The Cause of Your Computer Woes? Hint: It's Likely You

The Cause of Your Computer Woes? Hint: It's Likely You

Gregory Han
Jan 27, 2011

On a scale of 1-10, how would you measure your excitement level when asked about updating your computer's operating system? How about researching the riveting realm of utility and productivity apps? Or how about testing out software/hardware combinations to eke out saving a few seconds in productivity? Yawning does not count as a response. More likely than not, you're prone to respond to these inquiries with the same glazed look as an art major attending a macro-economics lecture. Yet I find myself belonging to the minority that actually finds enjoyment doing these types of tech tasks (if this applies to you, skip this post…you're likely to roll your eyes more than if you were watching a ferris wheel).

There's something satisfying about making something work better, more efficiently, fixing things that were once non-operational. I guess tweaking and fine tuning your computer is like a geek's equivalent of changing your own oil or replacing the spark plugs. So today I'm sharing a few personal favorite apps, utilities and techniques that can jumpstart your workflow, and none of them require a pocket protector or having the given name, Poindexter. By the way, did you know the name means 'right fist'? Yeah, me neither.

The truth is 90% of computer issues, perhaps even closer to 98%, is due to user negligence (that's completely an un-scientific figure I've thrown out there for dramatic effect, but you get my drift). Yeah, that means you, Mr. Crumby Keyboard and Ms. I Haven't Updated My OS Since 2007. The majority of people treat their machines with disinterested negligence; it's actually a wonder they work so well considering all the incoming and outgoing data ever changing the digital composition within. Every time you visit a site, install a new driver, connect a new device, choose to install or ignore an operating system update, you're possibly improving or decreasing your chances of a problem arising. Just practicing a few basic tenets of computer maintenance will keep your machine in tip-top shape.

1.) Update Your Software: This seems like a complete no-brainer, yet half the time I've been asked to troubleshoot a machine with ongoing issues, I soon discover the owner is expecting 2011 performance and stability from 2009 software. Software updates tend to be chockfull of corrective coding to fix bugs and deficiencies that might have been missed the first time around or added due to user feedback (though admittedly they can also introduce some new headaches). You don't have to check for system updates every week like we do, but at least checking once a month and taking the time to install updates can make a huge difference in system stability and performance. When in doubt, update your operating system and applications before crying, "It's broken!". Both MS Windows and Apple OS X offer scheduled software update notifications. Don't ignore them.

2.) Clean Your Hard Drive: If you've ever admired our best house tours on Apartment Therapy and Tech Tours here at Unplggd, you've likely noticed these ideal spaces are mostly clutter-free. That doesn't happen magically. Editing, fighting off unnecessary accumulation of non-vitals and a regular cleaning routine keeps movement inside a home easy and creates a sense of spacious comfort; in similar fashion, keeping enough space on your hard drive can dramatically influence operational speed and reduce inefficient clutter.

We like to try avoid crossing over the line of having less than 100GB of hard drive space free at any given time (our laptop has 500GB hard drive) and we regularly monitor which type of files we're keeping on our machine by categorizing the majority of files with a small system of folders on our desktop (shown above). Some of our team even reformat their drives completely as maintenance. Give particular attention to duplicates in your music library and photos. Too many times our computers become the equivalent of the garage or attic. "I might need this one day" is usually an excuse for facing an honest assessment. Don't be a the digital equivalent of someone on Hoarders.

3.) Back That SAS Up: sorry about the bad geek pun (a SAS is a Serial Attached SCSI), but it's good advice to never, ever rely on just a single hard drive and back up regularly (or clone it). In fact, we believe if you're someone who depends on your computer beyond purely recreational endeavors, you should have two additional external hard drives. The first drive should be purely for backup purposes. Schedule your drive to backup your computer's content once a week, maybe even daily if your computer's contents change drastically and regularly. Mac users have the super simple Time Machine feature built-in, and all that is required is an external hard drive or Time Capsule. Windows 7 users can configure and schedule regular backups in similar fashion. Your second external drive is what I like to refer to as media purgatory; with many of us collecting/converting/arching photos, music, movies and other media, storage space of your main drive can go from empty to full in quick time. By storing non-essentials like music and movie files externally, your main drive is left with plenty of space to kick out its legs when needed. I've recovered gigabytes of hard drive space by simply migrating older digital photo files to a secondary (and third and fourth) drive for safe keeping. Moving files to a cloud service or simply over to an online host like Flickr or similar sites can also keep your primary drive cluttered.

4.) Acquaint Yourself With One Maintenance Software Solution: I'm not asking you to get another degree in computer science, but I do believe everyone is capable of learning how to use a single maintenance and diagnostic software. Computers often come preloaded with diagnostic tools, but as an OS X user, I've discovered 3rd party developers can offer even more effective and powerful solutions when the proverbial doodoo hits the Dyson fan (wait, those don't have any blades, do they?). Two applications I highly recommend are OnyX and Cocktail; OnyX is a little more plain jane, bare bones, but is absolutely free. Cocktail is free as a demo for 10 uses then requires a $14.95 purchase. Think of these type of apps as the equivalent of taking your car into the mechanic for maintenance; repairing disk permissions, verifying your drive, clearing system, application and browser caches, rebuilding databases (HEY, I see you nodding off again)…all these maintenance jobs can be handled with an easy to use utility. Using an application like OnyX or Cocktail is probably the best proactive step you can take from experiencing system issues. Windows users, check out CCleaner and Defraggler for similar under the hood optimizing.

5.) Be Honest About Your Age…Your Computer's Age: The other day we were over at a relative's house and they were complaining about how slow their internet connection was. Upon inquiry they admitted they were using a very outdated laptop connected online with a USB dongle connected to a last generation wi-fi router purchased on clearance discount and running an operating system way past its expiration date. Is it no wonder their internet connection was slow? Obviously budget can be a very valid reason for not upgrading to the latest and greatest. But there are also plenty of people who hold out on upgrading simply because they're comfortable what they already know and are prone to avoiding relearning how to use a new computer, setup a new router, upgrade their hard drive or RAM. All these things factor into how fast and well your machine performs. Updating your 5 year old machine with the latest OS or software upgrade might actually have a detrimental effect because companies do not code for what is regularly considered obsolete machines. Knowing when to upgrade to a new machine is really a case by case basis, but if you're constantly finding yourself held back by the speed of your computer and it's been in use for more than 3-4 years, it could be worth budgeting for a new setup. We recommend looking into refurbished machines through authorized dealers; you can upgrade to current technology at a discounted rate, especially if you time your shopping with the announcement of the newest upgrades and pick up the now "older" model.

(Image: Flickr member Repoort/Adam Hally licensed for use under Creative Commons)

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