Get a web diagnosis
There are very few computing problems that the web is unaware of. Typing in error codes and brief descriptions of symptoms can be one of the most effective ways of identifying and troubleshooting a problem. If you can’t find an immediately obvious error message, look in Control Panel, Problem Reports and Solutions (Vista). For Windows 7, open Control Panel, Action Center, Maintenance, View reliability history, and click on View all problem reports at the bottom of the window.
A better process manager
Sysinternals Process Explorer is a strong alternative to Windows’ Task Manager. Click on one its four graphs – CPU usage, commit history, I/O bytes history and physical memory history – to bring up a full-sized window view that’s akin to the Performance tab in Task Manager, but with far more detail.
Analyse the Blue Screen of Death
Thankfully, the Blue Screen of Death is an uncommon Windows sight these days. Should you experience one, we recommend BlueScreenView (tinyurl.com/Ly4dmg), which can help identify the driver that caused it.
Find out what’s hogging disk space
WinDirStat (windirstat.info) generates easy-to-understand graphical reports about disk usage, so you can see at a glance which individual files or folders hidden deep within a directory tree are gobbling up your memory.
Start up faster with Delayer
Windows 7 is faster than its predecessors, but if you’ve been using it a while and have clogged it up with programs and files, it’ll be feeling the strain. Use Startup Delayer (tinyurl.com/7c48fgz) to prioritise which programs load when you first fire up Windows and which can be held back.
Windows automatically recreates a restore point when you install a program, make a certain type of change to your system, or simply because it’s scheduled to. If your PC throws a wobbly, type System Restore in the search box to bring up a calendar showing the last such point. Roll back your PC to before things went awry, then restart.
Don’t restore malware
An exception to the above restore point advice is if you’re trying to clear an infection. It’s possible the System Restore archive is itself infected. See page 156 for more.
Create a system repair disc
Before things go wrong is the best time to make a backup of Windows. To do so, insert a blank disc, click the Windows Start button, type repair, and choose ‘Create a System Repair Disc’. Follow the instructions from there, remembering to label the disc when you’ve finished.
Windows used to be limited to only 2GB or 3GB of RAM. The days of 32bit computing are numbered; if you were canny enough to choose a 64bit Windows machine, you’ll be able to enjoy 3GB or more.
Instant RAM upgrade
Installing more RAM in your laptop is tricky, ?so for an instant boost you can use a USB flash drive. In the AutoPlay options, choose the option to use the drive’s available memory to boost performance.
Avoid electrical interference
Cable clutter is unsightly. It can also cause electrical items to short-circuit and data transfers to take longer than they ought. A cable tidy, or simply unfurling curled up cables, can help. Cable ties that tame excess lengths are also useful.
It’s a pain having to wait for Windows to check your USB drive or CD isn’t corrupt, but it can make the difference between peace of mind and a botnet infection. Allow your security software to proceed.
Revive a dead laptop battery
If your laptop is a few years old, the battery won’t hold a charge as long as it used to before needing to be plugged in. Before replacing the battery itself, try replacing the laptop fuse (if the charging light on the battery doesn’t come on, it’s the charger at fault). Compatible chargers can be bought if the manufacturer can’t supply one, just makes sure the voltage is the same.
Cleaner, faster computing
See all that grot that’s accumulated on your computer keyboard? The fan grille and the interior of your case also get dusty and grubby. Wipe a damp lint-free cloth over the exterior of a switched-off machine. A low-power mini vacuum to clean the innards occasionally will also help a PC’s efficiency.
Back up your system drives
Semper Software Drive (sempersoftware.nl) saves and restores all system drivers. This is invaluable since system manufacturers rarely supply drivers on disc any more, so if you ever need to wipe your hard drive and reinstall Windows, you might find yourself without a critical driver.
Carry your apps with you
Like the way your PC is set up? Carry your media manager, web browser, office software and preferences with you, and you can hotdesk with aplomb. A SanDisk U3 drive will let you log in at any Windows PC and get to work as if you were sitting at your usual PC desktop. Apps are available from PortableApps.com.
One PC; many users
Security and parental controls are two good reasons to have different login accounts for family members. Preferred desktop layouts, browsers, email clients, backgrounds and screen settings are another. Head to the Control Panel and click User Accounts to get a personalised desktop for everyone.
One careful user
If no-one else uses your PC, you can speed up logins by having a single user account with full admin rights and no password protection. This isn’t recommended if it’s a laptop that ever leaves the house, though.
Limited users are liberated users
You need one Windows user account for the administrator. Getting into the habit of instead logging into a separate ‘limited’ user account makes sense from a security point of view. Malware needs admin rights in order to get to the Registry and to make other substantive changes to your computer’s setup. It can’t do this if you’re using the PC in non-admin mode.
Switch your operating system
If you want to play it even safer, running Mac OS X or a Linux OS rather than Windows is a good alternative. If you’re comfortable partitioning a hard drive, you can dual-boot your PC and keep your OS options open. Parallels software is another good option ?and supports multiple OS environments.
Copyright your work
You’ve probably noticed watermarks on images on the web; you can add the equivalent to your own work by choosing the Tools, Protect document option in Microsoft Word. Click the Read Only button and select a password before allowing that report you composed to be published.
Protect it with a PDF
PDF creation used to be the preserve of the publishing industry, but there are now free tools such as Nitro Pro (tinyurl.com/dyy6cgv) that can create them at a much lower cost than Adobe’s Acrobat. More recent versions of Word and Excel also have a File, Save As, PDF option in their drop-down menus. By saving this way, you prevent someone easily editing your words or spreadsheet contents.
Micro-manage your email
Filters and rules are often used by office workers to keep on top of the vast amount of email flooding into their inboxes. Webmail software such as Hotmail and Gmail also support filtering. Go to the Filters tab and click Edit in the Gmail inbox view to create and apply rules for bypassing or filing items.
Visual email overview
Click on the Labels tab at the top of your Gmail inbox to start colour-coding contacts to earmark personal and work mail.
Trace an email’s origins
If you want to known the source of a suspicious email or URL, check its IP address. To trace the IP address of a web domain, such as pcadvisor.co.uk, go to Start, Run and type cmd. In the command prompt that pops up, type tracert, followed by the domain name. Tracert will track all stages of connection between you and the website, then provide a final line that includes its IP address. Use this to check the location of the server by using visualroute.visualware.com or ip-adress.com.