A trouble-free PC is just four short steps away

I've been fixing Windows annoyances for more years than I care to remember. Now I'm going to fess up: Dumb, in-a-hurry, and just plain careless users -- like me -- often bring PC problems upon ourselves. Here's the good news: Four simple tricks can help keep your PC humming despite all your inadvertent efforts to destroy it.

Go virtual

I try many more free utilities and oddball programs than I should. (I may complain that it's a tough way to earn a living, but I love doing it.) Unfortunately, many of these paragons of the coding art put the kibosh on my system. So I use Microsoft's free Virtual PC 2007 to run another session of Windows within Windows. The internal session is where I try out programs I'm not sure are keepers.

This second version of Windows (called a virtual machine) loads and looks like any other app; imagine a window with Windows in it. It looks, acts, and crashes (of course) just like Windows. But if something gets hosed in your virtual session, you can just delete and reinstall Virtual PC (it's a file). Getting around the licensing limit of one version of XP on a single PC is easy: I simply uninstall and then reinstall Virtual PC just before its 30-day activation deadline.

Batten the hatches

A PC armed with the most recent updates for Windows and for your applications is less likely to suffer security breaches and related problems. I use Secunia Software Inspector, a free Web service that scans my PC and examines dozens of programs -- including Windows and other Microsoft apps -- for updates. It then reports on installed or missing updates, and lets me know where to get them.

Quick tip: If you have US$25 to spare, try TouchStone Software's Driver Agent service. It finds driver updates for your display, system board, and other hardware.

Catch the backup habit

I know you've heard this, but the smartest thing you can do is back up every day. Don't roll your eyes. It's not that big a deal, and I have a few easy ways you can do it.

The strategy that works for me is to start with a full-image backup, do an incremental backup every day (as well as following any major product installation), and create a new full-image backup once a week.

I use Acronis's US$50 True Image to back up my system's hard drive onto a400GB Seagate Barracuda internal SATA drive (US$112) that slides into a Addonics Snap-In SATA Mobile Rack (US$26). Backing up to and restoring from an internal drive is considerably faster than doing the same things with an external USB drive.

Once my full-image backup is in place, I click Operations, Schedule, Task To set a time to automatically back up just the files that change afterward. Unless I create lots of big files in a 24-hour period, the incremental backup doesn't take long.

Since I'm a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy, I also do weekly backups to an external USB drive that I store at a neighbor's. Hard-drive expert Jon L. Jacobi prefers to back up all of the PCs on his LAN to a NAS box.

Reader question

I have 82 $NtUninstall folders in my C:Windows folder. If my system is operating properly and I don't want to uninstall any Windows updates, is it safe to delete these folders?

Brad Loomis, Morro Bay, California

There's a neat way to remove the unnecessary ones. Here are instructions on manually removing the folders individually. My method is safer and easier: Grab XP_Remove_Hotfix_Backup, a free tool from Doug Knox. It's the surest way to delete the folders and their Registry entries while retaining essential hotfixes that you may someday need again. For $5, you get a version that lets you selectively remove hotfixes.

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