DVD drives, which break sooner (see caution under laptop section about leaving disks in the drive)

Desktop computers typically fail due to an accumulation of dirt and dust inside the computer, or on the outside, blocking the ventilation holes. Try to keep the area around your desktop computer free of dust, old staples, and food crumbs. The desktop computer has at least one, and often two or three fans, which suck in air to keep it cool. They also suck in huge amounts of dust, which clog up the insides. At least twice a year, disconnect all cables from the computer and take it outdoors. Open the lid and, if you can, remove the front plastic face. Using a clean, dry toothbrush, get all the dirt out of the computer. Pay special attention to the metal finned heat sink on the processor and the fan blades. If you don’t see a metal finned heat sink, that means it’s totally covered with dirt and you will need to excavate under the big fan mounted on the motherboard. If the computer is really filthy, take it to a gas station and use their high-pressure air (meant for your tires) to blow all the dirt out of the computer. Make sure to direct the air nozzle into the power supply (cubical silver metal box) from both ends to get the dirt out of the interior of the power supply. If you use compressed air (from a gas station or a can), leave the lid off the computer for one hour to allow any little water droplets to dry before replacing the lid.

If you keep your desktop computer inside a compartment of your desk, make sure air can flow around it, and can exit the compartment easily. If there is a door on the compartment and it feels warm when you open it, you need to leave it open whenever the computer is turned on, to prevent damage from overheating.


Tablets are designed for one year of use before they break. If your iPad battery fails, buy a replacement Android tablet instead, since the iPad is designed to be non-repairable.  Back up your data frequently, or sync to a cloud service so you don't lose your data when it dies.


My former dentist has a sign in his office. It says, “You don’t have to brush and floss all your teeth – only the ones you want to keep.” I should have a sign in mine that says, “You don’t have to back up everything on your computer – only the stuff that is important and you may need some day.” Most people never back up their data, and then get upset when they lose family photos, tax records, business records, school term papers, and other important files. You can lose stuff from your computer due to theft, fire, virus infection, or the computer dying from heat or old age. Sometimes these files can be recovered at a cost of thousands of dollars, but sometimes they are not recoverable at any price. So BACK UP your important files. Often.  Preferably in more than one location.

I suggest that you adopt a two-pronged backup approach. Back up your entire computer – everything, including Windows and your installed programs – once a month, or once every few months. Do this backup onto a removable hard drive and get it OUT OF YOUR HOUSE OR OFFICE. If a burglar breaks in and steals the computer, he will take a backup drive if it is next to the computer. If a fire burns down the building and your backup drive is in it, it will be destroyed also. Take your office backup to your home, and take your home backup to the office. Or leave the backup drive with a friend or neighbor. ALWAYS turn the backup drive off and disconnect it, except when you are actually running the backup. If an earthquake strikes and the computer is on, and the backup drive is plugged in, you will lose the data on BOTH of them. Typically people buy a 1.5 TB external backup drive which cost around $80.  Note that Apple's Time Capsule is always turned on and running, and is always connected to your computer, so this is NOT a recommended backup method. 

The second facet to the backup is to get a USB flash drive. Back up your most important files onto the flash drive. Also use the flash drive for backing up files in between the monthly total backups. Make sure to take the USB flash drive OUT OF THE HOUSE OR OFFICE, for the same reasons given above. Keep it in your purse, pocket, or car glove compartment. Remember that USB flash drives are easily broken due to static electricity, food, and surface contaminants. Do NOT lose the cap, and do NOT touch the metal connector on the end, especially on dry days with lots of static electricity, which will permanently fry the drive.

There are many backup programs for sale.  I recommend the free software GFI Backup for backing up data.  You put check marks next to the list of  files and folders you want backed up, and it will perform a full back up the first time, and then will perform an incremental backup on subsequent backups.  The newest version of GFI backup requires you to use a login password for your main Windows account.  If you have a blank password, use and older version of GFI, which you can download here

To back up your entire system, I recommend  Windows 7's built-in Windows Backup and Restore Center's system imaging/backup feature, or for older versions of Windows, Acronis TrueImage Home.  I do NOT recommend use of the built-in Windows backup to back up your data since it does not allow you to recover just one file or folder - it's all or nothing.  Make sure to make an emergency recovery/repair disk for Windows and, if you are using Acronis, make a bootable system recovery disk for Acronis. 

Another excellent choice for data backup is Dropbox.  When you install the program, it sets up a folder (usually in your My Documents folder) called Dropbox.  Any file you copy or save into the Dropbox is automatically backed up to servers in Arizona. Automatically, every time you edit it, as long as you are connected to the internet.  You can access these Dropbox files from any computer or smartphone anywhere, using your email address and password.  You can also set up a public folder which allows you to share files (like vacation photos) with anyone.  You get 2 GB of free storage, and only pay if you exceed 2GB.  The Dropbox home page has a video tutorial that explains how it works.  Dropbox is also great for synchronizing files to multiple computers and multiple smartphones.  Anything you save on one computer automatically updates the files on the other computers and smartphones.   


In addition to taking care of the computer hardware, there are things you can do to the operating system and software to improve system performance.

1. Set your computer to automatically download and install updates from Microsoft and Adobe. If you are running Windows XP, make sure you have service pack 3 installed. If you are running Windows Vista, make sure you have service pack 2 installed. For Windows 7, you should have Service Pack 1.  If you are running Office 2003 or 2007, you need Office service pack 2. These are all free downloads from Microsoft.  Here are links to the Windows service pack downloads.   If you are running Office 2003 or an older version, install the Compatibility Pack so you can read files created in the newer versions of Office. 
2. Buy an excellent anti-virus program and make sure to keep it up to date. I recommend Symantec Endpoint Protection, (corporate version of Norton), Norton Anti-Virus,  McAfee Anti-Virus, or Kaspersky Anti-Virus. I do NOT recommend the security suites since they install a lot of clutter and overhead on the computer, but do not provide improved malware protection.
3. Be suspicious. Be paranoid.  Do not click on pop-ups, especially those claiming to improve system performance or clean viruses. These are viruses, trying to trick you into installing them. 
4. Do not download or install ANY program unless you know you need it, and know that it isn’t a virus. The less stuff that is installed on your computer, the faster it will run. If you install something and later decide you don’t want it, uninstall it from the Control Panel.
5. NEVER download free music or pornography, and NEVER install any program for the purpose of downloading free music. This is the most common way that people catch viruses.
6. Check your start menu at least twice a year and eliminate from the Startup folder any items that you don’t need to launch automatically every time the computer turns on. If you are comfortable editing the registry, check the registry also for unnecessary startup items.  You can use MSCONFIG to assist you with these tasks. 
7. Once or twice a year, delete all your temporary files using Disk Cleanup or a manual removal. Once or twice a year, if needed, defragment your hard drive
8. There are many well-known viruses, many of which masquerade as legitimate programs. If you have any of these programs on your computer, you should remove them ASAP, along with the traces that they leave behind. Here is a link to the Wikipedia article listing this malware. Check back frequently since the list gets updated often. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogue_security_software. Some of the worst are iMesh, LimeWire, AntiVirusXP, RegCure, RegistryOptimizer, and AntiVirus Pro. Here is some excellent advice on avoiding these scams. http://www.scambusters.org/fakeantivirus.html
9. Make sure your computer has enough memory. Too little memory will make it run very slooooow. Windows XP computer should have at least 1 GB, Vista machines need 1.5 GB, and Windows 7 computers should have at least 2 GB. On desktops, it’s trivial to add memory. On most laptops, adding memory is fairly easy, but some models require disassembly of the entire computer just to add a dinky little memory module. Memory modules typically cost $20 - $40. Adding memory is a LOT cheaper than getting a new computer.
10. Make sure your hard drive isn’t full. If you save zillions of pictures, or videos on your computer, the hard drive may be getting full. Open My Computer (or Computer) and right-click on the hard drive. Select Properties to see how much free space you have. If there is less than 2 GB of free space, you’re in big trouble and should either delete stuff or switch to a bigger hard drive (or get a new computer)

To see this information in a PowerPoint, click here to download it.