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Bill's PC information

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Last modified on Sunday, March 30, 2003.

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The following represents a huge amount of work on my part that I have brought together because I care. Please feel free to read, understand, and refer others, but I do claim copyright on all of it and request that you get my written permission before making copies for any use. I envision this as an evolving source of information. Please email me with any criticism and or suggestions. Thank you. Bill

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Introduction

I built a PC for a savvy host computer guru who knows little about PCs. He was really pleased at how well his PC worked with it flying compared to his early IBM PC clone. After six months he brought back this PC barely running. He could not understand why it went from working so wonderful to just plain terrible. The problem was he just did not understand the key to system performance is in the hands of the PC user. Knowing some fairly simple things will avoid a lot of frustration and help keep your PC working efficiently. Frankly, I have been buried by friends and clients with similar problems, so decided to prepare these web pages to improve PC understanding and avoid similar problems.

I consistently see the same ignorance caused problems with backups, drivers, garbage files, and automatic applications. People get so used to their PCs being reliable that they fail to regularly back up then get burned badly when the inevitable hardware failure occurs. They also tend to load lots of programs without being aware they are also reloading driver files that are often incompatible with their sound, video, printing, and even disk drives. They, particularly Internet users, tend to let their storage fill up until their PC will not work. Finally, there seems to be more and more things running and everything runs slow. It only takes a few minutes to understand what causes these problems and what you need to do to avoid them.

Backups

PCs are not solid state electronics like desktop solar calculators that could potentially last generations without ever having a single error. They are instead complex electromechanical magnetic marvels that push the state of the art in terms of speed and capacity all the time. Every moving part in a PC from the keyboard to the hard drives, floppy drives, and even CD ROM drives have limited life cycles. The mean time before failure (MTBF) on hard drives where most information is stored is often about three years. In simple terms, this means that roughly one in ten drives are going to fail within the first year and nine out of ten will be dead within five years. When the drive fails all is lost except what you have backed up.

You also need to know that just because you back up religiously, does not mean that your information is safe. If your backup is with your PC and both get stolen, it is of no value. Likewise, if you backup to the same media all the time, chances are that it will not work when you need it. Unless magnetic media is refreshed regularly, the magnetic spots simply tire and evaporate within two to four years. Worse, tapes and floppy disks have read/write heads that touch the media surface causing wear. You can only use the same diskette or tape so many times before the coating is so far gone that the data vanishes within a matter of days. Most government agencies that have long term systems and records use regular programs to recopy information onto new media every few years.

Personally, I use a multiple level backup process:
  1. I purchased a current copy of Symantec's Norton System Works (utilities). Right after I got my basic system loaded, I used their Ghost program to make myself a CD on my CD burner along with a floppy disk. That image will let me quickly and totally reload my basic system with all of its specific hardware drivers.

  2. I use the Microsoft task scheduler to weekly run a simple bat file that uses the XCOPY32 command to copy my main hard drive to a second drive replacing all changed files. With the cost of drives so low today, not doing this is stupid compared to the dozens of hours of my time it takes to reload a system.

  3. I also have a removable hard drive that I keep off site in my desk drawer at work and try to update it every few months.

  4. Finally, I also have a special arrangement with my Internet Service Provider (ISP) to have extra storage to save key files where I can get at them from where ever I may travel. I keep my Favorites there.

  5. In addition to systems backup, I also set up my applications including Microsoft spreadsheet, word processor, and presentation packages to automatically make backup files every ten minutes.

  6. I also have slowly trained myself to do a save every once in a while, just in case.

Remember it is not the cost of the equipment, but your lost time and revenues that are at risk, and the odds are 100% that you will eventually have a major PC failure losing all.

I have never forgotten a sticker I found inside my early Wang office automation system. It said, "This device is equipped with a psychic circuit that will detect the worst possible moment then fail!"

Driver Problems

For a program to work there are a literally thousands of pieces that all have to fall in place. Early PC software makers had to include in their programs an appropriate hardware driver for every different kind of peripherial that could be attached. This took thousands of lines of extra code that most could not use and forced vendors to spend many person years writing all these drivers and testing them in every possible configuration. Few were ever successful and it became common practice to just release new products and let the customers work out the problems, of which there were many.

The reason Bill Gates is the richest man on the planet is he was smart enough to realize the key to solving this problem was standardization. He built MS-DOS (MicroSoft Disk Operating System) to provide a standard interface. Any hardware firm that wanted to sell a new device had to provide a standard MS DOS driver to talk with that device. As a result, software firms could get out of the device driver business and refocus on building better and better quality programs. This quickly let the IBM PC compatible systems have by far the richest library of software that was the most reliable, easiest to use, and far less expensive. Customers were more than willing to pay less for a better product. Within five years Microsoft owned the whole PC market and these tools were easy enough for almost all to use, so the PC market exploded from a few thousand to hundreds of millions.

As the PC industry matured, new hardware also had to come with special software drivers or "applets" to support things like playing music, showing pictures, allowing animation, etc. A rich set of these software drivers cuts the overhead to build a new program by as much as 80%. Other PC software makers could either adopt the same standard, or spend far more and much longer to produce a product that will not be cost competitive. Almost all joined forces using the same standards.

Microsoft has made using these standards relatively easy, but still leaves new software creators in a bind. The competition for the billions of dollars PC customers spend is far beyond fierce. Any software product that comes out too late to capture market share rarely is successful. Likewise, any company whose programs get a reputation for not working, often suffers an early demise. With competition so fierce and time to market so critical, vendors must use the latest software drivers. Vendors know that most customers don't have a clue as to what is meant by driver, let alone that there is a difference between hardware and software drivers. Their solution is to install the latest set of standard drivers automatically when loading their new program. They do so without either asking or telling you. After all, the average PC user only wants the $#@*&^ thing to work.

Although this is great if you are loading a new program, it makes for big problems when you are loading an old program. That same favorite game or program that has always worked perfectly before, suddenly becomes your worst nightmare three years later. Most, including me, get caught by an old program. Often there is no clue as to what happened or even when, let alone what you are going to have to do to make repair. All most see is that suddenly one or more things that have always worked before either run terribly or not at all.

Finding the problem is near impossible, even if your problem occurs during loading the offending program. It is difficult to distrust your favorite program that has always loaded and worked perfectly in the past. I have seen more than one PC store make hay out of this dilemma convincing the customer it is a serious hardware problem requiring major upgrade, system replacement, or expensive full software reload forcing you to start all over. None is attractive.

Most PCs I see have older versions of software drivers for almost all of their sound, video and even CD ROM functions. A few out of date drivers just will not work at all. Even Microsoft is unwilling to admit how rapidly these software drivers change. They do not want their customers in the business, nor should customers be in this business of doing software driver updates. The Microsoft solution starting with Win95B is a warning message that an older file is trying to replace a newer. Your response should be to never allow an older file to replace a newer. Win95, in spite of all its bad press, is an incredibly good program and keeps itself running by going back to the original generic drivers which work on most everything but are real slow.

Simply loading your software from oldest to newest, will self cure most of these problems but not all. On the system that inspired me to put up this page I ended up having to reload Win95, reload the four major patches released by Microsoft, then load up my lastest Microsoft multimedia CD ROMs to fix the software drivers.

File Problems

Error Files: Error files mostly come from your doing improper shut down of your PC. The only way to avoid error files being created during turning off your PC is to always use the Start then Shut Down buttons. The reason for this is part of how your PC works. Windows tries to run all from memory to optimize performance because memory is thousands of times faster than hard disk. Unfortunately, there is not enough memory, so your PC stores part of each file in use in memory with the rest of the file on hard disk. Turning power off, pressing the reset button, or rebooting with a double ctrl alt delete, instantly clobbers the memory portion and leaves an incomplete file piece on disk.

These incomplete pieces are found on your next startup when your system checks its file directories. It asks to run ScanDisk that will turn those file pieces into files. The corrected error files created by Scan Disk are stored in C:\ known as the root directory and are named "FILEXXXX.CHK" where XXXX is a sequential number. The good news is that Win95 only runs from copies of program files, so all you may lose is the working copies of your data or document that you were working upon. Most of these FILEXXXX.CHK can be erased with no problem. Never bypass a system request upon startup to run Scan Disk or your file problems will rapidly compound. I setup my scheduler to run a full Symantec Disk Doctor (or Windows SCANDISK) once a month.

Garbage Files: Most PCs that I see from friends with poor performance suffer from having huge numbers of temporary files, lots of saved files in their trashcans, and from a failure to do regular disk defragging. Realize that the different versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system each do a full directory scan on startup, so the more file and pieces of files you have on your PC, the slower it will start.

Your PC will build up all kinds of extra files just doing normal things. The extra files include many Recycle, Temp, and Temporary Internet Files. The c:\windows\temp folder is where many programs put temporary files used during loading new programs and uncompressing files. The files in this directory need cleaned out depending upon how much software you are loading. Additionally, the way that both MS Internet Explorer and Netscape browsers work is they save in temporary areas work files for every site, file, picture, piece of music, and all else you see or hear from the Internet. These all land in the c:\windows\temporary internet files folder and subfolders under that folder. They also save the addresses of each site you visit in the c:\windows\history and the c:\windows\recent folders. There are a few files that can not be erased and must be ignored, but all else needs cleaned out regularly.

These folders must be regularly cleaned out. I also clean out the directory as it contains the addresses of any files or pics that I have looked at on the net recently. Some of the sites I visit put up pictures not suitable for my kids. *blush*

A closely related problem is PC lockup during use of the Internet. To keep rapid access to all you have visited during an Internet session, your PC keeps all these files, pictures, and text as open files, each taking both hard disk and a tiny piece of memory. In as little as two hours of heavy surfing or visiting in a chat room you can fill your PC memory and cause your PC to lock up. The fix is to watch system performance and when it lags, you proactively do a system restart and file cleaning instead of crashing.

Some people also recommend cleaning out the c:\windows\cookies subdirectory, I did for a while, but found these files were taking no real space, and without them, I had trouble logging into places like MS and Symantec for my software updates. These cookies are used for identification and I quickly tired of having to fill out a mess of forms before being able to download updates.

I have also found that when my history file grows real large, my system startup is slower than molasses. I think, that what is happening is that the start-up is going through these addresses in expectation of firing up the Internet.

I do my erasing by going into the desired directory then using the EDIT command from the top menu bar to select all files, followed by using delete from the FILE command. You can also clean out the Internet History File directory from within MS Internet Explorer by selecting View, Options, Navigation, then selecting clear history.

After you delete all this stuff it is still not gone! You then need to go into your main page and empty the recycle bin using a right mouse click. Regularly emptying the recycle bin is needed or it quickly gets huge.

Cleaning out all this stuff is a pain, so I wrote a quick bat file to do the work for me on starup. You can also put it into the autoexec.bat to make it run on startup every time your PC is turned on. Or you can put it in the root and execute it with a Start then run. It will not have access to any open folders, so running in Autoexec.bat is better. Regardless of where you put it will have to answer Y to each of the are you sure on the delete/erase questions. This is what I use:

C: CD \
CD C:\WINDOWS\TEMP
ERASE *.*
CD C:\WINDOWS\HISTORY
ERASE *.*
CD C:\WINDOWS\RECENT
ERASE *.*
CD \
DELTREE C:\WINDOWS\TEMPOR~1
EXIT

You can also add the RECYCLE folder to this list, but if you do, you lose the ability to recover files after you turn off your PC. I choose not to have it in my bat file and still clear my recycle bin by hand every week or so. It has saved me more than once!

Defrag You also need to realize that all these little file pieces use up parts of your hard drive, then when they are erased they leave little empty spaces. Windows likes to have enough room to write a whole file at once. Writing in pieces is very slow and can quickly wear out a hard drive. Windows comes with a utility knows as defrag to address this problem of consolidating space. You run it by selecting Start, Programs, Applications, System Tools, the Defrag. I recommend you do a defrag at least once a month. Moreover, I also recommend you add more hard disk whenever you go below about 200 Megabytes of free space.

Startup applications: Many of today's programs ask you if they may automatically start. You should always say no! If you do not, you will soon have so much running and filling your limited memory, that your system performance will either be really slow or just plain die altogether. A single ctrl alt delete will show you all the programs you are running at any given time. Just after startup before you run anything else, there should only be about six or seven, all from Win95 and perhaps from Symantec or a screen saver. If you have many more than this there is a problem.

These auto start files are launched from the c:\windows\startup\programs\start files directory and any scheduler you have running plus from the WIN.INI, WINDOWS.INI, SYSTEM.INI, and windows registry files. It is easy to delete the programs from that start up folder and your scheduler, but finding the others can often stump the experts. This is why you should always say no, as it is easy for you to add what you want into the startup folder later.

Spyware: Spyware is a special class of programs that automatically start. Vendors slip spyware onto our PCs when we visit certain Internet sites, when we load many different programs both free and commercial, and when we get certain emails. The early spyware was limited to cookies that kept a little information so that when we revisited a web page we did not have to enter a bunch of stuff again. More current spyware sits quietly using almost no resources to track our behavior, what web pages we visit, and what email advertisements we open so vendors can better target their advertising campaigns to increase their chances of reaching us with something we will look at. Unfortunately, many vendors of spyware have gotten completely out of line and a few of the unscrupulous have modified spyware to track our every keystroke to enable them to steal passwords, credit cards, etc. It was at one time near impossible to even find out if spyware was running on our PCs. Lavasoft came out with AdAware that runs and finds sneaky spyware and lets you delete if from your PC. Spybot did a far better job and permits you to find, remove, and block discovered spyware programs. Click here to get a free (donation requested) version of Spybot. I setup my Spybot program to constantly monitor and do a full scan weekly.

SPAM: SPAM is the term used to describe the untold volumes of garbage email that comes unsolicited from vendors in droves. If you don't regularly clean this junk out of your inbox and deleted files mail boxes, it will quickly overwhelm your PC causing it to slow markedly and to rapidly run out of available disk space. Some SPAM email is actually a way for unscrupulous individuals and vendors to slip spyware onto our machines or to spread viruses. There are a number of new SPAM programs being developed, but the state of the art is at best still deplorable. Often using a SPAM killer takes longer and is more trouble than just deleting the emails ourselves.

If you use Microsoft Outlook Express, you can actually block the folks that hit you most often. This is not too hard, but does take a little work, and understanding what is going on helps a bunch in your blocking efforts.

Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who host our web pages and that we use with either a modem, DSL, or cable connection to access the Internet hate SPAM senders even more than we do. SPAM ties up their limited resources, storage, and greatly slows down performance for their customers. As a result, most ISPs actively get rid of any customer who uses their servers to send SPAM. To keep from losing their Internet connections, many who do advertising by email have turned to some pretty nasty ploys. They use hacker software to trick other people's computers and servers to do the mail sending while they stay anonymous.

Each email sender has a name that we can read in English, and they have what is called their IP that is short for their Internet Protocol ID. The IP is made up of four groups of numbers, each up to three numbers long, separated by periods. It is pretty easy to block or change the name used to actually send you an email, but your email program will not accept any email unless it is coming from a valid IP address. That IP may not be the person who sends you the email, but instead the ISP server that the email sender tricked into sending you the mail. Most reputable ISPs have long since put up firewalls and other tools to keep their systems from being misused to send garbage emails. That means that the odds are near 100% that the IP that sends you a piece of garbage email, SPAM in other words, is one you can safely block

Microsoft Outlook Express mail program lets you automatically send to the delete box an individual, group, or specific IP address. I found blocking an individual by name did no good at all as SPAM senders change names with every mailing. Blocking a group such as "AOL.com" cost me too many friends. But, blocking an IP really works well as there are not that many servers being misused to send all the SPAM. In a week of diligent and somewhat hard work, I reduced my number of SPAM emails from over a hundred a day in my inbox to less than a dozen. To do so:

  1. Start by right clicking on an offensive email in your inbox, then selecting properties, then pick the detail tab. Now paint with your mouse and copy the from IP address that is usually at the end of the second or third line (don't copy your own IP!).

  2. Close that properties window and go to Tools, Message Rules, Blocked sender's list, and select Add. Do a paste of the IP you got in the prior step making sure you delete off any spaces or the [] square brackets that surround that IP in the properties. Click Ok and then OK again to close that window.

That's all there really is to it, and as awkward as seems, after the first few hundred, you will find yourself only doing a few of these a day. All that garbage email ends up in my delete folder. I scan it briefly and wipe it out. In a few cases I put an IP that I really did want to see email from, and just went back and deleted it from that list of blocked IPs.

RESTORE WINDOWs

Even with all the best care in the world you may need to rebuild your system due to a virus, dead hard drive, or even getting badly hacked when surfing the net.

Most of the time I have been able to do a recovery by reloading Windows over the top of the prior copy. Sometime, even this will not work and you have to go all the way back clearing the hard drive with FISK, FORMAT, and reload from scratch.

If I was brilliant, my backups already include a Symantec Ghost image of my basic hard drive making a reload easy. All I need to do is insert my boot floppy and the Ghost CD I made.

When I am remiss or end up helping a friend who did not do that, I first try to do a simple restore of Windows. Just put in the original Windows CD and click on setup selecting ALL standard options. (the only exception is the modem communications stuff) After the Windows reloads there are additional things which you need to do.

  1. I then update my motherboard drivers following the instructions from either their provided disk or more than likely updates from their web site.

  2. I always then go to the www.Microsoft.com web page and run their update check to ensure all the latest service packs and updates are loaded on my PC. One of the options on that page that I always enable is to have my PC automatically regularly check to see if there are any needed updates. Without these updates, the PC is wide open to viruses and other attacks. After running some of the patch files you must restart your PC before running the next patch. Clearly frustrating, but still far better than having my system clobbered

  3. I then reload my custom drivers and/or MS Internet Explorer that may have been trashed. I am finding that about every three or four months I have to reload MS IE and about every six or so months Win95. The reason is not because these products are unstable, but because I get hacked or whacked by someone from the Internet that screws up settings I can not otherwise change back.

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