Zen and the art of laptop maintenance

Learn how to keep your laptop looking great and working well for as long as possible, without losing your mind.

By , PC World |  Hardware, laptops

Tightening the Screws

It's a good idea to periodically check all the screws holding your laptop together--especially those for the screen hinges--to make sure they're tight and secure. Grab a very small Phillips screwdriver (it needs to be small enough to fit inside screw holes if the screws aren't set flush with the case bottom), flip the laptop over on a table, and then methodically check the tightness of each screw.

The screws holding the screen hinges usually sit directly under the hinges, exposed on the bottom of the laptop. If you've noticed some "play" in the hinge movement when opening and closing the lid, open the lid to the position when it feels loose, set the laptop on its side so that you can access the bottom, and then tighten the screws. If the lid still feels wobbly, the laptop might have more loose screws on top of the hinge, usually underneath a hinge cover or the main case. If the hinge itself is worn out or broken, you can find replacements fairly cheap online (for $20 or less), but replacing laptop hinges can require significant disassembly; you may want to have a local repair shop do the replacement.

Replacing the Battery

Laptop batteries tend to lose their charging capacity, and need replacement at least every two to three years. If yours is getting that old and you notice that it isn't keeping a charge for as long as it was in the past, consider ordering a new one. Online prices can vary dramatically, anywhere from $20 to $100 (sometimes even more), depending on your particular laptop model and on the capacity of the battery.

When shopping for a battery, be sure to compare the MAh (milliampere-hour) rating of those you find with that of your current battery, which you should see printed on the back of the battery. The MAh number is the measure of how much electricity the battery can hold--the larger the number, the longer you'll be able to use your laptop before plugging it in or recharging it. For instance, a 7800-mAh battery will power your laptop 77 percent longer than a 4400-mAh battery will.

Looking for ways to conserve battery power? See our tips on how to extend laptop battery life.

Checking and Cleaning the System

In addition to performing a physical cleaning, you should occasionally clean up Windows and the hard drive to help your laptop run as well as possible, just as you should be doing with your desktop computers. Here are some of the basic tasks that you should perform every month or two.

Empty the Recycle Bin and remove temporary files: You can use the Disk Cleanup utility that comes with Windows. Click Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Cleanup and run the Disk Cleanup utility on your hard drive. If that's not good enough, try a third-party utility such as CCleaner for a more thorough cleaning.

Stop unnecessary startup programs: Many programs set themselves to open automatically when you log in to Windows, but often this arrangement isn't necessary since you can manually open them when you need them. Removing startup programs can help Windows load faster and typically increases your laptop's overall performance since they aren't operating in the background; usually the only program that really needs to start up when you log in is your antivirus software. You can use a built-in Windows utility to review and remove startup programs. Simply open the Start menu, type msconfig in the box, and press Enter. Navigate to the System Configuration window, select the Startup tab, and uncheck any programs you don't want to start automatically.

Run a Check Disk on the hard drive to scan for and fix any errors: Disk errors and bad sectors can cause slowness and random strange behavior, but you can use the Check Disk tool that came with your computer to schedule a scan and repair problems the next time you restart your laptop. Open Windows Explorer and navigate to Computer (or My Computer in XP), right-click on the system drive (usually the C: drive), and select Properties. Then select the Tools tab, and click the Check Now button. On the Check Disk window, check both options and click Start.

Defragment the hard drive to ensure optimum performance: Installing and removing programs and files will fragment your drive over time. Defragging it can help increase overall performance and speed. Just use the utility that comes with Windows: Open the Start menu, and navigate to All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter.

Verify that an antivirus tool is installed and updated: Open your antivirus program and confirm that your subscription hasn't expired (usually only for paid products), and then ensure that you have performed a scan for viruses in the past day or two.

Run a full malware scan with another virus scanner: No single antivirus utility can catch all of the viruses and malware out there, so on occasion you should consider running scans with other scanners. Since you probably have a real-time scanner already installed, use an on-demand scanner (such as Malwarebytes, BitDefender Free Edition, or SuperAntiSpyware) that won't interfere with the real-time scanner.

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