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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Spring clean your PC: Part 1 - Software

From the hard disk to the keyboard, every PC needs a clean-up now and then. In part one of our feature we look at keeping all your software squeaky clean.

Tim Nott & Kelvyn Taylor, Personal Computer World, 24 Feb 2004

The average Windows installation is modelled on the second law of thermodynamics. Over time, digital entropy takes its toll. Files become fragmented, junk accumulates, things cease to work properly. Temporary files take up permanent residence and programs you have uninstalled still appear in the 'Add/Remove' list.

The traditional solution is to start again from scratch, formatting the partition containing Windows and installing the operating system anew. This is no small undertaking involving much backing up before and much reinstallation of applications, drivers, updates and settings afterwards.

So here are some comparatively painless ways of spring-cleaning your PC. First we'll remove the malicious: even the savviest users can fall victim to malware which can slow a system to a crawl as well as compromise privacy.

Next we'll eliminate the useless, and regain hundreds of megabytes of disk space. In Part 2 we'll be looking at getting rid of the useless stuff that runs at start-up and eliminating junk in the Registry. We'll take a look at some applications that offer to do all your spring-cleaning for you, and finally we'll look at the physical side of cleaning your PC.

Who's spying on you?
Let's start by getting rid of uninvited guests. We're going to assume that you have a virus checker and that you keep it up to date - if not there's little point in doing any further cleaning. But there are a host of other nasties, which, while not classified as viruses, can clog up your disk; hijack your processor cycles and bandwidth; and slow your browser to crawling pace.

Adware, on the surface, is perfectly straightforward. You download some 'free' software which comes with banner advertisements. This is a business model we're well used to seeing in the broadcasting and free newspaper sectors.

However, it isn't quite like that. For a start you'll notice that the adverts change - and you're paying the connect time to download each new batch. Second, adware is often spyware as well - the adverts you click on are logged, and that information is sent to the originators.

Foistware inserts its own adverts on web pages served up by your browser, so that they appear to have been placed by the site's webmaster. Hijackware welds itself into your browser in such a way as to usurp your customary search engines. Diallers hijack your internet connection, diverting dial-up calls from your regular ISP to their own - very expensive - dial-up connection.

Even the most careful surfer can get infected, but fortunately there are some 'good guys' around to help you get rid of malware. Lavasoft's Ad-aware is free for personal use, and will scan memory, the Registry and drives for parasites. It is easy to use and safe in that you can 'quarantine' rather than delete suspect items.

The Plus version, which is not free, adds realtime protection against known parasites installing themselves. Both versions include an automatic updater.

Spybot - Search and Destroy, by lone spyware ranger Patrick Kolla, is also free and includes a few other useful items, such as a secure shredder for deleting files beyond recovery, an immunisationfunction to prevent further re-infection and a rather neat trick of opening Explorer or the Registry editor to show the location of offending items.

Comparing the two we found Spybot rather more aggressive than Ad-aware, with a few possible false positives. However, as with Ad-aware, all changes to the Registry or file system can be undone.

Dead wood stage
Having cleaned out the harmful, let's now turn to the useless. Although we'd encourage you to defrag your hard disk(s) regularly, there's little point in defragging crud. Whole chunks of your hard disk are probably filled with useless files, hogging space like abandoned cars in a city street.

In Windows 98 and later, the first port of call is provided for you by Windows Disk Cleanup. You'll find this from the button of the General tab of each drive's Properties dialogue box.

There's nothing here you can't do elsewhere, but it's convenient to have it all in the same place. Windows 98 users can empty the Recycle Bin, delete Temporary internet Files, delete files in the Temp folder and delete 'Downloaded Program Files' - these last are things such as Java Applets and ActiveX controls that have been downloaded from websites to run on your PC.

Windows Cleanup is fairly conservative: it won't, for example remove temporary files that are less than a week old. And sometimes files get stuck in the Temp folder, with Cleanup apparently unable to see or remove them.

Although some temporary files - such as those related to an installation - may be needed at the next reboot, it's very unlikely that anything else not created in the current session will be needed, so it's worth checking the Temp folder independently after a restart. As an extra safety precaution, Windows won't let you delete any temporary files that are in use.

Windows ME Cleanup has three more items. Two of these, Temporary Health files and Application Debugging information appear in the main list, but the third lies on the 'More Options' tab. As with other Windows versions this contains links to Control Panel to remove applications or Windows components - both of which are self-explanatory.

Windows ME also has a link to the File System subsection of System Properties which lets you change the space allocated to System Restore. A typical ME installation may have 10 or more restore points dating back over several weeks. By default, Windows allocates 12 per cent of a partition to System Restore.

Restricting the space - the minimum is 200MB - will free the corresponding disk space and remove the oldest restore points. Windows XP has a few more items in the main list - such as indexing files and old chkdsk items - but there's a radical difference on the 'More Options' tab. Here the System Restore option is far more draconian as it will delete all except the last restore point.

If you want to change the overall size allocated to System Restore, then you can do this from the 'Settings' link in the System Restore window itself.

Under the carpet
As we saw earlier, Windows Cleanup sometimes just doesn't do its job. Another under-achiever is the internet Explorer option to delete Temporary internet Files, which often leaves files behind.

One tip that is always worth a try is to tick the 'Delete offline content' box (assuming you don't have any offline content you want to preserve) as this can often shift 'orphaned' temporary files. There's also a lot that Cleanup won't find, so to do a thorough springclean you're going to have to hit the file system the hard way.

First, it's essential to level the playing field - make sure you can see all files and folders on your disk. Go to the Explorer Tools or View menu (depending on version) and open Folder Options. On the View tab check that Windows will show system and hidden files and folders as well as file extensions. Next you need a way of seeing files and folders stripped of the 'magic' that Windows uses.

With Windows ME, NT, 98 and 95 you have the old-style File Manager. You can summon this by typing 'Winfile.exe' in the Start, Run box. Except for the NT version this won't show long file or folder names, so 'Program Files' for example will appear as 'Progra~1'.

This shouldn't stop you navigating around, but if you do find this limitation irksome there's a shareware add-on with the snappy name of FmLfns that enables long file names in File Manager.

Windows XP and 2000 don't come with Winfile - but if you can get your hands on a copy of the NT version, this will work. Alternatively - and for all versions of Windows - there are shareware and freeware alternatives.

One regular favourite is Treesize Pro which gives you a variety of ways of seeing the contents of your hard disks or folders therein, including pie charts, bar charts, lists by size, list by percentage and more. It's a must for the seriously obsessive, but registration will cost you €35 (£25).

What both Winfile and Treesize Pro do is show what's really in your folders. If you look, for example, at the Temporary internet Files (TIF) folder in Explorer, you'll probably see a load of cookies and other files. If you look with Winfile, you'll see that the cookies are actually located elsewhere, and that there are layers of subfolders in the TIF folder - these terminate in four (or more) folders with 'nonsense' names that contain the actual cached files.

If you see files here even though you've emptied the TIF folder, then you can delete them. However, this is usually an indication of other problems - such as a corrupt Index.dat file. So a better plan is to delete the entire TIF folder - Windows will create a new one on the next boot.

It's also worth looking at what other temporary files exist on your hard disk. Try a search for files or folders with 'temp' as all or part of the file name, and 'folder' as type of file. You'll get a few false positives such as 'Templates' but you'll doubtless find more real temporary folders.

We found 47 on a Windows XP installation with four user profiles, which is not unusual, and many of these contained junk such as remnants of failed installations.

Another waste of disk space is huge files whose origins have been lost in the mists of time, such as 'go back' files to a previous version of Windows. Again, the Windows Search or Find File comes in useful - leave the file name and contents blank and under the advanced options set a size of 'at least' 10,000KB, for example. You'll be surprised with what this turns up.

Treesize Pro is also useful for showing what's taking up disk space, but for a more original approach try Sequoiaview - freeware from Eindhoven University. Folders and files are shown as nested rectangles, or to use the technical term, Squarified Cushion Treemaps, so whatever level you are viewing a drive or folder, you are immediately aware of the space-hogs. Mousing over a rectangle highlights the limits of the containing folder and shows the file details on the status bar.

Earlier we mentioned old chkdsk items. When you run Scandisk (or when Windows runs it automatically after a bad shutdown) it may recover file fragments, aka 'lost clusters' and save them as files with the.chk extension.

Although you might find lost text in one of these following a crash, they don't have any other useful function - they'll usually be dumped in the root of the C: drive. XP creates separate 'Found' folders for these but, as we saw earlier, also provides for their removal in Cleanup. In any event it's a good idea to search and delete.chk files.

Duplicate files can also waste space and it's all too easy to copy a file when you intended to move it. There are plenty of utilities to hunt out duplicated files on your system, but these should be used with caution, as many system files may be duplicated for a good reason. XP, for example, maintains a DLLcache folder which contains backup copies of crucial system files as well as a Lastgood folder which can help you recover from disasters - both of these will contain duplicates which should be left alone.

Zero-length files sound like an oxymoron but they do exist and can cause problems. On the level of 'mostly harmless but annoying' the Machine Debug Manager can leave hundreds of zero-length files in the Windows folder, each name starting 'fff ...'

Unless you really need the Debug Manager (it comes with the Office 2000 script editor and is named mdm.exe) then you can turn it off from MSConfig, Startup. You'll also need to go to internet Properties, Advanced and check that 'Disable script debugging' is ticked. You can then delete all the 'fff ...' files. More of a nuisance are zero-length oem*.inf files in the Windows\Inf folder.

These can run into thousands, can prevent software or drivers from being installed and are caused, according to Microsoft, by 'Windows Update, internet Explorer Setup ... if a disk utility program currently has a volume lock on the drive'. You can and should delete such files.

After this, further cleaning up of the file system is largely a matter of common sense and individual preference - you may want to uninstall programs or Windows components that you never use, weed out the fonts folder and so on.

One thing we would point out is that there is a knack to tidying up your Outlook Express mail folders. First delete messages you no longer want from your in and out boxes. This sends them to the Deleted Items folder. Right-click on the latter and choose 'Empty'. This will - and you'll get a warning - permanently delete the messages.

However, you won't get the disk space back until you go to File, Folder, Compact All Folders.

Start up
Another area of Windows that benefits from a thorough inspection is the list of programs that run on start-up, many of which are unnecessary and can interfere with things such as CD-burning.

These can come from a variety of locations in the file system and Registry, but Windows 98 and later has the very useful System Configuration Utility. If you Start, Run, Msconfig.exe and turn to the Startup tab you'll see a list of everything loaded at start-up, and you can disable items without permanently removing them from the list.

Some applications can be very persistent about adding themselves or their associates to Start-up, but if you dig deep enough into the options you can often find a way to disable these. Two common offenders are Windows (or MSN) Messenger and Real One or Real Player.

If you go to the Tools menu of Outlook Express you'll see there's a Windows Messenger, Options ... dialogue buried in there. On the Preferences tab there's an option to 'Run this program when Windows starts' which you can untick.

Having done that go to the Tools menu again and choose Options. On the General tab, untick the 'Automatically log on to Windows Messenger' item. For Real One Player, go to Tools, Preferences (you may have to click on the double-chevron in the menu bar to see the Tools menu). You'll see a range of items under 'Automatic Services' that you can, if you wish, disable.

For other persistent items you may like to use Startupmonitor: this asks permission before items are added to Startup. Although this is an excellent protection against some malware it needs to be used with discretion - if you are installing or removing software then there is often a program that needs to run after a restart to finish the installation or cleaning up.

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