What Is Software Maintenance?
Software maintenance is keeping the programs on your computer from interfering with each other. For example, an old version of a program might make it difficult for you to use a newer version of the same program even if you remove the older version.
In a worst case scenario, failing to perform software maintenance may force you to reinstall Windows and all of the other software you use. Although reinstalling Windows is easy on most computers, it does mean that you will need to find the original CD-ROMs and license keys for all of your software—and that can be a major hassle.
Software Maintenance Basics
The first step of basic software maintenance is removing unused programs. All unused programs take up disk space on your computer. That may not seem like a major issue when some new computers are shipping with a terrabyte or more of disk space, but today’s large programs are taking up more of your disk space than they ever did before—especially modern games which now often include gigabytes of 3-D imagery, music, and movie-quality scenes.
Unused programs can also automatically run small “helper” programs when your computer boots. Although many of these programs are unobtrusive, they all consume part of your valuable computer processor power (CPU), stealing it from applications you really do want to run faster.
Finally, unused programs may interfere with important programs—especially related programs. For example, many Web browsers keep trying to make themselves the default Web browser, which can mean that the wrong Web browser starts when you click a link in your email program.
Software maintenance solves all of these problems by telling you to remove unused programs.
Software Maintenance After You Remove Unused Programs
All programs for Windows create their own uninstaller programs. That means every program gets to choose which files get removed when you click “Remove Program” in the Add/Remove Programs Wizard.
Some programmers are lazy and some have bad intentions, so often the uninstaller program leaves files and settings behind on your computer. It’s for this reason you need software maintenance. Besides taking up space on your computer, these programs may also waste your computer processor time and cause problems if you try to re-install the program you just removed (or if you try to install a later version).
There are two software maintenance ways to remove the files left behind. The manual way is to look through your disk drive (particularly in the Application directories) to see if you find any folders named for the the program you just removed. For example, if you removed Adobe Acrobat Reader, there might be a leftover directory named Acrobat.
Just in case some other program might be using this leftover directory for something important, I don’t suggest that you remove it immediately. Instead, create a folder on your desktop called Junk by right-clicking on your desktop and choosing “Create Folder”. Then open the Junk folder and create a new folder with today’s date. Move the leftover directory into that dated folder by clicking with he left mouse button and dragging.
Wait a month. If you don’t see any errors about a missing file or directory within that month, you can delete the leftover folders to finish your basic software maintenance.
Advanced Software Maintenance
The other way to clean up leftover files and settings is to use file and registry cleaning software to do your software maintenance for you. There are numerous such products on the market—do a Google search to find programs that fit your needs and budget.
File and registry cleaners compare the list of installed programs against every setting in your Windows registry. If they find something in your Windows registry that isn’t associated with an installed program, they ask if you want to remove it. You probably do.
Then the file and registry cleaner continues its software maintenance by looking at the last time you used every file on your computer. Files that haven’t be used in a long time are probably no longer needed, so the cleaner asks if you want to delete each individual file. If you want to keep the file, press the Keep File button—but also consider backing up the file to a CD-ROM or external disk drive so you don’t lose it when your computer breaks.
Software Maintenance Everyone Should Do
Talking about backups, remember to backup not just your documents and pictures but also any program configurations that you’ve spent a lot time customizing. For example, users of Adobe Photoshop image editing software will often buy extra paintbrushes and plugins to make themselves more efficient—but all of these extras are installed in the Photoshop data directories.
If you don’t backup program data directories, any customizations you make will be lost if your computer breaks. (And every computer will break sooner or later.)
Most programs live in folders named after themselves in the Application directory, but to make sure you’re backing up the right files, I suggest that you use the Find Files wizard on the Windows 7 Start menu (or in Windows XP’s Find File program) to find all folders and files with the same name as the program you want to backup.
If that’s too complicated, please see one of our articles about performing automated full disk backups to ensure your software maintenance is complete.