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Windows maintenance, done dirt-cheap

Jon L. Jacobi | May 30, 2014
You don't need to buy a utility suite. You just need what Microsoft brought to the party, plus a couple of freebies, to keep Windows humming along.

BIOS updates are often issued, but rarely required. Quite often you'll see the comment that you shouldn't update unless you're experiencing the specific problem that's fixed by said BIOS update. Other times, there will be support for newer technologies or peripherals, which you'll probably want. Apply as needed, but be careful. Make sure there's no power interruption, and make a backup of the old BIOS and your settings just in case.

There are third-party driver installers in many suites as well as some standalones. They can be useful at times as they keep track of drivers that may not have hit the Windows driver repository. Personally, I like to search myself to learn more about the update. But generally, if it ain't broke... I have many IT colleagues who totally disagree and install every update. Your call.

Monitor system health

Many maintenance suites install a background app to monitor your PC's health. You don't need it. Windows provides its own, and every modern BIOS (invoked by pressing DEL, TAB, F2 or another key at boot-up) monitors such things as CPU and system temperature, as well as hard drive health via S.M.A.R.T (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology). At least it will if you tell it to--it's often turned off by default.

If there's something amiss with your hard drive, the BIOS will warn you at boot time, and if you suspect somethings amiss with your fan, CPU, or its installation, there's always a section of the BIOS section that will show you the temperature, fan speeds, and other data. Reboot and seek it out if you hear your fan whining more than usual.

If you want to know what's going on with your CPU, memory, and disk access within Windows, open the task manager (taskmgr.exe) and choose the Performance tab (and Networking tab prior to Windows 8). Or, download the super-lightweight and free OpenHardwareMonitor. OHM is clean, simple, and shows you the temperatures of all the hardware components, voltages, fan speeds, and more. Motherboard vendors often provide monitoring apps as well.

If you want more detailed S.M.A.R.T info than your BIOS provides, or to invoke your drive's own integrated short and long self-tests (many BIOS's lack this facility), Passmark's free DiskCheckup is the ticket. If you suspect drive problems, run the short test first, then the long test (hours for large, multi-terabyte drives) if you're certain the drive is at fault. It may not be. I hate when that happens.

Maintenance schedule

You don't need a suite to keep your PC in ship-shape, though more power (and clutter) to you if you install one. Just forego real-time optimization features--they may hurt rather than help performance. See my recent System Mechanic 12.7 review.


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