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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Easy, Painless Way to Keep a PC in Shape

It happened again last weekend. Kevin, my neighbor in Woodstock, N.Y., called for help with his HP Pavilion laptop, which was disabled after his 2-year-old son inflicted another drubbing upon it. The boy is adorable, but an uninhibited hazard to laptops. Apparently he considers them a drum kit, which isn’t entirely surprising since the men of Woodstock have a passion for tribal drumming on the village green.

(Iolo’s System Mechanic 9.5 not only tells you what it found on your PC, but why it should be fixed)

I dropped by to see what I could do, and after troubleshooting the frozen display, I rebooted and was appalled at how slowly the Windows XP computer powered up and loaded applications.

If it were my laptop, I’d hunker down and back up all the data, gather my application discs, and reinstall Windows. But I didn’t want to be responsible for Kevin’s data, software, and system configurations, so I did the usual: I Disabled unnecessary start-up apps (via msconfig), and used Windows disk-cleanup tools to defrag the drive and eliminate unnecessary temp files, system logs, and other digital debris. I also uninstalled manufacturer-installed bloatware and trial apps, and adjusted Window’s graphical interface for best performance (rather than slickest effects). I considered a system restore but Kevin said the computer had been a molasses machine for a while, and I wouldn’t be able to guess a point in time when the laptop was a bit snappier.

I checked the hard disk and found that the 80-gigabyte drive had only 2 gigabytes of available space. A hard drive requires a healthy amount of free space for optimal operations (I’ve read you should have 20 percent of total capacity available for best performance.) We got rid of a few gigabytes of data and software, but Kevin has more cleaning to do.

After these adjustments, the laptop was a bit more nimble. I figured that I could wring some performance gains by using PC tune-up software that would optimize software deeper under the hood. In particular, I wanted to clean the Windows registry, an inscrutable database of configuration settings for the operating system. But that’s one thing I don’t mess with, since a mistake can easily render Windows inoperable.

So I downloaded Iolo’s System Mechanic 9.5, a $40 utility (you can install it on three different computers, so it’s about $13.50 per PC) that helps you clean up your Windows PC and keep it in top shape. It also claims to speed startup time and boost Internet browsing speeds.

I like the System Mechanic interface: it’s easy to use and effective. You don’t have to know much about the interior logic of your PC; just do a deep scan and let the software automatically fix problems it finds. (If turning over control makes you nervous, you can opt to select the fixes you want to implement. Me? I just clicked “fix all” and crossed my fingers.)

After the scan, System Mechanic said it had found 20 repairable security vulnerabilities in the operating system and Web browser, a whopping 1,056 register problems, two unnecessary startup items (I had already eliminated 10), and 449.11 megabytes of system clutter, among other things. The app not only tells you what it found, but why it should be fixed. And after initial cleanup it will monitor your PC for future slowdowns.

I saw some very noticeable improvements after running System Mechanic. For instance, boot-up took 1 minute, 57 seconds before I ran System Mechanic, and only 58 seconds after. A restart was 2 minutes, 19 seconds before, and 1 minute 40 seconds after. Time to load a graphics–intensive Web site like CNET was 3.8 seconds before and 2.1 seconds after. Firefox launched in 9 seconds before and 6 seconds after.

The software also enabled the laptop to more efficiently use its CPU while displaying video. For instance, CPU usage maxed out at 93 percent when launching before running System Mechanic but only 58 percent after. More efficient CPU usage will enable you to more smoothly run multiple applications.

The only area where System Mechanic didn’t make much difference was in creating hard disk space, most likely because I had already run Windows’ built-in disk cleanup app. (I installed System Mechanic on my Windows 7 desktop and it discovered 4.8 gigabytes of clutter.)

I think System Mechanic is a great tool for those who don’t want to deal with maintaining their PCs. It’s easy to use and pretty effective. Iolo is set to release a new version of the software that it says will deliver better speed gains, so you might want to wait for version 10 if you’re thinking of doing some maintenance.


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