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Mon 7 Jul 2008 04:00 AM

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10 ways to fix a sick PC

If your personal computer has fallen ill and you want to get it back into running condition, read on.

If your PC has fallen ill and you want to get it back into running condition, read on as WINDOWS talks you through 10 ways to nurse your PC back to health...

1. Install security software

If your computer is giving you random problems and crashing or is even performing poorly, the first port of call when it comes to recovering is to check for viruses, Trojans, malware and more. To do this, you'll need to get hold of security software. Keep in mind however that these days it is better to have a fully-fledged suite that includes antivirus, antispyware and a firewall rather than investing in a single antivirus-only package.

You can buy a complete security suite from various vendors including Symantec, McAfee, eSet, CA and more. These are easy to install and make it quite simple for novice users to maintain a smooth running rig that's free from trouble.

There are also free alternatives available for download which perform the same functions. The bottom line is that if your computer is unprotected, you need to install a security suite immediately. If something is not quite right with the running of your system, run a scan, and you might just detect something malicious - whether it's a virus, Trojan or other mal-ware.

2. Make sure all hardware drivers are updated

Drivers are essentially software that acts as a liaison between a computer's operating system (OS) and its hardware. If your computer is crashing, freezing or performing erratically, a good step forward is to make sure your drivers are up-to-date, as the latest driver versions will generally include new performance optimisations, bug fixes and many more helpful updates.

To update a driver, you'll first have to figure out exactly what hardware you own (if you don't already know). If you've kept the packaging and manuals, check these to find out the model number and manufacturer. You can also look for this information on the device itself. Once you've ascertained this, hit the manufacturer's website and look for the driver and download it.

Next up, you'll need to uninstall the older driver first. Simply right click on the ‘Computer' on your desktop and click ‘Properties' and then ‘Device Manager'. All of your computer's kit will be listed here. To uninstall the driver, just right click on the hardware and select ‘Uninstall'. Once the process is complete, you should reboot your computer - if not prompted - and then install the new driver by executing it.

If the new driver lacks an automated installer, go back to Device Manager and look for hardware that falls under ‘Other devices' (this will usually have a yellow question mark next to it). Just right click the device name and hit ‘Update Driver Software' and point it to where the driver is on your computer. The process should then be self explanatory.

3. Keep your OS up-to-date

Regardless of which OS you use, keeping it up-to-date is important whether you're having problems with your computer or not (prevention is better than cure as they say). OS updates contain bug fixes that can boost stability and, perhaps more importantly, include upgrades that prevent hackers and/or malicious code from harming your PC or any of your data.

If you're a Microsoft OS user, this process is simple; the only pre-requisite to updating your OS is that it is activated. You then need only point your mouse cursor to Start/Windows Update. This will launch either a web browser (for XP) or the Windows Update app (for Vista).

With XP, you'll likely need to authorise the use of ActiveX Controls for your browser. This will appear as a thin, yellowish bar just below the Address bar of your web browser. Simply left click this and select ‘Install ActiveX Control'.

Once this is done, your browser should automatically route you to the update site and perform a scan of your PC. After this, a list of updates, some critical, will be displayed. Of these, make sure you get the critical updates first as these pertain to security and bug fixes.

With Vista, you get a built-in update tool so once you've hit the Windows Update button, you only need to hit the ‘Check for updates' button. Then, as with the XP process, a list of updates and fixes will be displayed and you can pick and choose accordingly. 4. Delete unwanted files and spam

In an age where the majority of our computer time is now spent online, there are numerous files our computers can pick up through an internet connection. These include unwanted cookies, temporary files, malware programs and even viruses (to name a few). All of these can cause serious problems, so it's wise to clean out the hard drive regularly.

This is why free programs like Ad-Aware are the most popular applications on sites like www.download.com. Ad-Aware is built specifically to remove spyware and adware and has garnered a great reputation in doing it with minimal fuss.

Ad-Aware 2008 shows even more improvement, with faster scan times that trounce its rivals. Along with an anti-virus program and a firewall, Ad-Aware is arguably the next most important piece of software on your computer - so make use of it.

You can also perform a routine system clean up by using your web browser itself. Go to your internet browser every so often and delete its cache. You can also use the ‘Add or Remove Programs' manager to clean up unwanted programs and applications that are rarely used.

The most common form of junk files we pick up come via the web. Make a habit of going into your internet browser and deleting your temporary internet files from time to time. If you're using Internet Explorer, go to Tools>Internet Options, and in the ‘General' tab, click ‘Delete' under Browsing History.

There you can choose which files to rid yourself of, from cookies to history, passwords and temporary files. If you want your computer to store less of these files, click the ‘Settings' button (found under the 'General' tab) and select how much disk space you want the browser to use as a cache.

5. Clean your registry

If you're a Microsoft OS user and your computer is taking its own sweet time to boot or you receive error messages about missing files or is just plain slow, you could have a problem with your registry.It's always a good idea to clean the registry from time to time, getting rid of all the invalid pathways created throughout the many hours of computer use. User profiles, applications and system settings are all stored there, but the problem is they remain there even when you don't need them anymore - and the system then gets bogged down.

Most PC users don't even know what the registry is, let alone how to clean it. Open the ‘Start Menu' and click ‘Run'. Type ‘regedit' and press ‘OK'. This opens up the registry editor. But we strongly recommend you don't go fiddling around with these settings unless you know EXACTLY what you're doing. You could delete important drivers information that affect the operation of other programs.

The easier option is to download free software that wipes the invalid data off the registry. Many programs such as Ad-Aware have this feature in built.

Microsoft Live OneCare offers a free registry cleaner. There's also a free registry cleaner called CCleaner. Each offer simple steps to solving your registry woes.

6. Test the health of the hard drive

The hard drive is where all of your computer's data is stored. Unfortunately, like everything inside or connected to your PC, these will, overtime, degrade and eventually fail.

Before a drive fails entirely though, it will give you tell-tale signs of impending doom in the form of sluggish performance, louder than standard operation and, if bad sectors have developed on its storage platter, ‘clicking' sounds. If you've noticed any of these, it's best to try and first back-up all essential data and then run a check to test the drive's health. Before you get cracking however, we recommend disabling any non-essential software.

To check your drive's health, double click on ‘Computer' and then right click on the drive - that you want to run a check on - and select ‘Properties'. Now, click the ‘Tools' tab and then hit ‘Check Now'. Make sure to un-tick the ‘Automatically fix file system errors' but tick the ‘Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors' option boxes. Once done, hit ‘Start'.

This process could take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours (depending on the health and size of the drive). If problems are detected, we recommend - if you haven't already - first trying to back-up your essential data before allowing the app to try and fix the issues. If a problem is detected and cannot be corrected however, it's a sure fire sign the drive is close to failing completely. 7. Defragment your hard disk

The hard disk does what it says on the tin: it saves data to open spaces on its storage platters. The trouble is, after years of use, the hard disk is littered with open spaces. When new software is installed, it saves it to any combination of open spaces it finds - without putting it all in the same spot. This means it can take time for the hard disk to access the item in question, ultimately resulting in long load times.

Essentially, a hard disk is like a library. In a well-kept library, it's easy to go to the appropriate section and find the right book listed under the initials of the author. But when books get misplaced, the retrieval process takes much longer.

Found under Programs>Accessories>System Tools>Disk Defragmenter, this tool puts all the data together for easy access. It tidies up the data on the drive and rearranges the space, which generally helps to ensure speedy system performance.

It is a long process, though, so fortunately you can minimise the screen and carry on with other, non-intensive work while it continues in the background. Alternatively, download a program called Diskeeper; this is better than the Windows version, with more features. 8. Clean the components inside the case

Fact: computers get dusty. Like a TV screen, the electrical charge on the motherboard and various other parts attracts dust, which can have all kinds of effects. First things first then, make sure the fans are clean. Excessive dust can clog fans, stopping them from doing their job. If components start to overheat, you can have all kinds of problems - temporary and permanent.

Be careful when touching other parts of your computer, particularly the components themselves. Remember to release your static charge on your hands by touching a metal conductor before handling anything with a transistor on it.

Also, don't try to use any water or fluid; a gentle wipe with a dry cloth should suffice or you could also blast away dust using an electrical blower or a can of compressed air.

Solving Mac problemsObviously Mac users will need to take a different approach to solve their problems. For out-of-date driver and software issues, try downloading VersionTrackerPro, which detects and corrects any problems instantly and informs you when there are updates to download.

To clean up unwanted files and folders from unused applications, CleanApp is the way to go. Free to try and US $10 to download and use permanently, it finds associated files and folders and offers them up for deletion.

To optimise the performance of a Mac, try downloading OnyX, available through www.download.com. It runs a number of tasks and gets rid of unwanted files and gives you informative reports.

9. Reformat hard disk & reinstall Windows

Before you reformat your drive, the last ditch effort is to try and recover your OS using the Windows installation disk. The recovery tool can automatically detect missing links or drivers and replace them for you - this might be enough.

If you can't find the solution to the problem however, then reformatting could be the most drastic but ultimately effective, answer. Reformatting the hard drive is a great way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

If you're certain that your problem isn't a hardware one, then by jettisoning all the files - clean and corrupted - you are sure to fix the problem. Think of it as a complete software overhaul but you should remember to back-up the important files and create a boot disk as a safety option before moving forward.

A complete reinstallation of Windows will also be necessary after a drive reformat, as every bit of data is wiped from the drive. Once the format is complete, you'll have a computer that runs like it is brand new. 10. Get professional help

If all else fails, you can get someone else to do it for you. Obviously tech-minded friends are always a good asset (but use them sparingly otherwise you'll upset them). If not, there are professionals willing to do the job for you.

In the case of a desktop, the most annoying thing is having to haul your rig down to a shop to get them to fix it. If you have a full-sized ATX case, we can only feel your pain. Normally the process isn't a quick fix on-site venture, and you'll be left PC-less for a day or two at the very least.

Vendors do have online and phone technical support, which are hurdles you need to pass before they'll consider undertaking a Collect & Return-type service. But again, they can be frustrating experiences.

There is, however, an option. One company offers a free fix remotely, for a small fee. Centrix sells prepaid card vouchers that can be used to call an IT support specialist, who will remotely connect to your and fix it in 30 minutes.

It's on sale at the moment across the UAE, but there are plans to roll-out the cards in other GCC countries. Check out www.cleanmyvirus.com for more info.

Having problems with your taskbar? Here are two common problems Windows has faced:Sluggish Performance

Despite its 3GHz processor, 1Gbyte of memory and speedy 7200rpm hard disk, you find your computer's a bit slow off the mark. What's the problem? It could be that you have too many programs running, which are hogging valuable RAM. If your system tray (in the right hand corner of the taskbar) looks overloaded with icons, maybe it's time to stop un-needed applications from loading everytime you boot into your operating system.

To make changes, click Start>Run, type in ‘msconfig' and click on the ‘Startup' tab. These are the programs that are loading every time you boot your computer - and it's best not to have Azureus, Windows Messenger or iTunes all loading on start-up. Uncheck all the programs you don't want and reboot the computer. When the window appears telling you about your changes, ignore the message and uncheck the notification box so it doesn't bother you again.

Disappearing taskbar

One minute it's there and the next, it's not. You can't access your start menu without pressing the Start button and there's no other information available. First, make sure you're not overlooking the obvious and the taskbar isn't set to auto-hide, or is hidden underneath a multitude of windows.

Right-click on the taskbar, click ‘Properties' and uncheck the option ‘Auto-hide the taskbar'. While you're there, make sure you've checked the option ‘Keep the taskbar on top of other windows'. Sometimes that's the cause of the problem. If the taskbar is nowhere to be seen, the chances are something's gone wrong with your OS. For a temporary fix, open the ‘Task Manager' (via Ctrl + Alt + Delete), click on the ‘Processes' tab, find ‘explorer.exe' and click on End Process. Then you need to start that process up again, so go File, select New Task (Run...), type in ‘explorer.exe' and click ‘OK'.

With any luck, your taskbar will reappear and the problem may stay fixed. The next time you reboot your computer though, you might be back to square one. To solve the problem permanently, chances are you'll need to use your Windows installation disk and its useful 'Repair Windows feature'.

Want to share your thoughts on the best anti-virus software to use? Had any problems you can't fix? Share your thoughts with us and email: windows@itp.com

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