18 simple, free fixes for your Vista or XP PC

Your ultimate PC repair kit

Disgnose your web connection

Many of us feel as though we're paying a certain amount for our broadband but aren't getting all the bandwidth we're due. As well as the issues over distance from the phone exchange and contention ratio, it's possible that the router could be slowing things down.

You can check on this using Microsoft's Internet Connectivity Evaluation Tool. This can tell you whether your router supports faster connections, but be aware that if you're contending with a firewalled network you won't get accurate results.

Click here and follow the instructions. You'll need to read through Microsoft's list of caveats about the test and agree to have non-personally identifiable data analysed during the process in order to use the tool. You also need to have Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher. Note too that the test can interrupt running connections.

If the results show that your system doesn't support many of the technologies listed, you might want to look into the possibility of purchasing a newer router or (if you are an XP user) upgrading to Vista.

The Microsoft site just happens to include links to routers available for purchase that have earned the Windows Vista logo.

Speed tweaks

Having cleared out the crud and cut down on the auto-startup apps, it's time to add some refinement to your PC and make it seem not just squeaky clean but smooth too.

The option usually cited at this point is to defragment your hard disk — something we won't deter you from doing but that arguably has minimal effect on everyday computing. However, if you do want to try defragging your disk, it makes sense to run the wizard when you're not using your PC.

First, create a Scheduled Task by going to Control Panel and clicking on Add Scheduled Task and following the prompts. Next, edit the command line in Advanced Properties to read: cmd.exe /c defrag c: -f -v > "c:\doc\report.txt" (your switches and the path to your report file may be different).

In Vista, change the text in the 'Add arguments (optional)' box to /c defrag -c -f -v -w > "c:\doc\report.txt" (again, your switches and report path may differ).

A clean sweep

More usefully, you can run Windows' built-in tools, such as the Desktop Cleanup wizard, to declutter your desktop, group genuinely useful items where you can instantly launch them from the taskbar or a hanging pane at the top of your screen. Assigning shortcuts to quickly launch the most useful and frequently used applications will also help your general organisation.

Use Windows own speed tweakers

In previous versions of Windows, tweaking settings to get the fastest system possible used to require bouncing from one arcane dialog box to the next. Though Vista makes most system information easier to find, many of the tools that will put your PC into overdrive remain buried.

A new Control Panel applet collects the tools you favour for analysing and revving up your system. Click Start, Control Panel, System and Maintenance, Performance Information and Tools, and click the links on the left to access tools.

Few of these tools are unique to Vista, and there are XP options available.

Ramp things up the easy way

Adding more memory is an effective way to increase your PC's ability to cope with several things at once. Vista's ReadyBoost makes use of the flash memory of any USB 2.0 device as if it were internal memory.

To use ReadyBoost simply enable the option on your laptop. While it won't make a huge difference to performance, when a lack of memory stops you in your tracks it can save the day.

Windows won't boot

Ever since Microsoft came up with the bright idea of adding online activation, it's been causing users headaches. It therefore pays to be able to lay your hands on your product key, just in case Windows throws a wobbly or you need to prove the validity of your Windows setup in order to receive updates or download software.

Not only that, but if you don't have an activated version of Windows XP or Vista, you won't be able to use your PC.

Get your product key

One day you might need to retrieve your product key for your Windows installation or for Microsoft Office. Save yourself a headache by running Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder. It's free but supported by donations.

Random reboots tell you what's up

If your PC's latest trick is to reboot for no particular reason, you'll need to do a bit of digging around to establish a cause before you've any chance of fixing it. We've found malfunctioning USB devices can sometimes be to blame for sudden shutdowns, but there can be any number of causes.

If you're using Windows 2000 or XP, right-click My Computer, choose Properties and click the Advanced tab. In Vista, click the Start button, type System, Properties, Advanced and press Enter.

Next, click the Settings button under 'Startup and Recovery'. Deselect the 'Automatically restart' box and click ok twice. The next time the problem occurs, instead of rebooting you'll probably see a text screen reporting a system error. Jot down any information it contains and see whether you can find related information by entering details at a PC support Web site.

Attachment issues

It's not a good idea to have your USB plug-in drive attached when you fire up or restart your PC as it can confuse Windows (which assumes it should try and boot Windows from the USB port). Instead, let Vista load before you plug in any peripherals.

There's also a known issue with some hardware configurations that can prevent things working smoothly with ReadyBoost in action. If you find this to be the case, head to Click here and request a hotfix patch be sent by email.

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