Hassle-Free PC


Steve Bass


Sure-Fire Fixes for a Problem PC


Is your PC troubled? Maybe it has the blues (it wants to be a Mac). More likely, it's suffering from any of a dozen things, such as a corrupt file, a bad app, or even a moribund CMOS battery. Read on for PC therapy.


The Hassle: My PC freezes periodically. How do I unfreeze it without losing my work or having to reboot?


The Fix: In Task Manager, select the Processes tab, choose Explorer.exe, and click End Process. (Just ignore the scary message.) Select File, New Task (Run...), type explorer, and click OK.


The Hassle: Your advice helped me unfreeze my system--but it keeps happening, and I can't go on like this. What now?


The Fixes: Start with the usual suspects: Scrub your Temp and Internet cache folders. First, use CleanCache 3.0 (download site). Then run Windows' Check Disk utility with automatically fix file system errors and Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors checked. (Open My Computer, right-click the drive, select Properties, choose the Tools tab, and click the Check Now button under 'Error-checking'.) Also, send your antispyware and antivirus tools into action.


No luck? Try getting rid of damaged ActiveX programs. From Control Panel, choose Internet Options, the General tab, Settings, and View Objects. Right-click to delete any items marked 'Damaged' in the Status column. You might have a corrupted file, so run System File Checker to verify (and, if necessary, reinstall) those files on your system: Click Start, Run, and then type CMD. In the command window, type sfc /scannow and wait awhile; the scan seems to take forever to complete.


If your PC is still having problems, they may be more deep-rooted. You'll have to try a few techniques to figure out which program or process is causing the freezing. Sysinternals has three superb free diagnostic tools. FileMon gives you a real-time view of every running program and lets you know what it's doing, recording and time-stamping each action an app takes; watch for a specific program's behavior just before a freeze. RegMon does the same for the Registry, while Process Explorer does the dirty work on Windows processes.


The Hassle: Periodically, my PC boots to a black screen with a message saying that my hard drive doesn't exist. When I reboot, Windows loads and everything's fine. Well, almost--the clock is always wrong. Help!


The Fix: You have a dying CMOS battery on your motherboard. You'll first need to record the system's existing CMOS settings, which you can find in the PC Setup program. When you boot up the machine, you should see on-screen PC Setup access instructions before Windows starts. Use a digital camera to snap an image of each page, or record the details with pencil and paper. For another option, read "Make a Backup of Your CMOS" in the June 2005 Answer Line. Then buy a fresh battery at Radio Shack (about $5) and follow the steps at LiveRepair.


Tool of the Month:

Make Your PC Sparkling Clean

If you want to free your computer of useless system files, try CleanCache 3.0. This free program removes Windows' temporary files, Office's Most Recently Used history, and browser cache files. I prefer judicious cleaning, so I use the 'Clean Checked Items' option rather than 'Run Complete Cleanup'. One gripe: CleanCache has a setting to preserve useful cookies; but even with it turned on, you will have to click 'Remember my Address and Password' again on many of the sites you visit. I let CounterSpy, my antispyware program, manage cookies instead. Note that CleanCache requires Microsoft's .Net Framework.


Favorite Speedup Tweaks and Utilities

Does your Internet access seem a little sluggish? Shpritzing WD-40 on your screen won't help. A better idea: Try my all-time favorite cheap system speedup tips to make your Web browsing pleasurable again. I also have a better way to block ads, and fast ways to move files.

The Hassle: I've had DSL for a year, but at times it still feels poky.

The Fix: OpenDNS offers faster Internet access (e-mail and FTP, too), and it's free. Domain Name Servers (DNS) translate site names, such as pcworld.com, into IP addresses that PCs employ to locate one another on the Net.

Most people use their ISP's DNS services by default, and some providers are slow. Switching to OpenDNS has advantages. First, it's faster because it stores requests in a large cache; if you ask for the same IP address that other users have requested, OpenDNS doesn't need to look elsewhere--it has it. Make a typo--say, "netfliks.com"--and you're delivered to the correct site. Not only that, a warning appears if you reach a phishing site.

Setting up OpenDNS is a snap (see the instructions at the OpenDNS site).

The Hassle: My free ad blocker isn't keeping up with the ads. And I still get a few pop-ups despite using Google's pop-up blocker.

The Fix: Ads? Where? I don't see any, not even on PC World's site. My secret weapon is Ad Muncher, the most effective (and simple-to-use) ad and pop-up blocking utility I've seen. Granted, the tool is $25 (with a 30-day trial), but it works great and blocks almost all banner, Flash, floating, and text ads I've encountered. When you try it, be sure to uninstall or disable your existing ad and pop-up blocker.

If a Web site doesn't work correctly, or if you want a site's pop-up to pop up, the fix is easy. Right-click Ad Muncher in the system tray, choose the My Filters tab, click New, cut and paste the address into the Keyword field, choose No Filtering in the Filter Category, and click Close.

The Hassle: Windows Explorer has 355 assorted menu items when I right-click a file, and the list takes forever to appear. (Okay, I'm joking; there are only 100.) How can I get rid of some, especially those from long-deleted programs?

The Fix: I saw one PC whose monitor tilted to the right because it had so many items in the context menu. Seriously, though, many programs add menu items with or without permission. Getting rid of unused ones can range from easy to exasperating. Start by opening the corresponding program to see whether it allows you to remove the menu item (look for something like 'Shell integration'). In WinRAR, for instance, choose Options, Settings, and uncheck Integrate WinRAR into shell. WinZip puts its removal option in Options, Explorer Enhancements.

For what's left, I would bring out the big guns. NirSoft's free ShellExView program lists virtually all menu items (my PC had 300) and lets you disable them so that they don't appear when you right-click.

Sort and Move Files More Easily
Do you regularly need to organize and move a hodgepodge of files from hither to yon (or just to another folder)? For my files, I use FileSort. I have a folder that contains my daily, incoming e-mail attachments--Word documents, videos, and images. In FileSort I've created rules to move specific files from that folder to others; for instance, it shuttles 15MB or larger video files to one folder and puts JPEGs in another. I've set the program to run every 30 minutes. Some rules can use wild cards, too: For example, the expression *.jpg moves every file that ends in .jpg.