NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2011
Your Computer's Health, Part 4 –
Comprehensive Computer Maintenance

By Greg Skalka, President,
UCHUG (Under the Computer Hood User Group), CA
March 2011 issue, Drive Light
president (at) uchug.org (click to email author)

People need computers. Computers need maintenance. Unless you want to gamble with your email, continued access to the Internet, your finances and the other things we have come to depend on from our personal computers, you should consider some preventative maintenance. Even if you are unconcerned about a temporary loss of computer use, if you use it to access your financial accounts, you could be risking those assets and your financial reputation by failing to maintain your computer's resistance to viruses and malware.

Just as a car requires maintenance to provide reliable transportation, a computer needs regular care to insure it can safely and reliably negotiate the Information Superhighway. The concern is not only for making sure the computer works when you need it to and does not lose valuable information, but it also must protect you from attacks by information thieves. Neglecting basic computer maintenance can increase the risk of problems resulting from hardware and software failures, and can leave you open to theft of your identity and finances.

Since I must provide the maintenance and IT support for all the computers and users in my household, I've developed a basic process for computer care that provides a lot of protection for minimal cost and effort. It has evolved over the years, as computers and the threats to their well-being have changed, and has allowed me to prevent any serious computer problems from occurring. There is nothing you can do to completely prevent problems like hard drive failures, but you can take steps that will insure against the loss of data and allow you to be computing again soon.

My computer maintenance philosophy involves three basic computer maintenance principles I call the three up's: setup, backup and cleanup. Setup requires that each computer be configured as much as possible to make maintenance easier and operations safer. This can involve not only your computer's hardware and software, but your home network's hardware and configuration as well. Backup provides a reliable way to safeguard your computer's data and configuration, allowing you to recover easily from most any problem with minimal data loss. It can not only prevent information loss resulting from hardware failures, but can also protect your computer's configuration from alteration during the installation of questionable software. Cleanup involves regular maintenance activities performed to prevent hardware problems, keep your software running smoothly and repel cyber attacks. Implemented appropriately, these three aspects of computer maintenance can keep bad things from happening to your computers and the information they contain.

A thoughtfully conceived computer setup is the foundation on which the other two maintenance activities are based. For best effect, it should be implemented on your computers when they are first put into service. To make the backup and cleanup operations easier, I always - Partition the main physical hard drive into separate partitions for each ”Function” - Provide a second physical hard drive for each computer for backup storage I typically create 7 to 8 partitions on the primary hard drive, each allocated to a particular function. One will contain only the operating system, another only data and others programs of different types. For best results, this must be done before any applications are installed, so that the OS can remain separate in its own partition.

These partitions can be created by Windows in most cases, but I prefer the versatility of a partition management program such as Acronis Disk Director. The OS partition is the only primary partition, with the remaining partitions consisting of logical drives in a secondary partition. A typical partition set for a Windows 7 computer with a 1 TB hard drive might be:

120 GB - OS (operating system and drivers only; no programs installed here if possible)
50 GB - APPS1 (utility and system programs, like firewalls, anti-virus, anti-malware and browsers)
22 GB - GAMES (games)
50 GB - APPS2 (office and productivity applications, including email clients and financial apps)
100 GB - DATA (user data, such as documents, email, photos, source audio / video files and config files)
50 GB - APPS3 (mapping and misc. applications)
50 GB - APPS4 (multimedia applications, like photo / audio / video editors, scanning and VoIP software)
477 GB - LOCAL (scratch or working partition, for work in progress or temporary backup storage)

I never store anything in the My Documents folder created by Windows, as it is on the OS partition. I instead create folders in each partition to help organize files and programs, so I can avoid having to resort to using search to find things. If a desktop computer can accommodate it, I always install a second physical hard drive in the case for low-cost backup storage. For laptops and small desktops, I provide a dedicated external hard drive (eSATA or USB 3.0 preferred) for backup files. To protect my most sensitive personal and financial files, I never store them on a computer, but instead keep them on a hardware-encrypted external USB hard drive.

I also configure my computer and home network for maximum security. All security functions available in your router should be enabled. I configure my network's router for strong wireless security, and prefer to use a wired connection when possible. I don't allow sharing of drives or resources on my computers, but instead use stand-alone network drives to share files and network printers to share printing capabilities. Each computer runs a software firewall (I like ZoneAlarm), an antivirus and several anti-malware programs. I try to keep the cabling between my computer and network devices neat and labeled. It is often good to add an additional fan to some computers for improved cooling. I've found placing a laptop on a laptop cooler allows better airflow to the bottom and keeps it cooler (even without running the extra fans). I run my primary desktop computer on a low-cost UPS (uninterruptable power supply), so if the power goes out while computing, I have extra time to shut down properly and avoid data loss.

If you use computers long enough, you will have a hardware failure, the most common and devastating of which is a hard drive failure. To avoid the loss of my data, I make reliable backups of my computers as often as is reasonable.

Only you can decide how often your backups should be made, based on how much data you want to gamble with. Backing up more often puts less of your recent data at risk, but is less convenient and takes time. It is easier to strike a reasonable balance between risk and time with your hard drive partitioned and segregated.

You can back up the more critical user data partition more often than the others, and with only user data in it, the backup file is created much faster. All partitions should be backed up periodically, and it often helps to label the backup files you make with source and date in the file name, and to maintain a backup log (text file).

If a computer hard drive fails, I want to be able to put in a new drive and be running again as soon as possible, with minimal data loss. To do that, I make image backups of each hard drive partition, rather than simply copy the files. There are several backup applications that can do this; the one I prefer is Acronis True Image. I make my partition image backups on the second internal hard drive or the external hard drive, so a hard drive failure does not result in the loss of my backups along with the primary data. I only make my backups while running the bootable CD version of True Image, so that I am familiar with the program when tragedy strikes. If a primary hard drive fails, I can replace the drive in my computer, boot from the Acronis True Image CD and restore all primary drive partitions from the backup files on the secondary or external drive to the new drive. I might have lost a few of my most recent files (created since the last backup was made), but I can be running again the same day.

I also like to make backups of the OS and application partitions right before installing new programs. If I don't like a program soon after installing, I'll simply restore the OS and application partition with the last backup files made, sending my computer back in time to a point before the installation. I like this better than using any of the uninstall methods, which often leave behind files and registry entries to clutter my drives and slow performance.

It is a good idea to periodically transfer backup files to external drives or other removable media, in case a computer power supply failure takes out both internal physical drives. Transferring these backups to another physical location (perhaps at least once a year) provides cheap protection for your data should your computer be stolen or you lose your home from fire or other disaster.

For protection of my most sensitive financial files stored on a small external hard drive, I maintain another two identical drives as backups. I copy the new files to these backup drives weekly, and store them in a fire safe or off site. To insure adequate backups, it is best to develop a schedule for making each of your backup types and stick with it.

The final piece of the computer maintenance puzzle is cleanup. This involves the periodic maintenance required to insure your computer continues to run safely and efficiently. Just as with backups, you should establish a schedule to follow to insure the proper maintenance is performed. Most of the required maintenance is done to the computer software, but there are also a few hardware maintenance items that should not be neglected.

To protect your computer from the external threats of viruses, spyware and other malware, the installation of good antivirus and anti-malware software is required. Although it seems the risk from viruses has diminished, running antivirus software and keeping its virus signatures updated is still important. Only one antivirus program should be installed on a PC, as conflicts can result from multiple programs. There are many good programs to choose from, some of which are free. I presently use the one that comes with ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite.

There are also plenty of choices available for anti-malware software, with many excellent ones available for free non-commercial use. More is better with anti-malware software. Since they typically don't run in the background, many different programs can be installed and used separately without conflicts. Since some work better on different threats than others, having a variety of anti-malware programs in your arsenal will provide the best detection and elimination of these threats. It is best to update your threat definitions and run your antivirus and anti-malware software at least once a week, preferably on a set schedule. I presently run Webroot Spy Sweeper, Safer Networking Spybot - Search & Destroy, Lavasoft Ad-Aware, Malwarebytes Anti-Malware and Microsoft Windows Defender.

Your computer is like a living organism that starts out quick and vibrant, but becomes slow and develops ailments with age and use. The OS, applications and hard drive storage combine to form something like a nervous system. To detect and prevent the equivalent of computer headaches, nervous breakdowns and Alzheimer, some basic system maintenance should be performed regularly. Your hard drives should be scanned for bad sectors and other drive errors and defragmented periodically. Operating system updates should be applied as they become available, to improve operation and close security holes. As your computer gets older and slower, running a registry cleaner or PC tune-up suite can clean out your OS and improve performance. Ultimately, however, your computer may reach the point after a few years where “the body is willing but the mind is weak." If your hardware is too good to replace but performance has been greatly diminished, a computer reincarnation may be appropriate. If you partitioned your hard drive as I described and have kept your early backup files, you can restore your computer's performance to its early days with no more effort than would be required to set up a new computer.

To give your computer a second life, simply restore your OS and all application (non-data) partitions, using backup files created soon after you got the PC. Having a backup log to refer to will help you pick a point in time that will minimize the reinstallation of applications. Your data should remain on its partition unaltered.

After restoring, you will need to apply all OS updates since that backup time and reinstall applications added since, but you will soon be running again with a computer that feels much younger. You can also use this opportunity to upgrade to a larger hard drive with little extra effort.

The final cleanup item to remember is your computer hardware. All computers should be opened up periodically so that dust can be vacuumed out or blown out with canned air. This also applies to laptops, though you may want to avoid disassembly, and only blow air into ventilation inlets and outlets. This will help your computer keep its cool and last much longer.

By following the three “ups” of computer maintenance, setup, backup and cleanup, you can keep your computer's performance at maximum with a minimum of effort, while protecting your data, finances and identity. By using a regular schedule of maintenance, little bits of time over its useful life spent taking care of your computer can keep it out of intensive care. Better Ups than OOPS.

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