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Ask Dr. Tech

 



We sometimes see people installing high-end professional software packages under the impression that these are somehow easier to use than their low-end consumer counterparts. In fact, these are intended for people who earn their living from doing the kind of work these packages enable. They are “career” applications, with a very steep learning curve that requires many hours of study- sometimes even special training. This kind of software may coexist with other packages, but it is intended for machines that are optimized around its execution. If you don’t really need this kind of software on your system, you’ll be better off without it.

If you simply can’t resist trying out new software, be smart about it. Don’t mix it in with your “real” system. With hard drives now so inexpensive, it’s a simple matter to “clone” your installation. Get a removable hard drive rack, and swap out your working system for the clone. Install and test and fiddle all you want, secure in the knowledge that the stuff you really use is protected from mishap.


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System freezes, blue screens, slow performance:
Maintain performance and reliability

One of the most common problems we have seen with small office/home office computers is severe overloading- far too much software installed, with resultant slow performance and malfunction.

The amount of junk that can accumulate on a computer is practically unlimited, as is the amount of disruption it can cause. And, when it comes to computers, you might be surprised at some of what the term "junk" encompasses.
 

Maintain your system’s performance and reliability.

We’ve seen systems that looked like Charles Kane’s basement, with software hoarded like pirate’s gold: multiple office suites, several kinds of graphics and accounting programs, virtual tons of games and entertainment titles, even programmers’ utilities and hackers’ tools.

Leonardo DaVinci couldn’t have used all this stuff, and these folks hadn’t yet got the hang of email. They had crammed all this software onto their systems on the chance that they might someday have a use for it, rendering their entire system, in the process, useless.

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 up.

Too much 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 original instructions.

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.

Software is buggy

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.

Windows attempts 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 conditional instructions.

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 questions

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 system.

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 your computer

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...

Sometimes, a minor upgrade can alleviate some software issues.  Adding more RAM to your system can provide some elbow room for software to operate.

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Whatever you're doing with your system, whether adding hardware or learning the ins and outs of software packages, it's nice to have someone who knows the way to guide you.

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