I have whittled down to eight the most critical things to keep your Windows PC running smoothly. Any questions/comments/suggestions are much appreciated!
Windows ME is awful
Believe it or not, I still run across lots of people running ME and not realizing that most of the problems they’re having with their computer are due to this train wreck of an operating system. If you were one of the unlucky people who purchased a new PC in the relatively short time period between when new PCs were shipped with Windows 98SE and when they started coming with Windows XP, then you got shafted with Windows ME. WinME is by far the worst version of Windows ever released. It is buggy, horribly unstable, slow, and basically a disaster of an operating system on par with Hurricane Katrina. If you have ME installed and are having problems with your computer, there is a 99.9% chance that performing a clean install (not an upgrade) of Windows 2000 or Windows XP will solve all of your problems. The reason it is important to do a clean install rather than an “upgrade” is the fact that, as shown in the graphic below, 2000 and XP are based on a different, much more stable code base than the 95/98/Me family of Windows. Performing an “upgrade” from a member of the 98/98/Me family over to a member of the NT/2000/XP family will result in lots of stability issues and bugs, which are the problems you are trying to solve in the first place! Now of course the downside to the clean install is that you will lose everything on your C: drive, so you will need to either burn your beloved files to CDs or DVDs, or copy them to a different computer over a network. See this article for a good “how-to” on clean installing Windows XP.
Strapped for cash? Rather than paying full price for XP Home or XP Pro at one of the big box stores, search for an OEM version on eBay. This is the the exact same software for a lower price because it is only supposed to be sold bundled with a new PC.
Keep a Linux LiveCD on hand
This one can truly be a life saver. If your Windows installation totally takes a crap on you and you can’t even get it to boot into safe mode, then having a Linux LiveCD around can allow you to boot into the Linux operating system directly from the CD and recover your important files before doing a clean install/pitching your laptop off your eighth floor balcony. Knoppix is my personal favorite, but Linux LiveCD’s come in dozens of flavors, here is a list. There is even a version that is a tiny 50MB and can boot from a USB memory stick!
Divide your hard drive into at least two partitions
If you only have one physical hard drive, when doing a clean install of Windows XP make sure to partition your drive into at least two pieces. This will allow you to have a D: drive in addition to your C: drive where your Windows install resides. This will make your life easier in the future because you can keep all of your data (documents, videos, music, etc.) on your D: drive and only have Windows and your other installed software on your C: drive. So, in the future, when you need to do a clean install again, you won’t need to worry about burning shiny discs or copying a bunch of data over to another computer, you will only format your C: drive, leaving your data intact on your D: drive through the whole process. It is a good idea to make your C: partition just big enough to store your Windows installation and your other software you will be installing and having your D: partition taking up the rest of your space. It will vary depending on how much software you are planning to install relative to how many gigabytes of data you like to keep around, but I recommend having your C: partition be 25-35% of your total hard drive space.
Ditch Norton AntiVirus
Several years ago, Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus used to be a decently efficient antivirus solution. Not anymore. It has become a horribly bloated and problematic piece of doggie doo. It often causes more problems than it solves, especially the sloppily implemented email scanning functionality. Between the freely available adware removers and the online virus scanners (detailed below), there is no need for Norton AntiVirus and most users will be best served by uninstalling it completely.
Install and run Lavasoft Ad-Aware
Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware is invaluable in detecting and eliminating the extremely annoying and intrusive spyware, adware, malware, and trojan horses than can easily find their way into your Windows machine (especially if you use IE, see below). Ad-Aware has a slick, easy-to-use interface and best of all, there is a version that is available for free download. Ad-Aware should be one of the first things you think of when your Windows PC starts misbehaving.
Use Spybot: Search & Destroy
Spybot: Search & Destroy is another nice piece of adware/spyware removal software available for free download. It performs essentially the same function as Ad-Aware but can sometimes catch things that ad-aware misses, and vice versa.
Take advantage of free online virus scans
Now that you no longer have any antivirus software installed on your machine (oh no!), how are you going to make sure your computer stays virus-free? Simple, use a free online virus scanner like TrendMicro’s Housecall or Panda’s ActiveScan. These online scanners are automatically kept up-to-date with the latest virus definitons and usually do a great job of at least detecting the viruses, if not eliminating them. Even if the scanner can’t get rid of the virus, once you know the name of it you can do a Google search and find a removal tool or instructions for manual removal. One caveat: Both Housecall and ActiveScan are only compatible with Internet Explorer.
The many advantages of Firefox over IE are thoroughly covered elsewhere on the web. I won’t beat a dead horse here, but making the switch from IE to Firefox is an important step in keeping your Windows PC running smoothly as it will make you much less susceptible to malicious software.