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How to keep your Windows computer running smoothly

Whether you're new to Windows or an old pro, it's important to maintain your computer and its software. Some of it can be automated, but a little effort can help save plenty of frustration.

Windows 7 is a powerful, flexible operating system, but it also needs some regular attention to keep it running smoothly. It's much easier now than it was years ago, but it's still all too easy to neglect. Fortunately, quite a few processes can be automated, and the rest can be added to your weekly or monthly task list and taken care of fairly quickly. Here's what you need to do:

  • Protect your computer from viruses and attacks. Microsoft Security Essentialsis free, automated, and incredibly easy to configure. If you do nothing else, make sure you have this running, and you may as well uninstall any antivirus or firewall programs that came with your machine while you're at it. They may work fine, but Microsoft got it right this time.

  • Remove unnecessary programs and files. While most computers these days aren't struggling for hard-drive space (unless you're an inveterate media hoarder), it's still a good idea to clear off any unwanted or unused programs now and then, as well as temporary files and other detritus. I like CCleaner for zapping programs and searching for dead files, though Revo Uninstaller is also a champ. Be sure to look carefully at what they want to delete, though; losing some things, like browser sessions, can be irritating.
    CCleaner removes unnecessary programs and files.
    CCleaner removes unnecessary programs and files.
  • Scan and remove malware. Many more Web sites than you would think install cookies and programs on your computer to keep tabs on you or indulge in even more nefarious shenanigans. Spybot is a fantastic, open-source program that does a great job of finding them, clearing them out, and then (if you like) watching for them in the background. This is a must for heavy Web users.

  • Back up important files. It's telling that this still doesn't go without saying, several decades into the PC revolution. The odds are good that you know someone personally who's lost important data to hardware failure; now is as good a time as any for you to start insuring yourself against such a catastrophe. New options make it much simpler to automate the process, and if the worst should happen, at least you're only out some money instead of important data or memories.
    Back up Windows files.
    Back up Windows files.
  • Back up your system. This may not be as important to most people as backing up pictures, e-mail, and so on, but those of us who have tweaked Windows to our liking and play around with new programs quite a bit should invest a few minutes each week or so to set up a System Restore point. It's easy to do and keeps you from having to reinstall Windows and painstakingly set it all up the way you like in the event of a major crash.

  • Clean out your hardware. If you've never opened up your computer, you may be surprised by how grotty it gets inside the casing.Physical cleaning is a great way to improve your machine's longevity--just pick up a can of compressed air or a vacuum cleaner designed for computers, turn off your machine, pop the case, and get to work. Laptops are trickier, as they are harder to open up as thoroughly as desktop machines, but it's still a good idea to do what you can.

I should point out that there are a few old-school computer maintenance tools that just aren't that important anymore. Defragging the hard drive used to be a vital element of Windows maintenance, but Windows 7 does it automatically in the background, and you shouldn't have to do it with your main drives. (It may still be a good idea to check auxiliary drives now and then.) Similarly, registry cleaning used to be seen as essential, but these days, it's recognized as unnecessary, improving performance by only a tiny fraction of a percent in most cases.