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Technology Untangled: Use caution with PC speed-up software

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technology-bourIt seems like just about everyone feels like their PC is running slowly, or it is slowing down compared to when it was new. It doesn’t really matter how fast your newest PC is, the desire for faster and smoother operation is a common thread of complaint. Software vendors are well aware of this.

Several PC optimization TV advertisements caught my attention recently. These were not low-cost late-night commercials. These commercials aired during prime time on several of the news and politics channels. The two products were DoubleMySpeed.com and PCMatic.com. The ads for these “one click fixes” are attractive. However, based on my recent experiences, caution is advised.

There are many reasons why your computer slows down after you buy it, and optimization programs include a wide set of tools to address these issues. Disk defragmentation, registry cleaning, device driver updates, junk file removal, virus and malware removal, removal of unnecessary startup applications, security tweaks… the list goes on and on. The problem is that these blanket fixes throw so many changes at your computer all at once that they are likely to do as much harm as good. And since so many changes are made during an optimization run, it becomes difficult to identify what one or two “fixes” should perhaps be undone or avoided altogether.

Here is the account of some of my recent frustration with PCMatic. I hope you can learn something from my troubles.

Last winter, one of my computers was badly locking up. It was late at night, so running it to a computer repair place was not possible. Out of desperation, I downloaded PCMatic so I could perhaps get things fixed up enough to get some work done. I had little to lose, either the download would help or I would be taking the machine in the next morning. I clicked the “auto fix” button and hoped for the best. The process took over an hour. When the computer rebooted, it was functioning somewhat better. I never did learn what the specific problem was, I was just glad that things were now functional; however, several new and very annoying problems surfaced due to the “fix.”

First, the video display defaulted to a basic mode with a very poor resolution. It turns out that PCMatic incorrectly updated the driver for the video card. It took quite a while to identify this problem and reload my original driver software. Second, the program identified my GoToMyPC remote access program as malicious software and completely removed it. That program had to be reinstalled from scratch. I found this out days later when tech support finally answered my angry e-mail, as there is no support for immediate help with problems.

An important lesson was that you could, in fact, fine-tune the optimization process instead of clicking “auto fix.” When I more recently ran PCMatic, I knew to turn off the driver update feature and to advise it not to remove GoToMyPC, but if you have to start plucking around in the options and sub-option screens, it defeats the “automatic” allure of programs like PCMatic.

Because of the commercial, I remembered that the software license I bought was for one year and good for up to five computers all for $49.95. I thought I would again try PCMatic on several slowing but not disabled computers with the hope of speeding them up a bit. The results were very negative. Both computers became noticeably slower, with extremely long reboot time – 20 minutes or more! An odd problem appeared when powering down my monitor at night to save power. In the morning it would not come back on, insisting that no video signal was coming from the computer. The only solution was to reboot the computer (long reboot) and never power down the monitor again.

The next lesson was about restore points. Windows keeps snapshots of previous settings that worked so you can restore your computer to an earlier date. To learn more, type “Restore Wizard” at the Windows “help” screen. I went to undo the damage that PCMatic had caused, only to learn it had erased all but my most recent restore point! It did this automatically in order to save me hard drive space, as data for multiple restore points can use a fair amount of hard drive. You can deselect this action in the options and sub-option menus of PCMatic, if you know to do it in advance. PCMatic does have its own “undo” feature, but it does not undo all the damage nearly as well as Restore Wizard. So be sure to specifically make and save a new restore point before invoking optimization software (or any new software for that matter).

I do not recommend using an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink optimization program like PCMatic. Next time I have a need, I will take my computer to a shop, or perhaps even try the tune-up services offered at places like Office Depot, though, for all I know, they may be using a similar type of program on site. At least if something goes wrong there, you have someone else to complain to and blame.•

Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD, and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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