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Online PC Repair Guide and PC Manual

A. Introduction

Over the last couple of decades, computers have become an integral, if not indispensable, part of our lives. We use them to create documents, play games and music, research topics of interest on the Internet,communicate with others via email or chat programs, develop a brochure or flyer, and much more.

However, like any other machine, computers need to be maintained, tuned-up, and repaired. For whatever reason – perhaps because we believe them to be more complicated than they really are – we tend not to provide the ongoing maintenance that our computers need. The result? Frustration with a system whose speed has slowed to a mere crawl, expensive repair bills, or the sometimes mistaken belief that the solution to the problem is to buy a new computer.

The purpose of this tutorial is to help you to perform the basic repairs, upgrades, and routine maintenance tasks that will keep your system running smoothly and reliably. Here’s what’s included in this tutorial:

  1. Introduction
  2. Safety
  3. Tools Needed
  4. System Overview
  5. Backing Up Your Data
  6. Hard Drive Installation
  7. Hard Drive Maintenance Procedures
  8. Upgrading Memory (RAM)
  9. Installing a New Expansion Card
  10. Updating Device Drivers
  11. Speeding Up Your Computer
  12. Cleaning Your Computer
  13. Should You Repair or Replace Your Computer?

As you implement some of the above procedures, you’ll come to understand how your system works, how to effect basic repairs, troubleshoot problems, upgrade your hardware, and determine if and when you should replace your system. It’s not just a lot of fun to maintain and repair your own computer; you will also gain confidence and save money as you are transformed from ordinary end user to master of your computer system.

B. Safety 

Repairing your own computer can be great fun, and can save you loads of time and money. But no amount of money saved is worth compromising your safety. Thus, some precautions are in order.

While the focus of this tutorial is on the hardware inside the case, it is worth mentioning that you should never, ever attempt to service a cathode ray tube (CRT)-based monitor (as opposed to the newer flat-panel LCD displays).

A charged cathode ray tube stores a lethal voltage that can electrocute you. Moreover, the vacuum tube itself can implode if broken or punctured, posing another level of risk to you.

There is also a device inside the case that you should not disassemble for servicing purposes: the power supply. The power supply is mounted in the inside corner of the case, and can be easily identified by the bundles of colored wires that are protruding from it. The power supply houses components that also store electrical charges. While it’s perfectly safe for you to work inside the case in the vicinity of the power supply, you should not attempt to repair it. The power supply should be regarded as a ‘black box’; when it fails, replace it.

In terms of your own safety, you should also make sure to turn the power off on the computer and unplug the unit from the electrical outlet. 

There are other safety issues that have less to do with your own safety, and more to do with how you may inadvertently harm some of the components inside your computer. Certain components are highly susceptible to damage caused by electrostatic discharge (ESD), more commonly known as static electricity. While it takes about 3000 volts of static electricity for you to feel the discharge, certain electronic components can be damaged with as few as 30 volts of static discharge.

Two types of damage can occur. A catastrophic failure will damage the component beyond use, while an upset failure can degrade the performance of the component, thus making the problem more difficult to detect.

To protect your computer against ESD damage, you need to ground yourself before touching any electronic components, such as the hard drive, memory modules, processor, motherboard, or expansion cards. This is done using a ground bracelet or static strap, which is a strap you wear around your wrist. The other end of the strap is attached to a grounded conductor, such as the computer case or the ground connector of a wall outlet.

During a repair or upgrade procedure, components that you remove from the computer should be placed in anti-static, or static shielding bags to protect them against the effect of ESD. When you purchase a new device, it will be packaged in this type of bag. Be sure to save the bag. Otherwise these bags can be purchased at your local computer supply store.

Here’s what you need to do to reduce the risk of ESD damage:

  • Wear a ground bracelet
  • As you remove components from the computer, store them in anti-static bags
  • Remove all jewelry
  • If you have long hair, tie it back
  • Wear natural rather than synthetic clothing
  • Work on hard floors rather than carpeted surfaces

Remember, you can’t ‘see’ the damage caused by ESD, so it’s important that you take these safety precautions.

C. Tools Needed

Many computer problems can be diagnosed and repaired with just a few essential tools, which can be easily purchased as a kit at your local computer store. These kits normally include the following items: 

  • Flathead screwdrivers
  • Phillips head screwdrivers
  • Torx screwdrivers (particularly size T15)
  • Insulated tweezers
  • Spring-loaded extractor
  • Chip extractor tool 

The chip extractor tool is one that you will rarely, if ever use, since modern computers incorporate very few field-replaceable integrated circuit (IC) chips. The tweezers and spring-loaded extractor tool are handy for picking up debris or a fallen screw from a tight spot. Various sized screwdrivers are provided to remove internal modules or to remove the case cover itself. Some case covers are designed to be removed without any tools at all.

There are a few other tools that would add to the convenience of your repair procedure:

  • Flashlight
  • Small container or cup to hold loose screws
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Antistatic bags

Your collection of tools should also incorporate some diagnostic and utility software. Some examples of this would be anti-spyware and anti-virus programs, or diagnostic software that may have been included with some purchased or installed hardware, such as a video or sound card.

However, one of your most essential tools for troubleshooting your computer is a bootable rescue disk. This disk will allow for what is called a ‘clean boot’ – that is, any extraneous drivers and software that are normally loaded at startup will not be loaded. It will also allow you to boot up your computer in the event your hard drive fails.

These disks are generally operating-system specific, and may be available in floppy disk format or as a bootable CD ROM. Regardless of media type, an emergency boot disk is usually included with your purchased system. The bottom line is that you need an alternative way of booting your computer if you are not able to boot to the hard drive.

D. System Overview

The modern computer is a sophisticated machine that utilizes both hardware and software to accomplish a given task. While the term ‘hardware’ refers to the computer’s physical components, ‘software’ refers to the set of instructions that controls the hardware 

All computer functions can be categorized as either input, output, processing, or storage. Here are some examples of each:

  • Input: keyboard, mouse
  • Output: monitor, printer
  • Processing: central processing unit (CPU)
  • Storage: hard drive, CD-ROM drive, floppy drive

For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be primarily focusing on the hardware: the case and the components internal to it. Let’s begin with a hardware tour of the computer, beginning with the case, and then having a look inside it:

Case: computer cases come in a variety of styles, the main categories of which are the tower (mini-, mid-, full) and the desktop. 

Power Supply: mounted on the inside corner of the case, the power supply supplies electricity to all of the devices inside the case. It can be identified by the multi-colored wire bundles protruding from it. The power supply poses a safety risk if opened; do not ever attempt to repair it. When it fails, replace it. 

Motherboard: also known as the main board or system board, the motherboard is the largest and most powerful circuit board in the computer. It contains the central processing unit (CPU), expansion cards, memory, and other components.

Random Access Memory (RAM): these small circuit board modules, inserted into dedicated slots on the motherboard, are used to hold data and instructions as they are processed by the CPU.

Storage Devices: used for permanent data storage, they include the floppy drive, hard drive, and CD-ROM drive. 

Expansion Cards: these circuit boards are plugged into slots on the motherboard and are used by the CPU to communicate with devices inside and outside of the case. Examples include the video card, sound card, network interface card, and so forth.

Cables: there are two types of cables inside your computer: data cables, which connect devices to one another (motherboard to the hard drive, for example), and power cables, which supply power. While power cords are small and round, data cables are usually flat and wide. 

Cooling Fan: one of the most critical devices inside the computer is the cooling fan. The primary cooling fan is mounted to the power supply, and serves to keep the power supply from overheating. It also helps to expel warm air from inside the computer. Sometimes the addition of a case-mounted fan is necessary, and some devices, such as the CPU, have their own dedicated cooling fans to keep their operating temperature within an acceptable range.

Before removing the case cover, you’ll need to disconnect all cables and cords from the back of the computer. As you do this, make a note of the different types of connectors, plugs, and jacks that are integrated on the back of the case. The jacks into which the keyboard, mouse, USB printer, and other devices are plugged are generally referred to as ‘ports’, since they provide the communications pathway between devices inside and outside of the computer.

Exercise caution when disconnecting and reconnecting devices to these ports. The plugs are designed to be inserted only one way, so never force them. If you look closely at the shape of both plug and jack, it will be easy to get them properly aligned.

Now that you have an idea about what is inside the case, take a few moments and have a look inside your own system.

A word about case covers. Case design can vary greatly from one manufacturer to another. Some case covers can be removed without any tools at all, while others may take just a single Phillips head screwdriver to remove. Some case covers simply swing open, while others need to be completely removed from the body of the case itself. When the case cover is removed, be sure to note how it fits onto the body of the case so that it is not misaligned when you reinstall it.

Don’t forget to unplug your computer first, and wear your antistatic wrist bracelet. Enjoy your tour!

E. Backing Up Your Data

One very important task that is all too easily overlooked is that of backing up your files. The process of ‘backing up’ your files involves creating copies of your files and storing the copies in a separate location from where the originals are stored.

The files that should be backed up are those files that you create, modify, and store on your computer – files that would be difficult or impossible to replace, and files that you change frequently. This includes such things as photos, music, graphics, videos, documents, data files that you’ve created with any specialized application (such as tax preparation software), and so forth.

In addition to regularly backing up the data files mentioned above, you should also backup your files before making any significant system changes, such as updating drivers, adding new hardware or software, and so forth.

There’s no need to back up software programs because you can use the original application disks to reinstall them.

Why is it important to back up these files? Files can be lost, accidentally overwritten, corrupted by a virus or worm, or rendered inaccessible by virtue of a software or hardware failure, or at its worst, a complete hard drive failure. If any of these situations occurs and your files are backed up, you can easily restore those files. While there are companies devoted to data recovery, the outcome is not guaranteed and the process is very expensive.

Some people back up their files by searching for known files (example: all files with a .doc extension) or by browsing through Windows Explorer and manually selecting each file and folder, and then copying those files to a flash drive, CD, or secondary hard drive. However, this hunt-and-peck method is tedious and time-consuming, and you have to remember to backup all new and modified files and folders.

A far more reliable solution is to use the Backup wizard that is incorporated into the Windows operating system. The exact name of the utility can vary from one version of Windows to another, but it can be readily found through the Control Panel. In Windows Vista, for example, the path would be Start/Control Panel/System and Maintenance/Back Up Your Computer. With the backup utility, you can backup your personal data files, as well programs and system settings.

When using the Backup wizard, there are two approaches to backing up your files: manual backup and automatic backup. You can launch the backup utility any time at your convenience (i.e. ‘manually’), or you can configure your computer to run the utility automatically, at some interval/time that you specify.

When you use the backup wizard, Windows keeps track of which files and folders are new or have been modified. When you make a new backup, you can back up all data files on your computer or only those files that have changed since the last backup. If you configure your computer for automatic backups, Windows will run the backup utility without your intervention (assuming your computer is turned on at the scheduled backup time). Please note that not all versions of Windows provide the option of automatic backup.

The frequency with which you backup your files depends on how many files you create and how often you create them. You can choose to have your files automatically backed up daily, weekly, or monthly. If you create files that are irreplaceable, such as photos from a wedding or other special event, you should manually run the utility and back up the files right away.

With the Backup wizard, you can back up your files to a number of different destinations, including hard drives, writeable CDs and DVDs, and if you’re on a LAN (local area network), to a network destination. If a destination is not listed, you can’t use the utility to back up to it (e.g., you can’t backup to a USB flash drive).

If you choose to backup to a hard drive, that drive can be either internal or external. If you backup to an internal hard drive, it should be a second hard drive, not the same hard drive on which your operating system is installed. Use whatever method that is the most convenient for you to use, as long as it has the storage capacity you need. If you backup to CDs or DVDs, you may need to use several discs. Remember that in this case your computer must have a CD or DVD burner drive.

Another utility available through Control Panel provides the ability to create restore points. This allows you to restore your computer to a previous state in the event that some change that you make, such as adding new or updated drivers, causes your system to become unstable. Your computer will automatically create a restore point at some pre-programmed interval, but you can also manually create a restore point at any time you wish. Just be sure to do it BEFORE you make any system changes to your computer.

To set a restore point in Windows Vista, go to Start > Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Backup andRestore Center. In the Tasks panel on the left, select ‘Create a Restore Point or Change Settings’. In the System Properties window, select the System Protection tab, and then click on the ‘Create’ button to create a restore point.


F. Hard Drive Installation: Replacing/Upgrading the Hard Drive

In this section you are going to learn how to install a hard drive into your computer system. There are a couple of reasons for doing this. First, your main hard drive may have failed. In fact, if you keep your computer long enough, sooner or later, your drive WILL fail. This is one reason why it’s so important to regularly back up your data.

Aside from replacing a failed hard drive, you may simply want to add a second hard drive to your system. If you store a lot of large data files, such as graphics, video, or music, this is something you may want to consider doing.

While hard drive capacities continue to grow, they have not undergone any significant physical changes for a number of years now. So at least for now, we can count on a standard size, standard screw sizes, and easy adaptability to cases of various manufacturers.

What is beginning to change is the communications interface and bus technology used to store and retrieve data to and from the hard drive. The two main types of computer bus technology that is used to transfer data between the CPU and the bulk storage devices in your computer (hard drive and CD-ROM, or optical drive) are ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) and SATA. The term SATA refers to Serial ATA, and while it is the newer technology, it does not yet dominate the marketplace. SATA was predated by ATA, which is now sometimes referred to as PATA, or Parallel ATA (when it was the only bus type available, it didn’t need to be distinguished from Serial ATA). Because ATA is still the norm, this tutorial will focus on ATA drive technology.

Another acronym you should be familiar with is IDE, or Integrated Drive Electronics. Technically, IDE refers to the interface itself (the design of the jack on the hard drive into which the cable plugs in), but the terms ATA and IDE are often used interchangeably.

While SATA drives transfer data at much higher rates than ATA drives, the main physical distinguishing characteristic between the two is the type of cable used to connect the drive to the motherboard. ATA drives typically use a wide, flat, 40-pin cable, SATA uses a 4-wire shielded cable that is considerably smaller than its ATA counterpart and takes up much less space in the case. If you wish to add a SATA drive to your computer, either the motherboard must provide the SATA socket, or you can add an SATA adapter card.

However, our focus will be on ATA, since it still represents the standard configuration available on most new computers. So let’s begin! 


1. Turn off all power to the computer, and disconnect the power cord from the computer. It will also be easier to work on your computer if you remove all other connectors from the back of the case.

2. Carefully remove the case and set it aside. Maintain a clear and clean workspace.

3. Wear your ESD wrist strap, with one end connected to a non-painted surface of the case.

4. Keep your new drive inside its ESD protective bag until you’re ready to install it.

5. When you remove or install a drive, handle it by its mounting case. Don’t touch the pins or other electronics on the drive.

6. Keep your drive away from sources of high voltage, such as vacuum cleaners or other motors (strong electromagnetic fields can wipe out your hard drive data).


Before removing/installing a new hard drive, it’s important that you spend a few minutes examining the interconnections between motherboard, hard drive, and CD-ROM drive. CD-ROM (or optical) drives and hard drives both fall into the category of IDE devices. You can typically install up to four IDE devices on your computer, in any combination you wish. Obviously, you want to have at least one hard drive in the mix so that an operating system can be installed on your computer.

You’ll notice that there are only two IDE cables. Each cable is designed to support two IDE devices. Thus, on each cable you will see three connectors: one connector that is plugged into the motherboard, and two other connectors that are plugged into your IDE devices. If you choose to install only one IDE device on a particular cable, use the end connector, not the middle connector.

There are some configuration options you will need to be familiar with, but first begin by observing where the two IDE cables connect to the motherboard. The IDE interfaces on the motherboard are not created equal. One is referred to as the Primary IDE interface, and the other as the Secondary IDE interface. The motherboard will be labeled in some fashion so that you can distinguish primary from secondary. The labeling scheme varies among manufacturers: you may see the words ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’, the abbreviations ‘Pri’ and ‘Sec’, or the numbers ‘1’ and 2’.

What’s important to note is that you can use the primary IDE interface without using the secondary, but not vice versa. If you have one IDE device, a hard drive for example, it must be placed on the primary IDE interface. If you have two IDE devices, such as a hard drive and a CD-ROM drive, you have two options:

1. Place both the hard drive and the CD-ROM drive on the primary interface

2. Place the hard drive on the primary and the CD-ROM on the secondary

If you opt to use both the primary and secondary interfaces, be sure that your boot device – the hard drive – is placed on the primary.

Aside from connecting your IDE devices to the appropriate interfaces, some additional configuration is required. Here’s why. If you have two IDE devices on the same interface (e.g. hard drive and CD-ROM drive or a second hard drive both connected to the cable of the Primary IDE interface), the CPU needs to know which device to address, since they’re both connected to the same cable. The way the two devices are differentiated is by designating one as what is referred to as the ‘Master’ and designating the other as ‘Slave’.

The way this is done is by using a small jumper that is already inserted onto a pin array that’s on the IDE device. To locate this pin array, you should have a look at the rear of the device.

Notice on the back of the hard drive, for example, the two connectors that are attached. The smaller one is the power connector, and incorporates several multicolored wires that terminate in a small connector that’s plugged into the rear of the device. This supplies power to the mechanical and electronic components of the hard drive (or optical drive).

The second connector is the data cable, a wide flat ribbon cable that is used to transmit data both ways between the CPU and the hard drive.

Adjacent to these two connectors is a small recessed pin array. If you look closely you will see that a small jumper block will be inserted across a pair of the pins. Just make the observation for now; you won’t actually set this on the new drive until you’re ready to install it. Further, until the old drive is out, you may not be able to ascertain which set of pins corresponds to ‘master’ and which to ‘slave’. This information is usually imprinted somewhere near the pin array, either on the plastic housing, or more frequently, on the circuit board that is attached to the bottom of the hard drive. There is also a ‘single’ drive designation; when a drive is the only drive on a particular cable, it can be set to either ‘master’ or ‘single’.

Before swapping out hard drives, there’s one more important observation you need to make. The socket on the motherboard into which the IDE ribbon cable is plugged has 40 pins, as does the corresponding socket on the hard drive. These pins are numbered 1 through 40, although due to space limitations, usually only pin 1 or pin 2 is actually labeled.

In order to make sure the communications path between the motherboard and the hard drive is synchronized, you must make sure that pin 1 on the motherboard socket is connected to pin 1 on the IDE device (hard drive or optical drive). While many ribbon cables are keyed so that they can only be inserted into the socket to assure this match takes place, some cables can be accidentally reversed. Thus, it’s critical that you locate pin 1 on both ends, and make sure the ribbon cable is connected such that pin 1 is connected to pin 1.

There’s a visual aid on the ribbon cable itself to assist you with this. Notice that there is one side of the cable with a wire that is colored differently from the other wires – often red, sometimes blue or green. The convention in the field is to be sure that the colored wire on the ribbon cable is used to connect pin 1 of the motherboard to pin 1 of the connected IDE device. You should abide by this convention.

Items Needed

1. Phillips screwdriver and four mounting screws

2. Standard 40-pin ATA interface cable

3. An available power connector

4. Needle nose pliers for adding/removing jumpers

Note that in most cases the drive is mounted to the drive bay with screws, and is removed from the computer from the inside of the case. There are a few case designs that allow for spring-loaded removal of the drive from the front of the case. There’s also a high-speed variation of ATA called Ultra ATA which requires an 80-pin interface cable. 

Removal Procedure

1. Don your ESD wrist strap!

2. Remove the power cable from the rear of the old drive

3. Carefully remove the IDE ribbon cable from the rear of the old drive (wiggle it out evenly)

4. Remove the mounting screws and pull out the old drive

Set the Jumpers on the New Drive

If the drive is the only drive on the IDE interface, set the jumper to the Master or Single setting. Use the Slave setting if the drive is an additional drive on the IDE cable and the original drive is set to Master.

Installation Procedure

1. Handle the new drive only by the edges of the drive frame.

2. Connect one end of an available IDE interface cable to the hard drive (make sure that you align pin 1 on the cable with pin 1 on the hard drive connector).

3. Locate an available power cable connector (coming from the power supply) and attach it to the 4-pin DC power connector on the hard drive. This connector is keyed so it can only be attached one way. Do not force it.

4. Slide the drive into the bay and secure with mounting screws.


BIOS Setup

In order for your computer to work properly, the hardware and software of the computer need to know about each other. Now that you’ve installed a new hard drive in your computer, you have to tell your computer about this new hardware, so that this information can be relayed to the operating system. This is done through what’s called the BIOS (Basic Input Output System) setup program (also called CMOS setup, or Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor).

Most new computers can automatically detect these new devices through the BIOS program. You may enter the BIOS or CMOS program by turning on your computer (or rebooting it) and entering the setup program. This is usually done by pressing a special key, such as DELETE, ESC, or F1 during bootup, but this varies from system to system. Refer to your computer manual if necessary.

Once in the setup program, locate the drive section and confirm that the hard drive (or ‘fixed disk’) is set for AUTO. Use the commands provided to exit the setup program, making sure that you save changes as you exit the program. 

Partitioning and Formatting

With the BIOS setup now complete, the hard drive must be prepared to accept data. This is done through the disk management utilities known as partitioning and formatting. With these utilities, you can divide the drive into logical sections, assign drive letters, and physically prepare the disk to accept data. Most new hard drives have already been partitioned and formatted, but you should be familiar with how to use these utilities.

If the drive has already been partitioned and formatted, you simply need to install your operating system from CD, install your software applications, and restore your backed-up data.

If the drive has not been partitioned and formatted, how you proceed is determined by whether or not the new hard drive you have just installed is a secondary hard drive or a new primary hard drive. If the drive is a second hard drive in your system, you can use the utilities on the primary drive to prepare the secondary hard drive. If the new drive will be your primary drive, you need to access these utilities on some other media format, preferably the Recovery CD that is included with new computers as a matter of course.

How you access these hard drive utilities depends on the operating system you are using. Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Vista all have different access points, and may identify the folder in which these utilities reside by different names. So you may have to explore your own system to locate them (Control Panel or My Computer is always a good starting point). To help you understand the process, we’ll briefly outline the steps involved under the following conditions:

  • The newly installed drive is a second hard drive
  • The operating system is Windows Vista

You will have to be logged in as administrator in order to run these utilities. Note that the terms ‘partition’ and ‘volume’ are used interchangeably. Also, in Windows Vista, a new hard disk must be ‘initialized’ before it can be used. Proceed as follows:

1. Open the Control Panel (Start > Control Panel)

2. Click on ‘System and Maintenance’

3. Click on ‘Administrative Tools’

4. Double click ‘Computer Management’

5. In the left navigation pane, under ‘Storage’, click ‘Disk Management’

6. In Disk Management, right click the disk you want to initialize, and then click ‘Initialize Disk’.

7. Right click on the initialized disk, and click ‘New Simple Volume’

8. In the New Simple Volume Wizard, click ‘Next’

9. Accept the maximum default size or type in the size of the volume you want to create (in megabytes), then click ‘Next’

10. Accept the default drive letter assignment, or choose a different letter to identify the partition, and click ‘Next’

11. In the ‘Format Partition’ dialog box, click ‘Next’ to accept the default settings and format the partition

12. Click ‘Finish’

Note that the formatting process can take some time; the higher the drive capacity, the longer the process will take. Once the format is complete, your drive is ready for the operating system, if it is to be the boot drive. Use your original operating system installation CD to install the OS, and then add other software applications and data as needed. This can also take a bit of time, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Don’t forget to create some restore points periodically so you can restore your system to a previous configuration if something goes awry with one of the installation processes. 

G. Hard Drive Maintenance Procedures

Of all of the devices inside your computer, the hard drive is the single device that requires the most maintenance. It is in constant bidirectional communication with the CPU, saving data and retrieving data. The magnetic platters inside the hard drive are in almost-continual spinning motion, and the read/write head flutters quickly over the platter surface. Over time, the hard disk is subjected to a number of CPU processes that modify and add all sorts of data that is stored on the drive.

There are several maintenance procedures with which you should be familiar, which we can clarify by describing some of the problems that can occur.

When you surf the Internet, pages are cached (temporarily stored) on your hard drive. Temporary folders and files are often created when you download files from the Internet and extract them onto your hard drive. These folders and files can remain on your hard drive, taking up more and more space, until you remove them.

Temporary files may also be created when you work with a word processor, spreadsheet, or other application. The ‘working’ copy is usually saved as a temporary file, and while it should be deleted when you save the file and exit the program, it sometimes is not. After some time, your hard drive becomes unnecessarily cluttered.

Further, when you first create and save a data file on a new hard drive, the file is saved in contiguous blocks or sectors on the drive. Eventually the hard drive becomes more filled up with data and/or applications. Subsequently, new data files, or files which become larger in size as you work on them at a later date, are split up into pieces, and these file chunks are stored wherever there is available space. The fragmentation of these files creates a couple of problems. One is that it will take longer for the file to be opened, as the file fragments have to be reassembled before the file can be opened. More importantly, file fragmentation creates more wear and tear on the drive, as the read/write head is forced to move back and forth across the spinning platter searching for and retrieving the file fragments.

There may also be software programs/applications installed on your computer that you are no longer using. Removing programs which you no longer need can free up significant space on your drive.

Yet another problem is that the magnetic surface of the platters (or disks) inside the hard drive can deteriorate and break down over time, rendering some sectors unreliable. Unless these bad sectors are identified and flagged, it’s possible for you to save data that will not be able to be retrieved later on.

Fortunately, there are solutions to all of these problems. The solutions should be implemented in a certain order. For example, you would not want to defragment the drive before eliminating all the junk temp files. What you want to do is get rid of the file clutter first, not simply move them to a new location and then still have to delete them. So here’s the recommended order of events:

1. Delete temporary Internet files (cached web pages)

2. Delete temp files and programs no longer needed

3. Run Scandisk or Check Disk (aka ‘Error Checking’)

4. Defragment the hard drive

So the first step is to clear out the temporary Internet files – copies of web pages that you’ve visited that have been saved for faster viewing. Over time, these pages can take up quite a bit of space on the hard drive.

Here’s the procedure as it would be done using Windows Internet Explorer in Windows Vista:

1. Open your Internet browser.

2. Click on ‘Tools’ and select ‘Internet Options’

3. Under the General tab, in the ‘Browsing history’ section, click the ‘Delete’ button

4. In the ‘Temporary Internet Files’ section, click on the ‘Delete files’ button

You may also notice that there is another section in the same window, just below Temporary Internet Files, called ‘Cookies’. These can also be safely deleted, but before you do, let’s clarify what cookies are and what purpose they serve.

Contrary to popular perception, cookies are not applications that collect any personal information about you from your computer, track your browsing history, and so forth. Rather, they are small text files that are created when you visit a web site and create a profile of some sort. A data file, known as a ‘cookie’ is then created and stored on your computer which will allow the web site to store such things as your name, address, passwords, email address, login information, and so forth.

When you revisit that web site and see some of your profile information pre-filled in, it’s because a cookie has been retrieved from your drive. If you delete your cookies, you will have to recreate your profile information. The downside to cookies is that completing online forms with your personal information can lead to receiving unwanted solicitations for products, services, etc. You’ll have to weigh for yourself the costs/benefits of storing cookies on your computer. You can also modify the cookie settings on your computer by opening ‘Internet Options’ as described above, selecting the ‘Privacy’ tab. You can adjust the settings to anywhere within the range of accepting all cookies to blocking all cookies.

The second step is to remove temp files and old software programs that are no longer being used. These temporary files are created when you install applications, or when you use certain applications like Microsoft Word (whose AutoSave feature causes ‘temp’ files to be created, which are not always deleted upon exit).

Because these temp files can be scattered in various locations across the drive, they can be difficult to find manually. Luckily, there is a handy utility available through Control Panel that will help you locate and remove temp files, a variety of unneeded system files and software programs, and will also empty out the Recycle Bin. This will both free up disk space and help your computer to run faster. Here’s what to do in Windows Vista:

1. Click the Start button

2. Select ‘Control Panel’

3. Select ‘System and Maintenance’

4. Under ‘Administrative Tools’, click on ‘Free Up Disk Space’

5. In the Disk Cleanup Options window, you may choose ‘My files only’ or ‘Files from all users on this computer’ (if you want to remove old software applications, you must choose the latter).

6. Follow the prompts for Drive Selection and choose what files you want to remove

7. Select the More Options tab if you wish to remove unneeded software programs

Once the temp files and unneeded programs have been deleted, you can proceed to the drive maintenance utilities. As is often the case, the particular names of these drive utilities depends upon the version of Windows you are using. Until the release of Windows XP and later versions, the program designed to identify bad sectors on the drive was called Scandisk. This was readily available in the Accessories folder (Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Scandisk).

When you run Scandisk, it will identify the bad sectors on the hard drive, attempt to repair them, and flag those sectors as non-writeable if they cannot be repaired. In this way, your data will be protected, as it will only be saved to reliable sectors on the drive.

In later versions of Windows, the utility has been renamed (Checkdisk, or chkdsk for short, identified with the label ‘Error Checking’), but it serves the same purpose. To access this feature in Windows Vista, follow these steps:

1. Go to Start > Computer

2. Right click on the drive you want to check (usually this is Local Drive C:)

3. Select ‘Properties’ from the menu list

4. Select the ‘Tools’ tab

5. Click the ‘Check Now’ button in the Error-Checking section

6. You have two options. Select ‘Automatically fix file system errors’ and additionally you may select the other option as well ‘Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors’

Let the utility run to completion, which can take some time. The time taken by these repair utilities is generally directly proportional to the data storage capacity of your hard drive. That is, the larger the drive, the longer it’s going to take to scan it, defrag it, run a virus check on it, and so forth.

You may have noticed that just below the ‘Check Now’ button for Error Checking, there is a section and a button called ‘Defragmentation’. Once the Error Checking utility has been run to completion, you should defragment your drive.

Defragmenting your drive will rejoin files that have become split up over time, and will also consolidate all the free space on the drive into contiguous sectors. Because data will be moved to other areas of the drive, it’s critical that the sectors onto which data is relocated are known good sectors. For this reason, you should always run Check Disk (or ScanDisk) BEFORE you defragment your drive.

Defragmentation is a process that can take several hours, again depending upon how much data you have stored on the drive and how large the storage capacity of the drive is.

How often should these utilities be run? It really depends on how much you use your computer. A reasonable minimal interval would be about once a month. However, if you use your computer extensively, you should run them more frequently. Try to get on a schedule so you don’t forget about these important maintenance tasks.

An important point worth mentioning is that despite your greatest efforts to cleanup your computer, it’s impossible to remove every bit of clutter, and eventually there will be a buildup of miscellaneous junk – stray files and folders, references in the Windows Registry that point to programs no longer installed on the computer, and so forth.

Ultimately, the only way to get rid of this junk is to begin with a fresh slate – by formatting the drive and reinstalling everything from scratch. Professionals recommend this be done yearly. Remember that formatting the drive will destroy data, so you will need to back up your data, and be sure to have on hand your operating system installation CD as well as installation CDs for all your software applications and programs. 

H. Upgrading Memory (RAM)

Before beginning the procedure for replacing RAM, let’s first discuss its features and characteristics and what purpose it serves.

There are two types of information storage on your computer: primary and secondary. Primary storage is provided by devices referred to as memory or more specifically, Random Access Memory (RAM). Secondary storage is provided by such devices as hard drives, floppy drives, and CD-ROM drives.

There are distinct differences between primary and secondary storage. For example, secondary storage is also known as permanent storage, since the information stored on these devices is saved in such a way that it is available for later retrieval. You can open an application, create and save a document, turn your computer off, and be able to retrieve that document at a later time. That is, when power is removed from the device, the information does not disappear. This is what is often referred to as non-volatile memory.

RAM, on the other hand, is volatile – when power is removed, the contents of the RAM memory chips are lost. We’ve all experienced this at one point or another (has your computer ever locked up just before you saved those latest changes, requiring a reboot or full shutdown?). Because the information in RAM is lost when power is removed, RAM is known as temporary storage.

The advantage that primary storage (RAM) has over secondary storage (hard drive) is that it is much faster. There are a few reasons for this. One is that RAM modules, which plug directly into the motherboard, are purely electronic devices. There are no moving parts. Electromechanical devices such as hard drives and CD-ROMs, with their motors, spinning platters, read-write heads, and so forth, take much longer for the CPU to access.

Secondly, because RAM is simply plugged into the motherboard, it is much closer to the CPU than secondary storage devices, which are mounted to the case and connected to the motherboard via an awkward and sometimes lengthy cabling system.

Furthermore, the communications bus for RAM modules is much wider than that of a secondary storage device, meaning that it can move a lot more data in one fell swoop than a secondary storage device is capable of.

So in a nutshell, here’s what happens. When you run a program such as a word processor, the computer pulls the executable file from the hard drive and loads it into RAM, where processing operations are faster. Some additional support files are also loaded, such as DLL (dynamic link library) files, which are shared pieces of code used by multiple applications. The data file you want to work on is also loaded.

Remember also that most computer users have multiple applications open simultaneously. In addition to the word processor, you may also have opened an email program, a graphics editing program (e.g. Paint or Photoshop), and several Internet browser windows.

Modern software applications are very large and complex programs, making them very ‘memory-hungry’. And many websites these days are multimedia in nature, incorporating not just text, but graphics, sound, and video – all of which take up a lot of space in memory. The operating system itself is also loaded into memory, which also takes up a fair amount of space.

When the amount of space needed in RAM for all the open programs exceeds the space available, a ‘swap file’ is created on the hard drive, and information is shuttled back and forth between RAM and the hard drive. This process is managed by a ‘virtual memory manager’, which may notice, for example, that you haven’t used your email program for awhile, and so the email program is swapped out to the hard drive to make room for another program you want to open. This swapping out of information back and forth between RAM and the hard drive can cause a noticeable delay.

So one of the major reasons for adding or upgrading RAM to your computer is to speed up operations. The other reason would be if one of the RAM modules has failed. Either way, there are some technical issues that must be taken into consideration.

First of all, it’s helpful to know how much RAM is installed in your computer. There are a couple of ways you can find out. The easiest way is through Control Panel.

Here’s how to check In Windows XP:

1. Go to Start > Settings > Control Panel

2. Double click the System icon to open the System Properties window

3. Select the General tab

4. The amount of RAM is shown in the Computer section of the System Properties screen

And in Windows Vista:

1. Go to Start > Control Panel

2. Click the System and Maintenance icon

3. Click the System icon

4. The amount of RAM is shown in the System section of the System window

There are several different kinds of RAM, including the older SDR (single data rate) SDRAM (synchronous dynamic random access memory) found on computers prior to 2002, and DDR (double data rate) SDRAM, which became mainstream around 2002. DDR2-based systems hit the market in 2004, and this type of RAM is able to operate at faster bus speeds.

These different types of RAM come in varying ‘form factors’, or packaging styles; that is, the physical size, number of pins, and so forth varies from one type to another. They also differ in voltage ratings and capacity. Thus, different kinds of RAM cannot be mixed and matched. In fact, the motherboard is generally built to support only one type of memory, and different kinds of RAM will not even fit in the same sockets. In most cases, you can’t even mix modules with different capacities, although Intel does have a chipset for DDR2 that allows for mixing of different module sizes.

So before you replace or upgrade the RAM in your computer, you need to determine what type, speed, and the maximum capacity your motherboard can support. There are a couple of different ways to make this determination:

1. Look up the information in the manual for the motherboard, which should be included in the documentation you received with your computer.

2. Many manufacturers provide system and motherboard information online. Check out the manufacturer’s website.

3. Use the Memory Advisor tool available at .

Crucial is a manufacturer of high quality memory, and the Memory Advisor tool is easy to use. You simply plug in your computer system information (manufacturer and model), and you’ll receive several recommendations for compatible memory. Of course, they hope that you’ll purchase your RAM from them, but you are also provided with the specifications of the RAM that is compatible with your system, so you can purchase from another vendor if you so choose.

If for some reason you don’t know the details about your computer needed to use the Memory Advisor tool, you can use the System Scanner tool, available on the same web page. This tool will scan your system and tell you what type of RAM is already installed in your system, and will then make recommendations for memory that is compatible with your system.

Bear in mind that if you simply pull out your RAM and take it in to a local vendor to match it, you’ll likely get memory modules that will physically fit in your system, but will not necessarily have the same voltage and speed specifications.

There are a few other issues you’ll need to consider before buying RAM. First, you need to determine if there are any open memory sockets on the motherboard. If the sockets are ‘fully populated’, you’ll have to replace your current RAM with higher capacity modules. Keep in mind that it might be more cost effective to purchase one large-capacity module than say, two smaller ones.

When adding RAM, you also need to match the metal type of the RAM module with that of the memory socket on the motherboard. There are two types available: tin and gold. Over time, direct contact between two dissimilar metals can cause an oxidizing chemical reaction, so you must make sure that you use gold memory modules in gold sockets and tin modules in tin sockets. Because most modern computers use gold contacts, it’s not as much of a problem as it once was, but worth being aware of nonetheless.

In sum, the key to a successful memory upgrade is to be properly prepared with the information we’ve covered here. And now, on to the upgrade procedure (which is the easy part!). First, a few precautionary notes:


1. If your computer is currently under warranty, removing the cover of your computer may void that warranty. Double-check the provisions of your warranty. Sometimes just a call to the support personnel to discuss the issue is all that is needed to avoid such problems; if they are ‘directing’ your activities, your warranty should be safeguarded.

2. New RAM modules will be packaged in anti-static bags. Leave them there until you’re ready to install them.

3. Implement ESD safety procedures (avoid working on a carpeted floor or surface, be sure to wear your ESD wrist strap, and so forth).

4. In order to access the memory sockets on your motherboard, you may have to remove other components to gain clear access. For example, you may have to disconnect an IDE ribbon cable, or remove an expansion card. If this is necessary, be sure to label anything that you remove so you can reinstall it properly later on.

5. Removing an expansion card (such as a video card, sound card, etc.), is very straightforward. The circuit board is socketed onto the motherboard, and there is usually a retaining screw securing the card to the back of the case. The retaining screw serves to prevent the card from vibrating out of position. First remove the screw. Then carefully wiggle the card out, exerting even force on the front and rear of the card. Don’t wiggle the card side to side, as this can cause the card to crack, or even worse, can cause the socket on the motherboard to break. Store the card in an antistatic bag while it’s out of the machine.

Memory Upgrade Procedure:

1. Purchase the amount of RAM needed for your upgrade, using the guidelines we’ve discussed to ensure compatibility.

2. Shut down and unplug the computer.

3. Remove all peripheral devices from the computer, such as mouse, keyboard, monitor, printer, etc.

4. Remove the cover from the computer.

5. Ground yourself to an unpainted surface of the computer chassis with your antistatic wrist bracelet.

6. If necessary, remove and label any internal components so as to give yourself unobstructed access to the RAM sockets.

7. Remove the existing DIMM RAM modules by carefully depressing the retaining clips on each end of the module. Use even force on both sides, and do it slowly so the module doesn’t pop right out and up into the air. Set the old modules aside, storing them in an antistatic bag.

8. Remove the new module from its protective bag, making sure to handle the module by the edges. Avoid touching the gold contacts, as the oil on your fingers can degrade the connection.

9. Notice that the RAM module is ‘keyed’ – that is, there are notches spaced at different intervals to ensure that the module, when inserted, is oriented properly. Align the notches on the module with the socket on the motherboard.

10. Make sure that the retaining clips are pushed back out of the way. Then seat the memory module into the socket by using your thumbs to press down firmly and evenly on both ends of the module. As you press the module into place, the locking clips will automatically rise into place and secure the ends of the module. You shouldn’t try to manually position the locking clips. If you’ve seated the RAM module properly and completely, the clips will move into proper position automatically.

11. Replace any components previously removed.

12. Leave the cover off temporarily while you do a quick check. Reconnect keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and power up the computer.

13. Check the amount of RAM now installed (using the procedure previously described, which is slightly different for Windows XP and Windows Vista). If the amount of installed RAM shown does not match the capacity of the newly installed RAM, it most likely means that the module(s) simply needs to be reseated (power off, reseat, power on).

14. Turn off the computer, replace the cover, and reconnect any remaining peripheral devices (printer, scanner, etc.).

Remember, replacing RAM is quite easy – as long as you’ve done the preparatory work properly and thoroughly. Congratulate yourself on a job well done!

I. Installing a New Expansion Card

One of the easiest improvements you can make to your computer is to install a new expansion card. The phrase ‘expansion card’ refers to any of the specialized circuit boards that are inserted into slots in the motherboard. Some examples include graphics (or video) cards, sound (or audio) cards, network cards, and so forth.

There are a couple of reasons why you’d want to replace an existing card. One reason is that the card may have failed (if you keep your computer long enough, sooner or later, the components will fail).

More commonly, cards are replaced because the needs of the user have changed. For example, PC games have become very complex, with their 3-D effects, fluid motion, and so forth. Gaming enthusiasts need more powerful graphics cards to support the graphical demands of the gaming application. The memory demands of these games can be quite high as well, more than the system RAM can support by itself. Consequently, high-end video cards (also referred to as video adapters or display adapters) incorporate their own onboard memory.

A video card upgrade may also be in order if you plan on purchasing a super high-resolution monitor, or if you are looking to set up dual monitors. In either case, you must make sure that the video card you purchase supports these features.

There is a certain degree of interdependence between your monitor and your video card. For example, monitors are designed to be run at certain resolutions, and you need to make sure that your video card can support those resolutions.

As mentioned previously, the video card is just one type of ‘expansion card’ that is installed in your computer. Because it shares common features with other types of expansion cards, and also because it has a few unique peculiarities, we’re going to use the video card as the basis for our discussion on upgrading expansion cards.

The first step is to determine what type of slot is available on the motherboard. The three possibilities for video cards are PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect), AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port), and PCI Express. The PCI slot has been around for awhile, but it cannot match the performance benefits of AGP and PCI Express (PCI-E). For backward-compatibility purposes, motherboards will continue to support PCI devices, but the PCI bus will eventually give way to PCI Express.

If your current video card is installed in a PCI slot, you should plan on upgrading to either an AGP or PCI-E video card, if supported by your motherboard. In fact, PCI-E slots come in a variety of ‘flavors’, the most common of which are 1x and 16x. Be sure to check your motherboard documentation before making your video card purchase.

Some of these cards can set you back upwards of $500 – good reason to make sure that you are static-protected when you install the new card. Even a small static discharge that you would not even feel can destroy that $500 video card.

Once you’ve done your research and you have your new video card on hand, it’s time to get started. You’ll need your antistatic wrist strap and a Phillips screwdriver. 


1. Before installing your new card, you first need to uninstall the drivers for your current card to avoid any potential device conflicts. Here’s how to do this in Windows XP and in Windows Vista:

a. Windows XP: Right click ‘My Computer’ and select Properties. Under the Hardware tab, click on the Device Manager button. Under the Display Adapter heading, double click on the name of your current graphics card to open up a Properties window. Under the Driver tab, click the Uninstall button.

b. Windows Vista: Go to Start > Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Device Manager. Under the Display Adapters heading, double click on the name of your current graphics card to open up a Properties window. Under the Driver tab, click the Uninstall button.

2. To remove the old card, turn off the computer and disconnect it from the wall. To make for easier access, disconnect the keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals from the back of the case. Remove the case cover, and ground yourself to the chassis with your ESD wrist strap. Remove the retaining screw for your old video card and carefully wiggle the card out of the slot, exerting even pressure on both ends of the card. Set the old card aside, preferably stored in an antistatic bag (if it’s still functional, you can give it away, sell it, or keep it as a backup).

3. Before installing your new card, take a few moments to thumb through the documentation that came with the card so as to familiarize yourself.

4. Next, locate the slot into which your new graphics card will be inserted – either the AGP or the PCI-E slot. If there was no card previously installed in these slots, you’ll have to remove the slot cover from the back of the case before installing the new card. Most slot covers have a retaining screw, but some cheaper cases have expansion slot covers that snap off and can’t be replaced. So make sure you remove the correct slot cover (position your new card over the appropriate expansion slot on the motherboard and see which slot cover needs to be removed).

5. Handle your new card very carefully as you remove it from its protective bag. Remember to hold the card by the edges of the board; don’t use the heat sink or any other component mounted to the board for support as you install the card. Don’t touch the gold contacts, and be very careful not to damage the fragile components that are soldered to the board as you insert it into the appropriate slot.

6. Align the new card with the slot you have chosen, and gently but firmly push the card into place, using even pressure on both ends of the card. Once the card is fully seated, lock it into place with the retaining system provided on the motherboard, if there is one. Finally, secure the card to the case with the screw from the previously-removed slot cover.

7. If your new card requires power directly from the power supply (as do many high-end PCI-E graphics cards), plug the six-pin connector into the appropriate socket. If your system does not have a matching socket, an adaptor most likely will have been included in your video card package.

8. Before putting the case cover back on, plug your computer back into the wall socket and turn it on. Verify that the fan on the graphics card is working properly. A bad fan or an improper power connection can cause the board to overheat and become damaged.

9. Once you’ve verified the fan is working properly, power down the computer and reinstall the case cover. Reconnect the keyboard, monitor, and other peripherals to the ports on the back of the case.

10. Once your computer is powered back up, the last step is to install the drivers for your new graphics card. The graphics card will have come with a compact disk that contains the drivers and probably some other utilities and applications. However, the drivers on the included disk are not necessarily the most current drivers available (in fact, many of the CD-supplied drivers won’t work with Windows Vista at all). For this reason, it is recommended that you download the newest drivers for your card directly from the manufacturer’s web site. Follow the download and installation instructions from the manufacturer for your graphics card, and you’re done!

Congratulations on installing your new graphics card! Remember, the procedure we’ve outlined applies to any expansion card you wish to install (though only the graphics card would use the AGP slot). If you prepare yourself in advance by doing the research to ensure compatibility with your system, the installation itself will be a breeze! 

J. Updating Device Drivers

In the previous section of this tutorial, we made reference to the device drivers required by the installation of a new hardware device – in that case, an expansion card (specifically, the graphics card). Because device drivers are required by many hardware components in your computer, it’s important to understand what purpose they serve and what you need to do to keep them up to date.

A device driver is a computer program that is designed to interface with specific hardware devices, and to facilitate communications between that device and the operating system on your computer. Thus, device drivers are both hardware- and operating system-specific. When you connect a particular device to your computer – a printer, for example – the operating system of your computer must understand how to communicate with that specific hardware device. Device drivers facilitate this communications process.

Some of the required device drivers are supplied by the operating system and are installed when the OS is first installed. Other device drivers are supplied by the manufacturer of the particular hardware device, and are installed when that device is installed.

When the operating system is installed, the process of installing device drivers for the motherboard, keyboard, and other devices is transparent. However, when installing device drivers for other types of hardware (e.g., graphic cards, network cards, sound cards, printers, scanners, CD ROM and DVD drivers, and digital cameras), user intervention is required.

In most cases, the hardware device needs to be installed or connected to the computer before the device drivers are installed. We followed that guideline in the previous section when we stepped through the installation of a graphics card: first we installed the hardware, then the device drivers. There are a few exceptions to this, however, such as a digital camera using a USB port for downloading images to the computer. In this case, the software is usually installed on the computer before the camera is plugged in to the USB port. Be sure to check your documentation to learn what to do first.

Not only do the various hardware devices require their own specific drivers, but the exact driver required for that device varies according to the operating system that is installed on your computer. Thus, the driver required for your particular printer will vary depending upon whether you are running Windows XP or Windows Vista, for example. Over time, drivers are often developed that are compatible with multiple operating systems, but device driver development can lag behind other industry developments, such as the introduction of a new operating system (e.g., Windows Vista). As of this writing, if you’re using Vista, you will need to download the device drivers required by your hardware directly from the manufacturer’s web site.

However, device drivers are also continually updated by the manufacturer (to eliminate any bugs, expand compatibility, and so forth). For this reason, it is generally recommended that you download the drivers from the manufacturer’s web site rather than install from the CD that accompanies your hardware.

Let’s use the HP OfficeJet d145 All In One printer as an example of the process of locating and downloading the appropriate driver for your system (let’s assume you’re using Windows XP).

1. Go to

2. Click on the ‘Software and Driver Downloads’ link

3. Type in your product name/model number in the appropriate box and click the search button (or use the Automatic Detection feature)

4. Select your operating system

5. Click on the link for your driver package and download it to a known location on your hard drive

6. Double click the name of the file you’ve downloaded to begin the installation process and follow the prompts of the installation wizard

It’s interesting to note that if you had selected Windows Vista rather than Windows XP, you’d discover that the required driver is already incorporated into your Vista OS, and there is no need to download anything further.

As you have probably experienced, software and hardware technologies within the computer industry are developed along different timelines. So that printer that you purchased several years ago may have worked just fine under Windows XP, but may not be supported under the Windows Vista operating system. While OS developers work to ensure a reasonable period of backward compatibility, it’s impossible to continue to support the myriad of devices and models available.

So when and why should you update your device drivers? Here’s a quick guide:

1. Whenever you add new hardware, install the latest version of the device driver available.

2. If you upgrade your operating system, you’ll need to upgrade your hardware device drivers as well. This process may occur automatically during the installation of your new OS (as the hardware is scanned), but you’ll have to manually update any drivers that were not automatically updated.

3. If you’re experiencing any problems or compatibility issues with your hardware device, check to see if there is an updated driver available.

To easily update the drivers on your computer, open up Device Manager (as described in the Expansion Card section of this tutorial), double click on the device whose driver you wish to update, select the Driver tab, and click on the Update Driver button.

If you’re looking for an older driver and you’re not able to find it at the manufacturer’s website (older, or legacy, drivers, are not always supported), an excellent online resource to search for the driver you’re looking for is the top-rated . Their database of drivers is one of the most comprehensive on the web.

K. How to Speed Up Your Computer

Here’s a scenario most of us are familiar with. We’ve just gone out and bought ourselves a new PC. It’s sleek and fast, and we wonder how we were able to tolerate that old clunker for so long. Our new computer is running so much faster than on our old system – installing, opening, and running applications, downloading music, playing games, etc. – and soon we’re spoiled.

Over a period of months, however, we notice that our expensive, speedy, new computer has become sluggish, and we don’t understand what’s happened. In fact, the mystery is an easy one to solve. Just as our cars need regular, routine maintenance in order to run optimally, so do our computers. These routine tasks are easy to implement, and if we overlook them, the result will be our mounting frustration over a system that had become increasingly slow and bogged down.

Unfortunately, most PC users spend huge amounts of money to take their PC into the repair shop, where the technicians perform the maintenance tasks that the user can easily do him/herself. The computer runs well again for several more months, but without a consistent maintenance schedule, the cycle inevitably repeats itself – often until the PC owner decides, out of frustration, that it’s time to buy a new computer.

The good news is that we’re going to review the steps you can take to get your PC into tip-top shape – and have fun doing it! Let’s get started.

1. Add More RAM: the single most important step you can take to speed up your computer (barring other problems, such as spyware) is to add more memory. While the installed RAM on your computer may have initially been sufficient, you may have since installed graphics software, upgraded your operating system, or added other memory-hungry components. The cost of memory modules has dropped considerably over the last several years, and you’ll gain a significant boost in performance. For more information, see the section on Upgrading Memory in this tutorial.


2. Free Up Disk Space: You can improve the overall performance of your computer by freeing up space on your hard disk. The Disk Cleanup tool can be used to:

a. Remove temporary Internet files

b. Remove Windows temporary files

c. Empty the Recycle Bin

d. Uninstall programs that you are no longer using

e. Remove downloaded program files

f. Remove optional Windows components that you don’t use

To access the Disk Cleanup tool in Windows Vista, go to Start > Computer. Right click on the drive you wish to clean up (typically, drive C: ) and select Properties. Under the General tab, click on the Disk Cleanup button. Choose whether you want to clean up your own files only, or all of the files and programs on the computer. Select the files you wish to delete. Note to access the Disk Cleanup tool in Windows XP, go to Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools, and then click Disk Cleanup.


3. Defragment Your Hard Drive: over time, the files on your hard drive become fragmented. When you open a file that is fragmented, the computer has to search the hard drive to piece the file back together, thus slowing down the overall performance of your system. The Disk Defragmenter utility, described previously in the Hard Drive Maintenance section of this tutorial, consolidates the fragmented files and folders so that they occupy a contiguous space on the disk. With all files rearranged contiguously and without fragmentation, reading from and writing to the hard drive is faster.

Remember, before running the Disk Defragmenter utility, you should first run the Error Checking utility to identify and repair bad sectors. Bad sectors can make it difficult, or impossible, to write data to the hard drive, thus slowing down system performance.

To review, in Windows Vista:

a. Error Checking: Start > Computer. Right click on drive, select Properties. Select Tools tab and click Check Now button under the Error Checking section.

b. Disk Defragmentation: Same sequence as above, except when you select the Tools tab, click on the Defragment Now button under the Defragmentation section.


4. Remove Unnecessary Startup Items: to make your computer boot up more quickly and efficiently, remove programs that you do not need to load up every time you start your computer. Portions of these programs also run in the background to make for easier access – thus utilizing some of your system RAM and slowing down your PCs performance. Of course, some of these programs are very valuable (e.g., virus protection), but others are useless and do little more than consume system resources. 

To remove unneeded programs from Startup in Windows Vista, go to Start and in the Search box type ‘msconfig’ (without the quotes) to open the System Configuration utility. Select the Startup tab, and deselect those programs that you don’t want to load up upon every system start. Do NOT deselect any program that you don’t recognize.


5. Clean the Registry: the Windows Registry is a large database of information that contains the Windows settings and options, as well as all of the settings for hardware, software, user preferences, and so forth. Whenever you install software, or make changes in Control Panel, for example, those modifications are reflected in the Registry. Inevitably, minor registry errors can (and do) occur, and over time these errors are cumulative, resulting in system slowdown. One common source of registry errors, for example, is the uninstallation of programs or applications. Even though you may have uninstalled some programs, they often leave residue in the registry – references to files and programs that are no longer available. 

It is not recommended that you manually edit the registry, as its contents can be somewhat cryptic, and an editing error can make your system inaccessible. Instead, use a third party registry cleaner.

Before editing the registry, be sure to set a system restore point so that if anything goes wrong, you can return to a previous configuration. To set a restore point in Windows Vista, go to Start > Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Backup and Restore Center. In the Tasks panel on the left, select ‘Create a Restore Point or Change Settings’. In the System Properties window, select the System Protection tab, and then click on the ‘Create’ button to create a restore point.

6. Protect Your Computer Against Spyware / Adware: Have you ever been troubled by any of the following problems?

a. Your computer has slowed to a crawl

b. Your browser settings (e.g., home page, search page, or other components) have been changed, and it is difficult to change them back

c. While connected to the Internet, you’re besieged with pop-up windows advertising everything from movie clubs to diet pills

If any of this sounds familiar, your computer has probably been infected with malware, or malicious software. This is a general term that refers to any type of software designed to cause harm to your computer – including viruses, spyware, and adware.

Viruses are computer programs that spread from one file to another, or from one computer to another. The degree of damage done by a virus can vary, and the most common method of spreading a virus is through an email attachment. You should never open an email attachment or download any applications from an unknown source. The best way to prevent viruses is to install a good antivirus program as soon as possible after getting your computer. Be sure to keep your virus definition files up to date.

While viruses can certainly pose a problem, spyware and adware have become the single largest cause of adverse system performance. Both spyware and adware are surreptitiously installed on your computer, without your knowledge or consent, and then operate behind the scenes, monitoring your activities, collecting personal information, displaying advertisements, and so forth.

Adware programs display ads to your computer, often through annoying pop-up windows. These programs may also collect marketing information about you. Spyware programs often collect more sensitive personal information about you, including the web sites you visit, or even personal profile information (such as credit card and social security numbers) and then send this information back to an unknown source. Adware and Spyware programs are often bundled with freeware and shareware programs that you may have downloaded, such as a music or video file-sharing program.

The first strategy in dealing with malware is prevention. Be careful about what you choose to download and install on your computer. When you download updates for programs on your computer, download only from known and trusted sources.

You should also install anti-spyware and anti-adware software on your computer. These programs will scan your computer and compare the scan results against a known set of spyware or adware files, and will then remove (with your approval) any malware files or programs it detects. These detection programs will only be effective if you update them regularly.

A couple of other points are worth noting with respect to PC security. In some instances, your operating system itself may have a security hole that can be exploited by these malicious programs. It’s equally important to keep your Windows OS updated (in Windows Vista: Start > Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Windows Update). 

So there you have it – several steps you can take to speed up your computer. Implementing these procedures on a regular basis is the key to keeping your system running smoothly and at peak performance.

L. Cleaning Your Computer

One of the most overlooked computer maintenance tasks is that of cleaning the computer components and peripherals. While this may seem like a task that is largely cosmetic in nature, in fact failing to keep our computer systems clean can cause devices to operate erratically or to fail completely. Dust and dirt can cause drives to fail, keyboards to operate unreliably, and sensitive integrated circuit (IC) chips to overheat and burn out. Moreover, using dirty keyboards and mice in a shared computer environment such as a home, school, or office, can spread germs between users. Cleaning your system regularly will save you money, keep you healthier, and add years to the life of your PC.

The cathode ray tube (CRT)-based computer monitor tends to attract a lot of dust due to the strong electromagnetic field that surrounds it. As a result, the monitor screen and housing can become quite dirty.

Within the computer case itself, there are fans which serve to keep the internal components of the computer cool by drawing air inside the case and across the components. However, that cooling air also may contain dust, pet hair, particles of smoke, and carpet fibers. When these particles settle on the internal components, they act as an insulating layer, causing the components to overheat, operate erratically, and eventually fail completely.

The keyboard and mouse are particularly susceptible to the ‘fallout’ of our snacking habits. Without regular cleaning and sanitization, they function erratically, and provide a fertile environment for spreading germs from user to user.

How often should you clean your computer? It really depends on the environment: the air quality, the number of regular users, and so forth. As a rule, clean your computer every six months or so – if you notice a lot of built-up dirt and grime, schedule your cleaning more frequently.

In this section we’ll cover the steps you should take to keep your PC in tip-top physical condition. Let’s start with the supplies you’ll need, and a few safety precautions, then we’ll move on to specific cleaning procedures. Since you’ll have to open the case, you’ll need your ESD wrist strap, and for most cases, a Phillips screwdriver to remove the case cover.


§ Clean lint-free or microfiber cloth (DO NOT use paper towels)

§ Rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl)

§ Distilled water

§ Gentle, non-solvent cleaning solution, such as Simple Green

§ Glass cleaner

§ Cotton or foam swabs (foam are better, since they’re lint-free)

§ Portable vacuum and/or can of compressed air

§ Small artist’s brushes for dislodging dirt from narrow and hard to reach places


§ Be sure to turn off the computer system before cleaning

§ Use the cloths only on the outside of the computer

§ Never spray or apply cleaning solution directly to the computer or monitor. Apply it to the cleaning cloth or to the cotton/foam swab first.

§ Do not use any ammonia-based or other strong cleaning liquids, as the solvents in many cleaning solutions may chemically interact with the plastic housing of your PC

§ While it’s okay to use a standard electric vacuum on the outside of the case, only a portable battery-powered vacuum (or compressed air) should be used on the inside. Electric vacuum cleaners produce a lot of static electricity which can damage the components inside the case.

§ Wear your wrist strap when cleaning the inside of the computer

§ If you use compressed air, keep the can upright when spraying, otherwise caustic chemicals may drip out. Also, be sure to wear a dust mask, and do the work outside if at all possible.


Power down the computer and disconnect all plugs and cables from the case. Place the computer case on a clean, non-carpeted surface. When you’re cleaning the inside of the computer, wear an anti-static wrist strap. Use only mild household cleaners or water to clean the surfaces of the monitor and case. Check your monitor documentation for any special manufacturer instructions on cleaning your CRT or LCD monitor.


First use the vacuum cleaner to clean any areas of accumulated dirt and dust from the case cover. In particular, check the fan on the back of the computer. As this fan draws air in to cool the internal components, it also draws in any impurities that are in the air – dust, pet hair, etc. A lot of the dirt will be drawn right into the computer itself, but much of it will also accumulate on the fan. If the fan becomes covered with dirt and dust, air flow will be restricted and overheating problems and/or component failure can result. Use your vacuum to clean all of the outside air vents and crevices of the computer. You can use a regular electric vacuum cleaner on the outside of the case if you wish, but never on the inside.

Once the loose dust has been vacuumed, use a mild cleaner and soft cloth to clean any remaining grime, dirt, or stains from the case cover. Then remove the cover, and set it aside.


First, be sure to take ESD precautions when cleaning inside the case. For this task, it is often recommended to use compressed air rather than a vacuum cleaner. If you do use a vacuum cleaner, be careful to keep the nozzle a couple of inches away from the components on the motherboard so as not to accidentally suck anything (such as jumpers) into the vacuum cleaner. If you use compressed air, wear a mask and be careful not to breathe in the dust particles as they are expelled from the case.

Clean the power supply (but never disassemble it), especially in and around the air flow slots. The power supply, ribbon cables, and motherboard components are all likely to collect dust and grime. Be sure to clean any fans and heat sinks, as the fan blades and heat sink fins tend to collect a lot of dust and hair.


A word of caution: NEVER attempt disassemble the monitor. The high voltages inside (even when the monitor is turned off) can kill you. Make sure power to the monitor is disconnected.

Due to its strong electromagnetic field, the CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor attracts a lot of dust. First, vacuum the dust that has settled on top of the monitor case, particularly around the air vents. In this case, it’s better to use a vacuum rather than compressed air, as you don’t want to blow dust into the monitor housing.

Any remaining grime on the monitor housing can be removed with a little cleaning solution on a cloth. Be sure to spray the solution onto the cloth first, not directly onto the monitor. The glass screen can be cleaned with ordinary glass cleaner (if there is no anti-glare protective coating), or with a soft cloth dampened with water.


To clean the screen of the flat-screen, or LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor, use a 50-50 solution of distilled water and alcohol in a spray bottle (spray the cloth, not the screen). Apply only light pressure to the screen as you clean, as the display can be easily scratched or damaged.


The computer keyboard may need more frequent cleaning than the rest of the system, as it becomes soiled with dust, hair, and food crumbs. Disconnect the keyboard from the computer (make sure your system is turned off first), turn the keyboard upside down, and shake out the loose debris. Then use compressed air to clean it more thoroughly, aiming between the keys. If you use a portable vacuum for this step, make sure there are no loose keys that can pop off and be sucked into the vacuum.

In the event that you spill some liquid onto the keyboard, act quickly to power down the computer and disconnect the keyboard. Shake out as much liquid as you can, and use a cloth to clean out what you can reach. Leave the keyboard upside down and let it dry for at least a full day.

A keyboard can be destroyed when liquid is spilled into it and makes contact with the circuit board inside. Soda and other sugary drinks can also cause the keys to stick; in this event, the best course of action is to buy a new keyboard.

You can protect your keyboard from dust, crumbs, and spills by purchasing a keyboard ‘skin’. With the manufacturer name and model of your keyboard, you can order a skin that is designed to fit snuggly right over the keyboard and individual keys. These are readily available online.

Because keyboards are often used in shared environments, such as schools and offices, they should be disinfected to prevent the spread of germs. Spray some alcohol on a cloth and clean the keyboard thoroughly. Use a cotton or foam tipped swab dipped lightly in alcohol to clean between the keys.


There are several different types of mice, but the most commonly used are the mechanical mouse and the wireless RF (radio frequency) mouse. The wireless RF mouse (as well as optical mice) have no moving parts, and are sealed so that dust can’t get inside. However, the recessed areas on the bottom where the transmitter is located can become clogged with dust. When the mouse begins to operate erratically, simply clean out the dust from the recessed areas.

The mechanical, or trackball, mouse is a little more complicated, since dirt and dust are drawn inside the mouse by the rotational movement of the tracking ball. When the rollers and shafts inside the mouse get dirty, the mouse can’t track smoothly across the monitor screen.

To clean a mechanical mouse, disconnect it from the computer and remove the bottom cover that holds the tracking ball in place. Most covers can be removed by turning them counterclockwise (or in the direction of the arrows or pointers displayed on the bottom of the mouse) about a quarter or half turn. If the tracking ball is dirty, clean it with a bit of alcohol. Inside the mouse, there may be some loose dust that you can remove by spraying with compressed air. There are also a couple of white rollers and two thin black shafts that need to be cleaned. The dust on these rollers and shafts tends to get packed down by the pressure of the tracking ball. To clean the shafts and rollers, use a pair of tweezers or the blade of a small screwdriver to gently scrape off the dirt. Finally, use a cotton swab dipped in alcohol to remove any residue (make sure that no lint from the cotton is left behind).

Once the ball and cover are replaced, use some alcohol on a cloth to clean and disinfect the plastic housing of the mouse. To help keep your mouse clean, shake out or wipe down your mouse pad as well.


Because they are completely sealed, hard drives don’t need to be cleaned. In other types of drives, including floppy drives, CD-ROM drives, and DVD-drives, dust that accumulated in the area of the read-write head or laser assembly can cause the drive to operate erratically. These drives all require specialized cleaning kits that can be purchased online or at your local computer supply store. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions provided with the cleaning kit.

Incidentally, you can clean a CD or DVD disk by using a cloth dampened with water or alcohol. When you do this, don’t clean the disks in a circular motion. Rather, start at the center of the disk and wipe toward the outer edge.


The time invested in keeping your computer system clean is well worth the investment. Your efforts will be rewarded with a system that will run cooler and quieter, and last longer. 

M. Should You Repair or Replace Your Computer

The dilemma that every computer user ultimately faces is whether to repair, upgrade, or replace their computer system. Of course, there’s no right answer to this question, as there are many variables and individual situations to consider. The good news is that it’s always a good time to purchase a new system. Unlike most consumer products, which inevitably increase in price over time, technology goods in fact go down (or, for the same money you get a lot more computing power).

The key to making a good decision is by clarifying your financial circumstances and understanding what your computer needs are, and by carefully researching market prices. It’s important to clarify why your computer’s performance may no longer meet your needs. If the computer seems to have slowed down, make sure that you are performing the maintenance tasks outlined in the section on How to Speed Up Your Computer.

If you’ve been performing those tasks, then ascertain what specific performance improvements you would like to see. Some of the typical ‘upgrades’ to a computer system include the following:

1. Add more/faster RAM (memory)

2. Install a new hard drive with more storage capacity

3. Add a higher-end graphics or sound card

4. Get rid of that old clunky CRT monitor in favor of a flat screen LCD monitor

5. Upgrade your operating system

You can do any of these upgrades for less than the cost of a new computer. However, if there are several upgrades you are considering, it would be wise to research prices carefully and consider purchasing a new system. New computer systems can be purchased for far less than $1000, and it’s not uncommon to see entry level systems available in the $400 - $500 dollar range, particularly when chains such as Best Buy run frequent sales, offer rebates, throw in a printer for free with the purchase of a computer, and so forth.

The trouble with spending what can amount to several hundred dollars on upgrades is that after the upgrade, you still have an older computer whose speed and performance is ultimately defined and limited by the processor, motherboard, bus width, and so forth. However, if all you need is some additional memory, your investment will be a small one, and one well worth it considering how the cost of RAM has gone down. Hard drives are also pretty inexpensive, and again can be purchased on sale or with rebate from Best Buy, Staples, or similar technology supply stores.

If you decide to purchase a new computer system, your options are to purchase from a local retailer, or to purchase online. When you purchase locally, you generally have fewer customization options than if you purchase online. Local retailers may offer a system on sale at a great price, but the system is usually prepackaged and ready to transport. You can get a great bargain this way if the specifications suit your needs.

When you purchase online, you can customize just about everything, from the amount of RAM, to the sound card or graphics card, to the operating system, and so forth. Online retailers such as Dell and Gateway also have frequent sales. System prices are quoted with the default configuration, however, and it’s not hard to double your system price with a few customization changes.

So in making your decision, consider your needs and your circumstances. Here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:

§ Will the number of users utilizing the system increase?

§ Will you be installing any specialized software (graphics editing, games, etc.) that will require either more RAM or a higher resolution monitor?

§ Is your hard drive running out of space?

§ Do you want to upgrade an existing CD drive to a CD-RW (writeable) drive?

§ Has your software and hardware outgrown the capabilities of your current operating system?

You may also be experiencing some problems that can be challenging to troubleshoot. For example, sporadic system crashes can be caused by a failing power supply, motherboard, RAM, or other component. Upgrading first one component, then another and another, can become a financial black hole. Taking your computer into the local repair shop can become a very expensive endeavor.

Speaking of finances, it’s equally important to consider whether you anticipate either your income or your expenses changing in any way in the near future (Kid going to college? Need to buy a new car?). Before making a financial commitment of any kind, take the time to look at the whole picture, and give consideration to possible changing of circumstances.

In conclusion, there are many variables to consider in your decision to repair, upgrade, or replace your computer system. However, if you consider the variables of your particular situation and research prices for both components and systems, you’ll be prepared to make the best decision possible.


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