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Keep Windows Running Best

This tutorial is a checklist of sorts, with each section explaining a fairly simple and necessary task to keep Windows running at its best. You discover how to turn on the automatic backup program in Windows called File History, for example.

If somebody says your computer has a bad driver, it's not a personal insult. A driver is a little program that helps Windows talk to your computer's various parts. This tutorial explains how to remove bad drivers by placing an updated driver behind the wheel.

Creating a restore point

Windows is moving away from restore points to its newer Refresh system. But old-school System Restore fans can still create and use the trusty Windows restore points to return a PC to a time when it was feeling better. Restore points behave a bit like a time capsule, saving your PC's settings at a specific point in time. If those settings become damaged later, returning to an earlier restore point can sometimes solve the problem.

To create a restore point, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start button, type System Restore into the Search box, and click the Create a Restore Point link from the Search results.
    The System Properties window appears, opened to the System Protection tab, which lists options for System Restore. Look for the Configure and Create buttons near the window's bottom edge.
  2. In the Available Drives window, click your C: (System) drive. Then click the Configure button and, when the System Protection for Local Disk (C:) window appears, click the Turn On System Protection button and click OK.
    That turns on System Protection for your C: drive, which is required before you can use System Restore. When you click OK, the window closes, returning you to the System Properties window.
  3. Click the Create button to fetch the System Protection window, type a name for your new restore point, and then click the window's Create button to save the restore point.
    Choose a name that describes your computer's condition, such as "Created just before installing Egg Timer app," so you'll remember it better. Windows creates a restore point with your chosen name, leaving you some open windows to close.

By creating your own restore points on good days, you'll know which ones to use on bad days.

Tuning Up Windows with Built-In Maintenance Tools

Windows contains a slew of tools for keeping Windows running smoothly. Several run automatically, limiting your work to checking their On switches. Others help you prepare for coming disasters by backing up your PC's files.

To check out your computer's survivalist tools, right-click the Start button, choose Control Panel, and select the Control Panel's System and Security category. The Control Panel's troubleshooting tools appear.

You need these tools most often:

  • File History:
    Introduced in Windows 8, this new type of backup program drapes a safety net over every file in your main folders, letting you retrieve backup copies should things go wrong. The free File History program leaves you no excuse not to turn it on. All hard drives eventually die, and you've stored lots of memories on yours. (A File History backup also simplifies moving from an old PC to a new PC.)
  • System:
    Technical support people thrive in this crawlspace. The System area lists your version of Windows, your PC's processor speed and networking status, and its amount of memory.
  • Windows Update:
    This tool lets Microsoft automatically siphon security fixes into your PC through the Internet, which is usually a good thing. In Windows 10's Home edition, however, Windows Update runs constantly - you can't turn it off. That's why Windows 10 Home owners won't find it listed here in its usual Control Panel spot.
  • Power Options:
    Not sure whether your PC is sleeping, hibernating, or just plain turned off? This section lets you determine your PC's degree of lethargy when you press its Off button. (Or if you're a laptop owner, when you close its lid.)
  • Administrative Tools:
    One gem lives in this complicated grab bag of tech tools: The Disk Cleanup program deletes your PC's garbage to give you more storage space.

Backing up your computer with File History

Your hard drive will eventually die, unfortunately, and it will take everything down with it: years of digital photos, music, letters, financial records, scanned memorabilia, and anything else you've created or stored on your PC.

That's why you must back up your files on a regular basis. When your hard drive finally walks off the stage, your backup copy lets you keep the show on the road.

Windows 8 introduced a backup solution called File History that lives on in Windows 10. After you turn it on, File History automatically backs up every file in your main folders every hour. The program is easy to turn on, is simple to figure out, runs automatically, and backs up everything you need.

Before File History can go to work, you need two things:

  • An external hard drive:
    For dependable, automatic backups, you need a portable hard drive, which is a relatively inexpensive hard drive in a little box. A cord connects from the box to one of your computer's USB ports, and when the drive is plugged in, Windows recognizes the drive immediately. Keep the drive plugged into your computer, and you'll have completely automatic backups.
    Tip: It's hard to keep a portable hard drive constantly plugged into a laptop or tablet because they're constantly being moved around. If you can't remember to plug in the drive as soon as you return home, you have another option: Insert a flash drive into your laptop's USB port or a memory card into your tablet, and use it for your File History backups. Beware, though: If your device is stolen, you lose your backups.
  • Flip the On Switch:
    The File History program comes free in Windows. But the program can't do anything until you tell it to begin running.

Follow these steps to tell your computer start backing up your work automatically every hour:

  1. Plug your drive or its cable into your USB port. (Alternatively, insert a memory card into your tablet's slot.)
    The rectangular-shaped plug on the end of the drive or its cable plugs into the rectangular-shaped USB port on your computer. (If the plug doesn't fit in the first time, flip it over.)
    If you're backing up to a memory card, check your tablet's manual to see what size and type of memory card it will accept.
  2. Open the Control Panel.
    Right-click the Start button and choose Control Panel from the pop-up menu.
    Hold your finger down on the Start button. When a square appears, lift your finger, and the right-click menu appears. (Holding and releasing like that almost always works as a right-click on a touchscreen.)
  3. Select the System and Security category and click File History.
    The File History program jumps to the screen. The program takes a guess as to which drive you want to begin filling with your backups, and it displays the drive's name onscreen. If the program guessed correctly, jump to Step 5. If it guessed incorrectly, move to Step 4.
  4. If you need to switch the drive, click the Select Drive link from the window's left side and select a different drive.
    The Select Drive window appears, listing all of the available storage spaces. Click the one you want, and click OK. If your drive isn't listed, then Windows isn't recognizing it. Try unplugging it, restarting your computer, and then plugging it back into a different USB port.
    The Select Drive window also offers a Add Network Location for storying your drives on a networked storage space.
  5. Click the Turn On button.
    Click the Turn On button, to start the backup process rolling. File History may ask if it should recommend your new File History drive to members of your Homegroup:
    • Click Yes only if you're backing up to a large drive that won't be moving around: a wireless hard drive, for example, or a large shared network drive.
    • Click No if you're running File History on a memory card in your tablet, or on a portable drive that you plan on carrying around with you.

Although File History does a remarkable job at keeping everything easy to use and automatic, it comes with a few bits of fine print, described here:

  • If you try to save to a networked drive on another PC, Windows asks you to enter a username and password from an Administrator account on the other PC.
  • File History backs up everything in your main folders: Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, Desktop, Favorites, as well as the Public folders. To exclude some (perhaps exclude your Videos folder if you already store copies of your videos elsewhere), click the Exclude Folders link along the window's left edge.
  • Windows normally backs up changed files automatically every hour. To change that schedule, click the Advanced Settings link from the window's left edge. Then choose the backup frequency, which ranges from every 10 minutes to once a day.
  • When you turn on File History, Windows immediately starts its backup - even if one isn't scheduled yet. That's because the ever-vigilant Windows wants to make sure that it grabs everything right now, before something goes wrong. After backing up everything, Windows backs up only the changed files every hour. It keeps the original files, as well, giving you plenty of backups to choose from should you need them.
  • Tip: File History also provides a handy way to move your files from an old PC to a new PC.
  • That section is worth looking at now, though: not only does File History work in emergencies, but it also enables you to compare current files with versions you created hours or days before. It lets you revive better versions of files that you've changed for the worse.
  • Warning: Windows saves your backup in a folder named FileHistory on your chosen drive. Don't move or delete that folder, or else Windows may not be able to find it again when you choose to restore it.

Creating a system image backup

Windows 7 introduced a popular way to back up a computer. Instead of backing up files, it copies all of your hard drive's contents into one file and then stores that file on a second hard drive. System images come in handy for two main reasons:

  • Efficiency:
    When your computer's hard drive eventually dies, you can replace the hard drive, restore the system image backup, and have all of your files and programs back. It's a quick way to be up and running again.
  • Completeness:
    File History backs up only files in your main folders, and the Windows Store backs up only your apps and settings. A system image backs up those things, as well, but it also backs up your Windows desktop programs and their information. For example, File History won't back up your e-mail from the desktop version of Microsoft Office. A system image will, though, because it backs up everything.

You can store a system image on the same portable drive you use for File History. Make sure your portable drive is larger than your computer's C: drive.

To create a system image, right-click the Start button and choose Control Panel. Then, in the System and Security section, choose Backup and Restore (Windows 7). When the Backup and Restore Your Files window appears, click the words Create a System Image from the left pane. Follow the steps to tell Windows to create a system image backup of your computer.

You should do this daily, if it's possible; if not, do it weekly or monthly. Then, if you ever need to take your computer to a repair shop, take in your portable hard drive and tell the technician you have a "system image backup." The techie can use that backup to rescue all of your computer's files and programs from the date of your last system image backup.

Finding technical information about your computer

If you ever need to look under the Windows hood, heaven forbid, head for the desktop's Control Panel by right-clicking your screen's Start button and choosing Control Panel from the pop-up menu.

When the Control Panel appears, select the System and Security category and choose System (shown in the margin). The System window offers an easily digestible technical briefing about your PC's viscera:

  • Windows Edition:
    Windows comes in several versions. In this section, Windows lists the version that's running on your particular computer.
  • System:
    This area lists your PC's type of processor (its brains, so to speak) along with its amount of memory. You can upgrade memory fairly easily on a PC or laptop but not on a tablet.
  • Computer Name, Domain, and Workgroup Settings:
    This section identifies your computer's name and workgroup, a technical term only needed by highly paid network technicians connecting to other computers in a business network.
  • Windows Activation:
    To keep people from buying one copy of Windows and installing it on several PCs, Microsoft requires Windows to be activated, a process that chains it to a single PC.

The pane along the left also lists some more advanced tasks you may find handy during those panic-stricken times when something's going wrong with your PC. Here's the rundown:

  • Device Manager:
    This option lists all the parts inside your computer but not in a friendly manner. Parts with exclamation points next to them aren't happy. Double-click them to see an explanation of why they're not working correctly. (Sometimes a Troubleshoot button appears by the explanation, and you can click the button to diagnose the problem.)
  • Remote Settings:
    Rarely used, this complicated setup lets other people control your PC through the Internet and, with any luck, fix things. If you can find one of these helpful people, let him or her walk you through this procedure. (However, never trust someone who phones you unexpectedly and says she needs to use Remote Settings to "fix your computer." That's an old scam.)
  • System Protection:
    This option lets you create restore points (described in this tutorial's first section). You can also come here and use a restore point to take your PC back to another point in time when it was in a better mood.
  • Advanced System Settings:
    Professional techies spend lots of time in here. Everybody else ignores it.

Most of the stuff listed in the System window is fairly complicated, so don't mess with it unless you're sure of what you're doing or a technical support person tells you to change a specific setting.

Freeing up space on your hard drive

If programs begin whining about running out of room on your hard drive, this solution grants you a short reprieve:

  1. Right-click your Start button and choose Control Panel.
  2. Click the Control Panel's System and Security category. When a long list of categories appears, click Free Up Disk Space in the Administrative Tools section.
    If your PC has more than one disk drive, Windows asks which drive to clean up. Select your C: drive.
  3. Select your (C:) drive, if necessary, and click OK.
    The Disk Cleanup program calculates how much disk space you can save and presents the Disk Cleanup dialog box shown. (The amount of disk space you can save is shown at the top of the dialog box.)
    Tip: If you're really pressed for space, click the window's Clean Up System Files button. Windows takes a second, deeper look and often presents checklists for even more files that can be deleted.
  4. Select the check boxes for all the items and then click OK.
    As you select a check box, the Description section explains what's being deleted. When you click the OK button, Windows asks whether you're sure you want to delete the files.
  5. Click the Delete Files button to erase the unneeded files.
    Windows proceeds to empty your Recycle Bin, destroy leftovers from old websites, and remove other hard drive clutter.
If you've upgraded to Windows 10, your old Windows version usually remains on your hard drive in a folder called "Windows.Old." That folder consumes lots of space, and you can delete it by choosing the Clean Up System Files button in Step 3, and selecting the check box labeled Previous Windows Installation. Deleting it, of course, means your computer won't be able to return to that older Windows version.

Empowering your power button

Instead of reaching for your computer's power switch, you should turn off Windows with its own power button. A click of the Start menu's power button offers three options: Sleep, Shut Down, and Restart.

Sleep, the most popular option, puts your computer into a low-power slumber, so it loads quickly when turned back on.

The built-in power switch in Windows takes a few clicks to reach, however. To save time, tell your computer's mechanical power button how to react when pressed: Should it Sleep or Shut Down?

The same question applies to laptop owners: Should your computer sleep or shut down when you close the lid?

To answer that question, follow these steps:

  1. Right-click the Start button, choose Control Panel from the pop-up menu, and select the System and Security category.
  2. Click the Power Options icon.
    The Power Options window appears, set to the Windows normal setting: Balanced (Recommended).
  3. From the left panel, click the Choose What the Power Buttons Do link.
    A window appears, offering a menu. The menu differs slightly whether you're viewing it on a desktop PC, a battery powered laptop, or a tablet.
  4. Select your changes.
    Using the menu, you can tell your PC's power button to Do Nothing, Sleep, Hibernate, or Shut Down. (When in doubt, choose Sleep.)
    Laptops and tablets offer extra options on this window that let them behave differently according to whether they're plugged in or running on batteries. You can let them run at full power when plugged in, for example, but conserve power by putting them to sleep when they're running on batteries.
    Laptop owners also find a menu letting them choose the laptop's behavior when they close its lid or press its sleep button.
    You may need to click the words Change Settings That Are Currently Unavailable to see all your options.
    Tip: For extra security, select the Require a Password (Recommended) button so that anybody waking up your PC needs your password to see your information.
  5. Click the Save Changes button.

Windows saves your changes until you choose to revisit these steps.

Setting up devices that don't work (fiddling with drivers)

Windows comes with an arsenal of drivers - software that lets Windows communicate with the gadgets you plug in to your PC. Normally, Windows automatically recognizes your new part, and it simply works. Other times, Windows heads to the Internet and fetches some automated instructions before finishing the job.

But occasionally, you'll plug in something that's either too new for Windows to know about or too old for it to remember. Or perhaps something attached to your PC becomes cranky, and you see odd messages grumble about "needing a new driver."

In these cases, it's up to you to track down and install a Windows driver for that part. The best drivers come with an installation program that automatically places the software in the right place, fixing the problem. The worst drivers leave all the grunt work up to you.

If Windows doesn't automatically recognize and install your newly attached piece of hardware - even after you restart your PC - follow these steps to locate and install a new driver:

  1. Visit the part manufacturer's website and download the latest Windows driver.
    You often find the manufacturer's website stamped somewhere on the part's box. If you can't find it, search for the part manufacturer's name on Google (www.google.com) and locate its website.
    Look in the website's Support, Downloads, or Customer Service area. There, you usually need to enter your part's name, its model number, and your computer's operating system (Windows 10) before the website coughs up the driver.
    No Windows 10 driver listed? Try downloading a Windows 8.1, 8, or 7 driver, instead - they sometimes work just as well.
  2. Run the driver's installation program.
    Sometimes clicking your downloaded file makes its installation program jump into action, installing the driver for you. If so, you're through. If not, head to Step 3.
    If the downloaded file has a little zipper on the icon, right-click it and choose Extract All to unzip its contents into a new folder that contains the files. (Windows names that new folder after the file you've unzipped, making it easy to relocate.)
  3. Right-click the Start button and choose Device Manager from the pop-up menu.
    The Device Manager appears, listing an inventory of every part inside or attached to your computer. A yellow triangle with an embedded exclamation point icon appears next to the troublemaking part.
  4. Click your problematic device listed in the Device Manager window. Then click Action from the Device Manager's menu bar and choose Add Legacy Hardware from the drop-down menu.
    The Add Hardware Wizard guides you through the steps of installing your new hardware and, if necessary, installing your new driver. Beware, though: This last-ditch method of reviving problematic parts can frustrate even experienced techies.

Luckily, you need to install drivers only in either of these two cases:

  • You've just bought and installed a new piece of hardware, and it's not working correctly. The drivers packaged with newly bought parts are usually old. Visit the manufacturer's website, download the latest driver, and install it. Chances are good that the new driver fixes problems with the first set of drivers.
  • You've plugged in a new gadget that Windows doesn't recognize. Tracking down and installing the latest driver can often fix the problems.

But if you're not having trouble with a piece of hardware, don't bother updating its driver, even if you find a newer one online. Chances are good that newer driver adds support only for newer models of the gadget you own. And that new driver might throw a glitch into something that was already working fine.

Finally, don't bother signing up for a service that claims to keep your computer up-to-date with the latest drivers. They can do more harm than good.

If your newly installed driver makes things even worse, there's a solution: Head back to Device Manager, double-click the troublesome part's name, and click the Driver tab on the Properties box. Keep your breathing steady. Then click the Roll Back Driver button. Windows ditches the newly installed driver and returns to the previous driver.