Q. My daughter is about to go to her first year of college, and I want to make sure my two-year-old laptop is good enough for her to use. She wants me to buy a new one, but I think the old one will do fine. But how do I know? - Rachel
A. Technological considerations have become part of the annual back-to-school preparation process for parents. Book - check . . . pencils - check . . . backpack - check . . . flash drive, laptop, wifi - huh?
Students of all ages are routinely expected to have access to computers and the Internet to do their homework, so this information applies to any computer that is going to be used in any grade.
Despite your daughter’s plea for a new laptop, the likelihood is high that your two-year-old system is more than adequate.
Your first step is to see if the school she is attending has published their recommended minimum system requirements for attaching to the school’s network. In the vast majority of cases, if you have Windows 2000, XP or Vista, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Internet access and an e-mail account, you have everything she will need to be productive.
Don’t forget that Microsoft offers a special Student edition of Office that is much less expensive and can be installed on three different computers – check with your local computer store for details.
The big question: is your computer in shape for the new school season? By that I mean, has the unit been tortured and abused all summer long with heaps of games, screensavers and file sharing programs that are popular with teens? Does it take forever to boot up? Is it a little sluggish once it does finally get to your opening screen? If so, it needs to be cleaned up.
The easiest way to tell if things have gotten out of control is to open the Task Manager (press Ctrl-Alt-Del in Windows 2000, XP and Vista) and look at the bottom left corner of the window that comes up.
The “Processes:” section will have a number that represents the number of processes you currently have running. If that number is in the 50 to 70 range, your system will likely perform much better if you eliminate the unnecessary processes that are being forced on Windows every time you start the machine.
In our service business, we like to see desktop computers leave our tech bench with between 30 and 38 processes and laptops between 40 and 45 processes.
Excess processes tend to sneak into your computer from adware, spyware, software programs that like to heap on trialware and silent “drive-by downloads” from malicious Web sites that typically target users who like free stuff.
Figuring out what each process is and how to remove them is a little more complicated, but I will give the do-it-yourselfer some tips for getting started:
* Open your Control Panel and remove old programs that you no longer need, anything that looks like a third party screen saver, a toolbar that you did not install and especially file sharing programs like Kazaa that could get your child into legal trouble at school.
* Make sure your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs are up to date and then run a “deep” virus and spyware scan (which can take several hours each).
* Once you have done the initial cleanup, take a look at the specific entries on the “Processes” tab of the Task Manager. Any of the items that do not have “SYSTEM” under the User Name heading were likely added by a user.
* Use Google (search for the actual process name – ex:AcroRd32.exe) to learn more about each process that is running so you can figure out if it can be removed from your startup or uninstalled. (The “End Process” button in this window will only temporarily remove the process, which will restart the next time your boot up.)
You may also want to consider adding extra RAM (Random Access Memory), which is commonly referred to as the best bang for the buck when upgrading a computer.
One final suggestion: make sure she has a portable flash drive for backing up and transferring her important files. I would recommend at least 1Gb of storage and a stern discussion about the importance of backing up her homework!
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the “Computer Corner” radio show, which can be heard at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to email@example.com