Spring Cleaning For Computers
I spent an hour or so on Sunday helping a friend clean up her computer. It was an interesting exercise, largely because I didn't know what problems I'd find. Her ex-husband had taken care of computer maintenance until a year or so ago, and her newfound role as single mom hadn't left much time for Windows upkeep since the jerk's departure. (Wait, did I say that out loud?)
At worst, I thought I might find some massive spyware infestation. Fortunately, things weren't that bad -- but I still had a reasonable amount of work to do. In the process, I re-learned a couple of lessons that you might find useful in your own computer maintenance.
The first issue was this Dell's Web browsers. The copy of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 stalled when I tried to run it, crashing a few minutes later. I launched her copy of Mozilla Firefox and saw one clue of what might've been wrong: three toolbars eating up space at the top of the window. One was from the AVG anti-virus software, one came from Yahoo, and the third came from Verizon. None added any meaningful utility; with my friend's permission, I removed them all.
But this copy of Firefox was also a full version out of date -- Firefox 2 is no slouch, but Firefox 3 is a good deal more secure and more efficient. I installed the latest version, deleted the bookmarks previously auto-imported from Internet Explorer, and made it the default browser.
I also updated the computer's Adobe Flash and Reader plug-ins; both were out of date, the former by a full three versions. (Astute readers may notice that all the steps listed so far are part of my standard tune-up for new computers.)
Then it was time to go through the "Add or Remove Programs" control panel to see what other obsolete programs needed eviction. Some of the offenders listed there -- like the gigabyte's worth of old versions of Sun Microsystems' Java software left in place by the company's (until recently) boneheaded auto-update mechanism -- would show up on almost any PC of a certain age.
But others only demonstrated what a horrendous job Dell did with its software bundle earlier in this decade.
For example, we almost immediately uninstalled a pointless Dell Image Expert program; this application had suffered some sort of corrupted-settings problem that caused it to throw up an error message every time she tried to double-click a photo. We also yanked a cluster of add-on applications provided for the Dell's Creative Labs soundcard and nuked the MusicMatch program that Dell shipped with its PCs years after Yahoo's mismanagement had made that program irrelevant.
A third round of uninstalls covered programs added by peripherals or programs no longer in use -- like the driver for the ex-husband's Dell MP3 player, the photo-album software for an old Nikon camera, the networking helper application once employed by a Microsoft wireless router, and two components of an old Symantec security suite.
Last came the ex's own applications, mostly a bunch of games and a few photo and video editors.
I drew two lessons from this experience.
One is that you really should make a point of going through your installed programs once a year or so to see which ones no longer provide any value. Irrelevant applications don't just take up disk space; they also clutter the Start Menu and, if they break, can cause all sorts of mysterious errors.
The other is that application developers need to put more effort into their uninstaller routines. Unless they somehow think that the person removing their current program will never, ever use any other software they ship, they need to treat the uninstall experience as their last chance to make a positive impression. But most of the uninstallers I saw yesterday were insultingly bad. Creative's was the worst -- it insisted on running in full-screen mode, as if it were a video game. But many others were almost as painful to watch. I found it particularly alarming to see so many of these uninstall tools feature the same computer-plus-CRT-plus-floppy-disks icon that graced Windows 95's setup assistant; that suggests a fundamental lack of attention to detail.
Have you done any spring cleaning of your computers, or those of friends or family members? What's on your to-do list each time? Share your tips in the comments.
April 6, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
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