Most people -- even IT pros who spend their lives maintaining corporate computing infrastructure -- are so busy with life, families, work and the rest that they tend to leave periodic home PC maintenance tasks at the bottom of a long list of things that never get done.
With that in mind, we've put together this concise guide to some of the most important and oft-delayed or forgotten maintenance tasks that Windows PC users can perform regularly to keep their computers -- and data -- healthy through the year. For each of the five categories of tasks, we've listed applications and services that are available to make things quicker and easier, so that you don't have to spend too much time and effort.
Offsite data backup
Arguably, the most important task in all of personal computer maintenance is data backup.
But even if you regularly back up using an external hard drive to replicate and store your data, that may not be enough. Often, it isn't until disaster strikes that we realize how important it is to also have offsite copies of our critical files. Storage drives can fail, malicious applications can attack and devices can be stolen or damaged by fire or flood, usually at the worst possible time.
As an extra precaution, one of the simplest ways to safely back up your data offsite is to save it to the cloud. A number of online services offer a limited amount of free storage space, and you can often purchase additional space if you need it.
Online backup services are typically designed to back up your data files but not the operating system or program files. Then each time they scour your drives, they back up any files that are added or changed, keeping your data backup current. For an added layer of protection, most also offer encryption.
One of the more well-known services, Mozy, recently caused a considerable brouhaha when it announced that it would no longer be offering unlimited backup services -- a move that could soon be copied by other services as well.
Meanwhile, here are some top contenders for your data backup needs:
* IDrive Basic offers 5GB of free encrypted storage space, which can be managed through a browser-based application that you install on your PC. You can buy additional space with IDrive Pro; for example, 150GB costs $4.95 a month or $49.95 a year.
* MozyHome offers up to 2GB of free space with automatic or scheduled backups, including file encryption. The company's new pricing structure charges $5.99 a month for 50GB of storage space and $9.99 a month for 125GB.
* SOS Online Backup offers up to 50GB of storage for up to five PCs for $9.95 a month or $79.95 a year.
* Backblaze is actively courting ex-Mozy customers -- it's blazoned a "Welcome Mozy Users!" sign across its opening screen, along with with a statement that it's "committed to continue offering unlimited storage." For this, it charges $5 per month (or $50 per year) per computer. But be aware that file sizes are limited to a maximum of 9GB each.
* Carbonite is another service that still offers unlimited online backup, charging $54.95 a year with a free two-week trial.
* CrashPlan is a little different than the others: It offers social backup -- in other words, you back up your data on one or more external systems (for example, belonging to friends and/or relations). If you're looking for something more traditional, Crashplan+ Unlimited provides unlimited storage for one computer for $5 per month or $49.99 per year.
Some services let you access your files from any almost any computer, including a variety of mobile devices, and work with those files as if they resided on that device. Dropbox, for instance, provides free apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry devices. It offers 2GB of storage space for free or 50GB for $9.99 a month.
There are other options that you may not even realize that you already have -- and some of them are free. Many home ISPs offer a fixed amount of online data backup, with extra space available for purchase.
For example, Comcast offers 2GB of free online data backup for its customers. Expanded paid storage plans are available: a 50GB service is $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year, while a 200GB service is $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year.
Verizon offers a free 30-day trial for its backup plan. After that, the service is 5GB for $1.99 a month, 25GB for $4.99 a month or 50GB for $6.99 a month.
Offsite data backup capabilities can also be found within some utility programs you may already own. Symantec Corp.'s Norton 360 Version 4.0 includes 2GB of data backup online. Additional cloud storage space starts at $29.99 a year for 5GB to $89.99 a year for 50GB.
Backing up and remotely storing your data is all well and good. But if your system's hard disk dies and you need to replace it, you'll first have to reinstall the operating system, device drivers, programs and assorted other applications before you can reinstall your data and be up and running again.
Creating a complete image backup of your hard drive -- also known as ghosting -- is a way to save a great deal of time and irritation. With a ghost image, you can replace the drive, make it bootable and reinstall the image just as it was running before all hell broke loose.
Windows 7 itself has a usable backup and imaging feature -- however, many feel it's too limited. If you agree, there are several free and reasonably priced ghosting products available:
* DriveImage XML (free for home users) can be used to image and back up partitions and logical drives, as well as to copy one drive to another internal or external drive.
* Clonezilla is a free open-source application for Windows or Linux with a simple user interface, competent tools and a good reputation in the open-source community. There are two available versions of Clonezilla -- Clonezilla Live, which allows you to use a CD/DVD or USB flash drive to boot and run the program on one PC, or Clonezilla Server Edition, which allows users to clone up to 40 machines at once.
* Acronis True Image Home 2011 sells for $49.99 and offers a free 30-day trial. True Image Home 2011 provides a full range of disaster-recovery capabilities for your PC, from on-the-fly hard disk imaging to a Clone Disk feature that allows you to copy everything on your drive in one step so you can easily install a new drive and move everything to it. (Note: If you are a Seagate or Maxtor drive owner, drive manufacturer Seagate Technology offers a free version of the Acronis application as a hard drive utility called DiscWizard. )
* Norton Ghost from Symantec sells for $69.99 for one PC. Ghost, a longtime player in the hard drive ghosting marketplace, has kept fresh with several new features, including support for storage on Blu-ray discs and support for the Windows 7 BitLocker drive encryption feature, which is available in the Windows 7 Ultimate Edition.
* Image for Windows by TeraByte Inc. is a $38.94 downloadable application that will allow you to save your entire PC configuration to any external hard drives, network drives or DVDs, as well as create a recovery boot disk.
With all of the complex changes that occur in your PC's Windows Registry every time you install or uninstall a program, there's a potential minefield of hidden problems that can arise. Pieces of code left over from improperly uninstalled applications can create hassles with other programs or with the operating system. That's where Registry cleaner software can be useful. They can not only prevent problems, but increase disk space and help your system run more efficiently.
However, there are also risks, including the possibility that you can accidentally remove key application files -- which is why some experts don't like them. If you do use one, be sure that you manually back up the Registry before making any changes so you can revert to where you were before in case things get worse. Most Registry cleaners have a built-in back-up feature, but it never hurts to do a manual Registry backup just in case.
And of course, be wary of free Registry cleaners that haven't been recommended by trustworthy sources -- unless you want to spend several hours cleaning up your PC.
There are quite a few usable Registry cleaners out there. These are just a sampling:
* CCleaner is a free tool that, along with cleaning the Registry, removes temporary and other unneeded files from Windows and a variety of third-party applications.
* Comodo System-Cleaner is a free Registry cleaner that also includes tools that will help you maintain your privacy on your PC by deleting information about where you have been online.
* PC Tools Registry Mechanic offers optimization tools for Windows 7, Vista and XP machines. It can clean, repair and optimize the Registry while automatically backing up changes and also includes privacy tools. It sells for $29.99 for a one-year license after a 30-day free trial.
* Registry First Aid includes a variety of tools to scan, identify and clean the registry, while providing a backup of your changes. It costs $27.95 for one PC, with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
* Jv16 PowerTools 2010 offers a suite of applications, including a dedicated registry cleaner, for $29.95 after a free 60-day trial.
Driver updates can be a pain. If you choose to install them manually, it's too easy to simply ignore them. If your application tries to install them automatically, you often cancel the install because it comes at an inconvenient time -- and then forget about it.
If you're running Windows 7 on your PC or laptop, you already have a built-in driver update feature that covers many drivers, but some drivers not recognized by Windows will still have to be updated manually.
One way to get around this is to update all your drivers at one time, when it is convenient.
* One free tool, DriverMax from Innovative Solutions, helps you identify and obtain the latest drivers for your PC. Among other things, it lets you back up all your existing device drivers in case there are problems caused by new drivers -- a very smart step to take.
* DriverScanner 2011 from Uniblue Systems Ltd. scans your computer to create a list of drivers that need to be updated, and updates them with one click. It costs $29.95 after a free trial.
General system health
Sometimes the best tool for the job is a toolkit application that includes everything you need to tune your PC's performance, from disk utilities to file cleaners.
Here are several options:
* WinUtilities Free Edition includes tools to optimize and improve the speed and performance of your PC, such as registry tools, privacy tools, hard disk utilities and duplicate file finders. The paid version, WinUtilities Professional Edition, sells for $29.99 and includes ongoing scanning as your computer runs.
* System Mechanic from Iolo Technologies LLC sells for $39.95; its license allows you to use it on all the PCs in your home. The application includes tools to optimize your PC for peak performance, while repairing problems and errors and cleaning up system clutter. An upgraded version, System Mechanic Professional, is priced at $49.95 and is bundled with Iolo's antivirus and data security applications.
* Norton Utilities from Symantec has been around in one form or another for nearly 30 years. It currently sells for $49.99 for use on up to three PCs. The latest version includes a host of specialized tools for optimizing your computers, as well as improved maintenance, system recovery and administration tools. For some features, rather than reinvent the wheel, Norton Utilities includes interfaces that link to tools already built into Windows, such as Control Panel, Device Manager, Computer Management and Disk Management and Event Viewer.
* Revo Uninstaller is a free program that allows you to do a more thorough job of uninstalling old applications from your machine than the built-in Windows utility can. A professional version with a wider assortment of capabilities, including real-time monitoring of changes that are made, command-line support and the ability to force a stubborn uninstall, is available for $39.25 after a 30-day trial.
* WinPatrol is a free application that allows you to see and monitor the applications that are running on your computer -- even the ones that are operating in the background, sapping your computer of memory and performance when you don't need or want them running. A paid version, WinPatrol Plus, provides faster performance and sells for $29.95 for use on all your PCs.
What PC maintenance strategies and tools do you use? Share your tips below and help make life easier for your fellow readers.
Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld from 2000 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter at @TechManTalking. Write to him at toddrweiss (at) gmail (dot) com.