billionphotos-1630294As we get older, most of us tend to put on weight. We bulk up in all the wrong places. Over the years we ingest a lot of things that are bad for us. We may still suffer the effects of long-gone viruses. Our gait slows, and we’re not as sharp as we used to be.

If computers could hear, they would think we were talking about them.
Computers, like people, do not always age gracefully. What was once sprightly and limber becomes sluggish and bloated. Like an elderly person who moves through life ever more slowly, a once-speedy PC starts taking many minutes to boot up, days to display the printer menu and what seems like eons to get to a Web site.

But there’s hope. Most office supply stores will be happy to provide you with a PC tuneup. Staples offers one free. Others, like Best Buy’s Geek Squad tuneup, cost $49.99 and up.
But do PCs really need tuning up?

Definitely, say the experts. “Proper PC maintenance and tuneup is essential,” said Dan Ackerman, senior editor at “If you owned a car you wouldn’t go two to three years without maintaining it.”

But unlike a car, a computer has few moving parts that can fail, so what goes wrong? Among the factors that can contribute to your PC’s general malaise are downloading third-party applications and failing to remove all their bits and pieces when you are done with them, adding and deleting files, asking the computer to start up multiple programs simultaneously, and failing to completely remove viruses and malware.

Taking a PC to a store for a tuneup is an easy way to set things right, but most often you will pay for the privilege.

“This is a customer acquisition strategy,” said Bob MacDonald, a Staples vice president overseeing the company’s no-charge PC tuneup program. “We look forward to selling services and hardware. The analogy is paying someone to wash your car, versus doing it yourself. Absolutely, what we do could be done by a consumer.”

Since washing a car is a task that can easily be handled by most adults, it seems like a good idea to learn what tasks are involved in getting your Windows or Mac PC running like new.

The Same Tools

Just as an exterminator uses mostly the same chemicals a consumer could buy to get rid of insect pests, you can use the same software as the pros do to get rid of computer bugs.

For example, Staples runs a suite of cleanup tools that it licenses from Norton. “Tools to do everything that Staples does are built into Windows 7,” said Ben Rudolph, Microsoft’s Windows PC Evangelist. “It’s not that hard to change your own oil.”

What to Do

A few procedures should go a long way to getting your PC’s vitality back.

It’s important to run antivirus software regularly. Microsoft offers MS Security Essentials, free antivirus software available from Mr. Ackerman recommends another free program, AVG Free (

To avoid leaving any fragments of applications on the drive after you remove a program, use the application’s own removal tool, rather than just putting the program icon in the trash. If you don’t have the tool, do an Internet search for “[program name] removal tool.”

Defragment your hard drive. After extensive use, large programs tend to become “fragmented,” meaning that critical files are scattered across multiple sectors of a drive. It takes the computer extra time to find and assemble all the pieces needed to run the program. Defragmenting the drive will retrieve the files and place them closer together, speeding up the response time when you run the program.

The preinstalled Windows Disk Defragmenter tool, (search for “defragment” under the Start menu in Windows 7, or look for it under Programs>Accessories>System Tools in most older Windows machines) will defragment your hard drive, either manually, or automatically on a schedule you can customize.

Defragmenting a hard drive can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours depending on the size of the drive and how cluttered it is.

Remove large files like movies that you are no longer using. One easy way for Windows users to do so is to download “windirstat,” ( ) a program that will help you identify and remove the space-hoggers. Mac users can try Disc Inventory X ( ).

To save space on your drive, Mr. Ackerman recommends no-charge slimmed-down versions of popular programs. Instead of Windows Media Player, he suggests using VLC ( ). And to avoid taking up any additional space on your hard drive, try cloud-based programs like Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office.

Most maintenance tools are easily found in Windows 7. Click on the small white flag in the bottom right of the screen to bring up the Action Center. If you haven’t installed antivirus software, you’ll be prompted to find such a program. You’re also given the option to back up your hard drive.

For Mac Users

In the early days of Mac OS X, Apple’s operating system for its Mac computers, users needed to manually run various maintenance tasks, many of which are no longer necessary.

“Most Mac users don’t need to run any cleanup routines,” said Neil Ticktin, organizer of next month’s MacTech Conference in Los Angeles, and editor in chief of MacTech Magazine. “If you do need to run some system optimization program, it’s because you force-quit programs and you don’t let the machine do its job.”

For example, the common practice of “repairing permissions,” — making sure that the correct part of the system or user had the right to open a file — rarely needs to be done any longer.

Based on the Unix operating system, the Mac OS commonly runs cleanup routines in the middle of the night, if you leave the machine fully on.

If you don’t, the computer will run most of those routines automatically the next time it is awake. Manually defragmenting a hard drive is not necessary, as the OS does it automatically.

To clean up unwanted parts of programs that are no longer on the hard drive, Mr. Ticktin recommends Smith Micro’s Spring Cleaning application.

Both Mac and PC users agreed that the computer’s operating system was not typically to blame for slowing things down. Rather, one of the biggest culprits lies in “feature creep,” newer and bigger versions of favorite software. With our penchant for wanting the biggest and newest, the real culprit of sluggish computing may actually be … us.

More Ideas...

Think that you need a new Windows computer because the clunker is too slow? You may not. Windows doesn’t do a great job of maintaining itself. Before you dump Old Faithful, try these simple solutions:

1. Straighten up the hard drive.

Start by scanning your hard drive for problems. Use Scan Disk in Windows; in Windows XP, the tool is Check Disk. These utilities find stray data–called lost allocation units–that weren’t properly handled, generally in a system crash. They also rope off bad spots on the hard drive. To find Scan Disk, click Start>>Programs>>Accessories>>System Tools>>Scan Disk. In Windows XP, click Start>>My Computer. Right-click your hard drive (probably C:) and click Properties. Select the Tools tab. Click Check Now. Regardless of the system, select options to do as thorough a check as possible. Next, defragment your drive. Windows scatters file fragments all over creation. When you open a file, the hard drive has to work hard to assemble it. Defragmenting the files puts the pieces in adjacent clusters. That makes reassembly easier and faster. To defragment, click Start>>Programs (or All Programs)>>Accessories>>System Tools>>Disk Defragmenter.

2. Dump the spies.

Spyware tracks your surfing and feeds that information to advertising companies on the Internet. In turn, you receive customized ads. In recent years, spyware has gone from an irritant to a crisis. It can bog down a computer. At its worse, it seizes control. Your choice of search site, or even where you surf, can be severely curtailed. A number of programs can be downloaded to clean up spyware. The two that I have used and recommend are, Spybot-Search & Destroy ( and/or Microsoft AntiSpyware ( They can even block future infections

3. Turbocharge your surfing.

Are you still using dial-up access? People often use the rationalization that “it’s good enough for me.” But it is glacial compared to broadband. Broadband simply means that much more data can be downloaded at once. That translates to a much faster experience. People are often amazed at the difference. Try it and you’ll never go back. The primary broadband methods are DSL, over telephone lines, and cable, which moves with television signals. DSL is eight to 30 times faster than dial-up. In some places, cable can be 100 times faster. Either way, this is money well-spent.

4. Replace hardware parts.

Undeniably, you can jack up your machine this way. But this can get into serious money. There is a relatively cheap way to speed things up. If you have, say, 512 mb or 1 gig of RAM memory in a Windows XP or Vista machine, you can raise that to 2 gigabyte or even 3 gigabyte. And memory isn’t very expensive these days. Beyond that, you’re raising economic issues. You could pour money into a new motherboard, chip and video card. You could even upgrade your hard drive. But this will add hundreds of dollars. Why bother? A new up to date, faster machine can be had, with monitor, for less than $500. It will contain new, reliable parts. And, though it is low end, it will be relatively much faster. So, try cleaning up your old machine. If that doesn’t work, think hard about a new computer.