A Computer Once-Over
Here's the scene in my office...
There are 5 computers at my desk... my laptop and 4
desktops. There's another older laptop on a back bar behind
me, and two systems downstairs used by Bernadette (a desktop
and tablet). Between my desk and a wall of stereo/TV
equipment is a mess of cables, including a cable modem, a wireless
router, a bunch of power strips, USB2 hubs, and external USB
drives. It's an area you don't walk on or vacuum... you try not to
even look at it. The room is much more wired than wireless.
My main computer is the HP laptop running
XP's Media Center Edition. When I'm home, it's connected to its power
adapter, an external USB TV tuner, a USB wireless mouse, and a USB2
hub. The hub in turn has 3 external USB drives and a thumb drive in it's 4
The laptop sits on a couple strips of wood about 1/2" high so
the air under it has more breathing space for the cooling system...
The design goals for Windows XP on a typical consumer PC are:
Boot to a useable state in a total of 30 seconds
Resume from Hibernation in a total of 20 seconds
Resume from Standby in a total of 5
Boot and resume times are measured from the time the power switch
is pressed to being able to start a program from a desktop shortcut.
Here's a link to a utility on your hard drive... an old
utility at that for those of you who remember sysinf.
Among other things in this utility are lists of the audio and video codecs
on your system... here's the video codecs it lists for my laptop,
sorted by manufacturer.
The list differs considerably from other lists such as those
provided by GSpot.
Are they using the desired NTFS file system (at least for
video work) so they are not limited to 4 GB max file sizes, less than 20
minutes of a DV-AVI file?
How full are they, and are they defragged? Use Start > right
click on My Computer > Manage > Storage > Disk Management and Disk
Defragmenter. My drives are:
C - 93 GB - NTFS - internal drive - 27 GB free (28%) - Analysis says
it doesn't need defragging, but I'm going to do it anyway... the analysis
report shows lots of fragmented files. Before starting the defrag, click the
File Size column to sort the list by size... note the biggies and think about
if you still need them. The first in the list of my C drive is a 3.68 GB
file that was a test capture by Premiere Elements, which I don't need. Delete
it and empty the recycle bin before the defrag.
H - 56 GB - FAT32 - external USB1 drive - 14 GB free (24%) -
Analysis says it doesn't need defragging
E - 466 GB - NTFS - external USB2 drive - 114 GB free (24%) -
Analysis says it doesn't need defragging
I - 233 GB - NTFS - external USB2 drive -38 GB free (16%) -
Analysis says it needs defragging. The report says the
most fragmented file is a short DV-AVI one that is 69 MB in
size and is stored in 4,767 fragments. Defragging would put all the
fragments together for easier access by the hard drive's head. After
defragging, there were no more fragmented files.
Are the USB2 external drives using the
policy of 'quick removal' or 'performance'.
If set to 'quick
removal' they can be unplugged without using the 'safe removal' step,
but won't work with larger DV-AVI files. If set to 'performance', they work
fine capturing to or from large DV-AVI files. Right click on My Computer
> Explore > right click on an external drive > Properties > Hardware
tab > select the drive > Properties > Policies tab.
The defragging of all the drives happened in the background as I
continued writing the newsletter... no need to stop doing things during it.
When done, the report said there were no more fragmented files,
and the visual feedback showed a better picture... here's the one with
the most dramatic change in it's picture.
I run at the highest screen resolution of 1680 by 1050
pixels... the highest varies with the computer. The refresh rate is 60 Hertz
(raise it if you see flickering... mine only offers the one setting with this
They say an LCD holds it's color calibration and only needs
it once, so I only did it once. We use a 'spyder' device to
When I plug my laptop into the projection system at the
library, the two systems work together to decide what resolution is best... as a
result the 100 or so icons on my desktop get reshuffled to where I don't want
them. To put them back, I use Icon Saver
running it before heading to the library to make note of the icon
positions, and then again when I return home to put them all back to where they
You might hear the whirring of the main cooling fan or feel the
warmth (or heat) of the laptop. If the whirring goes on too long or the warmth
is too hot, it's time for at least a quick look.
I did an overnight defrag of the I drive... it was finished
in the morning, and things were quiet when I sat down at the laptop, but
the cooling fan started to run when I resized the defrag report window
to take a snapshot, and it continued on and on... a quick check of the Task
Manager showed the CPU running steadily at 50%, a good reason for the fan
to be on..... but I hadn't told the defrag utility to do anything.
The process tab, sorted by CPU, shows the defrag process using
the 50%, and using 1/2 GB of memory, and all it was doing was resizing
window.... I thought. It must have been doing something in the background.
I told it to something productive, defrag the C
drive.... at the 3% progress point the main fan stopped and you could hear
only the quieter purring of the smaller CPU fan.
Vacuuming the dust collection in the computer helps with air
flow and cooling.
RAM and Virtual Memory
If things are working fine, but all of a sudden you hit a
Things slow down considerably, by a factor of 10 or more. What
If you've reached the full use of your physical memory
(RAM), and are now dipping into the virtual memory swap file on your
hard drive... it's normal. But are you at that point?
To find out, don't close anything... open your Task Manager and
check the current use of memory.
If the figure for 'currently used' memory is more than your
physical RAM, then your system is dipping into the swap file on the hard
drive... the computer goes in and out of RAM lots faster than it does the hard
drive... that's why the big slowdown.
The picture shows my laptop with its 2 GB of RAM, current
usage of 1.2 GB, with the peak usage of 1.8 GB since I turned the system on last
Note that Vista can use a SanDisk Cruzer Micro, a
smart USB flash drive... the computer uses it as a quicker swap file than
the hard drive, but not as fast as physical RAM. I have a 2 GB one plugged
into a USB slot on my Vista system, which has 1 GB of RAM....
Your Computer's Memory?
Lots of stuff... which offers you hours of detective work and
head-scratching. Put these things together and you can free up some
memory to put to better use.
(1) the Start > All Programs > Startup folder turns
on some apps when the system boots up.... my laptop has 4 items in the folder,
starting with the Bluetooth Tray.
(2) the cluster of icons at the right end
of you task bar shows some of the running processes. Linger over each for a
tooltip that helps you know what they are, or for other options. The
Bluetooth one offers the option to start using it... but no option to
(3) the Windows Task Manager has the Processes tab
that lists the open ones. Clicking on the memory usage column sorts them
from most to least in the amount of memory being used. The
defragging going on is my current biggest user. See the BTTray.exe in the
list, which correlates with the first item in the startup folder...
it's using 6,872 K of memory...
(4) Computer Management > Services gives
a full list of the processes that are running, along with
those that aren't... do a right mouse click on any of them to
see its properties (5), including the path and file name.
See from the picture below that the name in this Services list could
differ from the name of the executable that shows in the Task Manager
list... this is where some detective work is needed to
correlate the service with the amount of memory being used.
The first item in my Startup folder is the BlueTooth
Tray... you can see the same little icon for the service nestled in the
flock of icons at the right of my task bar. Not being a Bluetooth user, it
must be using some memory that would be freed up if I turned it off simply
by removing it from the startup folder.
The first in my alphabetical list (4) is the Adobe
Elements 5 file agent, which came with the 30 day free trial I
installed a bit over a month ago, which is now up and non-functional. I haven't
gotten to the point of uninstalling it or getting a full licensed version...
until I do something about it, it will continue costing 236 K of
The memory used by all the things you don't use, don't need, or
didn't clean up from something you tried... can add up to make the
difference between being able to save a complex movie or running into a
memory-related issue. My 2 GB of memory on the laptop lets me be a bit sloppy
about doing such cleanup, but even it runs into the familiar error message when
saving a movie.
How is your computer working with a server someplace on
the internet? Try this handy and cute website.
At home with my Charter internet service, and my laptop
connecting via a Linksys wireless router, I get 2932 kbps downloading and 243
kbps uploading with the suggested server in Chicago.
At Barnes&Noble, which connects through a
wireless AT&T service, I get slower 1316 kbps
downloading and faster 327 kbps uploading. Sometimes I'll save my bigger
uploads until I get to B&N.
The signal strength with the router is somewhat directional...
move your laptop around to check it... if it's connecting to your
router, move the antenna on the router to check it in different
When I turn my laptop on in the morning, I check to see if
the power cord is plugged in... if it is, I promise to remember to unplug it the
next time I shut the system down.
Computer repair shops say that a battery can cycle only a
limited number of times during it's life and if you leave it plugged in
when shut down, it keeps cycling while doing nothing... but I forget about
disconnecting it when shutting down about 25% of the time.
As time goes by, it's normal to have the fully charged battery
be able to run the computer for less and less time. My laptop is an energy hog,
so I'm trained to scout for outlets as soon as I go to a new place. I carry a
spare battery but don't swap them out very often because I'm
usually plugged in. On a trip to an unknown location, I'll check and charge
the spare battery.
If you're using a laptop with a wireless wi-fi connection, the
energy to connect supposedly uses about 1/3 of the computer's energy, so turn
the wireless switch off when you don't need it and you're not plugged in.
Some say the laser light lens should be cleaned every now
and then, but I'm not a heavy disc maker and have never cleaned
Standard advice about burning discs is that they burn more
surely if you use slower speed burns. But change the speed only if you run into
Most DVDs are encoded for playing in specific
regions... I've never met anyone who changes their setting regularly.
My laptop has never changed the setting and it says I have 4 more changes
remaining. If the number of changes left get down to zero, be sure your
last one is where you want it to be for the rest of its life. You
can't extend the number of times it can be changed.
The sound of a smoothly turning disc is different than one of a
disc with a stuck-on paper label that's off-balance or worse... not
having enough head room. If the sound is off-beat, don't wait too long to
open the drive drawer and check what's happening. A paper label could be
shredding and leaving a mess in the drive.
Laptops have less head-room than drives in desktop
systems. I bought an Epson R-200 disc printer and print directly onto
discs... I've never used stick-on labels.
How well will the computer work when you install
Vista Upgrade Advisor
should tell you about
your computer, with specific pointers to what won't or might not work
with Vista.... it doesn't get thru the checking on my laptop without giving
an error message, so it might just be running XP