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Tips for a reliable PC

by Tom Cumming


Home computers have always seemed to have a bad image through their perceived unreliability. This is has always annoyed me, because whilst no machine is ever perfectly reliable, many of the failures and faults that people experience with their computer are often made worse, contributed to or even directly caused by the user. For this reason, I have written this article to give new computer users a guide to some fairly simple procedures they can do to help prevent things going wrong. I have split this article up into a number of sections: The first is a list of guidelines that you should always bear in mind for "safe" computing, and the following lists are of maintenance tasks that you should carry out from time to time.

Please note that this list is written on the assumption that your PC is an IBM-compatible machine, made within the last 10 years, running Windows 95, 98, ME or XP. That said, most of the principles will also apply to other types of computers, but of course, the actual procedures (press this, then click on this, etc) will be different.

General guidelines to always remember

Whenever you use your PC, you should always remember the following:


Do not eat or drink anything near your computer. A cup of tea spilt down the monitor could seriously damage both you and the monitor, and things like cake and crisp crumbs can clog up keyboards and mice and get keys jammed.


Be careful with pets. Don't allow dogs, cats etc near trailing leads that they could chew or trip over. Even small, innocent-looking pets such as budgies, if let out of cages, can start pecking wires.


When you have finished using your PC, always be sure to shut it down correctly. *Do not* just press the "off" button, or switch off at the mains, when you have finished. Always follow this procedure:

1) Click on Start;
2) Click on "shut down";
3) Select "shut down" in the box that appears on the screen;
4) Click on OK.
Then, depending on how old your computer is, your computer will either switch itself off after about 30 seconds, or you will see a message on the screen that says "It is now safe to switch off your computer." When you see this message, then you can turn the computer off.

If you are using Windows XP, the procedure is slightly different:
1) Click on Start;
2) Click on "turn off computer";
3) Click on "turn off" in the box that appears.


When you wish to remove an application, game or other program, *do not* just delete the folder that it is stored in. Most programs also store files and settings in other locations besides their own folder. Always follow this procedure:

1) Click on Start;
2) Point to "settings", and click on Control Panel
[Except Windows XP: Just click on Control Panel]
3) Double click on "Add or remove programs"
4) You will then see a list of all the programs you have installed on your computer. Select the program you wish to remove from this list, and click on "add/remove".
5) Then follow the on-screen instructions. The exact process will vary from one program to the next.


Be very careful with email attachments. Email attachments are a very common way of carrying viruses. Even if an email looks like it is coming from someone you know, this does not mean it is safe. Many viruses spread through people's computers and send themselves on to others without the owner even realising. As a general rule, delete any attachments that you are not to receive, without even opening them. If someone sends you something that you may want, all it takes is a quick email back, saying "Did you just send me an attachment?" If the answer is "no", then just delete it.


Also be careful with floppy disks. Floppy disks are one of the few parts of today's standard PC design that has barely changed in over ten years. Consequently, they do not quite live up to the standards of speed and reliability that most other PC parts do. Therefore:

- Only use floppy disks if you have to. Try and use other storage types, such as recordable CDs or USB pendrives, if you can.
- Keep the disks away from speakers, monitors, TVs, mobile phones, or any other source of magnetism.
- Keep the disks in moderate temperatures.
- Keep two copies of disks of any importance, in case one gets damaged.
- Do not throw disks around or drop them - handle them very carefully.
- Make sure that labels are stuck down well, and do not stick more than one label over the top of another. Otherwise you may get a disk jammed inside the drive. It is best to label disks in pencil so you can rub the label out and do not have to remove the labels.
- If a disk starts making a funny noise, bin it.


[This only applies to Windows ME or Windows XP]

Windows ME and XP has a built-in utility called "system restore", which takes a snapshot of your PC's configuration, so that if anything ever goes wrong with it, you can easily revert back to how your PC was setup on a previous day. You should get into the habit of taking one of these "snapshots" before you add or remove any hardware or software from your PC. TO do this:
1) Click on Start;
2) Point to Programs (Windows ME) or All Programs (Windows XP);
3) Point to Accessories;
4) Point to System Tools;
5) Click on System Restore;
6) Select "create a restore point", and click on next.
7) Type in a name for the restore point, eg "Before I try and install this new modem", say.
8) Click on Create
9) Wait a few seconds for the restore point to be created, and click on Close.

Things you should check to insure you are working safely
When you get a new PC you should check the following items before you start to use it:


Does the computer have a virus scanner installed?

Sadly, there are many expert computer programmers in this world that can think of nothing better to do with their skills besides writing programs designed to wreck everyone else's computers and spread from computer to computer. Do not ask me why, but it is true.

Consequently, a number of software companies make products to automatically scan your computer for viruses as you use it and delete them. You should never use a computer without a virus scanner installed. Thankfully, many PC manufacturers supply their PCs with virus scanners already installed, but some do not. So check. If you need a virus scanner, there are several that are free for personal use, such as AVG HERE

Antivir HERE or Avast HERE Or if you wish to spend money, then a few of the big names are McAfee by Network Associates (, Norton Antivirus by Symantec HERE or the professional edition, HERE

Panda HERE and Sophos HERE


Does the computer have a firewall installed?

A firewall is a program to stop people from gaining access to the files on your computer when you are connected to the internet. This is important if you value your data and privacy.

If you have Windows XP, there is a firewall included with Service Pack 2. You just need to make sure it is turned on:
1) Click on start;
2) Click on control panel
3) Click on security centre
4) Make sure the firewall is turned on.
If you do not see an icon that says "security centre" in step three, then you do not have Windows XP's service pack 2 installed. Windows service packs, service pack 2 being the most recent, are collections of improvements and bug fixes for Windows operating systems. I *strongly* recommend you install Service Pack 2 if you do not have it already. You can download it from Windows Update: HERE - or you can order it on a CD from Microsoft: HERE

If you have a different version of Windows however, then you need a separate Firewall program. I can strongly recommend Sygate Personal Firewall - there is a "basic" version that can be downloaded for free, or a more fully featured version that you have to pay for, on their website: HERE


There are also various software packages available for download that can minimise the risk of "Spyware" and "Advertware" being installed when you are browsing the internet. I recommend you install the following programs, insure their protection is enabled, and you run them manually occasionally to check for problems:

Spybot - search and destroy: HERE
Ad-aware: HERE
Spyware guard: HERE
Spyware blaster: HERE

HERE and HERE contain useful information on how you can prevent your computer from connecting to a variety of locations that are known to try and push advertising, spyware, viruses, pornography or other unwanted information to your computer, by "fooling" your computer into thinking the sites are on your own hard drive (and so will not be able to find them, because they are not there!)

IE-Spyad: HERE - does a similar job using a different method - it adds a huge list of known troublesome sites to Internet Explorer's "restricted sites" list.


Because of the popularity of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, security breaches of many kinds can often be avoided by using an alternative product that is less of a target. You may wish to consider Firefox HERE which I use myself and can highly recommend, or Opera HERE -which you have to pay for unless you do not mind a small, fairly unobtrusive advertising banner on your screen.)

Maintenance tasks to do as often as possible

Update virus scanner.

To fully protect yourself from viruses, you need to make sure that, as well as having a virus scanner, you keep it up to date. This is so that the virus scanner has an up-to-date list of all viruses in existence, and what they look like. If I set you a challenge to find my house, telling you that I like in a city in the southwest of England near the sea, you might take a while to find me. But, if I told you my address and postcode, you would have a bit more of a chance. Same thing goes with virus scanners - if they know exactly what they are looking for, and not just a rough clue of what it might look like, then they stand a much better chance of correctly identifying viruses. This is why you must keep your virus scanner up-to-date.

The actual procedure of updating a virus scanner will vary from one virus scanning package to another, so I cannot give precise instructions for every scanner.

It is strongly advisable that every time you connect to the internet, the first thing you do, before you check email, go on any websites or anything else, is to download the latest updates for your virus scanner. If an incoming email contains a virus, or a disreputable website has some "malicious" code that is designed to cause damage to your computer, and it has only been put up recently, it is not much use getting the virus and *then* downloading the updates! Remember, prevention is better than cure. A lot of virus scanning programs have an option in them to automatically download the latest updates when an internet connection is detected - this would be a good idea if you have such a feature. Refer to the instructions that came with your anti-virus software for more information on this.

Make sure also that your anti-virus software has it's "auto-protect" feature enabled. This feature means that the program will automatically scan files as they are used, and does not require you to actually "tell" your computer to scan a particular file. This is very important, because some viruses can arrive "hidden" in the HTML code of an email message, not as an attachment, so there is no way of manually scanning this "file".


Back up your work.

Backing up means you save a second copy of all your work on a different storage device to it is currently stored on, in case one of them breaks down. So, if your PC's hard drive fails, you have a spare copy on another disk, so when you get a new (blank) hard drive you can copy all your work back onto it. There are lots of different ways to back up and lots of different devices and programs you can use to do it. I have written a seperate article on this subject so I am not going to write about it here. If you ask me I will post this article to this newsgroup, or you can read it at HERE

Maintenance tasks to do periodically, every few months

Test your memory.

If something goes wrong with your PC's memory, it can slowly but surely damage all your work and files, but at the same time, your PC may appear to work normally. Or, you may find that your PC starts to crash a lot. It is therefore a good idea to test your memory periodically to make sure there are no faults in it, so that you find out about such potential problems, before they cause any damage. You should do this every few months, or immediately after upgrading memory.

There are a number of utilities available on the internet for doing this. My favourite is Memtest-86. I will not attempt to give complete instructions on how to use it, as there are extensive instructions on the Memtest-86 website, HERE that can explain things much better than I could. I will therefore just give a brief overview:

1) First of all you download a file to your computer. Select the DOS version if you are using a Windows PC.
2) Insert a blank floppy disk into your PC.
3) Run the program you downloaded, and it will copy the program to the disk.
4) Shut down your computer.
5) Turn your computer on again with the disk in the drive.

The computer will then boot into the Memtest-86 program. The screen will look quite technical, but most of it you can ignore. The bits you are interested in are the two bars at the top-right of the screen, "Pass" and "Test", and the figure underneath these on the right, "errors". The program will perform a number of tests on your system's RAM, and it's progress in each test is shown by the "test" bar. The progress of all the tests is tracked by the "pass" bar. As soon as the tests are all completed, the program will keep repeating them until you press the Escape key to stop it. So, what you should do, is allow the "pass" bar to get all the way to the end at least once, and make sure the "errors" figure still reads "0" once it is completed. If it reads a number higher than 0, you have faulty RAM, and you should replace it before attempting to use your computer for anything else. (This is important, because faulty RAM can corrupt data on your hard drive, so the knock-on effects can continue even after you replace the RAM, if the machine has been used a lot whilst the faulty RAM has been present.)

When you have finished testing, take the disk out and press Escape to reboot.


Check all your cooling fans are working.

If any of your PC's cooling fans fail, it can cause your computer to overheat and become liable to crash or hang, or at worst, damage your processor irreparably.

Every 6 months or so, you should open up your PC case and start up the machine with the side off, just to make sure that all the fans are spinning when the PC is turned on. If any are not working, turn your computer off, unplug and unscrew the offending fan, and take it down to your local PC shop and buy a replacement, making sure all the screw holes are in the same positions and the plug is the same size.

Do not assume that because your PC seems to be working OK, that your cooling fans are OK. Some PC tasks, such as games and video editing, work your PC much harder than day-to-day office applications and internet use. So if a fan fails, your PC may still appear to work fine, until you start up a game, and then the temperature rises because the processor has to work that much harder, and is fried. It is also surprising how much the weather will make a difference - if the machine gets unreliable during the summer months then this could also be cooling-related.


Delete temporary files and temporary internet files.

Many program store temporary files as they are working, and these should automatically be deleted when they are finished with. However, if your PC crashes, or sometimes just by bad programming, these files do not get deleted and just sit on your hard drive wasting space.

Again, I have written another article on the subject of deleting temporary files, and an not going to explain it here. Ask me and I will post this article to this newsgroup, or read it at HERE


Delete unnecessary emails.

Most email packages automatically save copies of all sent emails into a "sent items" folder. If this is left unattended, you can end up with hundreds of messages in this folder. Some people may need to keep these messages for future reference, but many do not need them any more, so they are just wasting space.

If you are using Outlook Express for your email access, here is how to delete these messages:

1) Go into Outlook Express;
2) In the left hand pane, click on the "sent items" folder;
3) In the right hand pane, click on any message;
4) Click on the "edit" menu, and select "select all".
5) Press the delete key on the keyboard.

The messages will then all be transferred to the "deleted items" folder. If you then wish to permanently delete them, click with the *right* mouse button on the "deleted items" folder, underneath the "send items" folder, and select "Empty Deleted Items Folder". You will then be asked if you are sure: click Yes.


Check your hard drive for errors.

Sometimes computer crashes, bad programming, or physical wear and tear on your hard drive can cause data saved on it to be damaged. Fortunately, Windows is quite good at recovering this data, and if an area of your hard drive is worn out, it can "mark it off" so that it is not used any more. You should do this at least every 6 months.

The process is quite different depending on your version of Windows.

For Windows 95, 98 or ME:

1) Click on Start;
2) Point to Programs (or "all programs", in Windows XP);
3) Point to Accessories;
4) Point to System Tools;
5) Click on Scandisk;
6) Click on the icon for your hard drive in the window at the top;
7) Select "thorough" as the scan type;
8) Click on the start button;
9) Go and have a cup of coffee - it will take a while!

For Windows 2000 or XP:

1) Double click on "My computer", on the desktop;
2) Click with the *right* mouse button on the icon for your hard drive;
3) Select "properties" from the menu that appears;
4) Click on the "tools" tab from the window that appears;
5) Click on the "check now" button, under error-checking.
6) Tick the boxes "Automatically fix file system errors" and "Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors".
7) You will then be offered to schedule the scan for when you next start up your computer. Click Yes.
8) Click on OK.
9) Restart your computer: click on start, click turn off computer", and click "restart."


A common problem that affects Windows 95, 98 and ME, is that sometimes when scanning a disk, the scanning process keeps restarting and never actually finishes. This is because programs that are running in the background will sometimes write to the disk when it is being scanned, causing the process to restart. This is a very common problem that is also associated with defragmenting hard drives (below), so see that section for information on how to avoid this problem.


Carry out a full virus scan.

This will scan every file on your hard drive for viruses, just in case that the automatic scanning has missed something. Again, this will vary from one anti-virus package to another, so refer to your instructions for your particular package.


Windows Update.

Microsoft get a lot of "stick" from computer enthusiasts for releasing versions of windows before they are fully "finished", ie, they contain bugs (minor faults) and security flaws, that they have to fix later. Microsoft are, however, reasonably efficient at releasing fixes once they discover these problems - and all you have to do is remember to install them! Making sure that you install these "hot-fixes" will make your computer less likely to work incorrectly through Microsoft's mistakes.

1) Click on Start, and click on "Windows Update" at the top;
[Windows XP: Click on Start, then "all programs", then Windows Update]
2) Wait for the website to load;
3) Follow the instructions on the website for what to do next.

Note that if you do not see "Windows update" on your start menu, you can also get to it at HERE Some other programs also offer similar updating facilities, so refer to the websites of the manufacturers.

Do not forget if you use a web browser other than Internet Explorer (eg Firefox or Opera) - then Windows Update will *not* update it for you. You should go to the browser's website regularly to insure you have the lastest version.


Defragment hard drive.

If you have been installing or removing a lot of software on your PC, the files on your hard drive can become fragmented, meaning parts of files can be stored a long way away from other files on the hard drive. Whilst this does not mean that you will lose your data, it does make your PC a bit slow. Defragmenting your hard drive does cause quite a lot of wear on your hard drive however, so do not overdo it. Only do it every few months or so, and even then, only if you have been installing or uninstalling a lot of software.

Another good time to defragment your hard drive is before you use a CD-writer (if you have one), because if your files are fragmented, the hard drive may take longer than expected to find some files to burn to the CD, and so cause the writing process to fail.

If you have Windows XP, this has an automatic defragmenting facility that runs when your computer is idle, so if you often leave your computer unattended but switched on and not in standby mode, you may find that there is not a lot of defragmenting to do.

To defragment your hard drive:

1) Click on Start;
2) Point to Programs (or "all programs", in Windows XP);
3) Point to Accessories;
4) Point to System Tools;
5) Click on "Disk Defragmenter"

From this point on, it varies a little according to your version of Windows. Under Windows 2000 or XP, next just click "defragment". Or for other versions of Windows, you then have to select which drive you wish to defragment, and click on OK.

A common problem that people encounter when defragmenting hard drives is that the program constantly restarts itself and takes ages. This is caused by programs running in the background that write to the hard drive. There are a number of ways round this:

1) The way that I use is to close all background programs before I start. Instructions below.
2) You can restart your computer in safe mode, to stop the background programs running in the first place. Instructions at.....
3) You can go to HERE and download a special program that restarts your computer before running Disk Defragmenter, which does not allow background programs to run.
4) Or you may just wish to leave it and let it keep restarting - it will probably finish eventually, but it might be an overnight job. :-)

If you wish to try option (2), here's how to do it in Windows 95, 98 or ME:

1) Press Ctrl+Alt+Del. A list of all running programs will appear.
2) Click on any item except for "Explorer" or "Systray", and click "end task".
3) You may then have to press another "end task" button to confirm this.
4) Keep repeating 1-3 until only "Explorer" and "systray" are left on the list.

Another cause of this problem can be screensavers. Switch off all screensavers before running scandisk, if the problem still remains:

1) Click with the *right* mouse button on a blank area of the windows desktop.
2) Select "properties" from the menu that appears.
3) Click on the "screensaver" tab at the top of the window.
4) In the screensaver box, below the picture of a monitor, select "(none)" from the list of screensavers.
5) Click OK.

It is also a good idea to disconnect from the Internet whilst defragmenting the hard drive or scanning for errors, to remove any "outside" influences that cause disk activity.


Cleaning of various computer parts.

Keyboards, mouse balls, monitor screens and scanner glasses can all be cleaned. of course, whether this is necessary or not will depend on how much your PC is used. I seem to find that if you have one of the older types of mouse with a ball in the bottom, these have to be cleaned every few month or so to prevent the mouse going all sticky and jerky. Other parts probably do not need cleaning this often, but it will depend on how you use your PC. Keys on keyboards can also be pulled off and snapped back on again for cleaning, but ***make sure you remember where they all go!!!*** Draw a diagram first if you think you might forget! It can be quite entertaining trying to work a computer whose keyboard has all the keys in the wrong places!

Always remember when cleaning your PC:
- Do not use any detergents unless they are specially designed for PC cleaning.
- Do not get the computer wet. Keep cloths very slightly damp only.


Check computer clock is correct.

Put your mouse over the clock in the bottom-right hand corner of your screen, and it will display the date. Make sure both the date and time are correct. If they are not, double click on the time, and correct it in the window that appears.

If your PC's clock is particularly inaccurate, then you may have to replace the battery inside your PC that keeps the clock running. Read your PC's instruction book for how to do this, as it will vary from one machine to the next.

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