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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Boost Your System with Basic Maintenance

System performance also suffers when a computer runs low on hard drive space. It's kind of like a garage full of bikes, mowers, tools, stacked boxes, and holiday decorations. When there is space to move around, it can be a good place to work. When it gets cluttered, it's harder to get things done because you have to navigate around loads of junk.

A computer reads and writes information to its hard drive all the time, so when the drive gets close to being full, it has a harder time finding empty space, and that makes it less efficient.

If this is the case with your computer, take some time to clean out data and programs you don't need any more, especially if you upgraded to Vista from an earlier version of Windows.

You'll be surprised how much of a system boost you'll get from a roomy hard drive.

What follows are some tips on how to clean your computer's virtual garage.

Empty Your Recycle Bin

If you delete items regularly but don't empty the Recycle Bin regularly, a lot of digital trash can accumulate in the bin. Get rid of it:

  1. Right-click on the Recycle Bin.
  2. Choose the Empty Recycle Bin option (see Figure 4.21), and it will be gone. Simple, but that's not all for some....
    Figure 4.21

    Figure 4.21 You know to empty your Recycle Bin regularly, don't you?

  3. If you use a utility that offers file deletion protection, such as Norton SystemWorks (see Figure 4.22), you should also right-click the Recycle Bin and choose the option to delete those protected files if you are sure you don't need to recover any of them.
    Figure 4.22

    Figure 4.22 If you're emptying your Recycle Bin, be sure to clear protected files as well, if you run an application such as Norton SystemWorks.

Remove Unused Programs

Everyone is guilty of downloading fun, yet perhaps inane, programs—like Laser Dolphin—from the Web, installing them, and then never using them again.

Figure 4.23

Figure 4.23 Laser Dolphin in all its blowhole-burstin' glory.

If you feel like you'll need to fire lasers from a dolphin's head again at some point, keep it on the system. If you're past the Laser Dolphin phase of your life, free up some space on your hard drive and uninstall it. Here's how to uninstall any program on the system:

  1. Click the Windows button and type Programs.
  2. Click Programs and Features in the list that appears in the Start menu.
  3. To remove a program you no longer need on your system, click on it and click on the Uninstall/Change option in the ribbon above the list of programs (see Figure 4.24).
    Figure 4.24

    Figure 4.24 If you're done with Laser Dolphin, uninstall it!

  4. Click Continue when the User Access Control warning pops up, and then click Yes to continue uninstalling the program.

Clean Up Your Temporary Files

From the Windows menu, type cleanup into the search bar. The Windows Disk Cleanup utility will launch. You will have the option of cleaning up your own files, or if you're an administrator, all users' files on your computer. If you have more than one hard drive attached to the system, you'll be able to choose which drive you want to clean up.

After you have chosen a drive by clicking on it, Vista will calculate how much space can be freed up. Then you'll have the option to empty the Recycle Bin and clean out your Internet Explorer cache files (Temporary Internet Files), as well as downloaded program files, setup logs, and the like.

Note that if you have upgraded from XP, there will be an option to remove the previous operating system, which Vista backs up when it installs (see Figure 4.25).

Figure 4.25

Figure 4.25 Disk Cleanup helps you free up space on your hard drive, including your previous operating system's files.

Clean Up Temporary Files in Alternate Browsers

If you use a different web browser, such as Firefox or Opera, it will save its temporary files in a different location to IE7. You can clear out those files by opening up that browser, opening up the program's Preferences menu, and navigating to the Cache option.

All popular browsers have buttons that allow you to clear your cache and browsing history in the same location where you can set the size of your temp file cache.

In the case of Firefox (my favorite), follow these steps:

  1. Click the Tools menu in Firefox.
  2. Click Clear Private Data (see Figure 4.26).
    Figure 4.26

    Figure 4.26 Be sure to clean up the cache on Mozilla Firefox and other alternate web browsers if you use them.

  3. Select the type of data you want to clear using the check boxes.
  4. Click Clear Private Data Now.

Delete Large Useless Files

If you're a video pack rat, you may have loads of huge video files sitting around on your hard drive, taking up space.

If you don't always save them in the same location, there's an easy way to track them down, so you can sort the good ones from the useless ones:

  1. Click the Windows button, but instead of going to the search bar, look for the Search option on the right-hand side of the Start menu and click it.
  2. Narrow the search by clicking on one of the options along the top, such as E-mail, Music, Document, and so on, or just leave it on All to seek all large files.
  3. Beside the Size option, click on the pull-down menu and change Any to Is Greater Than, and enter a number in the box beside it. It measures in kilobytes, so if you're looking for a file that's at least 40 megabytes, type in 40000 (see Figure 4.27).
    Figure 4.27

    Figure 4.27 Toggle the file size in the Advanced Search options window to find really large files.

  4. Delete the ones you don't want and be sure to empty your Recycle Bin afterwards.

It's worth noting that when I searched for large files, I found three large sample video clips that came with Vista that were all more than 45 megabytes...that's about 150 megabytes of space recovered just by removing sample files that I didn't even know were there (see Figure 4.28).

Figure 4.28

Figure 4.28 These three sample video files that come with Vista take up 150MB of valuable hard disk drive space.

Virtual Memory

Does your hard drive grind ceaselessly when you run memory-intensive applications such as publishing software, photo applications, or video-editing programs?

If so, your system is using virtual memory. That is to say, it allocates a part of the hard drive to double as RAM. This shouldn't become a staple of your system's resources. Sure, it's OK as a supplementary resource occasionally. However, overuse will create wear and tear on the hard drive, potentially shortening its life. Plus, using hard drive space for memory tasks is not efficient. RAM is much faster, and it is relatively cheap, so I urge you to consider buying more if your system can take more.

Of course, you might also want to first consider using ReadyBoost to speed up your system using a USB flash drive.

But if you still want to manually adjust your virtual memory, here's how:

  1. Click the Windows button, type System, and click System when it appears in the Start menu.
  2. Click the Advanced System Settings link in the left-hand pane, and click Continue when the User Access Control pops up.
  3. On the Advanced tab, click Settings under the Performance section.
  4. Click the Advanced tab and click Change under Virtual Memory.
  5. To manually set the size of your virtual memory file, uncheck the box that says Automatically Manage Paging File Size for All Drives.
  6. If you have multiple hard drives, choose the drive for which you want to set your virtual memory settings in the white box near the top.
  7. Click the radio button beside Custom Size, and then enter an initial and maximum page file size in the boxes below it. These values are measured in megabytes (see Figure 4.29).
    Figure 4.29

    Figure 4.29 In the System applet, you can adjust virtual memory to a custom size.

  8. The conventional wisdom is you should set the Initial Size to 100MB and Maximum Size to 1.5 times the amount of RAM you have. Some say you can push the page file to a maximum of 4GB.
  9. After you're done, be sure to specifically click Set to save your settings.

Defrag Is Not a Panacea, but It Might Help

Although it might seem like all of your files are in one piece on your computer, many (if not most) of the files are split up into smaller chunks that are scattered across the hard drive. When they are needed, Vista reassembles them into complete files.

If there isn't enough free contiguous space on a hard drive for a particular file, Vista breaks it up and stores it in several empty spots.

This is called file fragmentation, and if the files on your computer are fragmented badly enough, overall performance will begin to suffer. Thankfully, there's a file defragmenter built right into Windows Vista called Disk Defragmenter (see Figure 4.30).

Figure 4.30

Figure 4.30 Vista can clean up file fragmentation with Disk Defragmenter.

By default, Vista is set to automatically defragment your files once a week, typically at a time when the machine isn't being used. If you shut down your computer at the end of the day, your files may never get defragmented automatically. So you might want to change the defragmentation schedule on your system, or to start the defragmentation manually. Here's how:

  1. Click on the Windows button and type defrag into the search bar.
  2. Click Continue when the User Access Control pops up.
  3. To change the schedule for defragmentation, click the Modify Schedule button. After you've picked the frequency (monthly is fine, weekly is OK, daily is foolish), day, and time for automatic defragmentation, click OK (see Figure 4.31).
    Figure 4.31

    Figure 4.31 Modify the defragmentation schedule so that Disk Defragmenter runs when the computer is on but not being used.

  4. To prevent the system from automatically initiating defragmentation on a schedule, uncheck the box beside Run On a Schedule (Recommended). This is a useful option for users who run other tasks overnight.
  5. To manually start the defragmentation process, click the Defragment Now button. The process will run with little user feedback. You'll simply have to wait for it to finish.

The defragmentation process makes the hard drive work hard, so you probably don't want to defragment any more than necessary. For the vast majority of users, a monthly schedule is probably adequate.

If defragging is not something you have been doing with XP, after upgrading your computer to Vista, you might want to set it to run manually once to clean up your hard drive. After that, set it to run every month automatically.

Optimize Scratch Disks

Like virtual memory, a scratch disk is an area of the hard drive allocated by a memory-intensive program to use as an extra workspace when a system runs low on RAM.

Programs that use scratch disks for optimal performance can be tweaked so the programs don't take any greater a toll on Windows Vista than necessary. That includes popular photo- and video-editing programs such as Adobe's Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements.

The main trick to optimizing scratch disk performance, no matter what operating system you're using, is to make your scratch disk a different physical disk than the one that contains your operating system. It's generally better if it's a second physical hard drive installed inside the computer.

You can also use an external hard drive if it's connected on a USB 2.0 port (good) or a FireWire port (better).

To change the scratch disk within Photoshop Elements 4.0, do the following:

  1. Open Elements to a document, either existing or new.
  2. Click the Edit menu and scroll down to Preferences. Select Plug-ins & Scratch Disks from the drop-down menu.
  3. Under the Scratch Disks submenu, click the triangle for the drop-down menu beside First, and choose the drive letter for your second internal hard drive or external drive. Click OK (see Figure 4.32).
    Figure 4.32

    Figure 4.32 Assign your application's scratch disk to a second physical drive like I did here with Adobe PhotoShop Elements 4.0.

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