Keep your PC trouble-free By Jay Dougherty


dpa German Press Agency
Published: Friday January 19, 2007

By Jay Dougherty, Washington- What's the difference between a PC user who is constantly struggling with computer problems and one who is able to use computers productively? Knowledge. The fact is, trouble is lurking around every corner for PC users of all skill levels. From unstable software to viruses and spyware, there's always something that threatens to bring down your computer and halt your productivity. Sure, using anti-virus and anti-spyware programs will help. But knowing what to do to avoid the myriad problems you'll encounter - and how to deal with them once they surface - is critical. Here's a checklist.

--- Take snapshots

Most PC problems are caused by software - programs that you install or drivers used to allow your operating system to communicate with hardware. Fixing a software or driver-related problem after installation is often next to impossible.

That's why, before you install a new program, you should get into the habit of using Windows XP's System Restore feature. It's one of the most valuable but least-used features of the operating system.

System Restore takes a "snapshot" of critical system data that typically is altered by programs when they are installed. If you end up installing an application or device driver that makes your computer unstable, merely uninstalling the program frequently does not get rid of the problem. The reason: too many uninstallation programs don't fully remove harmful drivers or other components that might have been incompatible with your computer.

That's where System Restore comes in. The utility - located in the Windows Start menu under All Programs ... Accessories ... System Tools - returns your computer to its previous state. System Restore specifically backs up the Windows Registry, a file that contains all the information needed to make Windows work properly with your programs and hardware. Restoring a botched registry is a one-click affair.

--- Monitor spam

By all means, use an anti-spam program such as Cloudmark Desktop or even Microsoft Outlook's anti-spam filters. But be aware that anti-spam programs make mistakes, and plenty of them. It's up to you to make sure that your anti-spam program is not keeping important e- mail messages from your view. That means knowing where the program routes suspected "junk" mail and how to tell the program not to trash messages from certain people.

If, like many people today, your livelihood depends in part on e- mail correspondence, you need to keep tabs on what your anti-spam program is doing.

--- Image is everything

Backups are good. Disk images can be better.

If anything happens to your hard drive or the data on it, the quickest way to get your computer back up and running in exactly the way it used to be is to use disk imaging software.

Disk imaging differs from traditional backups in one critical way: with disk imagers, an exact replica, or mirror image, of your hard drive is created. That replica includes the operating system, settings, software data, and of course your files. Backups, on the other hand, traditionally will not copy the operating system settings and boot segments necessary to restore your entire system to its original state.

So using backup software to make copies of your files is important, but using imaging software to allow you to get your system back just the way it was before a catastrophe is critical as well. Which imaging software should you consider? The top programs are listed at the Top Ten Reviews site (http://disk-imaging-software- review.toptenreviews.com).

--- Don't tinker

If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

Remember that most PC problems are caused by software - applications, patches, updates and drivers. If your computer is working fine, don't waste time - and risk disaster - by trying to make it better. Be especially wary of system maintenance or system "works" suites of programs that promise to keep your system running its best.

Windows itself - beginning with Windows 95 - includes most, if not all, of the utilities that are safe to use in maintaining your computer. Utilities that promise to streamline the Windows Registry may suggest that you make changes that are not safe. Most of us are better off using only a few safeguarding applications: anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-spam. Leave the rest to the risk-takers.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency