Five tips for maintaining a healthy Windows system

A little preventive maintenance can go a long way toward keeping a machine optimized and problem-free. Here are some basic but vital steps to follow.

Riddle me this: What's the best way to keep a running system healthy? The answer? Unplug it from the network and never allow it online. Ah, but that is not an option for the majority of users -- especially those whose business depends upon a networked computer. So, how does one maintain a healthy system when it  must be connected to a hostile environment?

There are so many ways to ensure a healthy system, your job could primarily consist of keeping machines healthy (and it probably does). So let's narrow down the methods of keeping machines running smoothly and consider five of the most important ways to maintain a healthy system.

1: Keep antivirus and anti-malware definitions up to date

I am always shocked when I work on machine and find the very definitions that do the most to protect a system are out of date. This is only asking for problems, since new viruses pop up almost daily. If virus definitions are not set up to automatically update nightly, change them to do so. If this is not an option, at least make sure that users are made aware of the need to have those definitions manually updated nightly. If this requires the need to set up reminders for users, then so be it. But not matter how it gets done, make absolute certain that it is getting done. Outside of keeping a machine off the network, no single task can better help to ensure the health of a Windows machine than keeping antivirus and anti-malware definitions up to date.

2: Clean up the registry

Next to outdated virus definitions, a fubar'd registry can really hobble a Windows computer. The registry is a crucial component to Windows and it can become corrupted, broken, or generally dismayed easily. Removal programs, virus infections, rootkits, Trojans, improper computer shutdown... there are so many possible ways to corrupt a registry. But how to keep it clean? Plenty of tools are available to clean up the Windows registry (doing the job manually would be nearly impossible). One of my favorites is Piriform's Ccleaner. This tool allows for the quick and easy cleanup of the Windows registry. There are lots of other tools that can handle this same task, so the choice will most likely depend upon your needs and tastes.

3: Clean out temporary Internet files

People are always surprised at how much their browser saves. Between cookies, images, and other cached files, a Web browser can really clog up a user's C drive. Although drives are cheap and huge, I have come across instances where there were more than 20 gigs of cached Internet files (between browsers). This can obviously cause problems when space becomes an issue, and it can cause significant slowdown of the Web browser. Keeping these cached files cleared will help a machine run more smoothly, and it will allow for a better Web browsing experience. The browser cache can be cleared from within the user's browser. In fact, some browsers can be set to auto-clear the cache upon exit. If users tend to horde their cache, set their browser up to automatically clear the cache when they exit it.

4: Defragment drives

I hate this. I really do. I would have thought that Microsoft would have solved the problem of fragmentation somewhere in the process of creating Vista and Windows 7. But it didn't. Instead, it set Windows 7 up with an automatically scheduled defragment. That's all great, but there are some people out there still running Windows XP who do not benefit from Microsoft covering up its inability to resolve an issue that has plagued the platform for the longest time. If you (or your end users) are still running Windows XP, ensure those machines are set up to auto-defragment at least once a week.

5: Run a disk check

This one is not really for the new users, but for the administrators. Every once in a while (once a month maybe), it is good to run chkdsk X: /f /r (where X is the drive letter you want to check). The f switch tells the command to automatically fix errors and the r switch locates bad sectors and recovers readable data. Just make sure you reboot the machine right after the check. Otherwise, users might cancel the check disk run -- or worse, shut down the machine in the middle of the check.

Basic maintenance

It really isn't all that hard to keep a Windows machine healthy, but it does take a bit of time and, in some cases, a bit of patience. Be sure to follow these five tips and those Windows machines will live a long, healthy, productive life.