Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Favorite Ways to Clean Up a Windows Computer

My computers all have huge hard drives and large amounts of RAM, but that doesn't mean they can hold everything and do everything and still run smoothly.  Computers, Windows computers at least, run better and are much happier the less stuff they have on them.  Here are my favorite ways to clean up my computers and improve performance and security:

1) Delete old restore points.  This isn't obviously presented as an option and isn't possible unless you've got administrator privileges. But it can reclaim a lot of hard drive space.  Restore points build up each time Windows Update installs or updates anything on your computer.  I haven't found an option that auto-cleans them up, so here is the method for manual deletion.  These instructions are for Windows 7, but there is something very similar in Windows Vista and even Windows XP Professional.

A) Open a Windows Explorer window (windows key + E) and select your computer in the left pane, so that the hard drives are visible in the right pane.  For fun, make note of the free space on your hard drive.

B) Select the main hard drive, right mouse button, and select properties.  In the window that pops up, find the button that says Disk Cleanup and click that.

C) Even if you are logged in as an Administrator, you need to do this step.  On the new window that pops up, find the button that says "Clean up system files" and click that.  If you aren't logged in as an administrator, you have to give administrator permissions to do this.

D) Windows recalculates things, and pops up that same window as before, but this time there is another tab to choose from.  Go to the More Options tab.  Find the "System Restore and Shadow Copies" section, and click the button that says "Clean up..."

E) Yes, you are sure.  Click Delete.  (That doesn't actually do the deletion, it just sets the option that you WANT to do the deletion.)  Back at the window, go back to the main Disk Cleanup tab.  Review the options in the list and make sure you agree with the other checked items.  Then click OK.  Yes you are sure.  Click Delete Files.  Now you can close out of the properties dialog box and Refresh the view in Windows Explorer to see how much space you have regained.

2) Don't put an office suite on your computer.  This makes the most sense for laptops with smaller SSD hard drives and computers that are mainly used for entertainment instead of work.  Instead, use a free web-based office suite.  The Google Docs suite has been an option for a while, but now even nicely functional versions of Microsoft Office products are available.  I wouldn't recommend this for a business computer, or if you always need the ability to open a spreadsheet even if the internet is down.  But it saves a lot of space and hassle with updates if none of this lives on your computer.

* Microsoft Office with Sky Drive.  This was a pleasant surprise to find online.  You sign up for an account and get 7 GB of free cloud storage to use with online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or OneNote.

3) Delete programs and plugins without mercy.  Update everything else.  Go into Add/Remove programs, and start going down the list.  If you don't use a program, uninstall it.  If you do use a program, open it and check for updates - usually this is in the Help/About menu or screen.  Uninstall all the versions of Java you see in the list, and reinstall just the freshest version from their website.  Uninstall all the browser toolbars, all the partially functional software that came with the DVD drive, and all of the virus scanning and security software that isn't Microsoft Security Essentials.  Do get MSE if you don't have it.  It is free, unobtrusive, and has worked well for everyone I know who uses it.

4) The outside of the computer can be cleaned, too.  A slightly damp microfiber towel works very well to scrub grime off of mice, controllers, and laptop surfaces.  Dry microfiber cloths will remove dust.  Start with clean cloths and don't press down to avoid scratching displays.  I have used the CyberClean product, and find it helps most on standard keyboards because it gets between the keys. 
Just noticing your computer is sticky or discolored and doing something about it can make a huge difference in how new it seems.

Finally, resolve to keep your software up to date and set up an online backup service.  I paid for CrashPlan+ service, which I consider a bargain - only $139 for four years of unlimited backup from one computer.  That is cheaper than one external hard drive, which in my experience will either fail or run out of space in less than four years.  Sorry if most of this post is obvious or things you already knew, I hope it helps a few people with maintaining their computers.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Make Your House Bigger... taking things out of it.

There was a weekend last year when I finally understood and internalized the raw fact that we weren't moving into a new house any time soon.  We'd been in our starter house for nine years, and I checked, and something went "click" in my brain.  If I wanted to live somewhere better with more space, it would be because I upgraded this house and got rid of a bunch of stuff.

The upgrades have gone very well, and should form the subject of many posts which are relevant to the title of this blog.  This essay is about de-cluttering, specifically lessons and hang-ups experienced by a pair of engineers who were raised by people who were raised by people who lived through the depression.

I had previously considered "clutter" to mean useless trinkets set out for decoration, so I didn't think I had any.  Nope.  I could look around my house as a whole, and think, "How do two adults and one cat need so much STUFF to live?"  Clutter can be broadly defined as any object that takes up more space than it has rights to.  Useful things are making my house smaller! THIS is why it is so difficult to purge large quantities of stuff.  When one has deep-seated generational worry about suddenly losing economic stability and nearly starving or freezing to death, it affects ones ability to let go of useful objects in ones possession.

Things do not make us secure, and holding extra things is not a virtue.  Discarding is not a sin, or a failure, it is a natural result of being a consumer and the last step in the cycle of ownership.  I need/want something, I buy/receive it, I use/enjoy it, then I discard it.  Dust to dust, and all that jazz.

Enough theory and platitudes.  Here's a bullet list of hints and realizations which helped me get through a purge and make a real difference in the apparent size of our living area.

*There is only one decision to make for each item I come across: are we keeping this or not?  I do not need to organize what I am keeping or do any cleaning while de-cluttering.

*This is a long-term project, to be handled one item and one decision at a time.  Do not set a goal about how many items I must purge, or how quickly I will finish a room.  Work a little at a time, more when I feel in a groove.

*Measure progress in volumetric terms.  How many cubic feet of matter is leaving my house?  Once it was shoved into garbage bags to go to the curb or placed into shopping bags for donation, I could really feel like I was making a difference.

*I did the easy stuff first.  I started with things with less emotional attachment.  I DID NOT start with paperwork, clothing, or childhood memories. I DID start with the laundry room, linen closet, under the sinks, and in the pantry.

*Anything expired got thrown out immediately.  Trash (empty envelopes? water damaged books?) got thrown out immediately. If a bottle of medicine that we use regularly expired before it was finished, I put it on a shopping list and made sure to buy a smaller size for less money this time.

*Anything that we like having around gets kept.

*I didn't put anything in the regular garbage that needed to be sent into a special waste stream.  I researched where to recycle electronics and how to dispose of household hazardous waste.

*If I thought I would start using something neglected now that I unearthed it again, I put it on probation.  I have a week or so to use it before getting rid of it for real.

*I am not having a garage sale.  I had a virtual garage sale, where I offered things to my facebook friends for free, if they came to pick it up immediately.  One friend now owns all of my planters and plant pots.  I didn't move all the stuff to a different place in the house to await the garage sale that never comes.

*Seriously, if it is worth the effort to sell, I brought it to a place that would buy it on the spot.  Half Price Books is my outlet of choice for this.  (If you don't have one of those nearby, a pawn shop, an Ebay storefront, or a consignment store will give you a fair price for valuable discards.)

*If it was not worth the effort to sell, I gave it to a charity.  People who are less fortunate can get good use out of these useful things we are parting with.  In either case, I got the things out of the house and into my car so I can drop it off the next time I was near a Goodwill or a Half Price Books.

*Packaging is trash.  I recycled all those cardboard boxes from electronics, and especially the custom molded foam inserts.  I still had the cardboard boxes from every laptop I ever owned stashed in our crawlspace!  Decorative tins are packaging, and therefore trash.  I recycled the Altoid tins, the fancy tins the scotch came in, and the holiday cookie tins.

*Duplicates are clutter.  After upgrading to a better version, I don't need to keep a second toaster, or a second coffee maker in case my main one breaks.  I can LIVE WITHOUT IT for the twelve hours to two days I might have to wait to replace it.

*Gifts are not sacred. I doubt the people who gave us wedding gifts intended to give us burdens we'd be obligated to possess for the rest of our lives.  The decision to keep or purge is not linked to how an object arrived in my hands.

*I had to train myself to see things as they are now, not as they were when I bought them or wanted them.  Stuff wears out.  Stuff goes obsolete.  I break up with a hobby.  It happens.

I learned a lot about myself while doing this purge.  After looking objectively at my possessions, I am a smarter consumer.  I like that I got rid of so many things.  The ratio of awesome things to "meh" things in my house is much higher, too.

[I'm hoping something in this post resonates with the blog reading public - please comment if so moved.]

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

3D Body Scanning for a Good Reason

Public Service Announcement: your local mall might have a 3D body scanner that will tell you what pants and jeans will fit your shape.  A Me-Ality kiosk recently came on-line at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, IL, and I tried it out this week.

If you can stand still for less than 20 seconds, fully clothed with your shoes on, and you can handle low-power radio waves reflecting off your skin, you can do this.  They ask you to fill out a form with your email address, and it is worth giving a real email address, because of the information you will be getting.

After the scan, you get a bar code that refers to your measurement data now stored in their system. Mercifully, they never show or print a picture of your 3D point-cloud derriere. They do print a list of all the pants in the mall in their database that should fit you.  For me, that was 6 types of dress pants and 20 types of jeans.  (I was expecting "ERROR DATA NOT FOUND" as my only result, so this is a lot of matches.)

The service is free.  The data is good.  I found the pants that I tried on in the prescribed sizes were all the right shape, but consistently snug.  I assume I just prefer more ease in my garments than their average user.  Going one size up, I loved the fit.

The database isn't complete, but it is big enough to be useful.  I hope more stores get on board with supplying information/samples to Me-Ality so they can keep growing.  Here's why your email is important: once scanned, you can log in to the website and find out what pants and jeans will fit you from any store online, instead of limited just to the mall where you were scanned.

Imagine shopping online for pants and jeans!  (That isn't just buying more copies of something you know fit last time...)  It could only be better by also fitting shirts and dresses - probably in the works - or printing out custom sewing patterns or alteration templates. But, seriously, this is AWESOME use of 3D body scanning technology.  Kudos to Me-Ality, and I hope you all get a chance to try it out, too.


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