The Microsoft Windows operating system is practically synonymous with small and medium business computer use, but once its up and running how many people ever think to check out how it is performing and give it a 'tune-up'? And yet, just like a car, a PC operating system slowly but surely loses performance over time, which generally translates as becoming slower in its operation and giving you more and more error messages.

Basic PC tune-ups are easy and all the tools you need come built in with the operating system. So here are four simple fixes that will improve your PC's performance. These instructions are based on the Windows XP operating system, although versions of Windows from '98 onwards are fairly consistent in the way you access and use these tools. Just one word of caution - whenever you are asked if you want to delete a file during these operations it's probably best to play it safe; the golden rule of PCs is, 'When in doubt - Don't!

To get underway select <Start>, then <Programs>, then <Accessories>.

Clean up the hard drive

Go down to <System Tools> and select <Disk Cleanup>. Windows now goes through your hard drive identifying files that are no longer required for operating your system. After the search a panel pops up with a list of recommendations of files that can safety be deleted from your hard drive. If you have any doubts about something you can click on the <View Files> button and see the files in question. Most of these are just temporary or leftover files you won't need again.

Next, click the <OK> button and you'll get a new panel asking if you're sure you want to perform these actions. Click on this panel's <OK> button and Windows does the rest. Windows XP also offers a <More Options> tab on the Disk Cleanup panel that automatically deletes unused Windows components, installed programs and older system restore files. It's probably best to leave these ones alone unless you have a pretty good working knowledge of computers.

Defragment the hard drive

The next tool down the <System Tools> menu is <Disk Defragmenter>. What it does is go through your hard drive and relocate or group scattered files so they can be accessed more easily. 'Defrag', as its nicknamed, gives you a panel with buttons labelled <Analyze> and <Defragment>. Click on <Analyze> and Windows will go through your hard drive and work out how much disk space it can save by defragmenting the disk.

When this action is completed a new message tells you if defragmenting is recommended and allows you to start the process. Click the <Defragment> button and go watch a movie or have dinner. The process can take quite a while depending on just how fragmented files have become over time.

Delete unused programmes

Next, go back to the <Start> button, then to <Settings>, then <Control Panel>'. Select the <Add or Remove Programs> option. What you get next is a list of all the software installed on your PC. On most PCs there will be some old programmes that might have been installed once because they were interesting or useful but are no longer needed. Deleting them through <Add or Remove Programs> is the way to ensure that unwanted programmes are correctly uninstalled and Windows doesn't waste time looking for them each time you start up your PC.

If you do see a programme you recognise as of no further use just select it to highlight it and a new panel will tell you its size, how often it has been used, when it was last used, and more information if you need it. To delete the programme select the <Change/Remove> button and the uninstall wizard opens to guide you through the removal process. It can also be used to repair some programmes so you have to choose between 'repair' or 'remove' at this point.


Check for errors

Our fourth tool is called error-checking in Windows XP and scandisk or checkdisk in earlier versions. Error-checking cleans your hard drive of the miscellaneous errors caused by software conflicts. Select the <My Computer> icon on the desktop and a new screen opens up that shows an icon for <Local Disk (C:)>. Right click on this and scroll down the panel to <Properties>.

In <Properties> select the <Tools> tab and choose the <Error-checking> option which you start by selecting <Check Now>. This opens a new panel in which you check the <Automatically fix system errors> box, then select <Start>. Note that you may have to restart your PC before the error-checking process can begin. Error-checking is done automatically before you log in to your next Windows session.

If you have more local drives (e.g. <Local Disk (D:)>), repeat this procedure for each one. (Do not use this on removable drives such as CD-ROM's or on network drives.)

To keep your PC in good running order you should perform these four basic tune-up processes at least every six months.


All of this is a waste of time if you do not run three other vital jobs at least weekly.

You must apply Microsoft security updates (from https://windowsupdate.microsoft.com and https://officeupdate.microsoft.com. Microsoft's security vulnerabilities are legendary - even since they introduced "Trusted Computing". If you use the Internet, you must apply the latest fixes.

Hint: You can also decrease your level of vulnerability by using more secure software. One option is to use Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, and Thunderbird instead of Outlook Express. Thunderbird will read in all of your Outlook mail and settings, so you should not notice a lot of difference - except for added features such as Bayesian spam filtering. Firefox introduce improved features such as tabbed browsing - but you still need Internet Explorer to apply the Microsoft fixes. (Both of these products are available free from Mozilla).

Update your virus checker - without this being kept up to date, you are susceptible to many attacks. Even with this, you are still susceptible to spyware, which at best will slow down your system, and at worst will cause some damage.

Update your firewall - if you do not use a firewall, you will be vulnerable to hackers and things like trojan horse programs.

For people who don't know, there are adequate firewalls and virus-checking programs available for free on the Internet - but particularly firewalls can get complex if you don't know what you are doing and want something other than standard security. If your business depends on computers, then get a professional to check your protection.

Happy (and safe) Computing!