ou've finally got Windows XP working the way you want it to. But don't assume your task is complete - it won't be long before you start adding (and removing) programs, filling up your hard drive with temporary files and slowly building up the clutter once again.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. Read on to discover how to keep your system as clean as humanely possible, enabling you to put off the day when you'll have to reinstall Windows XP again.
Be selective over what you install
Every time you load a new program on to your PC you're having an impact on its overall performance, so it makes sense to be a little more careful over what you decide to run on your computer. We're all guilty of installing loads of programs that look good, but end up being rarely - if ever - used.
You could set a weekly or monthly date when you go through the Add or Remove Programs Control Panel getting rid of those programs you no longer need, but the nature of program uninstallers mean they usually leave parts of the program behind, whether it's the program folder itself, configuration files or Registry settings.
These are usually left behind for good reason, so if you reinstall the program your preferences and so on are preserved. But the net result is that your system is left more cluttered when you uninstall a program than before you actually loaded it in the first place.
If you like to experiment with software, use the step-by-step guide to help you test new software in conjunction with the System Restore tool. System Restore works best if you're only reverting your system a few hours or maybe a day or two, so if you leave a program on your system for even two or three days you should avoid step four of the guide once you've removed it.
Test new programs on your PC
1. TAKE A SYSTEM RESTORE POINT
Before installing a new program click Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > System Restore. Choose Create a restore point and click Next. Give it a suitably descriptive name and click Create followed by Close.
2. INSTALL AND TEST DRIVE
You can now install the new program and give it good test drive to determine if it's what you're looking for. If it serves a purpose, leave it on your system and continue working as normal; if not, read on.
3. UNINSTALL THE PROGRAM
Remove unwanted programs by opening the Add or Remove Programs Control Panel, or by looking on the Start > All Programs menu for the program's uninstaller. If prompted, opt to delete any shared files or unwanted folders.
4. RESTORE YOUR PC
If you've not made any other changes to your system since installing the program like adding new hardware or downloading new updates, open System Restore as before, but this time opt to restore your PC to the Restore point you created earlier.
Clean up the clutter
Instead, follow these tips to tidy up behind the program in question. First, restart immediately if the program tells you to so it can clean up after itself that little bit better. Next, open the Program Files folder and see if the program's own folder is still present. If it is, have a peek inside to check nothing important is in there and then delete it.
Most programs also leave traces of themselves in the Documents and Settings folder, specifically the Local Settings and Application Data folders. These are hidden by default, so check out the tip opposite for a quick way to access both. Exercise caution here - move any likely folders on to the desktop and if your system doesn't experience any ill-effects, delete them from the desktop after a few days or weeks.
You may also find references in the Registry - look in the Software branches of the HKEY_CURRENT_USERS and HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE keys, but again take a backup (File > Export) before doing so. We're not big fans of Registry cleaners - all find different things to delete, and none are 100 per cent foolproof - so check the Optimise the Registry box below for a better method to follow. If you must use a Registry cleaning tool, again back up any entries before deleting them - just in case.
Optimise the Registry
Registry cleaning utilities make grandiose promises, but actually achieve very little aside from deleting legitimate entries. A far better way to optimise your Registry is to first compact it by removing blank space and then defragmenting it.
If your Registry is in good health you have nothing to fear, but it is possible for this procedure to corrupt the Registry files and render your PC unbootable. Don't panic - see the tips box for an essential read.
First, click here and read the section on ERUNT to create a fail-safe backup of your Registry. If necessary, click here to create a rescue CD before you begin.
The NT Registry Optimizer (NTREGOPT) is installed alongside ERUNT, which is what we'll use to compact the Registry files. Launch the program, click Yes and wait. Once complete, make a note of how much compaction has taken place and click Yes again to reboot.
Next, download PageDefrag from here and extract the three files to a folder before double-clicking the pagedfrg executable file. A list of all the system files - including the Registry files - will appear, complete with a fragmentation report. If any files have more than one fragment, choose Defragment at next boot, click OK and restart.
Remove unwanted DLL files
If you're obsessive about keeping your system clean, some programs leave parts of themselves in the Windows folder. The performance hit is marginal, but if you're determined to be neat and tidy, install the shareware tool DLL Toys from here.
Launch Import Checker from the Start > All Programs > DLL Toys menu. Select Search unused DLLs (Careful) under Purpose, click Start and leave your computer for an hour or two - DLL Toys will systematically check every DLL file on your system to see if it's safe to delete or not. As it's such a lengthy process, you should only run this tool once or twice per year.
Once the search is complete, a list of all DLL files on your system will be displayed. Select the Unused DLLs button to see which ones DLL Toys feels are safe to remove from your PC. You can then remove these manually if you know what you're doing, or pay the US$18.95 registration fee to let DLL Toys back up the files and then remove them automatically.
It's amazing just how permanent temporary files can be - it appears many program installers and other tools just don't feel the need to clean up after themselves. This is where the Disk Cleanup tool jumps in - open My Computer, right-click your C drive and select Properties. Click the Disk Cleanup button and wait for your drive to be analysed.
Once complete, tick the boxes that you wish to clean up - recommended options like Temporary Files will be ticked, but you can find out more about individual options by selecting them. The More Options tab has some useful features on it too - you can delete all but the most recent System Restore point to free up disk space, for example.
Once you've scrubbed your hard drive of redundant files, don't forget to check your drive for errors (see the tips box for details) and defrag the drive to keep it running at its maximum performance.
Reinstalling Windows XP gives your system a massive boost going forward, enabling you to enjoy maximum performance, security and stability. If you've followed our guide to the letter you'll have discovered that it's not as daunting as it sounds, and your PC will thank you for the effort.
Five quick tips
Looking for a shortcut to the Application Data folder? Click Start > Run, type %appdata% and click OK. Type .\local settings to access the Local Settings folder (jnclude the period mark).
Before running the Disk Defragmenter tool, schedule a disk check for your hard drive: right-click it in My Computer, select Properties > Tools tab and click Check Now. Tick both boxes and click Start. If prompted, click Yes and restart your PC.
In the unlikely event DLL Toys removes a system file that's still in use, launch Backup Manager from the DLL Toys menu. Pick the DLL(s) to restore and click the Undo button to automatically return them to their original locations.
System Restore points become less reliable the older they are, so try not to rely on any except the most recent except in an emergency.
An alternative tool for compacting the Registry is place of NTREGOPT is Free Registry Defrag (click here). Make sure you back up using ERUNT before running this as the same risks apply.