Windows

Optimize and maintain your PCs with these simple tips

Keeping PCs running at their best and extending the life of the equipment requires some diligent upkeep. This list of tasks will cover your bases.

Everyone knows that the key to keeping equipment in peak condition -- whether it's a chain saw, a motorcycle, or a desktop PC -- is to follow a preemptive maintenance routine. The question is, what sort of maintenance tasks are required? In a shop full of hundreds (or thousands) of PCs, a systematic approach is essential. This list offers basic measures to incorporate into your optimization and maintenance routine.

This blog post is also available in PDF format as a free TechRepublic download.

Regularly run Defrag and the Disk Cleanup Tool on client systems

Disk fragmentation, especially on intensively used systems, will degrade performance over time. Just be careful about running disk defragmentation when large files are open. For example, if a transactional database (SQL or MSDE) is running, defragmentation tools can't exclusively access all or parts of these types of files to defrag the disk. If there is a service that you can stop to bring this part of the system to a zero-transaction state, you will be able to defrag the drive much more effectively. This is a good task to automate by using a third-party tool like DisKeeper.

Running Disk Cleanup can optimize systems by emptying the Recycle Bin and deleting Temporary Setup Files, Downloaded Program Files, Temporary Internet Files, Old Chkdsk Files, Temporary Files, Temporary Offline Files, Offline Files, etc. To ensure regular execution, you can run the tool as a scheduled task.

Keep firmware and drivers up to date

Firmware updates can keep systems and subsystems current for the best performance. (Be sure to test the functionality before deploying firmware updates and keep a revision of the firmware distributions you're using or have previously used; you may need that archived version again.)

Driver updates can also optimize performance. Keep a revision of the driver versions you use/have used. As with firmware, you may need an archived version in the future. (See "10 Things You Should Know about Device Driver Rollback in Windows XP" for some helpful pointers.)

Keep Windows and essential applications up to date

Use Windows Update to pull down the updates (cautiously) or use Windows Server Update Services to retrieve your approved list. Be aware of potential conflicts with service packs and updates. If PCs have other critical applications running (IIS, SQL, MSDE, etc.), apply the appropriate service packs as they become available. For Microsoft applications, check the Baseline Security Analyzer to determine service pack levels.

Keep antivirus and anti-spyware definitions up to date

Consider using automatic updates to pull down the latest definitions for your programs. Use tools like Ad-Aware by Lavasoft for extra protection against Trojans, browser hijacking, and other malicious activities.

Inspect Services configuration and Device Manager

Open the Services applet of the Windows Control Panel to verify that the Windows-based services that are running and set to Automatic at Startup are consistent with your configuration. (For more on enabling/disabling services, see "Windows XP Services That Can Be Disabled" and "Video: Disable and Enable Windows XP Services.")

Open the Windows Device Manager to look for any devices that are not operating correctly or that may have been removed. Subsystem components may report an error if they're incorrectly configured or not working.

Check page file configuration

Open virtual memory configuration and make sure that the page file size and location are correct for the amount of free space on the drive and the amount of memory installed on the system.

Check power quality

If you have a UPS battery, ensure that it is satisfied with the power supplied to it. If you aren't using one, check that the power source is a good circuit and is correctly grounded. Also make sure that surge suppression strips are in use.

Stay on top of cleaning tasks

Perform a periodic full system cleaning by taking the system apart, removing all dust, and cleaning the external and internal surfaces of the computer. (If you don't have a cleaning solution, you can make one for external surfaces out of 1:1 rubbing alcohol and water.) Be sure to unplug the electronic components when introducing a solution and allow it to dry fully. You should also:

  • Clean the keyboard and mouse. Use a dust vacuum and the alcohol/water solution to clean these dust- and dirt-collecting components.
  • Run a CD-ROM cleaner. As with audio systems, CD-ROM drives can be cleaned with special kits for disc cleaning.
  • Clean display devices by using a cleaner to remove fingerprints, dust, and other imperfections on the screen.
  • Hit floppy drives, if you have them, with a good blast of canned air to remove dust accumulations. Use covers/panels if available to help keep dust out of the drives.
  • If your systems have tape drives, run a cleaning tape through to keep the tape heads clean.

Ensure proper operating area environment

Monitor the area for acceptable temperatures (somewhere between 60 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit) and good air quality. Watch out for tobacco smoke, manufacturing environments, and paper dust. If conditions are less than favorable, you might consider an environmental enclosure.

Check inside and outside the computer for proper airflow. You don't want a computer being used inside a box or pushed into a corner, and you don't want to see a hard drive or other internal device incorrectly installed and blocking airflow to other components. While you're at it, check for all necessary screws on the case and make sure that the case lid or panels are fixed down on all sides. With some systems, case panels are critical to the internal airflow for components.

Check internal and external connections

Open the system and verify that all connections feel solid and are placed correctly. Double-check any accessory cards for a snug setting and good connections.

Make sure cable tensions are appropriate. Having too much strain on a cable or connection can damage the cable, device, jack/node, or the computer. Be sure that there is plenty of slack in the cables on the device and computer ends. Excess strain may cause intermittent performance issues.

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56 comments
gdixon
gdixon

I am surprised that no-one has picked this up yet, or that the contributor didn't mention it. When running Microsoft's Disk Cleanup, you must ensure that you DO NOT EVER select the option to Compress Old Files. Disk Cleanup is a bit simple with this action in that it will compress any file over a particular date/age. This includes application and operating system executables. What has to happen to a compressed file before it can be used? It needs to be uncompressed = time and processing. What happens to the file when usage has been completed? It gets automatically re-compressed = more time and processing. A lot of computer power is used for this action, and a lot of frustration is in store for the user as the machine seems to grind to a halt before doing anything. Anybody who runs this action will end up in a worse situation than if they had never run it in the first place. There is no automatic reversal of this action. The only way to get your machine running back to normal is to re-image it or do a clean install. Prevention is better that the cure for this one. For those living in a Group Policy environment you can push out a Regfix to remove this horrible option, so a user can never see it. Check http://support.microsoft.com/kb/812248 for the manual way to do it. You can create a Reg file to run from these instructions if you wish. Or go to http://www.kellys-korner-xp.com/xp_tweaks.htm and download the Reg file on line 48 to run or push out. Hope this helps someone out there to prevent a major issue with support calls that never needed to happen.

gaucho_mail
gaucho_mail

Intel has a free application for its motherboards to monitor the temperature and voltage of the system and send you alarms when goes beyond the limits.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

To suck or to blow, that is the question. I have mixed feelings on this. Canned air is a great invention, as is the vacuum cleaner. Canned air can move even the most stubborn dust balls under the mainboard, but raises dust clouds that do serious damage to the local air quality. The vacuum prevents the creation of dust clouds, but can't usually generate enough airspeed to pull stubborn dust out of corners. Generally, if I can remove the PC from the office environment, I will blow it out. If I can't, I will vacuum it out. (And if I need to move that stubborn dust the vacuum won't get, a quick spritz from the air while the vacuum is still running can get it and minimize the dust in the air. B-) )

reisen55
reisen55

Here is a fun way to clean machines. If you are in any office, chances are good that dust goes everywhere so take a machine outside and use a leaf blower or vacuum on reverse on it. Enormous fun, looks like a bomb went off half of the time. Good ideas generally. That they should be NEWS to dilligent IT professionals however is sad commentary but, then again, most of that professionalism is lost to Bangalore of course.

cpcca
cpcca

Only slightly off topic Despite doing al of the above we are seeing a dramatic slowdown in ALL systems using XP. Hate to say it but... conspiricy theory? Microsoft updates, especially Net Services are killing XP. Anyone else?

lhgordon
lhgordon

Based on recent experience, I would like to see a section that cleans out and updates codecs.

kkopp
kkopp

I really don't understand why people use the cans of air. All you are doing is blowing dust around. I vacuum out every computer I come in contact with in my shop. When you blow the junk out, you're not removing it from the environment. You're just kicking it up to either be sucked back in or into someone else's machine (that will need to be cleaned later). I don't know about you people, but if I'm digging into a machine I like to have as clean environment as possible. I got the vac just for this purpose for only a couple hundred bucks. It does toner spills too.

jacobus57
jacobus57

...is NOT something to be done carelessly. Aside form the fan warnings already posted, it is vital NEVER to blow air INTO a computer. Very fine grit can infiltrate HDDs and CD/DVD units. destroying them in very short order. Open the case, manually remove dust with an anti-static micro-fiber duster or a computer vac, and if you must use air, blow OUT with great care.

stephen_r1937
stephen_r1937

Good article, good comments. This recommendation: "Open virtual memory configuration and make sure that the page file size and location are correct for the amount of free space on the drive and the amount of memory installed on the system." needs a lot of explanation. Can you point us to a site that tells how to determine correct page file size & location? Stephen R.

doeslayer
doeslayer

The MS supplied defrag utilities are usually not the best. SmartDefrag by IObit does a better job than the MS supplied defrag.

tonymorgan
tonymorgan

No mention of backups and data integrity?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Do you have a formal PC maintenance program at your organization? Do you do any maintenance at all? Or does your maintenance and optimization plan fall into that large grey in-between area?

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]That they should be NEWS to dilligent IT professionals however is sad commentary but, then again, most of that professionalism is lost to Bangalore of course.[/i] Is even on-site support now outsourced overseas? Must be one long screwdriver!

cpcca
cpcca

Of course turning off services always helps along with all the other good practices mentioned here. What I'm seeing is despite all these efforts ALL of the XP and XP Pro installs across various platforms, Laptop and Desktop are getting slower with each update. All are up to date and SP3. As a test I uninstalled Net Services update on 3 Laptops and 2 Desktops and saw an immediate improvement. I don't have ant hard data but wondered if anyone else saw similar effects lately.

Lovs2look
Lovs2look

Run the PC with the bare minimum of services at start-up. Every one that runs uses up valuable CPU and RAM resources. We have modest hardware on my LAN and I have carefully checked each and every service and turned off un-neccessary ones, regularly clean up and defrag the PCs and have not noticed any slow down at all. Actually users commented after I installed SP3 that their PC seemed to be operating faster.

jon_saxon
jon_saxon

I don't want to feed conspiracy theories either but I too have noticed a number of PCs slow down recently. It started not long after I began installing SP3 on Windows XP Pro machines and it seems to have gotten worse over the last few months. And performance drops seem to coincide with "Patch Tuesday."

Lovs2look
Lovs2look

Should do what you're after. It includes 99.99% of all codecs you're ever likely to need, and when you upgrade to a newer version it un-installs all the old ones and re-installs all new versions so the registry and files are kept very clean and tidy. Even checks for broken codecs and will inform the user.

jim
jim

Can you recommend a good vacuum for cleaning PCs? Doesn't it have to be anti-static and still have enough power/capacity to do an effective job? I've had difficulty finding such an animal.

leo8888
leo8888

I guess I shouldn't have been using the air compressor in our company's shop set at 30 P.S.I. for the last 10 years! Seriously though I have been using canned air inside PC cases for a long time and find it extremely useful for getting dust build up off of parts that generate a lot of static like memory modules. I have seen excess dust build up on memory chips cause diagnostics to fail. I never tried a micro-fiber duster but I did purchase a computer vac and found it to be worthless. It would not remove dust build up like good old canned air will.

kkopp
kkopp

Most general users don't need to play with the Virtual memory (Page file) in anything XP and later. This is really only a power user or systems administrator thing. My rule is not to touch it unless you have problems. My machine has 2Gb Virtual memory assigned by the OS and it works just fine. But to answer your Question directly: The rule of thumb that I heard in the days of seriously small ram is to multiply the amount of your ram by two and that is what your minimum size of your virtual ram should be. It is usually located on the C: drive somewhere. Most modern computers don't have more than one drive installed in the machine, so where its at shouldn't be a concern. It should be located on your fastest hard drive you have in the computer (if it is IDE, then the fastest master drive). That should be your C: drive anyway because it gets used most often.

steveracer67
steveracer67

Page file size should be 1 and 1/2 the size of your installed memory. Also if I have a second drive in the system that is where the page file goes, just so the OS drive does not have to deal with swapping files in and out so much.

bmwwaterman
bmwwaterman

Desktops on our network: Their personal drive is mapped to the network. Any documents they save should be saved there. If they change it, it's their responsiblity. Laptops on our network; The end user is responsible to backup their data to the network. We have used Sync Toy with limited success. End users usually don't want to wait to make sure their documents are synced with the ones on the network when they leave the office. Laptops remote; We use Lenovo Rescue and Recovery. It free and comes with the PC. It's just like Ghost. We provide them the external drive and schedule a regular a weekly backup of the whole drive. We set it to save 3 backups. The base backup never gets changed. The others rotate. It's up to the end user to make sure they are connected to the USB external drive so the backup is performed.

bezcom
bezcom

While you have the case open, also look for rubber bands used to keep wires together. Remove them and replace with cable ties. Rubber bands deteriate faster than cable ties and can landup in fans, causing damage. HermanB

jr.golden300
jr.golden300

Do this, and thats all you need. My regular maintenance consists of... Antivir Anti-Virus - Scan Daily/Nightly Malwarebytes - Monthly Super Anti-Spyware - Monthly (Have it run at startup) ATF Cleaner - Weekly to Bi-weekly Uninstall Old Programs/One-Time Use Programs via Add/Remove Programs (Vista, 7 = "Programs and Features") MyDefrag (used to be JKDefrag) - Monthly Leaf Blower - Once a year/as needed FSB = 800mhz or above - Move into the 21st Century (Speed saves time, Time = Money) Check CPU, Hard Drive, and Case Temperatures every so often Tips... Don't use MS Tuneup Utilities like Disk Cleanup or defragger. (Use Third-Party apps) Educate employees/family members about "safe surfing" Throw Internet Explorer in the Trash (Firefox, Opera, or Chrome) DON'T USE REGISTRY CLEANERS!! I hope that helps someone out.

jc@dshs
jc@dshs

Apart from the usual stuff about keeping the machines as physically clean as possible the best method I have found over the last 13 years or so is to wipe the hard drive every 6 months and reinstall windows from scratch. Depending on your organisation you may have Ghost or some other programme to do the rebuilds for you after the initial seed. I am in a high school and use the Research Machines SmartTools software from the UK. I have a boot floppy/usb that runs a DOS programme to contact the server. I enter a name for the pc, a location, a password to access the XP build area on the server. Two minutes later the machine is sucking ALL of its software (XP, Office, CS3, ACAD, Audacity, etc) back down from the server. I walk away and come back in about an hour and the machine is ready to use. At home I also wipe my hard drive every 6 months or so and reinstall. It doesn't take that long but the machine just flys again, like new.

DaveLissa
DaveLissa

Our enterprise-wide policy is "if it's working, don't fix it." I hate to say it, but most often, windows updates just slow it down. We run updates only when necessary (for new, needed features). We also keep away from Vista! Win7 seems to be better, though...

jeff
jeff

Unless things have changed in the last 10 years (yes, a lot has), carpet in many commercial environments have metal fiber in them. Blowing the dust bunnies around can short out important stuff. Sometimes dust bunnies are better left sleeping. And tower PCs are best to be off the floor.

itpro_z
itpro_z

First, Vista (and I assume 7) defrag automatically, so running it on a regular basis should not be necessary. Disk cleanup is still needed, though. Second, users should open up the case on desktops and blow out the dust bunnies at least once per year, more often in dirty environments. Pay particular attention to the heat sink on the CPU, as dust buildup there can fry your processor. On laptops, blow out the cooling vents on the sides, back, and/or bottom of the system. Use a good dustoff product to accomplish this. I have had both desktops and laptops become flaky, generating errors and rebooting unexpectedly, when the dust reaches the point of interfering with cooling.

reisen55
reisen55

OnSite support is sometimes actually based in India. IBM has established a disaster recovery center in Bangalore. NOW if you have a domestic datacenter server failure, that long trip to Bangalore to restore the systems and data is going to be economical or what???????????? Joke of the day: My former employer for 7 years before outsourcing everybody out in 2005 is implementing a totally wireless regional office next year. 1,200 users all with tiny IBM laptops all in little tiny cubes (offices are being eliminated as a waste of space and that costs money) and all the little laptops on wireless connect to Lotus Notes email servers and Windows servers transmitting huge files at the same time .... in wireless. Traffic jam of immense size will result. *****

ziggy3
ziggy3

Dirt Devil Scorpion Turbo 7.0 amps, Electric plug in. does a greart job. No more dust flying a round. $49

Ron_007
Ron_007

Years ago I read some advice on swap files that I've followed. Go for a constant swap file size (set min and max sizes the same) rather than letting it grow and shrink. That is contrary to the last suggestion in that other article, set min size to 2mb and max at some high value. The growth and shrink of the swap file is going to contribute to increased file fragmentation on the drive. The "grow & shrink" plan was valid when HD space was limited. But now, with HD size commonly in 100's of GB you can realistically set a constant swap file of 2,4 or even 8 GB and forget it without seriously constraining available space for data files. Also, if you do go with the constant swap file size it is a good idea to use one of the defrag tools you've mentioned to defrag the swap file. I've found it may take several boot passes to get the swap file down to just a couple of frags. That way it doesn't contribute to forcing other files to frag by fitting into gaps between the swap file frags. Your readers should remember that the "normal" defrag tools won't touch the swap file because it is an always "in-use" system file. If you want a "scary" picture, use a defrag tool to analyze the drive right after doing a fresh Windows install. Everything is seriously fragmented.

stephen_r1937
stephen_r1937

Sounds like good advice, and I especially like it because it's easy to follow. I'll just leave page file alone. Stephen R.

groundhog32
groundhog32

Well, I hope your user base is considerably more attentive than the ones I have worked with. Leaving backups up to the user is tantamount to "washing your hands" of the responsibility. Put in a mandatory backup system, the first backup of which can be presided over by an Admin (remotely, if necessary) to ensure it is done completely. The subsequent differential/incremental type backups can be run quietly in the background without user intervention. With the appropriate backup solution, disconnection from the network is not an issue, as the process just continues where it left off after rejoining the network.

tyler
tyler

We have always used the nylon cable wraps with the adhesive anchoring tabs they slide through. Of course after a few years with heat they pull lose but a little tube of cement in your case can keep the wires where they belong. Of course when the do pop away the wires at least have retain a memory position that still keeps them from getting into fans and heat vents. --- Keeps them on the road for us !!! ---

tom
tom

A few points to remember before starting to clean: 1 - unplug the computer from the wall 2 - hold in the start button for 5 - 10 seconds to discharge residual voltage from the motherboard 3 - when blowing through fans prevent them from spinning by inserting an unfolded paper clip or nozzle tube from an expired can of Dustoff I have seen fans destroyed because they spin at excessive rates due to passing compressed air through them. Common sense points but not necessarily obvious to all. I am sure there are more which others may provide

jc@dshs
jc@dshs

I only have to do the initial floppy/USB thing when i first put the machine on the network. Every time after that I can just schedule complete rebuilds from my console, without having to go near the actual workstation. It just has to be turned on. Also, I can schedule each individual workstation to rebuild at any time of the day or night I care to nominate. I can schedule a whole row, or a whole room or a whole building with just a couple of clicks of my mouse. If I don't want to do a complete rebuild then I can just schedule which pieces of software to delete and reinstall or maybe update with the new version. Did I mention that I think SmartTools, in a school situation at least, is THE BEST THING since sliced bread? Some of you may really appreciate the totally flexible scheduling ability, too.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

I updated a Arcserve backup with windows update and after that, we was unable to backup, we spend two months in long troubleshooting. I'm avoiding windows updates at all cost. Is bad to say, but is truth. Now I only install critical updates and keep the systems isolated as much as possible to avoid exploits.

Lovs2look
Lovs2look

Is not preventative maintenance then...it's reactive. Like when a PC stops working, then you go and fix it. I prefer to do a little maintenance now and then to having to repair completely fried PCs or worse - replace them. Best practices dictates you do install all Windows updates and all Anti-virus updates and any other programs that you use too. Failing to do so makes a PC MORE vulnerable to emerging threats and malware. I apply all available updates to my network of about 70 PCs every patch Tuesday, clean up and defrag the PC too and have had no noticeable slow downs at all. In fact my users noticed a speed increase after installing SP3 for XP on very modest hardware.

larrybell_2000
larrybell_2000

While I whole heartedly agree with points mentioned in all the replies (Auto defrags, disk cleanup, cleaning out dust bunnies, etc.), there are a few more points that I haven't seen mentioned. If you decide to use a third party defrag (or any) tool, BE SURE TO READ THE LICENSE AGREEMENT!! Most free utilities allow free use for personal use, but NOT use in a commercial (business) setting. As I read it, Smart Defrag by IOBit would allow free use in a business, and I would rather use it over any of the Microsoft tools. Airflow: yes, vacuum or blow out the dirt from the air vents and interior of the desktop cabinet AND the power supply. I like to blow it out, but I take mine outside to do it. But I have not seen anyone mention that you should perform a visual check of the system board for bulging or leaking capacitors during your system maintenance. A system with bulging or leaking capacitors is headed for failure, possibly taking other components with it (video or sound cards, etc). I have worked on failed systems, including my own personal machines, that have had failing capacitors. If a machine with bulging/leaking capacitors is still under warranty (or even if not) ordering a replacement unit/part before the system totally fails could reduce downtime for that unit/user.

micarr1
micarr1

Just found out the hard way that when air blasting the heatsink you need to prevent the fan blades from free-wheeling. If you don't you can end up damaging the bearings in the fan. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Sigh, then try to find a replacement fan without having to also replace the heatsink. Not fun!

bboyd
bboyd

Have you seen the state their defrag leaves. Lets just say "Sub-Optimal" and leave the bad words out of it.

martink
martink

When you clean dust bunnies you should clean the insides of the power supply of a desktop as well obeying the regulations while doing it. The cases I've seen small fires in PC, it's been always the power supple. Martti K.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

Yes, backups is an admin tasks. All pcs/laptops must save data (trough GPO, redirection, mapping, shares, etc) to the server and the server must be back it up daily, full or full+differential. Big pst storage can go to another share and have different backup policy.

Lost Cause?
Lost Cause?

Trying to get teachers and administrative staff to perform backups is a lost cause. They believe someone else is responsible for their data. There are 3 of us versus 3500 computers in the school district. We are barely keeping up with break/fix let alone backups for individuals.

Lost Cause?
Lost Cause?

...can create enough voltage to blow a motherboard. Be sure to block ALL fans from turning if you are going to use canned air to clean the dust out - or unplug them from the motherboard prior to blowing any air through them.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

:0 Just how long were you blasting on it? When cleaning a fan/heat sink, you should blow through the heat sink a couple of times, then down through the fan once or twice; all it usually takes is a couple of quick spritzes. Another tip: Unplug the fan from the mainboard and remove the fan and heat sink before blowing out. You will find it's much easier to clean and you can also blow out the area of the mainboard under the heat sink.

pdr5407
pdr5407

Blowing out the case is an excellent idea. I use Smart Defrag to defrag and Ccleaner to remove temp/junk files. Avast or Avira are good for virus protection and I use Defender and Windows Firewall also for security and have not had any malware attacks.

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

I use any antivirus (free) like AVG or AVAST and works ALL THE TIME with a limited account, never an administrator one and this has been proved to be the best practice for windows enviroments. I never pay for Norton, Onecare and any other AV with $$ because is not needed if you follow the required precuations. The most important is not to have a good spyware or good AV, instead to have a good security policy in the pc. In regards to defrag, I never use the MS degrag software, I use Perfectdisk or Ontrack Utilities. Backup is a must, and I use Beyond Compare, is AMAZING!!! and MAC/LINUX users are crying because similar apps do not perform like Beyond compare!!!

PoconoChuck
PoconoChuck

OneCare is no longer sold; I, too, have used it for about 3 years now, and have benefited from the automated backups it provided to my home PCs to my external hard drive. The replacement app, Security Essentials, evidentially doesn?t consider ?backups? to be ?essential?

mr.kngsl
mr.kngsl

Hi! We use Windows Live OneCare. It does ALL the maintenance on all our computers automatically. We have run this for many years now and have never had a problem with its performance. I recommend you check it out. It can be purchased anywhere that sells software. We buy it at Staples every year for the cheapest price. It costs us about $0.83 a month to run and it is an excellent program. Well worth the price no matter where you buy it! We have never had an issue with viruses, Trojans, spyware, hackers, or any cyber-crime attacks since installing OneCare such as we suffered with the other various popular similar programs. Check it out? :-)

hochspeyer
hochspeyer

Another place to clean while you have the box open is the air intake(s) on the front, sides, bottom or rear of the pc.

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