Care and Feeding of Windows Vista

We can thank my wife for this posting...

We recently sent our son off to college with his new laptop computer with Windows Vista on it. (After having worked with Vista for some time now, I definitely understand why people dislike it but also find that it works fine for most everyday computing needs.) I don't think he realized the value of living with a "systems administrator" (that's me, tamer of the home computers) so I sat him down, and we had a long discussion about how he darned well better back up his computer and take care of it. In other words, don't come crying to me if a virus eats your term paper 2 days before it's due and you don't have a backup!

To try to make this as "easy" for him as possible, I wrote up the method I've developed over many years for maintaining my Windows computers. This is where my wife comes in -- she said I should share this with others since it seems to be pretty good advice, so here you go.

There are weekly tasks and monthly. This is a reasonable amount of effort. If you really really want to be safe, replace "weekly" with "daily" and "monthly" with "weekly." (And no, I don't really expect my son to do all of this, but you can always hope. Bottom line was I said to him at the very least promise me you will back up your entire computer once a month, promptly install Windows updates, and make sure your anti-virus is current and working.)

By the way, the following works almost identically on Windows XP and is just as applicable to that operating system.

Weekly

  • Use an account with administrator privileges for the following (but always do your everyday work and web surfing in a non-admin account). 
  • Start with a reboot and all programs closed.
  • Make sure Windows is up-to-date and that there are no outstanding Windows Security Updates. Install all updates if needed.
    • Temporarily disable your anti-virus program before running Windows Update -- AV programs have been known to interfere with some updates. 

Why waste back-up disk space on garbage? Clean up the system first:

  • Use the built-in Disk Cleanup program to remove large, space-wasting old System Restore files.
    • Double-click (open) "Computer" (or "My Computer").
    • Right click "Local Disk C:" and then select "Properties" at bottom of pop-up menu.
    • Click "Disk Cleanup" button.
    • Select "Files from all users on this computer" & wait for scan to complete.
    • Click "More Options" tab on Disk Cleanup window that comes up.
    • Under "System Restore and Shadow Copies", click "Clean up..." button and wait a little while.
    • Click "OK", then "Delete Files" on pop-up box.
    • Close the open windows when done.
  • Run CCleaner to clean up a bunch more garbage.
    • Note this program may erase all your cookies, and you probably don't want that. (It's fine to keep cookies for sites that you use regularly, so you don't have to login every time for example).
    • If you don't want to erase all your cookies, click Options -> Cookies, then move selected cookies to the Cookies to Keep list.

Now that you've cleaned up the disk, the next set of steps will run a bit faster.

  • Make sure anti-virus files are updated & current (we're using Symantec, so run their Live Update program if needed).
  • Run a full anti-virus scan (allow 30-60 minutes; run "Quick Scan" if in a hurry).
  • Run a general utility that cleans up the registry and may do other housekeeping. We're using the free Glary Utilities, which seems to do a fine job.
    • With Glary, run "Scan for Issues" first, then click "Repair Problems" if any are found.

Give your hard drive a little TLC -- it can go a long way to preserving the drive and your data over the long haul.

  • Run the command line utility chkdsk to ensure the drive is healthy and fix any problems:
    • Open a command line prompt as an administrator:
      Start -> Programs -> Accessories -> right-click "Command Prompt" and select "Run as administrator" from pop-up box.
    • At the command prompt, type:    chkdsk c: /f
    • Enter "Y" to run next time system restarts.
  • If you have more than one partition, repeat for each partition.
  • Restart the computer so that chkdsk runs. 
    • One odd thing I've noticed on Vista is you have to be really patient after checkdisk finishes and before the computer completes rebooting. I've seen it just sit there for a long time like nothing's happening, but just keep waiting, and the system will restart.

Monthly

I'd recommend doing these tasks the first of each month. (Skip to next section if not monthly.)

  • Check all (or at least most) of the software on your system for security issues and updates. It's much more than Windows nowadays that may be an attack vector. For this, I run Secunia PSI.
    • Click the "Scan" tab and wait for it to finish scanning.
    • "View Insecure Programs" if found.
    • Replace insecure programs with the newest versions.
  • Defragment your hard drive -- it may run a little faster afterwards. Keeping with the free utility theme, we've been using Smart Defrag.
    • Check the box to defrag the C: drive.
    • There's a box next to the Start button that might say "Defrag Only". Change it to "Fast Optimize".
    • This usually takes a while! Give it 1-2 hours or overnight maybe.
      • You can use "Defrag Only" if in a hurry -- it only takes a few minutes but it's not as thorough.

Weekly, continued...

And now for the most important part, back up your system! Actually, it's not really a back-up -- we're going to make an image. This allows you to restore the entire hard drive, including all you data, exactly as it was when you created the image. If you just back up data and your hard drive dies or gets infected, you have to reinstall all your software, retweak everything, and then restore your data. That's why I prefer images -- in one step, you can return the entire computer to the exact state it was in when you created the image.

  • Restart the system one more time. (This might be a bit of overkill, but I want my image to be based on as clean a state as possible.)
  • Temporarily disable the anti-virus -- the imaging may go a bit faster.
  • Now make an image of the entire hard drive. There are various programs you can use, but I am a big fan of Acronis True Image and highly recommend it. Granted this one's not free, but it's a small investment for the value and peace of mind.
  • Start Acronis True Image and make an image of your C: drive to the external hard drive. (You can use Acronis to back up to a network or DVDs, but the easiest thing is to use an external hard drive I think.)
    • Make a new, complete full image at the start of each month.
    • Make an incremental image on top of the full image each week, until the next month.
    • As the external drive fills up, make room by deleting the oldest images.
  • We're just about done. At this point, don't forget to re-enable your anti-virus.
  • As we're now highly reliant on the external drive, I would run chkdsk on it as well to ensure it's healthy and fix any problems.
    • Open a command line prompt as an administrator:
      Start -> Programs -> Accessories -> right-click "Command Prompt" and select "Run as administrator" from pop-up box.
    • At the prompt, type:    chkdsk g: /f
      (Note: Replace "g:" if needed with the correct letter for your external drive.)
    • Properly shut down the external drive, then unplug it and turn it off.

And now you're done.

So, is this process really worth the effort? IMHO, absolutely!

  • Ever have friends tell you how they have to reinstall Windows (sometimes often) because of all the problems they have? I worked on a Windows XP system every day for 6 years and never had Windows crash nor did I reinstall it once. I believe maintenance is a key to this.
  • Ironically, right after lecturing my son about all this, my hard drive on my new desktop (less than a year old) completely and totally died. (Seems Seagate made some faulty drives, and I was unlucky enough to get one.) The drive worked fine on Sunday when I did my weekly maintenance and imaging. I turned the machine on Monday morning and got the dreaded "Hard drive not found" message. I replaced the drive, restored my image, and it was as if the drive had never died. This is not the first time (and probably not the last) that Acronis has totally come to my rescue. It is so worth it. Please don't wait for this to happen to you to backup your system!

Of course there are many other utilities out there, and everyone has their favorites, and they may have different pros and cons. I'm happy to say I've had good results with the ones I've pointed out, but, as the saying goes, "your mileage may vary." In any case, I hope you find this advice helpful -- feel free to share it with your son or daughter before he or she heads out to college too!

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About

I helped design, build, and manage download systems at Sun for many years. Recently I've focused on web eMarketing systems. Occasionally, I write about other interests, such as holography and jazz guitar. Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/garyzel

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