Before you invest in PC system utilities software, wouldn't you like to know exactly how it would improve your system-or in other words, how much can PC system utilities really speed up PC performance?

I posed this question to Peter Rauholt, the Product Marketing Manager for VCOM. He said that it's not possible to pin down improvement statistics relevant to all PCs since every PC is configured and used differently. But he did say that major performance gains come from defragging your hard drive:

"This gain will vary from nothing (on an already defragged drive) to a significant improvement," said Rauholt, "unfortunately, there are so many variables it's hard to quantify a general improvement."

The good news? Most PC software programs visually show how much your hard drive has improved. My own experience has shown that cleaning up a hard drive that's severely fragmented cuts application load times in half-a noticeable difference.

But I still wanted to see a clear before/after picture of typical PC performance after routine maintenance, so I analyzed a computer that hadn't been through a maintenance program in three months. Using precise timing software, I ran this PC through before and after tests to clock exact speeds for memory, CPU, graphic display and download time.

I've been concerned about this particular computer; some tasks take too long, patches of the screen don't display the right images at times, and occasionally an application chokes and I have to use the Windows Task Manager to end it.

I ran more than one PC utilities program on this computer, but found all offered similar advice.

First, I cleaned out junk files as recommended. These were mainly temporary Internet files and duplicate files. The utility software found no viruses, no spyware and no adware files-I attribute this to good spyware filters and a sturdy firewall.

Then, using defragging software, I analyzed my PC's three hard drives. One hard drive was fine and didn't require defragging, one hard drive was messy, and the third hard drive looked like a dropped jigsaw puzzle.

As recommended, I defragged the latter two hard drives. Keep in mind (as I forgot to do) that defragging a messy hard drive can take hours, so plan accordingly. The most convenient time to begin a big defragment job is after you've finished with your computer for the day. You can let the defrag software chug away through the night without the worry of interrupting it.

One PC system analysis program recommended that I change a Windows setting to save on storage space, so I did this too. I optimized RAM memory on another recommendation, But I saved the registry cleaning for another day. In all, my PC cleanup took about two-and-a-half hours.

The results? Noticeably, download speeds have picked up-8% by my calculations.

My RAM (memory) and CPU speeds are both slightly faster-a 1% improvement.

Graphic display time has improved by a whopping 40%. I haven't had any more deformed, half-frozen screen displays.

Like driving a car fresh from a tune up, this PC now purrs.

I've been told by computer techies that system tune ups typically result in faster graphic display, faster load time and faster memory-generally, faster everything. Now, seeing it with my own eyes, I'm a believer.

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