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Protecting your hardware involves several steps:
Dust, hair and overheating prevention
Elaborate measures (self contained and filtered rooms for your tower) aren't necessary or feasible for most people. The realistic goal is to keep your computer well ventilated to ensure adequate airflow which prevents overheating while simultaneously preventing the intakes from drawing in dust, hair and debris. Remember, the biggest enemy of a computer having a long life is excessive heat facilitated by dust build up and improper airflow.
This is most commonly a problem in households with pets where desktops sit on the floor. Slowly but surely, dust and hair get drawn into the computer and clog up fans and heatsinks and collect in corners of the case. The dust and hair act like an insulator and keep things warmer. Actions to minimize this problem are:
- If possible, keep your tower up and off the floor. Placing the computer on the top of your desk or even raising it slightly will help tremendously. For example, one of our guys built a wooden platform about a foot tall for his tower.
- Vacuum regularly. If there isn't much dust and hair to be drawn into the computer, it won't build up quickly in the first place.
Dust and hair cleaning
Depending on the above factors, we recommend regularly (1-3 months, depending on needs) opening your computer and using compressed air to blow it out. Please see the videos below for examples:
Opening and cleaning a tower
Opening and cleaning a laptop
While modern power supplies in computers are very good at mitigating the potential damage from electrical system irregularities, we are not immune to the potential damage a surge can cause. There are two means of protecting against this:
- Purchase an uninterruptable power supply (UPS). Simply search for "UPS" on Amazon.com and you'll find many options. The advantage of an UPS is that is has a battery backup feature such that if power is lost you can save critical work while running on battery backup (laptops have this feature built in, nice right?). UPS not only have the battery backup but they can also have surge protection and line-conditioning features, which protect the delicate electrical components of your computer from electrical fluctuations.
- Purchase a basic surge protector. This offers the same surge protection of an UPS without the battery feature.
Protecting your software:
What not to do
There is too much here to cover it all. In short, you should avoid online activities prone to viruses, malware and spyware. This means not pirating software, being wary of suspicious e-mail attachments and links, only visiting reputable websites and so much more. Some of this is common sense as well as experience.
- Don't open .exe files you don't explicitly trust
- Purchase software directly from vendors
- Follow our "what to do" advice below
What to do
This primarily involves the installation of anti-virus software and anti-spyware/malware software.
- For anti-virus, all of us here at DogHouse Systems are big fans of Microsoft Security Essentials. Please note: MSE is built into Windows 8 as Microsoft Defender.
- Spybot S&D is a fantastic anti-spyware suite. It has solved problems for various members of our team after infection of Spyware, not to mention the many problems it prevented from occuring in the first place. Of special note is the ability of Spybot to immunize your computer precluding infection in the first place as opposed to retroactively correcting problems after they occur.
- With MSE, Spybot and safe computing habits, as well as improved software security of the more recent Windows releases, you should be virus and spyware free. Remember to regularly update them and run scans. The frequency of updates and scans can be automated or something you do on some calendar regularity (monthly for example).
Always perform backups
We load our computers with a copy of Acronis True Image, and routinely performing backups is strongly encouraged. Beyond retrieving your files in the event of data loss, if you suddenly begin experiencing a software related problem, you can always restore to a previously known good state.
Most common problems and their diagnostic steps
These are the problems we most frequently see our customers come across and the steps we advise to take to correct them. Just like our Preventative Maintenance section, this is divided into both hardware and software diagnosis.
Hardware problems often manifest as instability, programs crashing, graphical glitches occur in-game, etc. The most common culprits are graphic card malfunctions and memory instability.
Graphic card malfunctions
If you are experiencing graphical errors, in-game instability and other visual problems predominantly when working in a 3D environment (gaming), you may have a problem with your graphics card(s). The first step is to make sure you have a clean driver installation. Uninstall your current driver suite, restart your system and then perform a fresh installation of the latest version of the drivers for your graphics card.
Once that is done, perform the following:
Go to http://www.ozone3d.net/benchmarks/fur/ and download and install Furmark.
Launch Furmark and use the following settings:
Use the native resolution of your monitor
Anti-aliasing set at 2X
Then click BURN-IN test
Let this run for at least 60 minutes (longer if possible: a couple hours or more) or until the system misbehaves. There will be a line graph displayed over the stress render that shows the temperature of the video card. Temperature spikes associated with instability mean the card is overheating. See our section on cleaning to verify that dust/hair buildup is not causing temperature spikes and associated instabilities. If temperature is consistent but you still experience instabilities, your graphics card may be failing.
Arbitrary blue screens and crashes, both in games and in Windows, are indicative of memory errors.
RAM should be installed in matched sets. We never recommend mixing and matching brands or even mixing DIMMs from a specific brand. This doesn't mean mixing DIMMs won't work, it just significantly increases the probability of memory errors. To test your memory we recommend using Prime95. Download it here: ftp://ftp.doghousesystems.com/p95v279.win64.zip
We run it with the default settings for our 48-hour burn-in on the systems we build. For your testing, set the memory to max and run for at least a few hours. Whenever you're satisfied, stop the test. If errors occur or your system crashes, you likely are experiencing memory errors. The next step would be to replace/remove your memory and see if stability improves.
Remove the half of the memory furthest from the CPU on the right and retest. If instability persists, replace left memory modules with the removed ones from the right and retest. This should determine which memory modules are bad.
If problems still persist, you may need to replace your motherboard.
Challengingly, software problems can be similar to hardware issues as well, and may cloud diagnosis. A good method to identify software problems compared to hardware is two-fold:
- Software will either be localized exclusively to a single program, e.g., Photoshop routinely crashes while everything else is fine. In this case we recommend deleting and then reinstalling the software.
- The problem persists across all computing activities, from Internet browsing to gaming. In this case, the software is probably always active in the background or system tray. In cases like this we advise the following:
Only use one anti-virus program
As mentioned previously, we install Microsoft Security Essentials on our systems ordered with Windows 7 (it's built into Windows 8). Occasionally, our customers will also install anti-virus software of their own (typically McAfee or Norton).
More than one anti-virus program can produce instability or a latency in your computer. The latency manifests as very brief freezes while computing. Uninstall anit-virus software until you only have one installed, restart your computer and see if the problem persists.
Perform a clean boot
In short, a clean boot is disabling all the startup software on your computer except that exclusively required for Windows to operate. At that point you test to see if the problem is resolved and then incrementally restore software and reboot your computer testing to see when the problem returns. The software service most recently restored is the cause of your issue.
Detailed instructions on performing a clean boot can be found here.
More advanced troubleshooting
At this point, diagnosing the problem becomes more complex and requires advanced knowledge and experience. The worst-case scenario is a combination of hardware and software issues. There are several final pieces of advice guidance we can offer:
Restore to a known good state
We previously mentioned backing up your computer, and in troublesome situations it may be prudent to restore to a previously known good state. While you may lose some recent work or newly acquired data it may be worth removing a software related headache.
Reformat - Factory Restore
The ultimate cure to a software problem -- blast it! Reformating your harddrive and performing a clean install of Windows is a certain means of removing any potential software problems. Yes, it is time consuming and arduous, but also worth it. You'll be amazed by how much space you reclaim and how much smoother your computer runs. A lot of us at DogHouse perform semi-regular reformats (every year or two).
For our customers, the final step is having them send us a detailed system report our technicians crawl through to locate potential problems. Follow these steps for generating and sending us the report:
- Download, unzip and run the following utility using the e-mail report option: LookInMyPC.zip (user name: user, password: *no password*). If for whatever reason the email option fails, the script’s output is saved in a .zip file inside a Reports folder within the Lookinmypc folder. Simply attach this to an email back to us.
- In addition, there may be one or more “.dmp” files in the C:\Windows\Minidump folder. Please attach it (or the three most recent ones) to your email back to our support groups. Also, please search for “View reliability history” in the Start menu search field and open the control panel in the top of the list. Once opened, click “Save reliability history” in the bottom left of the control panel window and include with your other attachments.