Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Plugged In: When Windows cracks, try free software fixes first

Windows certainly has its foibles, and it’s a bit odd that the most effective fixes are typically inexpensive or free third-party utilities available primarily as Internet purchases or as free downloads.

Here are some that I’ve found invaluable when a Windows installation has become unstable or slow, but is not yet so flaky that a time-consuming reinstallation becomes necessary. Think of these as minor maintenance.

  • Ace Utilities. Ace Utilities is a reliable compact program that’s much less expensive than Norton, with lower system demands. Except for hard disk optimization, it performs basically the same diagnostics and Windows Registry clearing as Norton Utilities, but only on demand rather than as a potentially intrusive background process that runs continuously. I’ll typically run Ace Utilities as a first response whenever a computer system seems to be balky or slightly unstable. You can download a 30-day trial version at http://www.acelogix.com.
  • Free RAM Optimizer. Acelogix also provides, as a free download to its customers, a Windows memory optimizer. I’ve installed it on a home computer with 2 GB RAM, a computer that’s often used to edit photo files that may be several hundred megabytes each. This system often slowed nearly to a halt as a result of RAM overloads and resultant hard disk data swapping. Ace’s RAM Optimizer seems to have somewhat reduced such performance bottlenecks to a tolerable level without any noticeable adverse effects. Programs like this will make a difference when available RAM is low as a result of many programs loaded simultaneously or when you are intensively processing very large files, such as running text recognition on a several-hundred-page Acrobat document or sharpening a massive photographic file. You can download this program from www.acelogix.com.
  • Upgrading Performance. I’ve mentioned Diskeeper (www.diskeeper.com) in a prior article as one of the most effective long-term ways to improve overall computer performance. Other useful programs for detecting bottlenecks and tuning hard disk performance are HD Tune and Performance Test (www.passmark.com). You can download a free, 30-day trial of the full Performance Test program, and I recommend it as a means of finding performance bottlenecks in your existing system and checking whether any upgrades are worthwhile. Remember the common wisdom that you’ll need at least a 50 percent overall system performance increase before an ordinary business user will perceive any useful improvement. Passmark also provides a 30-day free trial of their “burn-in” software that stress tests computer systems for potentially flaky components. You should definitely run burn-in software on any new system, particularly before any return period expires.
  • Belarc Advisor. Windows handles security and other issues by applying a series of “patches” to fix specific portions of the operating system code. Sometimes, though, patches are not properly applied and various portions of your operating system can become mismatched and thus potentially unstable. Belarc Advisor, a free download available from www.belarc.com, checks your operating system for vulnerabilities, installed software and its status, and Windows components. If one or more Windows components or patches are not as they should be, such items are flagged and you will be directed to the specific part of Microsoft’s Web site where a corrective download and/or more information are available. This program is invaluable when you need it. It certainly beats reinstalling Windows and all of your programs and data, not to mention relicensing hassles. Belarc Advisor also provides a lot of other useful information about your hardware and software, such as data on all installed programs.
  • Dial-a-Fix. The other free Windows repair utility that’s occasionally worked wonders on an unstable system is “Dial-a-Fix,” which I’ve found available from a number of sites on the Web. Dial-a-Fix has resurrected systems that otherwise seemed destined for a hard disk reformat and complete reinstallation of Windows. I have never experienced any damage on a Windows installation from its use. In addition to trying the basic menu options, also try some of the various options in the Tools button, but avoid any of the reinstallation options unless absolutely necessary.
  • Hard disk failures. I have found a lot of useful hard disk resurrection and repair information at http://www.cgsecurity.org/wiki/TestDisk. This site links to some potentially useful open-source programs, but I have not personally tested them.

Local attorney Joseph Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and has been writing and lecturing about technology throughout the U.S. since 1990 for American Bar Association, Alaska Bar Association and private publications. He also owned a computer store in Soldotna between 1990 and 2000.

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