How to make Windows XP last for the next seven years

Vista, schmista. Follow our tips for keeping your XP setup humming happily for a long, long time

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3. Make sure your software is up to date.

Perhaps the most important maintenance step is to use Microsoft Update. It replaces the older Windows Update and provides patches for all Microsoft products including Windows and Office. Most home users should have automatic updates enabled for security patches; go to Control Panel --> Automatic Updates to check the settings.

Microsoft does not make all updates available through the automatic route, however. You'll see noncritical security updates and new drivers only by going to the Microsoft Update site. Internet Explorer is the only browser supported there, so start IE and go to http://update.microsoft.com to have your system scanned and see what updates you're missing.

Choose the Custom option to see all available updates for your computer. This list will include upgrades to products that are bundled with Windows, such as Windows Media Player, but it's not necessary to install them if you don't use those products. It also includes updated device drivers; these driver updates often fix problems, so it is a good idea to install them.

Microsoft Update
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Checking for patches at Microsoft Update.

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What is Windows Genuine Advantage?

In April 2006, Microsoft began to require that the Windows license be validated before users could download security updates and most other files from the Microsoft site. When you visit Microsoft Update, software known as Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) checks the license key on the system and allows the download only if the license appears to be valid.

In most cases, the validation works smoothly, but there can be problems. For instance, local PC builders or repair technicians sometimes reuse the same license keys for many computers, which can trigger the WGA flag. If this happens, you can contact Microsoft through the information you receive in the WGA dialog to determine how to fix the problem.

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To keep the rest of your software up to date, just about every major product now includes an automatic updater that regularly checks for new versions of the software. It's especially important to keep any Internet-related software up to date, since these are often the "attack surface" used by security exploits. This includes Sun Java, Adobe Reader, Apple software such as QuickTime and iTunes, and browsers such as Firefox and Opera. All of these programs have automatic update features that are enabled by default.

For software that doesn't have an updater, check at least every month to ensure there are no critical updates. Sites like VersionTracker also offer one-stop checks for software updates.

Disk Cleanup
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Selecting files to delete with Disk Cleanup. (Click for larger view.)

4. Clean the disk. The next step is disk cleanup. Windows accumulates junk files on a regular basis from sources such as Internet caches and temporary files. Use Windows' built-in Disk Cleanup tool (Programs --> Accessories --> System Tools --> Disk Cleanup) to get rid of them. In most cases, the default settings for Disk Cleanup are the ones to use; we never recommend using the Compress Old Files option.

The Windows Disk Cleanup tool automatically cleans the Internet Explorer cache if you have that box checked, but it won't clear the cache of non-Microsoft applications and browsers such as Firefox or Opera. If Firefox is installed, clean its cache through the Tools --> Clear Private Data menu. In Opera, choose Tools --> Delete private data. (The CCleaner program described below can clean all these caches.)

You'll also want to take a look in Control Panel --> Add/Remove Programs to see if there are any applications that you no longer need. Many people install trial software but forget to remove it after they decide it's not worth buying. (You don't have to perform this step every week unless you frequently install trial software; once a month is fine for most people.) To remove a program you no longer want, select it, click the Remove button, and click Yes.

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