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Hardware Tips: Free Tools Help Keep Your Hardware Humming
Posted By:peer On 6/19/2006

Third-party utilities provide system information, diagnostics, stress testing, and more.
Kirk Steers
From the February 2006 issue of PC World magazine
 
It's always easier to keep your PC healthy than it is to return the system to a functioning state once it has failed. Fortunately, the many free and inexpensive diagnostic utilities designed for Windows PCs make it easy to check your hardware. Here are the tools that I recommend for keeping your computer in tip-top shape.

Take inventory: Before you can determine if your PC's components are working properly, you need to know what they are. The free, intuitive Belarc Advisor gives you a snapshot of your system's hardware without your having to open the case (see Figure 1).

Windows' Device Manager and System Information utilities list a lot of the details that Belarc Advisor does, but they make you dig for the info. To launch Device Manager in Windows XP or Windows 2000, right-click My Computer and choose Manage,Device Manager. In Windows 98 or Me, right-click My Computer and select Properties,Device Manager. To launch System Information in all versions of Windows, click Start,Run and type msinfo32. In Windows 2000 you may have to enter the entire path to the file: Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\MSInfo.

Say "ahhh": My favorite utilities for poking around my PC's innards are the $10 #1-TuffTest-Pro and its free counterpart, #1-TuffTest-Lite, both created by #1 PC Diagnostics; Click here to download either the trial version of Pro or the free release.

Both versions boot from a floppy disk or CD, so they operate independently of the operating system--an important feature of any good diagnostic app because Windows and other operating systems can mask some problems from diagnostic software and restrict the program's access to certain portions of RAM. The free #1-TuffTest-Lite performs a great overall hardware checkup, but it scans only 8MB of RAM and 540MB of hard-disk space. The full-system scan that the $10 version performs is well worth the price.

A stress test is a useful way to probe your PC for hardware weaknesses. Manufacturers use burn-in utilities such as Passmark's BurnInTest and Jouni Vuorio's CPU Stability Test to test new PCs' hardware, but they can reveal hardware weaknesses in any system.

Jog your memory: According to Thomas Thor, an analyst with memory manufacturer Crucial Technology, the company recommends testing RAM with two diagnostic programs: Microsoft's Windows Memory Diagnostic and Memtest86+, the successor to the venerable Memtest86. You can download Memtest86+ along with instructions for its use at www.memtest.org. Both programs run from a floppy disk or CD.

Check your pipes: If you send and receive presentations, video, or other large files, check your PC's download and upload rates. BroadbandReports.com provides an easy online speed test; read the site's FAQ before you run the test to ensure accurate results, and make certain to select the closest download server.

Take your PC's temperature: Monitoring your system's internal temperature can save your motherboard and CPU from frying. Though it's no longer supported, Motherboard Monitor remains one the best free tools for tracking your system's temperature. I also recommend Alfredo Milani Comparetti's SpeedFan, which watches your machine's temperature and fan data, and checks your hard drive's SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) statistics, which can provide timely notice about an imminent hard-drive failure.

Polish Your Image

If you're picky about your PC's display, use Entech's PowerStrip utility to tweak your graphics card (or the graphics integrated onto your system board) for the best display image possible. The program permits more than 500 types of adjustments, from gamma settings to clock speed. It works with a wide selection of graphics cards and integrated graphics, including models from ATI, Intel, Matrox, and nVidia. Programmable hot-keys let you change settings quickly--for example, you can brighten a dark hallway in your favorite game. PowerStrip is free to try and $30 to keep.

Send your tips and questions to kirk_steers@pcworld.com. We pay $50 for published items. Kirk Steers is a PC World contributing editor and the author of PC Upgrading and Troubleshooting Quicksteps from McGraw Hill/Osborne Press.

For more hardware tips: http://www.pcworld.com/31511

 




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