Preventative maintenance for PCs: Four favorite utilities

Whether it's a visit to the MD or the auto mechanic, periodic check-ups are necessary to make sure things keep working the way they should. When the work at the help desk slows down enough to allow for non-emergency maintenance, here's what I pull out of the tool box.

Here in Chicago, it's time to start thinking about getting the car winterized. Since driving in our winter snows can sometimes be pretty hairy, that auto check-up isn't really optional. Working at the help desk can be a little different, though. We can get so busy dealing with the emergencies that come up, it can become all too easy to postpone routine maintenance -- "Oh, I'll get to that tomorrow." There's nothing that I can do to keep you from postponing your preventative to-dos. I can, however, offer some suggestions for utilities you can use to keep your PC in working order.

  • Run Aida32 for a system report. I like having recent documentation of all the things going on in my machine. Aida32 is a great freeware app for Windows that will return every possible detail you might need to know about your PC, from installed software to chipset information. Checking out this system report reminds me to remove applications I'm no longer using and can be used to determine which bits of hardware might be ripe for an upgrade. Development on Aida32 has been abandoned, but recent versions can still be found on various download sites. If you'd prefer to use something that's being actively updated, you might look at Belarc Advisor or System Information for Windows. Those programs, though, are free only for non-commercial use.
  • Clear hard disk space with JDiskReport. Working for the help desk, I'm always downloading files. There are software packages to test, and log file archives to analyze. I find myself running low on disk space pretty often, especially when I'm trying to build custom Windows install disks slipstreamed with the current updates. When I want to clean my drive of those space hogs I don't need, I turn to JDiskReport. A free cross-platform utility built in Java, I like the way that JDiskReport clearly highlights the most egregious space offenders on your disk. If you don't have Java on your machine, SequoiaView is another option for Windows users. I'm not a fan of its "treemap" method of displaying disk allocations, though.
  • Test your system memory with Memtest86+. Memory faults can be difficult to troubleshoot, since the symptoms can be so varied. Head off crashes before they start by testing your PC's memory subsystem. Open-source Memtest86+ boots from removable media and puts your machine's memory through its paces so you can detect faulty hardware before it starts contributing to system instability.
  • Verify your hard disk's integrity with SpinRite. We should all be making regular back ups, but wouldn't it be nice if we could have some warning before our hard disks failed? That's the promise of SpinRite. A DOS-based disk maintenance tool, SpinRite uses block analysis techniques and a disk's built-in error checking circuitry and to diagnose and repair storage problems before they become critical. SpinRite can even occasionally resurrect drives that won't boot, as long as the problem is not due to a fault with the drive mechanism. It's also worth noting that SpinRite is file system agnostic, and has been verified to work on drives formatted for Linux and Macintosh OS.

Preventative maintenance isn't sexy, and it can be hard to find the time for it. These tasks don't have to be done every week, though, and I'm convinced that making time for them every few months helps keep my PC working for me.