Speed KillsWhen good upgrades go bad.
Everyone wants something for nothing. That's what makes optimizations like overclocking processors so promising. There's a downside to system-pepping tweaks, however. What happens when your system tweak or optimization goes suddenly, horribly wrong? Keep a few basic things in mind.
Don't slam doors. Never run with scissors. And never, ever, perform a significant system tweak or upgrade without a proper data backup. Fed up with creaky disc-based backups, I purchased an external 250GB Maxtor hard disk that completely automates system backups. Now when I go to amp up my CPU's clock rate, I know I have an up-to-the minute image of my disk, with every last bit of data tucked away, just in case.
Don't have a second hard disk lying around able to contain everything? You can use Microsoft's Backup utility to back up specific folders (or the entire disk) to another hard drive, disc, or tape. Microsoft doesn't include Backup in your default Windows setup--in fact, you have to pull out the Windows XP disc and install it from there.
Insert the Windows XP CD into the drive. When the Welcome to Microsoft Windows XP screen appears, click Perform Additional Tasks and then click Browse this CD. In Explorer, double-click the ValueAdd folder, then Msft, and then in the Ntbackup folder double-click Ntbackup.msi to begin installing the Backup utility. Once you are done, you can start Backup by clicking Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools and Backup. From there, you can follow the Backup Wizard to set up a backup session.
Finally, it's a good idea to make use of Windows XP's Restore facility. Restore takes a snapshot of your PC's state, storing it on the hard disk for retrieval later. If your Windows-based tweak or update goes bad, you can effectively take your PC back in time and revert to the system configuration you had before. Of course, Restore won't do anything to fix problems that occur "underneath" Windows--like fried CPUs, overly aggressive overclocking, or tweaks to the system BIOS.
Take It Slowly
There are many ways to improve system performance: pump up processor speeds, nudge cache assignments, clean out and defragment hard drives. But no matter what you do, the most important thing is to take small steps. When overclocking processors or graphics cards, for instance, avoid dialing in large increases in clock rates. Instead, increment by 5 or 10 MHz at a time, then test each new clock setting thoroughly by running a benchmark program like 3DMark.
If you are performing multiple tweaks or optimizations, don't do all of them at the same time. Start with the simple tweaks--like defragmenting the hard disk--and then move on to more aggressive ones after you are satisfied the system is behaving normally. By doing things slowly and steadily, you'll not only help avoid potential problems, but you'll also be in much better position to figure out problems when they do happen.
Practice Crisis Management
And what if problems do occur? The first, most critical bit of advice is: Don't panic. Even if your system is totally hosed, there are almost always ways to get your data and your system back. Your first task is to be a good witness. What was the last thing you changed before the problem occurred? You may be able to reverse the change that caused the problem in the first place. If you are getting a Blue Screen of Death at boot-up or in Windows, write down the exact error message code and note when it occurs. Also listen for odd noises--beeps during boot-up, excessive disk grinding, even the sound of grinding or inoperable fans (which can indicate overheating in the PC).
When diagnosing problems, it's a good idea to have a second, Internet-connected PC nearby if at all possible. That way you can do things like search the Internet for significant terms and text strings--like those cryptic BSOD error codes and warning text, for example, or phrases that describe your particular malady. You may also be able to save your data by moving the hard disk from your ailing system to a working PC, where the critical data can be transferred (if you hadn't backed it up already). That second PC can also be useful for downloading and installing utility and diagnostic software, device drivers, and other useful software.