Caring for your computer on a tight budget

Money is tight, and computers are not the first thing to get attention when the budget gets squeezed. How can you improve your computer’s performance without spending wads of cash? Here are some suggestions.

A memory (RAM) upgrade is the easiest improvement you can make on your system. The cost is approximately $20 to $100, depending on the speed and size of RAM required. Installation does not jeopardize data, and takes only a few minutes. Many stores, like ours, provide memory installation free with its purchase. Techs install it and test to be sure the RAM is compatible with your machine. Installation takes perhaps 10 minutes. A memory upgrade can improve start up time, and overall performance.

Another addition that helps you clean up your system is an external hard drive. After plugging in an additional “parking lot” for your files, you can sort and transfer your saved data, photos, music and videos. The additional space will give your system breathing room as it juggles bits and bytes in its ongoing operation.

External hard drives consist of an enclosure and a hard drive. We prefer empty enclosures so that we can install a quality hard drive. If you chose to save money on a less expensive hard drive, it could result in loss of irreplaceable data. Check for a brand you trust if you buy an enclosure with an included hard drive.

There are some fun devices that could improve your “computing satisfaction.” If you still use a ball mouse, the optical mouse is much more precise and responsive, and can be used on almost any surface. Other cool accessories are track ball mice and gaming keyboards. Laptops that overheat might appreciate a cooling mat or stand for extra ventilation. An improved video card might allow you to play that new game with your older computer.

Windows Updates should be downloaded regularly for maintenance. They are released weekly and will make your system more secure. Keep your anti-virus and anti-spyware up-to-date and scan regularly.

Delete unneeded programs and files. This should only be done if you are certain which files you are deleting. It is possible to delete files that help your computer to operate effectively. The same is true for “Start-Up Items.” Be very careful: don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

Check your e-mail archives for years of mail that you‘ll never need again. Delete your old deleted e-mails by going into the “deleted” file, selecting one line with the left click, then selecting another line (well below the first) with “Shift-left click.” That will give you a block of selected lines that you can remove by simply pressing your delete key.

The best way to “refresh” your computer is with an operating system reload. An experienced computer user can do this by using the recovery disks that came with the computer. Valuable files must be backed up beforehand because a reload will erase all files and programs. Only the programs that are on the manufacturer’s recovery disk will be restored. The process takes two to three hours or more, and may involve finding drivers for hardware or peripherals.

After a reload, your computer should run as well as it did when you first purchased it.

Patty Harshbarger, owner of Computer Renaissance in Bradenton, can be reached at