Does your year-old desk rocket seem slow? Can you really afford to replace or upgrade this computer, after spending so much money on failures in the past? Knowing and practicing basic computer care could have saved you that money.

Computer care is not something you hear much about. Yet, it can save you big money and increase your efficiency. Assuming everything about your computer was fine on day one, let's make our way through the following computer maintenance tips, starting with hardware care.

Although many people are severely apprehensive to do anything with hardware, maintenance is quite simple.

The first line of defense is to clean inside your machine. If opening the case voids your warranty, you'll have to decide if you want the warranty in force or if you need to do the maintenance. Generally, it's best to hang onto the warranty; but contact the manufacturer if you can smell dust blowing out of the machine. It may have an approved service center that will clean the machine and not void the warranty.

If you do it yourself, turn the power off but leave the computer plugged in to keep the chassis grounded. Once inside, don't touch anything except the chassis, unless you have Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) equipment in place.

A vacuum cleaner is the best tool for removing dust inside your case. Don't touch the nozzle, even if it's plastic, to any internal parts. Don't try for pristine: Just remove the major dust buildup. Many computer, office, and electronics supply stores sell clean compressed gas in a can. Some computer experts frown on using this gas, because it can blow dirt into the wrong places. Never use any other type of compressed air or wet solvents.

While inside the computer, check the cables and cords to be sure they have decent routing and no stress. Check the connectors for corrosion and fit.

Your keyboard may also need cleaning. With it unplugged, turn it upside down and shake it. You can vacuum clean it, but don't blow into it. To clean the key surfaces, use a soft damp cloth. Remember: Cleaning compounds may take the lettering off your keys.

You should also clean removable media drives: floppy, tape, or the new removable disks. You can usually buy an alcohol-based cleaning kit for these.

Be sure to check your exterior cables and cords. Of course, you should check for any signs of damage, but remember to check cord and cable routing too. For example, if you run a scanner cable on top of and parallel to your monitor power cable, you're asking for trouble.

Both Symantec and Qualitas make inexpensive programs that examine your RAM. A RAM check takes several hours, and you do it from a boot disk. These programs will spot almost any RAM problem. To be conclusive, though, you need to insert your physical RAM into a RAM tester. This tester has two drawbacks: It's expensive, and you may damage your RAM by reinstalling it. Software-based tests make a good first line of defense and will reveal problems the RAM tester can't catch. You can also buy utilities for checking hard drive integrity.

Software survival secrets. Certain operating systems require more maintenance than others, so someone needs to know the quirks of the various versions; whatever operating system you use.

How often should you defragment? That depends on how often you move or delete files.

Suppose you had a room full of filing cabinets and toolboxes. Would it make sense to put files in the toolboxes and tools in the filing cabinets? Of course not. Nor does it make sense to mix your program files with data files. Change the defaults of all your programs so you store these items in separate places. This helps prevent file corruption. It also makes life easier when you delete, backup, or move files.

Let's continue with the toolbox/filing cabinet analogy. Think of your programs the same way you'd think of a toolbox. Keep the junk out of the drawers. Put tools away when you're done with them. Having a slew of programs open at the same time can cause file corruption problems as memory and other resources run short or programs conflict. An example of program conflict is someone who ran three antivirus programs simultaneously. These programs found and attacked each other as viruses.

Filing cabinets? Don't stuff your drawers full of useless files. With the exception of cookies (see sidebar, below, for explanation), you can safely delete any temporary Internet files older than a few days; or set your browser to do so automatically. You should keep your cookies if you do much online, because they speed up many online functions. If you're concerned about cookies, do an Internet search for this phrase: "All about Cookies" (with the capitalization as shown). This will give you information from government bulletins and several developers.

Depending on where your Temp files are and what your operating system is, your computer might read every one of them just to open a program. This means unnecessary disk read-writes and premature wear. If you can't set your computer to delete these upon shutdown, then make a point of deleting them manually on a regular basis.

Having too many fonts slows your system to a crawl when you open some programs. Some experts advise us to decide which fonts we need to produce good-looking documents, then delete the rest off the hard drive. The problem with this advice is you might delete system fonts. To be safe, delete only the TrueType fonts you don't need.

Prior to Windows 3.0, you could tell the computer whizzes from the newbies with a quick glance at the root directory (at the c:\ prompt). Guess who had more files sitting there? Not the whizzes.

Early versions of DOS (before DOS 5.0) had a low limit on the number of files you could store there, for at least two reasons. First, DOS had to read each of those files before executing certain files. Second, storing files outside of an organized folder structure was sloppy and resulted in file version confusion or lost files. While the first reason is no longer a major concern, the second reason still holds true; regardless of your operating system.

Infrastructure restrictions. These tips don't cover the computer itself, but paying regular attention to them means a more reliable computer. Perhaps the most important is power. A few of our readers have indicated they use a UPS to correct for power infrastructure problems. This is an incorrect approach from an engineering standpoint.

In response to an issue that arose last year, three UPS manufacturers adamantly told EC&M their products will not correct for infrastructure problems. Nor do they make such claims. So, what good is a power conditioner or UPS? They do not correct for grounding problems, improper phase balancing, undersized neutrals, or low voltage. A UPS does correct for sags in voltage. They do handle voltage surges. They are not substitutes for lightning protection systems or Cat. 4 surge suppression at the service entrance.

Even if your infrastructure is good, you will have power anomalies. These anomalies are what UPS and power conditioning systems resolve. Make sure you look at your power system as a whole, instead of applying a very good cure (UPS) to the wrong problem (e.g., poor grounding and bonding).

Let's also consider the computer's environment. Dust can wreck the tiny bearings inside drives and fans as well as cause overheating. Smoke from tobacco or other substances will leave a thermally insulating film on components. Here, mold and bacteria release corrosive compounds onto your components. Once the mold and bacteria take root, other microorganisms feed on them, leaving feces on your components. These are conductive and can cause static discharges.

Keep food away from computers. Spilling can damage components. Also keep your computer in an environment where temperature and humidity are within reasonable limits.




Sidebar: What's a Cookie Anyhow?

A cookie is a HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) header that consists of a text-only string. Your browser stores this text string in its memory when called upon. This string contains the domain (for example, ecmweb.com), path, lifetime, and value of a variable. That variable is something a Common Gateway Interface (CGI) script is looking for; your e-mail address, what site you came from to get to the remote server, what browser you are using, or what operating system you run.

A server can get all of this information without cookies, but doing so slows it down. This is the only information a cookie can contain, unless you fill out a form that explicitly adds other information or the remote server sends you a cookie with information it added; such as a shopping cart ID number. A cookie cannot and does not scan your hard drive. Sidebar text courtesy http:/www.mindconnection.com/library/cookies.htm, which has extensive information on cookies.