How to take care of your computer

We show you how to provide some free TLC for your problematic PC

How to take care of your computer
If you look after your computer then it will look after you, running more reliably and for longer, and repaying your investment for years to come. And all that tender loving care doesn’t have to come at a price, either. Because, as you will see in this Guide, you can get all the services and utilities you need for trouble-free home computing for nothing. And should things go wrong, you can also find plenty of free ways to dig yourself out of that virtual hole.

What's included with Windows?

Before you look elsewhere, it’s worth investigating the free tools in Windows 7, Vista and XP for keeping things running smoothly. For example, Windows Update is essential. By default it’s usually switched on, so leave it that way to take advantage of the performance and security updates that are regularly rolled out.

Windows also includes some good tools to help keep your hard disk healthy, notably Disk Defragmenter, which reorganises your files so they are easier for Windows and programs to find, and Disk Cleanup which removes temporary internet files, deletes memory dumps, empties the Recycle Bin and so on. You can get at both these by right-clicking on a disk and choosing Properties, then click the Disk Cleanup button or select the Tools tab and click Defragment Now.

Finally, you will need to back up the data stored on your PC, just in case the worst happens. All editions of Windows 7 and Vista (except Home Basic) include some level of built-in backup. If you are running Vista, click Start, then Control Panel and choose System and Maintenance and then open the Backup and Restore Center; Windows 7 users should open the Control Panel in the same way, but then select System and Security and then choose Backup and Restore. Even XP has a backup program if you know where to look. Pop in the installation CD - open the ValueAdd folder, then the Msft folder and then the NTbackup folder; double-click NTbackup.msi to install the backup program. Regular data backups are a crucial part of maintaining your PC.

Third-party maintenance tools

For defragmenting hard disks we recommend MyDefrag, which is faster and more effective than its Windows equivalent and works across all versions. For getting rid of the unwanted junk files Windows creates, try CCleaner. This is designed to look in all the places where these unnecessary files get deposited and then remove them permanently to save disk space. And for all the clutter that some programs leave behind in the Windows Registry, even after they have been uninstalled, we recommend Wise Registry Cleaner Free. Windows has a habit of allowing programs to duplicate files and we zap them with Duplicate File Finder. Speaking of getting rid of stuff, remember that when you delete something, Windows only removes the reference to that file, rather than the file itself, so if you want to be sure, use Eraser a brilliant way to delete anything.

Alternatively, if you like everything under one roof, have a look at Glary Utilities which combines security and privacy features with anti-spyware and various tools for optimising Windows’ performance. And if you buy a new PC and want to get rid of all the offers and trial software it came with, then PC Decrapifier is worth a look.

If the built-in Windows backup tools don’t give you enough options, then you could consider Genie’s Timeline Free Edition, which keeps things as simple as possible by backing up in the background while you work. Meanwhile, our online backup service of choice would be iDrive. This offers 5GB of free online storage and includes a useful desktop program to handle everything.

Built-in troubleshooting

Unfortunately, home PCs are complicated beasts and regular maintenance, while a good thing, may only take you so far. If things go wrong then there are steps you can take to troubleshoot the situation without having to fork out any money for expensive repairs. Again, Windows’ own built-in tools are the best place to start.

Try booting the computer in Safe Mode by holding down the F8 key while the PC starts up; this will often allow you to access your files when Windows won’t start normally. XP users can also try the Recovery Console while Vista users have a range of system recovery options as do Windows 7 users.

If Windows starts but is misbehaving, turn to the System Restore feature. This takes snapshots of your PC at intervals so you can revert to one of the snapshots before the trouble started to restore it and carry on working. You can find this feature in all versions of Windows by clicking Start, then All programs, Accessories, System Tools and then selecting System Restore from the menu. Follow the instructions to pick a restore point from a time when your PC was working.

Fix it for free

Again, you can bolster your troubleshooting toolset with free third-party software. For accidentally deleted files (even on SD cards) check out Recuva which can even retrieve trashed iPod tunes, unsaved Word documents and deleted emails. If your digital camera’s memory card doesn’t respond, meanwhile, we’ve had plenty of luck with Photorec, which is designed to retrieve lost photos.

For memory errors we usually turn to Memtest86 which is technical but has some practical help files. We have also taken a shine to Iobit Toolbox, a self-styled Swiss Army Knife of more than 20 different analytical tools for various PC problems.

If after all that you still need to call technical support, they will probably quiz you about your setup. Make sure you can answer their questions by installing System Information for Windows, a free program that gives you a hardware and software inventory and is invaluable in helping you to aid them.