Nerdism at its best

March 14, 2014

Keeping your PC Updated and Running Smoothly

Today I am going to talk about improving your PC’s performance beyond the basic steps I’ve already covered thus far. Chances are your computer runs perfectly well until you start stressing it and then it will obviously slow down as it is given more demands.

Yet, there’s still those times when your system just bogs down and doesn’t seem like it wants to budge – like it’s stuck in mud and switching between apps seems to take an age. If your system feels slower, then it most likely is.

Many performance problems can simply be tracked down to too much overhead and too few resources. In other words, your computer can only handle so many simultaneously running processes before it starts to show signs of strain. This may manifest as long load or boot times, or applications may hang or stall, or the computer may exhibit signs of instability such as blue screens or sudden restarts.

This is the practical advice lesson and it will be here that I talk about improving your diagnostic skills with the all-powerful “Task Manager”, which is far more useful than its simple name would imply.

Before I do that however, I am going to delve into something very important, which is very often neglected by a vast number of PC users: updates.

Keeping Things Properly Updated

If your system isn’t regularly updated, it could be compromised and open to attack from hackers. Microsoft regularly issues patches and security updates and if your system isn’t set to download and automatically install them, or you’re not super diligent about checking for, downloading, and installing these updates, then you put your system at risk.

Perhaps even more important however, are those other little programs that don’t always get star treatment: Oracle Java, Adobe Flash, and Adobe Reader. While I did cover these plugins in the previous post, I want to stress again how important it is that these types of programs, any program really, are kept up-to-date.

Windows update

Windows provides a utility, aptly named “Windows Update” that allows you to keep your system patched and secure (to an extent) from any malicious attempts to gain access and seize control of your computer.

When you first create a master or administrator account on a new Windows install, you will asked whether you want updates to download and install automatically, or if you want to do this manually. I highly recommend you allow Windows to take care of updating itself.

Nevertheless, if you think you want to handle this portion of PC maintenance, then you need to know how to use “Windows Update” so you never miss a critical update.

To open “Windows Update” you will need to open the Control Panel. This is true whether you’re on Windows 8.x or Windows 7. In Windows 8.x, you can also update your system via the “PC settings” in the Metro interface under “update and recovery”.


For the sake of consistency, let’s stick to the desktop version. Once you’re familiar with that, the Metro version is pretty much the same thing.

When you first open “Windows Update” you will see its status, such as whether “you’re set to automatically install updates”. In the following screenshot, you see I have 3 optional updates available, but I also initiated a manual “check for updates” and you see I have 1 important update too.


You can click on the links to see what these updates are. You should install whatever important updates are available but you can be a bit pickier about optional updates.


In fact, you can even right-click on an update and hide it, so it no longer shows up in “Windows Update”.


Worry not, if you find you really need the “Bing Bar” or “Bing Desktop” or some other hidden update, you can use the “restore hidden updates” function.


All-in-all, “Windows Update” is a cinch to use, so if you decide to attend to your own updates, it’s usually a matter of remembering to install them. Luckily, you can set the level at which important updates occur with “Change settings”.

“Windows Update” not only handles important updates, but recommended updates, and updates for other Microsoft products like Office. You can disable these latter two if you don’t want to receive them through “Windows Update”.


With regard to “Important updates”, you choose between one of four different configurations giving you the full array of control over your updating process. You honestly don’t want to turn off automatic updating completely, but you can choose whether it notifies you that updates exist and then give you the choice whether to download and install them, or download them and then install them.


Note at the bottom of the important updates section there’s a link “updates will be automatically installed during the maintenance window.” Click on this and you will be able to decide when Windows Update runs. By default, it’s set to run daily at 3 AM and will wake up your computer, if necessary.

If you don’t want “Automatic Maintenance” waking up your computer at 3 AM, either uncheck the box next to “Allow scheduled maintenance to wake up my computer …” or change the time to when you know the computer will be on.


Java, Flash, and Reader

While Java, Flash, and Reader only represent a small drop in the bucket when it comes to applications, they’re often the most common entry points for many types of malware, especially Java, which is said to be responsible for HALF of all security exploits.

Oracle’s Java is everywhere. Some people recommend not installing java if you don’t need to an extent I agree. You may be able to do 99 out of 100 things on your computer but there’s always that one that requires Java. I play Minecraft and that requires Java to run. Just like everything else you still have to give java permission to run. There is a box that will pop up asking if you started the application. This doesn’t stop someone from hiding harmful code in a legitimate software and that can happen to any application.

Java comes with an “Update Scheduler” that automatically runs at regular intervals thus checking for, downloading, and installing updates. You can see it here in our “Startup” tab on the “Task Manager”.


Updating Java manually is a cinch. Simply open your “Start” menu (it will be in “All Program” in Windows 7) and click “check for updates” in the Java menu.


Alternatively, you can simply open the “Java (32-bit)” control panel from the Control Panel.


Once open, select the “Update” tab to see your available update options. In the following example, the updater is set to notify the user before downloading any updates. This can be changed to automatically download updates, and to then notify us before installing.


If you want to turn off automatic updates (highly not recommend), then uncheck the box next to “Check for Updates Automatically”.

What is recommend is clicking the “Advanced” button and altering your update schedule. In the following screenshot, you see that Java is set to check for updates every month on Monday at 5 AM. It seems unlikely, no matter how bad a Monday it is, that you’ll be up at 5 AM so you can change this to something else, possibly more frequently, at a more productive time of day.


Finally, to execute a manual update, click the “Update Now” button at the bottom of the Java Control Panel.


If there are updates available, it will prompt you to update. If there aren’t, then you’re good to go (for now).


Adobe Flash

Adobe Flash Player is arguably the most widely used browser plugin out there. So much so that it is largely indispensable, which makes it a very attractive target for exploits. I described how to manage extensions and plugins in the previous post so I am not going to dwell further on that.

For the most part, browsers, particularly Google Chrome (which I recommend) are pretty good about automatically updating plugins.


That said, if want to download the “Adobe Flash Player system plug-in” (for use with other programs such as video processing) then you will be presented with the following options.


There’s really not a lot to think about here, you should most definitely “Allow Adobe to install updates”. Once installed, you can administer to the system Flash Player from the Control Panel.


The Flash Player control panel is similar to the Java control panel only the update settings are on the “Advanced” tab. Click the “Change Update Settings” button and you will be able choose one of the other two options. Note, you must have administrator rights to do this.


To execute a manual update check, click the “Check Now” button. You will be whisked to Adobe’s Flash Player page and if an update is needed, you can download and install it from there.

Adobe Reader

Finally, last but obviously not least, is Adobe Reader. Reader, like Flash, is another (almost) indispensable utility. There are Reader alternatives out there and you’re certainly free to explore your options, but for many a user, Adobe’s offering is one of the first things (apart from another browser) that they install.

By default, Adobe places the “Adobe Reader and Acrobat Manager” into your system’s startup routine. This will automatically check for program updates whenever Windows starts. You can disable this of course, but then you will need to check for program updates manually.


To check for program updates manually, open the Reader application and from the “Help” menu select “Check for Updates…”.


If any updates are found, you will be able to install them, otherwise you’re good to go.


As I mentioned, there are Reader alternatives out there. At one time Foxit Reader was one of my favorites but it’s since become bloated with crap. If you don’t want to use Adobe Reader, then you might want to try Sumatra PDF, which is free, lightweight, and not Adobe.

Drivers

Drivers are the little bits of intermediary software that allow your hardware to work with Windows. Without drivers you wouldn’t be able to connect to the Internet or send things to your printer. When Windows 95 first debuted, drivers were something of a mess and in order to fully keep on top or your system, you’d have to manually install drivers from each manufacturer, and for any new hardware you added.

This situation didn’t actually start to improve until Windows XP, and didn’t become a no-brainer until Windows 7. Today, there’s almost nothing you need to do with Windows 8.x.

Furthermore, if drivers do need updating, they’ll appear in “Windows Update” under “Optional” updates.

That said, if you have a computer you want to play games on, I recommend installing the graphic card manufacturer’s recommended drivers. You’re almost certainly going to have a graphics chipset supplied by Intel, Nvidia, or AMD. The latter two release drivers for their chipsets on a regular basis so you can visit their download pages for more details:

AMD: http://sites.amd.com/us/game/downloads/Pages/downloads.aspx

Nvidia: http://www.nvidia.com/Download/index.aspx?lang=en-us

If you’re not sure whether you want to do this or you simply don’t care about gaming, then chances are you should just use the driver that “Windows Update” installs and you will be fine.

The “Task Manager” should be your first stop when nailing down performance hiccups. To access the Task Manager, you can hit CTRL+ALT+DEL and choose “Task Manager” or right-click on the taskbar and choose it from the menu.


The “Task Manager” in Windows 7 is probably familiar to a lot of you. It’s relatively unchanged between Windows versions.


The “Task Manager” in Windows 8.x has received quite a makeover but retains its essential functionality. For the purposes of this section, I’m going to concentrate on this “Task Manager” version. You should be able to achieve the same goals using the Windows 7 version, it will just look different.

The new-look “Task Manager” defaults to a very simple streamlined interface. There’s not a whole lot you can do with it other than end non-responsive applications however, if you click “more details” then the sheer power of the “Task Manager” is revealed.


The “Processes” tab lists every running process on your system. This is very useful for diagnosing hung apps and excess system overhead.


If an application “hangs” it means it stops responding, this can be a temporary situation while the computer works to free up resources, or it can mean that the application needs to be ended. In the following example I’ve purposely stressed My system with a bunch of resource-intensive tasks to show you what this looks like. Note, the application with “not responding” in red next to it.


If this happens to you and it feels like your system is dragging, you may need to free up resources by quitting stuck applications. You can try closing a problem application by trying to properly exit but if an application is really misbehaving, then from the “Task Manager” click on the problem app and then the “end task” button in the bottom-right corner.

Note, if you end an application abruptly, you will possibly (probably) lose any unsaved work so use this power with great care. When at all possible, try closing other unused, running applications to try to free up system resources and/or wait for the hung application to respond.

Pinning Down Performance Bottlenecks

Applications don’t always need to become non-responsive for your system to slow to a crawl. At times like this, it’s great to use the “Task Manager” to check where you might have performance bottlenecks. Looking at the “Performance” tab, you see a freshly restarted system under minimal load. Across all our metrics, you see that my system is having no performance problems.


Check out what happens however, when I place my system under extreme load. In this example, I’ve fired up a virtual machine, which causes RAM and CPU usage to spike and destabilize our system.


See here I am utilizing 100% of my CPU.


And there’s also a sharp spike in disk I/O, which can cause our system to stutter and lurch along as well.


Sometimes if you stress your system to the max, a warning box will pop up telling you that your memory is low, and you need to close programs to free up resources.


The dialog box has a button “close programs” and it will list various applications that it will end. Note, you may actually be using some or all these programs so simply clicking that button may have undesirable results.

Obviously, there’s a more refined way to diagnose system slowdowns. In our “Task Manager” you can order applications and services by clicking on the appropriate header (“CPU” in the screenshot). Here the “VMware Workstation VMX” process has our processor tied up pretty well and overall it is pegged at 99%. There’s basically no room for any other process.


Note here in the next screenshot, I’ve ordered everything according to “memory” to give you an idea of which things can help you free up RAM in a pinch. In this case, I can close Google Chrome, Dropbox, and MusicBee and recover quite a bit of memory.


The “Task Manager” is invaluable to any Windows user but it’s important to remember that it is only a diagnostic tool so knowing how to apply the information it conveys and make intelligent maintenance decisions can alleviate a lot of common system slowdown woes.

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