In almost every
case, restoring these systems to like-new performance is a
matter of formatting the hard drive and reinstalling only those
programs that are actually used. Suddenly, a system that had
been locking up, crashing, and generally behaving badly is once
again as zippy and responsive as the day when it was first set
software will mess up your computer
Just as a "weed" is any plant that grows where you don't want
it, computer junk is any software that you don't really use.
Accumulate too much of it, and your computer will, like these,
begin to choke and sputter, eventually reaching the point where
it no longer works reliably.
This is another of
the many things computer vendors tend to de-emphasize when
lining up a sale. Computers are marketed as magical “anything”
boxes. This is not entirely untrue, as they really are
remarkably versatile machines, which can be configured for a
wide variety of uses.
The problem is
that “anything” is not the same as “everything”. With each
package you install, the system becomes a little slower, a
little less reliable.
Your hard drive may be one of those gargantuan modern marvels
with acreage to burn, but even with smaller drives, the space a
software package occupies is the least of your concerns. The
operating system has to deal with all installed software,
whether you’re using it or not. For each installation, it has to
maintain records of dozens (if not thousands) of files, registry
entries, and sometimes background instructions- sorting through
and executing them every time you try to use the computer.
As if that weren’t bad enough, each and every piece of software
you install has the potential to interact in unexpected ways
with other software on your system. Sometimes, after using one
package, another one won’t work. Eventually, you can reach the
point where nothing works, and the system locks up or crashes or
simply won’t boot at all.
Software is aggressive
Since Windows 95, software has become increasingly aggressive,
scattering itself in multiple directories, taking over branches
of the registry, commandeering file associations, and
insinuating bits and pieces of its code at every level of your
system’s operation. The worst of these will actually replace
operating system code with modified versions of their own,
potentially disabling any other software that relies on the
That’s only the beginning. Once installed, software has a wide
array of ways to foul things up for you.
In theory, any software program ought to “clean up” after itself
as part of its exit procedure, clearing any temporary files,
releasing any workspaces carved into the RAM, and resetting any
system variables it may have appropriated for its own use. In
practice, many programs leave portions of their code in active
memory, on the off chance you might want to start them up again.
It’s a software conflict (system freeze or “page fault” error)
waiting for a chance to happen.
Some manufacturers seem to think that their software is all
you’ll ever need, or that you’ll be so entranced by their
capabilities that you’ll devote hours or days to overcoming
whatever problems they have introduced. Their products literally
take over your system, and you’re expected to adjust whatever
else they may have interfered with.
You don’t even have to run some packages to suffer from their
consequences. They automatically install and start up
“background” programs, some of which operate invisibly. Your
system may be stuck with the effects of a software package long
after you’ve forgotten all about it, or even after you have
tried to remove it. With each software installation, your system
is changed in a variety of ways- some of them quite subtle. Some
of these changes may be irreversible.
Again in theory, as opposed to practice, software developed
since 1995 includes an option to uninstall it from your system.
Unfortunately, some “uninstall” routines accomplish nothing, and
almost all leave some amount of debris behind. In the worst
cases, they’ll remove or disable files your system needs.
It’s important to note that all of the above are found in
otherwise “respectable” software. Unlike Trojans, viruses, “spyware”,
and other forms of digital mischief, these aren’t really out to
mess up your machine. If they do so, it’s an accident.
Any software, once it goes beyond the simplest tasks, is likely
to have programming errors known as “bugs”. The more ambitious
the software, the more bugs it will contain. These are often
minor, obscure, and have no ill effect, but they can just as
easily be, in just the right set of circumstances, debilitating.
Although freeware, shareware, and bargain basement packages are
often singled out as troublemakers, we’ve seen conflicts arise
in programs from some of the best-known names in the business.
The fact is that some software packages simply cannot coexist on
the same computer as others. On the support sites, each will
blame the other for poor programming practices, and when all
else fails, they’ll point accusatory fingers at Windows itself.
Windows is complicated
Not that Windows is beyond reproach, of course, but some of the
people who complain the most have mostly caused their own
malfunctions. You really can’t expect too much of it. Windows
(or any operating system software) has a lot to do.
The user-friendly interface of icons and drop-down menus is
convenient, but it’s also an illusion. Each icon, each command,
each and every element you see and interact with is connected to
a nightmarishly convoluted set of instructions for your machine
to attempt to execute.
to tie together hardware from a wide variety of vendors,
providing a series of hardware and programming interfaces that
rely on millions of lines of code scattered over thousands of
files like parts of an enormous jigsaw puzzle. It juggles finite
system resources like memory and processor cycles, continuously
sorting through, testing, and executing an infinite loop of
On a freshly built system, where Windows is the only software
yet installed, things already may be iffy. No matter what name
is on your computer’s case, odds are very good that it’s
comprised of parts from several component manufacturers
scattered all around the globe. It’s not unusual for the
motherboard, processor, memory, hard drive, modem, floppy drive,
and CD reader each to have come from different sources. The
amazing thing is that it works at all, straight from the box,
with nothing yet added to it.
With each piece of software added, there’s a step toward the
point where it doesn’t work at all. Each installation adds a new
layer of complexity to a system already complicated beyond
imagination. How many steps it takes will vary depending on
exactly what gets installed and how you go about it, but it’s
practically a given that, if you keep adding software, you will
achieve a state of malfunction.
Keep it simple
We only recently (Summer, 2002) retired some Windows 95 systems
that had been in daily office use since 1995. These were set up
with only those applications needed for the work they had to do,
and they performed flawlessly for all those years. Users were
prohibited from installing software or fiddling with system
settings, and the machines required nothing more than routine
maintenance. The only problems they experienced were caused by
power failures, and these were alleviated by installing
uninterruptible power supplies.
In contrast, we have some newer and undeniably superior Windows
98 boxes that have nonetheless required restoration many times.
In that environment, users are allowed to add whatever they
wish- with all-too-predictable results.
We’re not suggesting that you ought to avoid installing software
when it’s needed to accomplish some specific task. That is,
after all, the whole point of personal computers. We are
suggesting, though, that you exercise some caution.
Add what you
need, need what you add
Before you purchase or install a new software package, stop and
consider these simple questions. What is the software for? Is it
any good? Why are you installing it? Do you need it? Will you
use it? Is it compatible with what you have? What will you do if
it messes up your system? Is it worth the trouble it may cause?
These questions are doubly important when it comes to “free”
software in any of its many guises. With no immediate economic
obstacle to installation, it is very tempting to load up a
system with software, impairing its ability to do what you need,
all for no real purpose.
The eight essential
What is the software for?
This may seem like a total “no brainer” question, but we see
systems hobbled all the time by software that serves no purpose
whatsoever. These include the entire class of “cute” software-
screen savers, animated characters, inspirational messages, and
so on. These may have, at best, some entertainment value, but
“fluff” software is among the worst in terms of creating system
conflicts and other unwanted effects. If it’s useless, why would
you want to install it?
Is it any good?
It may come as a shock, but not all software does what it
claims. The popular “free trials” have their purposes, but ought
not be your first step in evaluating a software package. Use a
search facility like Google to investigate the software first.
Find and read reviews, and use the Google “Groups” tab to see
what real users have to say about it.
If it still seems appealing, then you might try the trial
version as a last step before purchase, but be aware that trials
may not properly uninstall, and can potentially mess up your
system no less than a full installation.
Why are you installing it?
If it’s just to satisfy your curiosity, or so you can say
you have it, that’s no good reason. If it’s “cool” or “neat” or
“awesome” or any of the other adjectives that may apply, well…
maybe. As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing. Once you
know why you’re installing something, you can evaluate the
wisdom of it.
Do you need it?
Aside from the fluff category, almost any software serves a
purpose. The question is, does it serve your purpose? Until
you’re ready to start building web sites, for example, there’s
really no point in installing web-building software. If you’re
not into high-end professional graphics, why install high-end
professional graphics software?
Another issue is unnecessary duplication. Before adding new
programs, check to see whether what you have will do the job. If
you have a word processor like Word or WordPerfect, you already
have label-making capabilities. You really don’t need a single
purpose label making application. Got Works and/or Outlook? You
already have a perfectly serviceable personal calendar. You
probably don’t need another one.
Finally, the myth of “push-button ease” is exactly that- a myth.
If you think Word is too complicated, WordPerfect isn’t going to
be any easier. All software requires some learning, and
installing alternates will not change that.
Will you use it?
The road to computer hell is paved with good intentions.
We’re as guilty as anyone with this one. Maybe there’s something
that you need to do, ought to do, should do, or want to do, but
until you’re ready to do it, don’t install the software that
makes it possible. Any software package requires a certain
amount of learning before it becomes useful, and until you’re
ready to make that commitment it’s best to leave it off your
Is it compatible with what you have?
This can be a tough one. A lot of shareware and bargain
basement titles can be troublesome in this regard, particularly
with Windows 2000 or XP. Older software sometimes simply will
not work in newer operating systems. Shareware (and some low-end
commercial packages) may be poorly written and not conform to
operating standards. We suggest extreme caution with software
that may not be aware of how your system works. Check out the
system requirements. If they’re beyond what you have, it’s not
going to work, and if they’re far behind what you have, it also
may not work. For example, a software package that requires a
386 processor and Windows 3.1 is not a good bet to function
properly on your Windows XP system.
What will you do if it messes up your system?
Even when you take reasonable precautions, some software
could interfere with what you need to do, with effects ranging
from annoyance to disabling your system. You cannot rely on
“restore” utilities like those offered by Windows ME and XP or
programs like “GoBack” – it’s nice when they work, but they may
not always do so. If you don’t have a recent full system backup,
you could be faced with completely reinstalling everything and
the loss of all your existing data.
More about backups...
Is it worth the
trouble it may cause?
With all these things to bear in mind, you have to ask this
question. Whatever you hope to get by installing that new
software, is it worth the risk of introducing instability to an
otherwise functional system? Is it worth poring over support
documents to identify and overcome potential conflicts with what
you have? Is it worth having to pay someone to clean up the mess
it could leave behind? Is the value it may add sufficient to
outweigh these considerations?
If not, you’re better off to leave it on the shelf.
Get the full use of
Computers don’t wear out in the normal sense of more traditional
machinery. Year after year, they’ll do what they’re designed to
do, and are only obsolete when you need them to do more than
their design allows.
Aside from actual mechanical or electrical damage, the most
common cause of failure and malfunction we have seen is the
simple error of installing too much software. Don’t let it
happen to you.
If you legitimately need a wide array of titles, install them
one at a time, and test your system thoroughly before you add
another. Never, ever, add new software to a computer
that's exhibiting problems.
Before adding new
software, it's a very good idea to make a full system backup.
That way, should anything go really wrong, you can put things
back exactly as they were.
More about backups...
minor upgrade can alleviate some software issues. Adding
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