Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Plugged in: Troubleshoot PC problems before throwing money them

A few months ago, I became concerned that the central file server at my law office was performing much slower than expected, given the very fast components from which I built that device. Because I didn’t want to just throw money at a balky computer, my first reaction was to systematically troubleshoot the system.

The best way to troubleshoot a slow computer is to individually test each subset for overall performance and see whether you have a bottleneck that can be easily and inexpensively upgraded. For this purpose, I like PassMark’s Performance Test 6.1, which comes in both a 32-bit version for regular Windows XP and 32-bit Vista and a 64-bit version for more advanced systems like Windows XP x64, Windows Server and 64-bit Vista. You can get a fully functional 30-day trial version from www.passmark.com, but the purchase price is so reasonable that I suggest buying a long-term license so you can later test your system as needed.

Before testing your system, be sure to completely defragment the boot drive using a disk defragmenter like Diskeeper (www.diskeeper.com). A fragmented hard disk will result in unreliably low performance metrics and will not give you an accurate understanding of where your computer’s weaknesses lie. Similarly, prior to testing, be sure that you have run Windows Update so that your Windows operating system is fully up to date.

Performance Test includes many individual tests, but the most important ones are the combined scores near the end, particularly “CPU Mark,” “Memory Mark,” and “Disk Mark” for business users. Persons using the newest CS4 version of Adobe Photoshop and computer gamers will also be very interested in “2D Graphics Mark” and in “3D Graphics Mark.” I believe that these individual subsystem tests are more meaningful than an overall “PassMark Rating” for the tested computer. These tell you what subsystem most affects your overall performance. PassMark provides a number of comparative test results for standard models, allowing you to directly compare your system with other computers.

What you’re looking for is well-balanced computer performance that’s tuned to your individual needs. A user who mostly does word processing and e-mail does not need high performance in any particular area. For low-demand users, almost anything made within the past three years or so will be adequate. Business users who use Excel or other spreadsheets to crunch a lot of numbers will want very high CPU performance, particularly “CPU Integer Math,” “CPU Floating Point Math” and “CPU Find Prime Numbers.” Business users who store a lot of very large documents or Photoshop users will especially need good hard disk performance, shown by the “Disk Mark” aggregate score.

Now, put a CD in your CD reader, cancel any auto-start programs and run all Performance Test 6.1 tests as a single operation. To do this, choose the “Tests, Run All Tests” menu item. Print out the results, label them appropriately and move to the next phase of testing.

Using the “Windows Update, Custom, Hardware — Optional” selection, check to see whether there are any approved device driver updates for the software that meshes individual hardware to the overall Windows operating system. Install the updated device driver software. Reboot your computer and run Performance Test again, as above. Print out and label these results and see whether you notice any significant changes. Often, updating to a manufacturer’s latest device driver software from Microsoft’s necessarily generic drivers will provide a decent and free performance boost.

Not all driver software makes it to Microsoft’s Windows Update service. Sometimes, you’ll want to find something newer or perhaps a little more exotic, in which case you’ll need to go to the device manufacturer’s own Web site for the latest driver software. Be a little more careful here — sometimes device driver software is posted by a vendor before all of the bugs are worked out and buggy driver software will often crash a system upon the next boot-up. Personally, I would avoid device drivers that are not dated at least a month earlier.

It always makes sense to ensure that you can recover from a crashing system that’s become inherently unstable due to bad device drivers. The best way to do this is to ensure that your system always has Windows System Restore enabled. To check, go to “Control Panel, System, System Restore” and ensure that System Restore is turned on for all drives.

If your system should start crashing after any software or hardware upgrades, don’t just keep trying to reboot the system continuously. You’ll only corrupt the underlying Windows installation sooner or later. Instead, use the F8 key on the next reboot to go into “safe mode” and, rather than trying to boot normally, instead enter the “system restore” function and revert back to the prior-known good system restore point. It will take awhile for Windows to restore your system back to an earlier status, but after you reboot your system should be stable again.

After updating your operating system and device driver software, there’s another potential bottleneck to examine before throwing money at new hardware. Many programs install “helpful” bits that automatically start up as “processes” or “services,” and their individual or cumulative effect is to slow down your system, often remarkably so, or even make it unstable. In years past, among the biggest offenders, in my opinion, were earlier versions of Norton Utilities, which not only caused system instability but actually reduced overall performance by as much as 30 percent, the equivalent of going backwards one full CPU processor generation.

You’ll be able to check and see which processes are hogging CPU and disk performance by using Windows Task Manager, which is accessed by simultaneously hitting the three-key CNTRL-ALT-DELETE combination. When Task Master pops up, first check the Applications tab to see which programs are running. Close them to get a more accurate reading. Then, look at the Performance tab to see whether there are any unusual spikes in CPU, memory or hard disk usage. Finally, check the Processes tab to see what processes are running and how much CPU and memory resources they are using.

During this check, you should not have any application programs open and no routine system maintenance operations like disk defragmenting or virus checking under way. If necessary, wait until these housekeeping chores are completed. CPU and hard disk activity should be near zero during this rest state check. If they are not near zero, something unusual is happening that may be a wasteful use of computer resources.

While you’re at it, use the Performance and Process tabs in Windows Task Manager check to see which optional processes are using a lot of memory. This does not necessarily slow down your system unless the optional processes grab and hold on to so much RAM memory that your overall system does not have enough memory to run applications quickly without having to resort to much-slower hard disk swapping. Photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom demand a lot of RAM memory, by the way, so check memory status while running these programs, as well. If you are potentially short on available RAM, then the least-expensive and best approach is to simply replace your existing RAM with a matched, two- or four-gigabyte pair for 32-bit systems and a matched, four-gigabyte pair for 64-bit operating systems.

The best way to test whether any optional boot-up software is dragging down your system is to use the Ace Utilities (www.acelogix.com) Optimize, Auto-Start Manager to unload all your optional start-up programs, reboot and then use Performance Test 6.1 as described above to measure the raw performance of your system without any secondary software. If there’s a major improvement, decide what you really need to run routinely and what is superfluous. Again use the Ace Auto-Start Manager to add any necessary programs, such as anti-virus software, back into the boot-up sequence.

Make one final performance test, compare it with your prior test results and decide whether there are any hardware bottlenecks that can be readily upgraded without a great deal of cost and hassle. Generally, the most cost-effective upgrades are faster hard disks, faster video cards and increasing the amount of RAM memory in your system. On the other hand, if your CPU Mark and Memory Mark measurements seem low, you’ll probably be better off simply replacing the entire system if you really need the extra performance.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to do some hardware upgrades and the potential pitfalls along the way.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com.

1 comment:

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