Friday, October 29, 2010

Sluggish PC? NY Times Personal Tech Recommendations 10-28-10

If it gets too fat, you know what will happen ...
I like the Personal Tech pages within the Business section of the NY Times which appears on Thursdays -- generally they report on new, gadgety stuff -- and they clue you in to new products and possibilities you may not be aware of.

Today, though, I was  a little disappointed. In an article titled "Limber Up Your Sluggish PC", they were fairly confusing in their presentation of steps and solutions to the problem.  Several times the article states that all of the tools you need to speed up or fix your PC come with the the Operating System.

That's just not true. Some of the tools do. You can defragment, clean out excess files, and remove unneeded programs, but you can't fix your registry, remove the remains of old programs and registry entries that the PC doesn't recognize. There are 3rd party programs that do that.

I get the feeling that the author didn't understand some of what she was writing about. Too bad, because there are easy and quick things you can do to speed up you computer, some that cost no money, and some that don't cost an arm and a leg, and that'll make you think you bought a new PC.

I'm going to go over some of the points brought up in the Times article and try to straighten them out.

First the author talks about free and for-pay services such as are available from Staples and Best Buy. Staples' service is free -- you go there and they run some tools they license from Symantec/Norton -- and this is the quote from Staples' description of their free PC Tuneup:

"We'll boost the speed and performance of your PC by removing trial ware, adjusting key settings that may be slowing it down, and disk defragmentation and cleanup. When done in store, a PC Tune up also includes removal of dust and dirt buildup." They may do more than that, but that's all they own up to on the website.

They'll do the same thing at your home for 60 bucks, and remotely for $25.

The free service is not a bad deal, free doesn't cost you anything, nor are the other, for-pay services, either.

Per the description, anyway, Best Buy's Geek Squad service, computer Tune-Up at $50 online, or $40 in store (In-Home is N/A), seems to be more thorough.

It includes those items the free Staples Tuneup mentions, and also the creation of additional acounts, Windows updates, program shortcut (Desktop Icon) creation, Quick Launch and Taskbar Cleanup , Menu Navigation cleanup, and Startup and Shutdown Optimization, as well as making sure Security is enabled in both Windows and Internet Explorer. The do some sort of test and verify of hardware and software. You get what you pay for I guess -- you pay nothing for the Staples Tuneup, remember.

So the upshot is the Staples Tuneup is insufficent since it won't take care of the the above and following things

Most PCs that have been run for a while not only have Trial Ware, dead ended Registry Settings, Fragmentation, and a Cluttered Disk, but also weird and useless startup programs that sap CPU horsepower, duplicate and obsolete data which is the big disk hog, and maybe some level of infection and/or improper security software installation. These all need tech and user collaboration to resolve and while some may be caught by the free service; I doubt they all will.

The Geek Squad Tuneup should take care of all of the things listed above, and it may be worth your while to dump the problem on them, if you are at all uncertain about what to do.

Also you can set up a modern PC running Vista or Win7 to defragment itself when you are not using it. Just place your mouse cursor on open DeskTop background and hit the F1 key, and then in the search window type in "defragment" choose your solution, and follow the instructions on how to set up a schedule.

Not mentioned in the Times article, but important to note is the fact that hard disks are cheap these days -- I've seen 1000 GB (1 TB) disks advertised for 60 bucks. How easy is it to just upgrade to a bigger, faster disk, if too much useful data is your problem? See my prior articles on disk cloning -- you can clone your old disk to your new disk, and go from a 250 GB disk to a 1000 GB disk in under an afternoon. You can put a lot of movies on that extra 750 GB. Bigger hard disks with more free space defragment faster, too, and are easier to keep unfragmented. Anybody pushing the limit on his/her (I do dislike saying they as a singular pronoun) hard drive and not wanting to delete precious data and programs should not fear upgrading to a bigger and faster disk.

The Times article does mention a very nice program whose most apparently nice feature is that it shows you how much of your hard drive is committed to to certain file types, the utility. Download it and install it from the preceding link and you will see that if you have, say, 650 GB of mkv, wmv, avi, mov, and jpg files, which are all Video and Picture files, and only 100 GB left on your 1000 GB disk, you may want a bigger, or additional hard disk.

OK then. Do all of the recommended things for your PC.

Make sure you have an up-to date Anti Virus Program installed, such as Norton 360 V4 or Anti Virus 2011. 360 will clean up your registry. Or AVG Free, or Avira Free, or Avast Free. All are good. Or have Staples or the Geek Squad do it. Clean out all those old and duplicated files and programs. Get rid of all of those little helper programs that are supposed to start up with your computer and monitor something that you don't care about and never use. In Vista and Win7 go to the Control Panel and click on the Programs entry and go down the list of installed software -- I'm sure you will recognize a bunch of stuff you do not need!

One bad recommendation or at least misleading is the suggestion that using a stripped down alternative Media Player such as VLC instead of Window's own Windows Media Player will somehow save you disk space. Guys! The space is really taken up by the data files, that is, the movies, and you are not going to uninstall Windows Media Player from your system. Give me a break!

Also, let's be clear, it is not true that the biggest culprit in slowing down our computers is our insistence on new and bigger versions of our favorite software, although that doesn't help. The real problem is our insistence on installing all kinds of useless and sometimes conflicting, and sometimes even malevolent software on the fly.

We see some taskbar utility mentioned as we are cruising the internet, or decide our machine needs protecting from something, and on a regular basis, and without real vetting of the program or attention to how much other garbage we have already installed, happily add the Solar System Defense Widget, or the Pound Malware into Submission Widget, from a really cool Ukrainian website, to our Taskbar alongside the 26 other widgets we have installed over the last 11 months.

OK. I'm exaggerating. But not by much.

And we wonder why our computers are slow!


PS Take a look at your Taskbar's System Tray -- how much of that stuff do you really use?

Hey! It's just common sense!

PPS Casper 5 is now Casper 6 -- the article above is 2 years old -- but the link above will still take you to Casper and  disk cloning is still a good idea

Photo Credits: 
Exploding PC is from various sites

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How Do You Feel About Your Computer?

Let's find out how you feel about your computer, what worries you about it, and what kind of computer you have.

And whether you should be worried. Or not. How do you feel about buying a new computer?

This is an anonymous survey -- we are not collecting any identifying info to blackmai, ... umm, sell to spam, ... or whatever, for any purpose other than to see what people say.

We are just curious and want to write about what you care about.

Help us collect this information by filling out the following brief survey and we'll post the results after we've collected enough to be interesting!

Email subscribers will not see the survey -- do please click on the following link for the article and survey -- we need you!

Working Computers Survey: How Do You Feel About Your computer?



Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Is My Computer OK? Or, How To Monitor What It's Doing Part 2 of 3

Now we get to the fun stuff related to How To Monitor If Your Computer's OK.

We learned in Part 1 how to monitor the amount of work the CPU is doing and how hot it's getting by doing that work. Now we're going to find out what programs (and their processes) are using most of the CPU time and causing all of that heat.

Top Process Gadget (TPG) To Monitor Computer Processes 

In Windows 7 and Vista, as well as other older versions, there is a program called the Task Manager which can show us the programs that are running, the specific processes those programs run, and which are the busiest, and it's very useful, but it's big and a little clumsy to have up on the Desktop all of the time for monitoring purposes, so we will use instead the Top Process Gadget, which displays that information in an abbreviated form.

Top Process Gadget
Showing Process/CPU Usage.
Memory Usage,
Process Disk I/O

In the top box of the 3 above in Top Process Gadget, you can see what I have been talking about. Since I am very busy with my Web Browser, Chrome, in this case, and have many, many windows and tabs open, while I write this stuff and gather info and pics to entertain, umm, educate, Chrome is indeed the busiest program with the busiest processes on my computer at the moment.

Now, what if the process using all of my CPU time was instead "RussianTrojanCreditCardScam.exe" you can imagine I'd want to know that, too. So I could kill it, kill it, kill it. Quick. Sadly, such files are not always so helpfully named, nor do they necessarily use the most CPU time. However, for that you can use Task Manager, and you may see bursts of activity. Anyway, that's for another post.

But let's say Picasa, or some other program, maybe Internet Explorer, is using lots of the CPU, but you are not using one of them. You can close or kill the rogue if it will not close by itself. It may have gotten off track, gone into a funk, or developed a memory leak, and it needs to die. That you can use Task Manager for.
Right click on the Taskbar at the bottom of your screen and select Task Manager or hit CTL/ALT/DEL and select it, go to Processes, or even better, hit CTL/SHFT/ESC which takes you right to Task Manager, go to the Processes Tab, select the offending process, and left click on the bottom right hand button for "End Process". Follow the dialog for killing the process and confirm.  You may need to investigate further to find out why the program misbehaved, but you may never know. Stuff happens.
What if there is no high CPU usage showing in Top Process Gadget, and no piggy program gathering all of those CPU cycles for itself? Well that's good info too -- if your computer is hot and it's not busy then you may have a fan or ventilation problem. Is the fan making noise; is the computer jammed into a closed space; or did somebody put a poster up against the air intake? Check it out. That grinding noise is probably the exhaust or CPU fan. It's not working. Fix it.

Don't go nuts killing programs left and right. With great power comes great responsibility, and besides, kill the wrong program and you may lose data, or hang, crash or reboot your machine.

But now with Top Process Gadget you have a tool for investigation and monitoring that you can use. It will be up on your screen all of the time and you will be able to look at it while you work. You can learn what processes run on a regular basis and be sensitive to departures from normal behavior.

There are a lot of options for the Top Process Gadget which I will not go into here, but rather encourage you to investigate on your own at the TPG website. You can have, as I do in the screen shot above, 3 instances showing different, but related info. I recommend that you install it from the link provided.

I will close out this 2nd part of "Is My Computer OK" and how to know what it's doing and Deal With It, and next time in Part 3 talk about the Network Meter Gadget and the Control System Gadget, which will cover shutting down your system when you can't get to the shutdown menu, and finding out what's going on with your internet/network connection, and also take a quick look at a couple of for-pay gadgets that tell you much more (than you wanted to know, maybe).

And, just for fun, although it's really useful, too, Real Time Traffic info for your Desktop! 

Don't Leave Home Without Looking At It!


Monday, October 18, 2010

Is My Computer OK? Or, How To Monitor What It's Doing Part 1 of 3

Is My Computer OK? How To Monitor How It's Doing
It was just running a little hot, and then, well ...

Is Your Computer OK? How To Monitor How and What It's Doing

Is your computer OK or is it too hot??? Why is it doing that? How would you know? If you are like most people you don't pay much attention to your computer. At least, you don't until you notice it doing something out of the ordinary. Oh, like, say, making awful grinding noises, rebooting every 10 minutes, or popping up demands to give your credit card info to fake Russian anti-virus software vendors who will (yeah, right) then clean your machine for you. That'll get your attention!

There's lots of other bad stuff, too, that can happen to your computer. Wouldn't it be better to get some inkling of the illness before you're at last rites, or need to call in a pro? Wouldn't it be better to monitor what's happening?

OK, it's not a trick question. The answer is YES, it would be better to know how your computer is doing. And how might that be accomplished, you ask? Well, in lots of ways.

How To Monitor What Your Computer's Doing

Most of us are familiar with machinery that has status indicators of various types -- your car has a speedometer, maybe a tachometer, oil and water temp gauges or lights, and so on. You want to know how fast you are going, if you are overheating, and the like. You can add similar "gauges" to your computer's desktop. In Vista, they are called Sidebar Gadgets, and in Windows 7, just plain Gadgets. The same gadgets work with Vista and Windows 7.

By default in Vista and 7, you get a couple of Gadgets on your computer desktop, including a Clock, a Calendar, and a Slideshow Picture Viewer, and in Vista they open and close together by running a program called the Sidebar which lines them all up on the lefthand side of your screen. In 7 they don't explicitly run from the Sidebar program. They're nice, but they do not tell you what's going on in your computer -- you can get more gadgets, however, that do.

Plug and Play Computer Tachometer
You just plug it in!  
In Windows 7, you just right click with the mouse on open desktop and select the Gadgets item, which will open the Gadgets Window for Gadgets already installed on your computer, but not on your Desktop. Check them out. You may like one or two.

In Vista, you take your cursor to the top right of the screen, at the top of the Sidebar, and there is a little widget with a "plus" sign and right and left "arrows". Double left mouse click on the "plus" sign and your Gadgets Window will appear.

To get more Gadgets, and get the ones we are talking about here, click on the "Get More Gadgets Online" link in the bottom right hand corner of the Gadgets Window, or go to the Windows Live Gallery. Both have a lot of the same Gadgets, and are Microsoft sites, but will caution you that not all the Gadgets have been tested. YMMV and UAYOR. Your mileage may vary and use at your own risk.

That said, I have used the ones I am going to recommend to monitor your computer's health and haven't been bitten.

I am also going to give you links directly to the developer's site for ease of downloading, although you are welcome to go dig them up on the Gallery site.

How Hard Is Your Computer Working?

The First Gadget, All CPU Meter, which tells you how hard is your computer working (on all of its cores, be they one or more):

Go to, which has some really cool and useful gadgets, including:

How hard is Your Computer Working: All CPU Meter
All CPU Meter version 3.3 as of this writing.

You can download from the links at the bottom of the page linked to above.

As you can see it gives you a lot of useful info about what your computer's CPU is doing, including:
  • How Hard It Is Working in percentages and activity slider bar by Core and Thread
  • How Much Ram is Used and Free
  • What Your Processor Is and Its Speed and Particulars
  • A Visual Log of Activity by Graph
  • Temperature of Each Core ( if you also install CoreTemp per the links above)
OK, this is really important stuff. Assuming you pay attention to what this Gadget is telling you, you will see, over the first few days after you install it, just what the normal activity of you computer is and how HOT it gets when you are using it for common tasks. From this, you'll start to know what is OK for your computer.

Frankly, the CPU in the photo above is running pretty hot for the minimal work it is doing, 54% of max for 1 core and about 25% or less for the rest, which in my opinion should leave the CPU in the 40 to 50C range with decent cooling and a well-ventilated location. Anyway ...

OK, you say, how are you supposed to know that? What is too hot and what is not? Well, at first, you won't. But you can play with the computer, see what temperatures it displays when it first boots and is cool and what temps it stabilizes at under load. See what happens when you pull the poor computer out from the wall under the desk and it can finally breathe...

The point is, if and when you think something is wrong with you computer, you will be able to check the load on your computer and its temperature, both useful and critical items in diagnosing fan(s) failure, software issues, or infection.

For example, say your computer is slow to respond, seems sluggish, but you aren't really doing anything with the machine, so what's up? The All CPU Meter Gadget says all of the CPU Cores are busy at 50 to 70% of max and your temps are in the 70C range (fairly high). Something's going on in there. Something to make the machine work very hard, and maybe more than one something.

Next time I'll tell you how to find out what's going on in the example above, but ...

That's enough for now.

Oh, by the way, for you poor orphaned XP users, there are Gadgets available for XP as well, just not from Microsoft, but rather from Google, as a part of Google Desktop. If you are interested, let me know, and I'll do a post about it.

Also, over the next 2 post I'll discuss three more gadgets that monitor what your computer is doing, what your network is doing, and help you get control back if your computer won't respond normally: the Top Process Gadget , the Network Meter Gadget, and the Control System Gadget and why you need them.

Hint: If you can't connect to the internet, what do you do? And, how do you know what program is SLOWING your computer down, or INFECTING it? And, how do you shut your computer down, when you can't get the Taskbar to respond to the mouse?

Stay tuned!


PS: If you want to know more about Gadgets, just put your mouse cursor on open desktop and hit the F1 button -- when the Help window comes up, type "Gadgets" in the Search box and check out the topics

Note Photo of Shish Kebab Computer is out there on various sites
         Photo of USB Tach is c/o
         Photo of All CPU Meter is c/o of

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