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Creative Computing

Good PC Practices for Paralegals

Keeping your system running optimally.

By Kim Plonsky

(Originally appeared in print as "Good PC Practices")


With spring-cleaning time looming on the horizon, now could be the perfect time to revisit old, or institute new, PC housekeeping practices. Since downtimes that slow or halt productivity and eat up precious resources and profits have become a sad reality of life in the 21st century, periodic reviews of PC systems are not only in order but are essential for paralegals to do their jobs. Because most paralegals rely on computers to manage legions of important matters in both the business and personal aspects of their daily lives, PC shutdowns and slowdowns can be a real drag, wreaking havoc in unimaginable ways. Or so I was recently reminded.

The Consequences of Clutter

It all came about because I was “too busy” to routinely perform a few simple chores to keep my PC running smoothly, many of which easily could have been automated. The toll was severe and still mounts — missed obligations and deadlines, emergency expenses for upgrades and repairs, time and productivity lost to installation and re-installation of software, restoring data files and personal settings, and the list goes on.

The culprit behind the mayhem was nothing more or less than the seemingly innocuous detritus of a virtual existence. An overload of temporary files created by software programs and Web browsing, remnants of software installations and removals, files created when applications crashed, and unwanted Microsoft Windows registry entries that invaded my system, combined with a general overload of unnecessary files of all types (for example, e-mail and documents that were duplicative or obsolete), culminated into the perfect storm, toppling my PC and bringing all work to a grinding and unforgiving halt.

After spending days exhausting my own resources and consulting my computer expert, I had to face the reality that my system was beyond quick fixes, and that it was entirely my own fault. My two best options, both rather extreme, time-consuming and costly, were to either completely re-install Windows XP and then restore my data files and settings, but wipe out my existing data files and application settings in the process, or replace my PC with a new one and still end up spending a lot of time re-installing software, restoring data files and transferring settings.

Being thrust into making these types of important decisions in the midst of trying to complete several pressing assignments complicated things further, as did the fact that hardware and software options were greatly limited by what was readily available in my area. Of course, whether I opted for a new PC or a system upgrade, I needed it “yesterday,” just to start the process of getting back up and running.

Thus it was that I ended up standing in line at my local computer store, poised to buy the only tablet PC available in my area, when I abruptly changed courses, opting instead to undertake a major system upgrade (operating system, RAM, and software) for around $600 — half the cost of a new tablet PC. Frankly, had I liked the new tablet more than the one I was replacing, I would have relished the opportunity for an excuse to buy it. But, you see, I was not planning on replacing my beloved tablet PC, and that is the point. Buying a new PC is a decision that is best made after thoughtful research and planning, not in an emergency situation when options can be limited, including by what is available in your area.

Since I am somewhat of a power user, I chose to upgrade my operating system to Windows Vista Business, upgrade from Microsoft Office 2003 to Microsoft Office Small Business 2007, and increase my computer’s RAM to the minimum required to run Windows Vista — 2 GB. Upon the store expert’s recommendation, I purchased Acronis True Image 10 Home software (Acronis True Image 11 is now available) to back up my entire PC so I could eventually restore my data files and application settings. Eight days later, I finally was back in business, with my year-old PC restored to optimum performance but pretty much maxed out and worse for wear, while I was somewhat lighter of pocketbook from both actual expenses and unrealized income.

Time to Clean House

While for some, my disaster might illustrate a costly and valuable lesson learned; to add insult to injury, I must admit that I knew better, as you probably do. So why not resolve to keep your PC shipshape, as a hedge against the occurrence of nightmare scenarios like the one discussed in this column, by taking the time to do eight simple things today to keep your Windows system running optimally and reliably all year long. (Note: I do use Windows Task Manager to schedule many routine PC maintenance tasks, including those described for emptying the Recycle Bin and deleting all manner of temporary files. However, in reality these tasks can’t really be scheduled to occur during normal down times, like during the middle of the night, as they sometimes stop to request user permissions or other user interaction — especially with the increased security implementations under Windows Vista.)

1. Dump the trash. Unless it gets dumped, sooner or later, the trash at your curb will pile up and cover your house, and is free for perusal by all. Similarly, deleted PC files in the Recycle Bin take up space and are vulnerable to unwanted viewing. Make it a habit to empty the Recycle Bin frequently, at least once a week.

2. Delete temporary Internet files/cache and cookies. While temporary Internet files serve a worthy purpose by making Web pages load faster, they propagate and accumulate like mad and even can hinder or prevent online browsing if the cache gets too full. This causes Web sites to load slowly, images to no longer display and hyperlinks to stop working. Although the size of your cache can be adjusted from 8 MB to 1024 MB, with 50 MB to 250MB being recommended, Internet Explorer can become severely burdened by a cache that is too large, so it’s better to delete these thousands of hidden space-wasters on a weekly, or other regular, interval to ensure things run smoothly and optimally.

While Internet cookies, too, can quickly accumulate over a short period of time, the reason to remove them is not to conserve disk space, as they consist of very small text files, but more as general good PC housekeeping (i.e., removing worthless files) and for privacy concerns since they can contain personal information or track your Web browsing. While Internet Explorer 7 has the ability to delete cookies manually, who has the time to sort through the temporary Internet files directory, picking and choosing which to delete or to keep? Plus, there are certain cookies that I cherish, such as the ones for my bank, Westlaw and other Web sites I visit regularly. So, I use and recommend a shareware utility called Decookie (http://gudbrand.no/decookie/). Decookie, which easily can be configured to run at each PC startup, deletes all cookies other than the ones you select, is free for a 30-day evaluation and only costs $9 for a single-user license. In any event, always remember to close your browser before deleting cookies, which remain in memory and will otherwise come right back.

3. Delete temporary files created by Microsoft Word and other programs. From another hard-earned lesson, I learned to enable the “Always create backup copy” Word feature as a safeguard in case Word quits unexpectedly for any reason (such as a program error, power outage, or closing Word without saving a document or document changes). However, once Word documents are finalized, their backup copies (denoted by their .WBK file name extensions) serve no useful purpose. They unnecessarily clutter document directories and lead to document identity confusion, take up valuable disk space, and tax backup systems (not to mention making them take longer to execute).

Additionally, most Windows applications create hidden, temporary files that usually are deleted when the program closes properly but stay on your hard drive if it crashes. Temporary Word files can be identified by the .TMP file name extensions or if the tilde symbol (~) appears as the first character in a file name. Regularly deleting all temporary Word files (.WBK, .TMP, and the tilde symbol as the first character) prior to each data file backup is a good practice that has the side benefit of conserving backup media space.

4. Reduce the number of startup programs. Overall system performance can be adversely affected if there are a large number of programs set to start along with Windows. Keep in mind that although startup programs are not always visible, at least some small parts of the programs will continue to run until you exit the applications. Identifying and removing startup programs is easily accomplished by going to Start | All Programs | Startup to list them, and then right mouse-clicking on the name of the application to be removed and selecting “Delete.” Except in rare circumstances, whenever allowed during software installations, I de-select the option to add any programs to my startup menu, but closely monitor my Startup folder for errant entries nonetheless. Programs like QuickTime and RealPlayer are notorious for finding their way into your system, regardless of how handy and accessible you really need them to be.

As a general rule, I start most programs manually, including Outlook and Word, my two most used programs. This is because, in my opinion and circumstances, the minor inconvenience I suffer by having to manually launch Outlook and Word (we are talking about two double mouse-clicks) doesn’t justify the major inconvenience that can result from even a small extension of the amount of time  it takes for Windows to start up or reboot. When PC problems crop up, a tried and true first step is to reboot and, depending on the problem and the fix, one or more additional reboots might be required. Nix nonessential startup programs.

5. Disable automatic installation of Windows updates. Although I faithfully and quickly install all Windows Updates recommended for my system by Microsoft, and I appreciate the option to have the updates automatically downloaded, I don’t recommend enabling the automatic installation of Windows Updates. Because their delivery is unpredictable, they can be intrusive, often interfering with tasks at hand by slowing down your PC and often requiring one or more reboots. While you can choose to reboot later, the incessant pop-up reminders will drive you to distraction. When you give in and reboot, only to encounter a problem with the update so that it has to be uninstalled (Internet Explorer 7, anyone?), well, then, you really have stepped in it. If, like me, you leave your PC running day and night most of the time, with 10 or so programs open and ready to pick up where you left off, you probably have experienced the inopportune reboot. A better choice, at least for me, and the one I recommend, is to enable only automatic download of update notifications, and not automatic installation. Then, simply watch your system tray for the Windows Update download notification icon, and install any updates at your convenience.

6. Back up data files. While it’s news to no one that backing up personal and data files and system settings is an essential practice, such that it has become rote to most readers, therein might lay the problem. Generally, creating true “back ups” of PC files requires the same program, such as Windows Backup Wizard, to both backup and restore data, and is mainly used for emergency restoration of files that otherwise don’t need to be accessed or individually retrieved. PC files that are copied in the usual way, on the other hand, are readily accessible and retrievable at any time and on any PC. While programs like the Backup Wizard are great for restoring data, especially application settings, once your PC is back up and running, they are another frustration when your only PC is in the shop or your backup software is incompatible with other available PCs.

This happened to me when my Windows Vista PC recently was down with problems, and I found that I failed to consider that my backup data set was not compatible with Windows XP, the operating system running on both of my other PCs. So, in addition to having the Backup Files Wizard automatically back up my data files and settings nightly, I take the belt and suspenders approach by also copying or synchronizing my data files to removable disk separately, in their native formats. This easily and automatically is accomplished with the help of SyncToy (v. 1.4 or, in my case, 2.0 Beta) for Windows, which is available as a free download from the Microsoft Download Center (www.microsoft.com/downloads/), and the Windows Task Scheduler.

7. Learn how to use Windows System Restore. System Restore Points automatically capture and store vital PC settings so that a system easily can be reverted to a previous state while protecting personal data files (such as documents, browsing history and favorites, and e-mail), which are not changed. Creating new Restore Points before installing new software, deleting files, or changing system registry entries or files, provides a failsafe way to quickly and easily undo any adverse or undesired changes. This has been a lifesaver to me on more than a few occasions, and gives me the freedom to experiment and explore with confidence.

8. Keep your hard drive healthy. Once the unnecessary clutter has been removed from your PC, and at least important data files and program settings files (if not your entire PC) have been backed up, that is the optimal time to run a disk defragmenting program, such as Windows Disk Defragmenter, which also can be configured to look for and fix hard disk errors. While some experts recommend this be done monthly, by simply implementing the PC housekeeping practices described previously, this lengthy procedure can instead safely be done every six months.

Start Cleaning

While admittedly more of a cautionary tale than a definitive guide to good PC housekeeping skills, which are bountiful online and can be readily found through simple Web searches, the point of this column is that there are things you can and should do to avoid unnecessary and entirely preventable PC outages. And, trust me, it’s in your own best interest to start good PC housekeeping practices today. Luckily, I make the mistakes so that you don’t have to.



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