How to maintain your laptop

Ever thought your laptop or notebook needed a tune up? Wondering how to go about maintaining your work machine? Well, here are a few tips and tricks to help you keep your mobile device in top shape.

Caring for Your Laptop

Lincoln Spector

You're more likely to damage a laptop than a desktop PC (no one has ever driven off, forgetting the desktop on top of their car), and once damaged, laptops are harder and more expensive to repair.

Keep the battery cool. Today's lithium batteries wear out no matter what you do, but you can postpone the inevitable. Avoid heat and use the battery as little as possible. If you're going to be running on AC power for awhile, shut down or hibernate the computer, remove the battery, and work without it.

Be careful about eating and drinking. Spill coffee on your desktop keyboard, and you'll have to spend $15 on a generic replacement you can plug in yourself. Spill it on your laptop keyboard, and you could short out the motherboard. I'll admit that I use my laptop in cafes just like everyone else, but I put my tea as far from the electronics as my table allows.

When home, turn it into a desktop. You don't always need portability. When working at your desk,plug in a full-sized monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Not only does this get around the food and beverage problem discussed above, but it protects items far more valuable than your laptop--your arms, hands, and eyes. You can't set up a proper, ergonomic working environment with a small keyboard attached to a small monitor.

Find the right carrying case. Before taking it on the road, pack the laptop properly. Depending on your carrying preferences, look for a carrying case, backpack, or shoulder bag with a padded section designed especially for a laptop. (I use a backpack because the even distribution of weight is better for my spine.)

Clean the keyboard properly. When keys starts sticking, it's time for a cleaning. Shut down the PC. Keep it open as you turn it upside-down and very gently tap on the back so that crumbs fall out. Then use a can of compressed air (you can buy this at any computer store for a few dollars) to blow out whatever is still stuck. Be sure to read the instructions on the can, first. Then turn the PC upside-down and tap it gently again to get the last bits out.

Clean the screen when it needs it. If you can't see the email for the dirt, it's time to do a little cleaning. Start with a dry, microfiber cloth--the sort you get at an optometrist's office (you can also buy them at photo and computer stores). Move it in circular motions. Be gentle, but apply slight pressure on particularly stubborn spots.

If that doesn't clean the screen, make your own cleaning solution by mixing distilled water (make sure it's distilled) and white vinegar in equal proportions into a spray bottle. Turn off your laptop. Spray this mixture lightly onto the microfiber cloth, not onto the monitor. Wipe as described above, then wait ten minutes before booting up.

Next: The Procrastinator's Guide to PC Maintenance

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The Procrastinator's Guide to PC Maintenance

Patrick Miller

You want to keep your PC running smoothly, your apps updated, and your data safe--but you're lazy. Here's how to keep your PC healthy while expending the minimum amount of effort possible.

As you undoubtedly know, you're supposed keep your files backed up, your applications up-to-date, and your antivirus software current. Unfortunately, you are--to speak frankly--too lazy to do these tasks as thoroughly and regularly as you should, and too cheap to shell out for add-ons that would do it for you automatically. How do I know? Because...we have a lot in common.

But we don't have to reinvent ourselves to get things under control. Here are a few tricks you can use to keep up on your basic PC maintenance without breaking a sweat.

Ditch Windows XP

If you still use Windows XP, your operating system expects you to perform a few more maintenance tasks than later Windows versions do.

Defragmenting your hard drive, for instance, is automatically scheduled in Windows 7 and Vista but has to be done manually in XP (right-click the drive name in My Computer, select Properties, Tools, and choose Defragment Now).

Regrettably, Windows 7 isn't free--Home Edition costs $100 at this writing--and though it's the best Microsoft OS I've ever used, it might be out of your price range. Also, if you're on an older PC, slogging through the upgrade process might not be worth it (though we have plenty of Windows 7 upgrade tips if you want to give it a shot).

On the other hand, defragmenting a 1TB hard drive doesn't yield the same performance benefits that performing the same operation on a smaller, slower hard drive used to provide--and those performance benefits were fairly minor to begin with.

So, assuming your PC is recent enough to read this article, you'll probably be okay putting off defragging.

Lazy Backups With Dropbox

We have plenty of great how-to articles explaining different backup strategies and backup plans; but if external drives and thoughts of drive images make your eyes glaze over, they won't help. Instead, think about what you have on your PC that you'd miss if you lost it.

For example, if you have irreplaceable photos on your PC that you need to back up, but you don't want to spend the time or money required to back them up to a DVD or external drive, consider storing them in a Flickr account, a Picasa Web album, or even a Facebook album.

All of those options are free (though some services will charge for storage or monthly upload bandwidth beyond a specified limit), and they all have auto-upload functions to keep your photo backups going. Picasa users can do this automatically with Picasa Web Albums, while Flickr and Facebook users should check out Foldr Monitr for Flickr and LiveUpload to Facebook.

When it comes to documents, the main items I want to back up are my work-related documents (old article drafts, mostly), so I don't need to buy terabytes of storage. In fact, I don't even need to buy a USB flash drive. I simply signed up for a Dropbox Basic account--which gives users 2GB of free online storage--and copied my whole Work Stuff folder over to it.

That doesn't always work, however, because I have a handful of high-res image files scattered among the Word docs, and they would eventually use up all of the space in my free Dropbox account. Rather that shell out $10 a month or so to increase my space allotment, I periodically do a quick search for every Word file on my hard drive (by searching for *.doc) and drag the files into a new folder on Dropbox.

If you have other folders on your hard drive that you want to sync with Dropbox without relocating it, simply grab Dropbox Folder Sync. Also, since Windows treats Dropbox as it would any other folder in its file system, you could create a batch file with some basic DOS commands to automate that search and copy process.

Automatically Update Everything

You may not care enough about bug fixes and minor features to keep every single app on your hard drive current, but you'll need to keep Windows and a few major apps (such as your browser, your PDF reader, and your office suite) updated to avoid nasty security exploits. Fortunately, you can arrange to have all of these updated automatically.

Start by opening Windows Update in the Control Panel. Click Change settings, and set the drop-down menu to Install updates automatically. If you don't have Microsoft Update installed, only Windows updates will download automatically; so if you have other Microsoft apps installed (anything from Silverlight to Office) you'll need Microsoft Update. To pick it up, click the Click here for details link at the bottom of the Windows Update window.

Every major browser has an automatic updating function of some sort, so your browser should already be covered. Microsoft delivers Internet Explorer updates via Windows Update, and Google Chrome receives its updates behind the scenes; to see whether your version of Chrome is current, click the wrench icon and choose About Google Chrome; if your version is old, the dialog box should give you the option to update.

Like Chrome, Firefox handles its updates internally. You can ensure that you'll get the latest releases from Mozilla by opening Tools, Options, Advanced, Update, and checking Automatically download and install. Safari's updates are handled via Apple Software Update, which normally is installed with Safari. If it doesn't run automatically, open it and go to Edit, Preferences, Schedule, where you can select your preferred update frequency.

Next, you'll want to keep Adobe Acrobat updated, because it's a popular target for malware. You can set it to update automatically by selecting Edit, Preferences, Updater and checking Automatically update and install.

Also, go to JavaScript (on the left-hand side of the Preferences window) and uncheck Enable JavaScript. Since JavaScript is a common attack vector for malware, you're system will be safer if you don't have it enabled by default (you can always re-enable it for individual PDFs that you deem nonthreatening).

At this point, all of your most critical apps are set to update automatically. But why stop there? Get the FileHippo.com Update Checker, a free app that will scan all the apps on your PC, check their versions against its database, and point you to download links for all the apps that need updating. No-Fuss Antivirus One of the things you can't afford to procrastinate about is your antivirus software.

Each of these suites should have its own automatic update functions in place; they are essential for keeping your system armed with the latest malware defenses. Since Microsoft's own Security Essentials updates via Windows Update, you won't need to configure anything else.

As long as you have a decent antivirus suite, you don't need to put much additional effort into staying safe--just don't click dubious links or open questionable attachments. Also, make sure that your e-mail client doesn't automatically display external images (Gmail takes this precaution by default; to re-enable the option temporarily, go to Settings under the General tab), and plug links into Google before clicking them, to confirm that they're legit.

To verify shortened URLs (generated by bit.ly, TinyURL, and such) before clicking them, grab the Untiny Greasemonkey script to verify them before clicking. We have plenty of other tips for business users and consumers alike in "Enterprise Security Tips on a Small-Business Budget."

Have your own tips for dealing with PC maintenance chores? Post them in the comments!

Next: Long Live Your Laptop Battery!

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Long Live Your Laptop Battery!

Laptop batteries are like people--eventually and inevitably, they die. And like people, they don't obey Moore's Law--You can't expect next year's batteries to last twice as long as this year's. Battery technology may improve a bit over time (after all, there's plenty of financial incentive for better batteries), but, while interesting possibilities may pop up, don't expect major battery breakthroughs in the near future.

Although your battery will eventually die, proper care can put off the inevitable. Here's how to keep your laptop battery working for as long as possible. With luck, it could last until you need to replace that aging notebook (perhaps with a laptop having a longer battery life).

I've also included a few tips on keeping the battery going longer between charges, so you can work longer without AC power.

Don't Run It Down to Empty

Squeezing every drop of juice out of a lithium ion battery (the type used in today's laptops) strains and weakens it. Doing this once or twice won't kill the battery, but the cumulative effect of frequently emptying your battery will shorten its lifespan.

(There's actually an exception to this rule--a circumstance where you should run down the battery all the way. I'll get to that later.)

The good news: You probably can't run down the battery, anyway--at least not without going to a lot of trouble to do so. Most modern laptops are designed to shut down before the battery is empty.

In fact, Vista and Windows 7 come with a setting for just this purpose. To see it, click Start, type power, and select Power Options. Click any one of the Change plan settings links, then the Change advanced power settings link. In the resulting dialog box, scroll down to and expand the Battery option. Then expand Critical battery level. The setting will probably be about 5 percent, which is a good place to leave it.

XP has no such native setting, although your laptop may have a vendor-supplied tool that does the same job.

Myth: You should never recharge your battery all the way.

There's considerable controversy on this point, and in researching this article I interviewed experts both for and against. But I've come down on the side of recharging all the way. The advantages of leaving home with a fully-charged battery--you can use your PC longer without AC power--are worth the slight risk of doing damage.

Keep It Cool

Heat breaks down the battery, and reduces its overall life.

When you use your laptop, make sure the vents are unblocked. Never work with the laptop on pillows or cushions. If possible, put it on a raised stand that allows for plenty of airflow.

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