How to maintain your laptop
- 06 August, 2010 08:05
Ever thought your laptop or notebook needed a tune up? Wondering how to go about maintaining your work machine? Well, here are a few tips and tricks to help you keep your mobile device in top shape.
Caring for Your LaptopLincoln Spector
You're more likely to damage a laptop than a desktop PC (no one has ever driven off, forgetting the desktop on top of their car), and once damaged, laptops are harder and more expensive to repair.
Keep the battery cool. Today's lithium batteries wear out no matter what you do, but you can postpone the inevitable. Avoid heat and use the battery as little as possible. If you're going to be running on AC power for awhile, shut down or hibernate the computer, remove the battery, and work without it.
Be careful about eating and drinking. Spill coffee on your desktop keyboard, and you'll have to spend $15 on a generic replacement you can plug in yourself. Spill it on your laptop keyboard, and you could short out the motherboard. I'll admit that I use my laptop in cafes just like everyone else, but I put my tea as far from the electronics as my table allows.
When home, turn it into a desktop. You don't always need portability. When working at your desk,plug in a full-sized monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Not only does this get around the food and beverage problem discussed above, but it protects items far more valuable than your laptop--your arms, hands, and eyes. You can't set up a proper, ergonomic working environment with a small keyboard attached to a small monitor.
Find the right carrying case. Before taking it on the road, pack the laptop properly. Depending on your carrying preferences, look for a carrying case, backpack, or shoulder bag with a padded section designed especially for a laptop. (I use a backpack because the even distribution of weight is better for my spine.)
Clean the keyboard properly. When keys starts sticking, it's time for a cleaning. Shut down the PC. Keep it open as you turn it upside-down and very gently tap on the back so that crumbs fall out. Then use a can of compressed air (you can buy this at any computer store for a few dollars) to blow out whatever is still stuck. Be sure to read the instructions on the can, first. Then turn the PC upside-down and tap it gently again to get the last bits out.
Clean the screen when it needs it. If you can't see the email for the dirt, it's time to do a little cleaning. Start with a dry, microfiber cloth--the sort you get at an optometrist's office (you can also buy them at photo and computer stores). Move it in circular motions. Be gentle, but apply slight pressure on particularly stubborn spots.
If that doesn't clean the screen, make your own cleaning solution by mixing distilled water (make sure it's distilled) and white vinegar in equal proportions into a spray bottle. Turn off your laptop. Spray this mixture lightly onto the microfiber cloth, not onto the monitor. Wipe as described above, then wait ten minutes before booting up.
Next: The Procrastinator's Guide to PC Maintenance
The Procrastinator's Guide to PC MaintenancePatrick Miller
You want to keep your PC running smoothly, your apps updated, and your data safe--but you're lazy. Here's how to keep your PC healthy while expending the minimum amount of effort possible.
As you undoubtedly know, you're supposed keep your files backed up, your applications up-to-date, and your antivirus software current. Unfortunately, you are--to speak frankly--too lazy to do these tasks as thoroughly and regularly as you should, and too cheap to shell out for add-ons that would do it for you automatically. How do I know? Because...we have a lot in common.
But we don't have to reinvent ourselves to get things under control. Here are a few tricks you can use to keep up on your basic PC maintenance without breaking a sweat.
Ditch Windows XP
If you still use Windows XP, your operating system expects you to perform a few more maintenance tasks than later Windows versions do.
Defragmenting your hard drive, for instance, is automatically scheduled in Windows 7 and Vista but has to be done manually in XP (right-click the drive name in My Computer, select Properties, Tools, and choose Defragment Now).
Regrettably, Windows 7 isn't free--Home Edition costs $100 at this writing--and though it's the best Microsoft OS I've ever used, it might be out of your price range. Also, if you're on an older PC, slogging through the upgrade process might not be worth it (though we have plenty of Windows 7 upgrade tips if you want to give it a shot).
On the other hand, defragmenting a 1TB hard drive doesn't yield the same performance benefits that performing the same operation on a smaller, slower hard drive used to provide--and those performance benefits were fairly minor to begin with.
So, assuming your PC is recent enough to read this article, you'll probably be okay putting off defragging.
Lazy Backups With Dropbox
We have plenty of great how-to articles explaining different backup strategies and backup plans; but if external drives and thoughts of drive images make your eyes glaze over, they won't help. Instead, think about what you have on your PC that you'd miss if you lost it.
For example, if you have irreplaceable photos on your PC that you need to back up, but you don't want to spend the time or money required to back them up to a DVD or external drive, consider storing them in a Flickr account, a Picasa Web album, or even a Facebook album.
All of those options are free (though some services will charge for storage or monthly upload bandwidth beyond a specified limit), and they all have auto-upload functions to keep your photo backups going. Picasa users can do this automatically with Picasa Web Albums, while Flickr and Facebook users should check out Foldr Monitr for Flickr and LiveUpload to Facebook.
When it comes to documents, the main items I want to back up are my work-related documents (old article drafts, mostly), so I don't need to buy terabytes of storage. In fact, I don't even need to buy a USB flash drive. I simply signed up for a Dropbox Basic account--which gives users 2GB of free online storage--and copied my whole Work Stuff folder over to it.
That doesn't always work, however, because I have a handful of high-res image files scattered among the Word docs, and they would eventually use up all of the space in my free Dropbox account. Rather that shell out $10 a month or so to increase my space allotment, I periodically do a quick search for every Word file on my hard drive (by searching for *.doc) and drag the files into a new folder on Dropbox.
If you have other folders on your hard drive that you want to sync with Dropbox without relocating it, simply grab Dropbox Folder Sync. Also, since Windows treats Dropbox as it would any other folder in its file system, you could create a batch file with some basic DOS commands to automate that search and copy process.
Automatically Update Everything
You may not care enough about bug fixes and minor features to keep every single app on your hard drive current, but you'll need to keep Windows and a few major apps (such as your browser, your PDF reader, and your office suite) updated to avoid nasty security exploits. Fortunately, you can arrange to have all of these updated automatically.
Start by opening Windows Update in the Control Panel. Click Change settings, and set the drop-down menu to Install updates automatically. If you don't have Microsoft Update installed, only Windows updates will download automatically; so if you have other Microsoft apps installed (anything from Silverlight to Office) you'll need Microsoft Update. To pick it up, click the Click here for details link at the bottom of the Windows Update window.
Every major browser has an automatic updating function of some sort, so your browser should already be covered. Microsoft delivers Internet Explorer updates via Windows Update, and Google Chrome receives its updates behind the scenes; to see whether your version of Chrome is current, click the wrench icon and choose About Google Chrome; if your version is old, the dialog box should give you the option to update.
Like Chrome, Firefox handles its updates internally. You can ensure that you'll get the latest releases from Mozilla by opening Tools, Options, Advanced, Update, and checking Automatically download and install. Safari's updates are handled via Apple Software Update, which normally is installed with Safari. If it doesn't run automatically, open it and go to Edit, Preferences, Schedule, where you can select your preferred update frequency.
Next, you'll want to keep Adobe Acrobat updated, because it's a popular target for malware. You can set it to update automatically by selecting Edit, Preferences, Updater and checking Automatically update and install.
At this point, all of your most critical apps are set to update automatically. But why stop there? Get the FileHippo.com Update Checker, a free app that will scan all the apps on your PC, check their versions against its database, and point you to download links for all the apps that need updating. No-Fuss Antivirus One of the things you can't afford to procrastinate about is your antivirus software.
Each of these suites should have its own automatic update functions in place; they are essential for keeping your system armed with the latest malware defenses. Since Microsoft's own Security Essentials updates via Windows Update, you won't need to configure anything else.
As long as you have a decent antivirus suite, you don't need to put much additional effort into staying safe--just don't click dubious links or open questionable attachments. Also, make sure that your e-mail client doesn't automatically display external images (Gmail takes this precaution by default; to re-enable the option temporarily, go to Settings under the General tab), and plug links into Google before clicking them, to confirm that they're legit.
To verify shortened URLs (generated by bit.ly, TinyURL, and such) before clicking them, grab the Untiny Greasemonkey script to verify them before clicking. We have plenty of other tips for business users and consumers alike in "Enterprise Security Tips on a Small-Business Budget."
Have your own tips for dealing with PC maintenance chores? Post them in the comments!
Next: Long Live Your Laptop Battery!
Long Live Your Laptop Battery!
Laptop batteries are like people--eventually and inevitably, they die. And like people, they don't obey Moore's Law--You can't expect next year's batteries to last twice as long as this year's. Battery technology may improve a bit over time (after all, there's plenty of financial incentive for better batteries), but, while interesting possibilities may pop up, don't expect major battery breakthroughs in the near future.
Although your battery will eventually die, proper care can put off the inevitable. Here's how to keep your laptop battery working for as long as possible. With luck, it could last until you need to replace that aging notebook (perhaps with a laptop having a longer battery life).
I've also included a few tips on keeping the battery going longer between charges, so you can work longer without AC power.
Don't Run It Down to Empty
Squeezing every drop of juice out of a lithium ion battery (the type used in today's laptops) strains and weakens it. Doing this once or twice won't kill the battery, but the cumulative effect of frequently emptying your battery will shorten its lifespan.
(There's actually an exception to this rule--a circumstance where you should run down the battery all the way. I'll get to that later.)
The good news: You probably can't run down the battery, anyway--at least not without going to a lot of trouble to do so. Most modern laptops are designed to shut down before the battery is empty.
In fact, Vista and Windows 7 come with a setting for just this purpose. To see it, click Start, type power, and select Power Options. Click any one of the Change plan settings links, then the Change advanced power settings link. In the resulting dialog box, scroll down to and expand the Battery option. Then expand Critical battery level. The setting will probably be about 5 percent, which is a good place to leave it.
XP has no such native setting, although your laptop may have a vendor-supplied tool that does the same job.
Myth: You should never recharge your battery all the way.
There's considerable controversy on this point, and in researching this article I interviewed experts both for and against. But I've come down on the side of recharging all the way. The advantages of leaving home with a fully-charged battery--you can use your PC longer without AC power--are worth the slight risk of doing damage.
Keep It Cool
Heat breaks down the battery, and reduces its overall life.
When you use your laptop, make sure the vents are unblocked. Never work with the laptop on pillows or cushions. If possible, put it on a raised stand that allows for plenty of airflow.
Also, clean the vents every so often with a can of compressed air. You can buy this for a few dollars at any computer store. Be sure to follow the directions on the can, and do this only when the notebook is off.
Give It a Rest
If you're going to be working exclusively on AC power for a week or more, remove the battery first.
Otherwise, you'll be wearing out the battery--constantly charging and discharging it--at a time when you don't need to use it at all. You're also heating it up (see "Keep It Cool," above).
You don't want it too empty when you take it out. An unused battery loses power over time, and you don't want all the power to drain away, so remove it when it's at least half-charged.
Never remove the battery while the computer is on, or even in standby or sleep mode; doing so will crash your system and possibly damage your hardware. Even inserting a battery into a running laptop can damage the system. So only remove or reinsert the battery when the laptop is completely off or hibernating.
If you've never removed your laptop's battery and don't know how, check your documentation. (If you don't have it, you can probably find it online.) The instructions generally involve turning the laptop upside-down and holding down a button while you slide out the battery.
Myth: Refrigerate your battery.
Some people recommend you store it in the refrigerator, inside a plastic bag. While you should keep a battery cool, the last thing you want is a wet battery, and condensation is a real danger in the fridge. Instead, store it in a dry place at room temperature. A filing cabinet works fine.
You don't want the battery to go too long without exercise or let it empty out entirely. If you go without the battery for more than two months, put it in the PC and use it for a few hours, then remove it again.
Also, before you take the laptop on the road, reinsert the battery and let it charge for a few hours before unplugging the machine. Allow the battery time to get a full charge before you remove the AC power.
Heal a Sick Battery
Myth: You can rejuvenate a worn-out battery.
This isn't, strictly speaking, the case. You can't make old lithium hold more electrons than it can currently manage.
But if the battery is running out unexpectedly fast, or if your laptop is having trouble figuring out how much power it has left, you might be able to fix the battery's "gas gauge," so it at least gives a more accurate reading.
If you suspect the battery can't tell if it's charged or not, run it through a couple of cycles. Drain it of all its power (yes, this is the exception to the "don't drain the battery" rule mentioned above), recharge it to 100 percent, and then repeat.
But how do you drain the battery when Windows won't let you do just that? Don't bother with the settings described above. They're not safe (you might forget to change them back), they may not be getting an accurate reading, and they quite possibly won't let you set the critical battery level to 0 percent. (If they did, it would crash Windows.)
Instead, unplug your AC power and keep your laptop running (you can work on it if you like) until it automatically hibernates. Then reboot your PC back and go directly to the system setup program.
I can't tell you exactly how to get there; each computer is different. Turn on your PC and look for an onscreen message (one of the first you'll see) that says something like "Press the X key for setup." Immediately press the designated key.
It may take a couple of times to get the timing right. If there isn't enough power to let it boot, plug in AC until you're at the setup program, then unplug it.
Leave the notebook on until it shuts off. This can take some time (45 minutes on my laptop); setup uses a lot less power than Windows.
Once the PC is off, plug in the AC power, then wait a few hours before rebooting to Windows and making sure you've got a full recharge.
Repeat the process once or twice.
With luck and proper care, your battery will still be useful when you're looking for a new laptop.
Longer Life Between Charges
The tips above should lengthen the time before you need to replace your laptop's battery. But on a daily basis, we're far more concerned with another type of battery life: how long we can keep our laptop running without AC power. You may know most of the following tips already, but it never hurts to refresh (or recharge) your memory.
Dim your screen
Your laptop's backlight requires a lot of juice. Keep it as dim as you can comfortably read it.
Shut off unneeded hardware
Turn off your Bluetooth, and if you're not using the Internet, turn off your Wi-Fi receiver, as well. Don't use an external mouse or other device. And muting the PC's sound system not only saves power, it avoids annoying everyone else in the café.
Run as few programs as you can get away with. If possible, stick to the one application (word processor, browser, or whatever) you're currently using, plus your antivirus and firewall in the background.
And if you're not on the Internet, you don't need those two.
Save chores like photo editing and watching old Daily Show videos for when you have AC power. And if you must listen to music, use your iPod (or similar device).
Know when to sleep and when to hibernate
You need to think about when you want to save power by sending your laptop into Standby or Sleep mode, and when you want to hibernate it.
There's a difference. XP's Standby and Vista and Windows 7's Sleep modes keep your PC on, using some power, but less of it than in normal use. Hibernate saves the PC's state to the hard drive, then shuts it off entirely, so that no power is used.
On the other hand, Windows takes much longer--sometimes minutes--to go into and come out of hibernation. And those are minutes that the battery is draining heavily and you can't work.
XP's Standby mode isn't really all that efficient. If your laptop will be inactive for more than about half an hour, hibernate it. Otherwise, use Standby.
But Vista and Windows 7 do a much better job with their Sleep mode. Don't bother hibernating your PC unless you think you're going to go more than two or three hours without using it.
Myth: Adding RAM saves battery life.
True, more RAM means less hard drive access, and the hard drive uses a lot of electricity. But RAM uses electricity as well, and unless you're doing a lot of multitasking (not a good idea when you're on battery power), more RAM won't reduce hard drive use.
Next: More tips and tricks
Laptop Tips: Add RAM, Recycle a Hard Drive, Tweak Power Settings
Add RAM to a Laptop
So my dad was griping that his Acer Aspire 9300 laptop takes forever to boot. I inspected it for spyware, excessive startup programs, and the other usual suspects, but everything checked out.
Then I remembered that the machine is about three years old and wasn't a powerhouse to begin with. So I checked the RAM. Bingo: It has only 1GB. Windows Vista needs at least 2GB to run smoothly. (So does Windows 7, but I've seen it run reasonably well on less.)
Upgrading a laptop's RAM may sound like a big deal, but it's actually the single easiest upgrade there is. The only challenge lies in determining how many RAM modules your system currently has and what kind they are.
To find out, turn off your system, unplug it, remove the battery, and flip it over. You should see at least one panel that can be removed with a small screwdriver. Consult your manual if you can't find the one covering the RAM sockets--or just open them all. Here's what you're looking for:
Most laptops have two sockets. If only one is occupied, just buy a module that exactly matches the existing one and drop it in. That'll effectively double your RAM.
If both sockets are filled, you'll have to replace both modules. In the case of Dad's Aspire, for example, it had a pair of 512MB modules for a total of 1GB of RAM. We elected to replace them with a pair of 1GB modules for 2GB total. (What to do with the displaced RAM? EBay, of course!)
Not sure what kind of memory your laptop takes? Head to a site like Crucial, which can identify nearly every make and model.
Recycle an Old Laptop Hard Drive
Inexpensive hard drive enclosures are ideal for recycling old laptop drives that have been replaced by higher-capacity models.
An enclosure is essentially an external case for that internal drive, one that lends it a USB interface. When all is said and done, you'll have a compact USB hard drive you can use for backups, extra storage, transporting files, and so on.
More immediately, an enclosure lets you easily restore your data onto the new drive--a simple drag-and-drop operation. With that done, you'll have to decide if you want to wipe the drive or keep it intact (you know, "just in case").
When shopping for an enclosure, make sure to choose one that offers the proper kind of interface for your old drive. Again, if it's more than a few years old, it's probably IDE. Any newer and it's more likely to be SATA. In either case, you should be able to find one for just $10-15. I recommend hitting sites like Meritline and Newegg.
Learn Your Laptop's Power Settings
My aunt recently told me about a problem with her new laptop: Whenever she'd step away from it for more than a few minutes, she'd close the lid. Upon returning, she'd open the lid, only to be faced with a blank screen and no response from the mouse or keyboard.
Want to know why? The default lid-closing action for most laptops is to put the system in Sleep mode, and Windows is notoriously bad at waking up properly. I advise most laptop users to use Hibernate mode instead, as it's much more reliable when it comes to waking up.
You see, Sleep (aka Standby) puts your system into a low-power state, allowing you to pick up where you left off (in theory, anyway) after just a few seconds. However, a PC in Sleep mode continues to consume battery power, so it's not uncommon to return to a "sleeping" PC to find that it's just plain dead. Or, in my aunt's case, unresponsive.
Hibernate, however, saves your machine's current state to a temporary hard-drive file, then shuts down completely (much like Off). When you start it up again, it loads that file and returns you to where you left off--no booting required.
Both ends of the Hibernate process take a little longer than sleep mode (usually 10-20 seconds, in my experience), but you avoid any of the issues that can arise when Windows suddenly loses power.
And as noted, sleep mode is notoriously flaky. If your system refuses to wake up properly, you'll end up losing whatever documents and/or Web pages you had open. Consequently, I recommend using hibernate most of the time.