Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

What kind of maintenance should I do to avoid software rot?

I have an older laptop (about 3 yrs old) running XP Pro w/SP3 and
IE7. I was a complete newbie when I first started receiving your
newsletter and my learning process has had me installing / uninstalling
many programs, applications, etc. Rather than clutter up my hard drive
with something I might use only once as a learning tool, or just once
in a while, I’ll uninstall the program. Then I’ll use disk cleanup;
search the hard drive for any remaining files or folders; use regedit
to delete any registry entries; maybe run CCleaner; defrag; and once
every couple of months run a check disk. Knock on wood and lighting a
candle to my little shrine of Redmond, my computer is humming right
along.

So my question is this: Is my preventive maintenance routine enough,
too much, or would you recommend something entirely different? I still
enjoy playing with different software but I’m also trying to forestall
my laptop’s demise.

“Software rot” is what happens to your machine slowly over time as
you install and uninstall, and in some cases simply use, software.
Settings get left behind, files don’t get properly uninstalled, and
things just get slightly messy. Eventually it can lead to some amount
of instability.

The question is, can it be avoided or delayed, and if so, how?

]]>

My take is that software rot simply cannot be avoided. Particularly in the scenario that you outline, where you’re actively installing and uninstalling software on a semi-regular basis, it’s going to happen.

Why does software rot exist? Primarily because software systems have become so incredibly complex that the changes and decisions required when installing or removing software are easy to get wrong. In fact, “wrong” doesn’t even apply sometimes; some decisions of what to do when uninstalling aren’t that obvious, which leads to different decisions being made by different vendors.

“… software rot simply cannot be avoided.”

It would be easy to blame all the software manufacturers in the world for not doing a better job of cleaning up after themselves, or Microsoft for not making it easier to do so, but regardless – it is what it is.

You can minimize software rot by not making a lot of changes to your system, and by following basic internet safety guidelines. That won’t eliminate it, but it will likely slow it down to the point that you’ll never notice; you’ll replace your system for other reasons before it becomes an issue.

On the other hand you might, like the person asking the question, and myself for that matter, be of a mind to occasionally install and uninstall things.

So … let me tell you the specific steps I take to deal with software rot:

  • Nothing

Seriously, aside from normal routine maintenance for other purposes, I do nothing specifically to address software rot. I do accept the fact that in my case about every year or two I’ll need to reinstall the operating system from scratch to clear it all out.

So, what about the things that you’re doing? Let me take them on one at a time:

  • Uninstalling things you might use “just once in a while”. I wouldn’t bother. If you know that it’s likely you’ll use it again, I’d leave it installed. I might move the desktop or start menu shortcuts to somewhere less obtrusive, but in general if the software’s not being used leaving it on disk is typically benign. The only exceptions are software that insist on installing something that always runs on startup. I’d spend a few minutes seeing if those can be disabled, and if not, then yes … I’d uninstall.

  • Disk cleanup. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever run the disk cleanup utility, at least not outside of answering someone’s question. That being said, it’s probably fine to run “once in a while”, I just wouldn’t take the time every time I uninstalled something. Simply be certain that you understand what it is that it’s cleaning up – I have actually heard of people who’ve not realized that it would clean up some things they planned to keep.

  • Use regedit to delete any registry entries. I would strongly recommend against this unless you really know what you are doing. It’s simply too easy to make a mistake resulting in some unintended consequences. I honestly believe that the cost of having unused entries in your registry is overstated, and one of the reasons that I don’t suggest running registry cleaning utilities.

  • CCleaner. Crap Cleaner (yes, that’s it’s original name), is a tool that I’ll probably be recommending in the not too distant future. I actually trust it more than I do the disk cleanup tools in Windows mentioned earlier. However, much like the disk cleaning tool, it’s important that you understand what it is you’re cleaning up before you do so. I’d also stay away from the registry cleaning that it offers, for the same reason I avoid registry cleaning in general. And once again, I might run this “every so often”, not necessarily after every uninstall. In fact, I might only perform this kind of maintenance if I suspected that it might actually resolve an issue I’m experiencing.

  • Defrag. I defrag once a week. Not for anything related to software rot (it’s not something that defragging would help anyway), but simply for performance. Certainly if you install and uninstall a lot, you’re fragmenting your hard drive, but then the same can be said for simply using your computer.

  • Check disk (chkdsk). There’s nothing wrong with running a periodic check disk. Once again, it won’t really help with issues surrounding software rot, but if you’ve been experiencing crashes then a check disk might well clean up some issues that might have resulted from the crash. I’d run it occasionally, depending on how often you’re experiencing crashes. Note that I do this not as a way to prevent crashes, but rather to fix up any disk issues that might result from the crash.

So as you can see, the various steps you’re taking have their role, just not necessarily as frequently as you might be using them, and perhaps not for the issues you’re using them for.

My advice boils down to:

  • Minimize the amount of change to your system, to the extent that it’s practical for how you use your system.

  • Back up regularly. It’s the single most important thing people can do to recover from problems.

  • Don’t spend a lot of time trying to avoid software rot. The steps you take may be benign, but it’s often time wasted in my opinion.

  • Do address issues as they arise with the appropriate tools.

  • Do expect to reinstall Windows from scratch someday. How soon is hard to say, since it depends on you, your system, and the software you’re running.

And finally, realize that this is simply a software issue. It’s not about “forestalling your laptop’s demise”, a you put it, but rather just delaying the day that you’ll need to reinstall Windows, and everything else, from scratch.

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Tech problem solving & safety tips & a weekly confidence boost in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

10 Reasons Your Computer is Slow

Slow Computer?

Speed up with my special report: 10 Reasons Your Computer is Slow, now updated for Windows 10.

NOW: name your own price! You decide how much to pay -- and yes, that means you can get this report completely free if you so choose. Get your copy now!

23 comments on “What kind of maintenance should I do to avoid software rot?”

  1. I downloaded free windows registery cleaner and it got rid of some of the rot. I also defrag once a month and do disk cleanup. But when downloading software one gets alot of *&^ with it so it gets confusing to know what you can and cant delete. I wish someone would develop a programme that will remove anything automatically that is not been used. Windows updates take up a lot of space and i am not sure whether one can delete the old ones or not.

    Reply
  2. Usually with new software, I create an appropriately named Restore point (Before installing Program XYZ). Then if I decide fairly quickly to uninstall the new software, I can restore the system without any hassle, cleaning up the “rot” at the same time.

    No.

    System restore does not restore everything you think it does. Yes, it does backup and restore the registry, but assorted other files that may have been left behind by an improper uninstall (a common contributor to software rot) will not get cleaned up.

    More on that here: Why can’t I rely on System Restore for backups?

    – Leo
    03-Dec-2008
    Reply
  3. I think it’s a good idea to run a computer in “sandbox mode” when downloading and installing anything. If something goes wrong none of the changes are applied. If everything seems to be OK then you can apply the changes. Acronis True Image has this capability.

    Reply
  4. Leo, perfect explanation!!I think my windows is at the point I ll have to reinstall it from scratch. Just wondering here if anyone can give me a clue on how to save all the driver updates I ve done – and dont even remeber where they are – so I won t have to go through all the pain of updating all of them again??

    In general, there’s no easy answer to that. Typically you do, when installing from scratch, have to start over – including driver updates. One way to mitigate this is to take a backup image of your system after taking all the updates (and ONLY taking updates, no other installations), and use that as a snapshot to start over with next time.

    – Leo
    03-Dec-2008
    Reply
  5. yes, “software rot” is not something you should be overly concerned about. There is very little you can do about it other than just running your scheduled preventative maintenance.

    I use also use revo to uninstall all my software and CCleaner about once a month as well as their defragger. I’ll run their registry cleaner maybe once every 6 mths or so but I make sure to analyze first and uncheck anything I’m not sure about.

    As for doing a complete system “re-install” I use Acronis True Image Home. I’ll install the O/s, update the drivers, install any core programs I use all the time and then I’ll make a complete system backup using their secure zone. That way all I have to do is boot from a floppy/cd/dvd, format the drive and on the reboot, press the F11 key and restore the system. It cuts down on all the re-installs, not to mention having to re-activate/register software.

    I’ve been pretty lucky following these steps. I’ve only had to do one complete system “re-install” and then I upgraded to Vista x64 Business.

    So, I recommend the following programs, Acronis True Image Home, Ccleaner, Defraggler, Revo Uninstaller. Run these tools on a monthly – semi-annually schedule and you should be ok. If a specific issue comes up, run them at that time.

    Reply
  6. Historically I’ve found that Windows does not do a very good job of cleaning out its temp directories. I believe this is one of the areas MS’s DiskCleanup touches, but I’ve never really trusted it enough to use it… so I just periodically clean out the temp directories myself (by hand).

    Reply
  7. You can see the real benefit of Ccleaner when someone brings you a machine that has never been cleaned. I have seen it remove almost 2GB of junk in one pass, reviving PCs that were unusable. in those cases i would also use the reg-clean function, but i agree with Leo, that should be saved for special occassions.

    Reply
  8. For persons who, like me, install and uninstall a lot of programs, it would be preferable to use either Sandboxie (www.sandboxie.com) or Returnil Virtual System (www.returnilvirtualsystem.com) both having freeware versions. Returnil in effect “clones” your C: drive. Any changes made to the OS get removed after a clean reboot. If you want to preserve the changes for some time, it is better to go into “hibernation” mode, but as soon as you perform a clean reboot, the system returns to the state before installing the program. If you decide that you want to keep it permanently, or if you have to install updates, you can do it in the allowed mode and then set up the protected mode for testing other programs. The protected mode also saves you from nasties such as viruses, worms etc.

    Reply
  9. I use Acronis for B/U’s. I use CCleaner and Diskeeper for defragging everytime I shut down…takes about a minute and keeps the PC perky all the time.

    Reply
  10. I’ve read the article and thou I have used a computer for too many years and I have often thought about cleaning it I never have but I had a guru who occassionally cleaned it up for me but now he is gone.. so I live in fear for THAT day???

    Reply
  11. okdok, txs! however how can I know where they re, so I can

    take a backup image of your system after taking all the updates (and ONLY taking updates, no other installations), and use that as a snapshot to start over with next time.

    – Leo
    03-Dec-2008″

    You don’t need to know where they are. Just take a full system backup image after having installed windows and taken all the driver and other updates.

    – Leo
    05-Dec-2008
    Reply
  12. You mentioned that there was no easy way to back-up drivers in your article on software rot. I have used a couple of freeware driver backup packages when re-installing windows on a machine that has become slow/clogged/impossible to continue with and have had no problems. I forget exactly which programs I used but a search for “driver backups for windows xp” will find you plenty to try and choose from. Basically one backs up to an external disk and then after re-installing windows one just restores them or points your browser to the backup as and when required. When looking through my list of downloaded software the installation files I have under driver backup software are DML.exe, DriverMagician.exe and drivermax.exe to give you a clue of the ones I have used. An important thing to remember when doing a re-installation of windows is to get the product key numbers of your software such as Windows operating system, microsoft office etc. I use an old freeware program called Aida but this is now no longer available so one will have to find some other programs that can give you this info. Also don’t forget to backup things like your address book, favorites etc etc.
    cheers
    Pete

    Belarc Advisor will report all the product keys before you reinstall.

    – Leo
    10-Dec-2008
    Reply
  13. I somewhat disagree with the statement that “I’d also stay away from the registry cleaning that it offers,” On several occasions my wife and our friends have come to me with computers which have slowed down to a craw. I ran CCleaner on them (both the free disk space option, and the registry clean-up option) and the computers got started working much faster. I always say yes to the backup option. I would warn that if you are not a reasonably experienced trouble shooter there may be a danger in running any registry cleaner.

    Reply
  14. I don’t even worry about it. I use CCleaner to clean temp internet files, uninstall unused programs and disable unwanted startup entries. And I use Defraggler to keep my files in order. What else can you do? Leo’s right, it’s not a question of if, but when, our OS has to be reinstalled.

    Reply
  15. If you’re installing a program that you plan to un-install in the near future, there’s a better way.

    I recommend creating a Virtual Computer. Some people like Microsoft’s version, others prefer the one from Novell, and I’m sure there are others. AFAIK they’re all free.

    Once you’ve done that, you have at least two options:

    – Install the program in the virtual computer, then use it. Don’t allow the virtual computer to save it’s changes to disk. The next time you boot the virtual computer, this program never was installed!

    – Make a backup of the volume used by the virtual computer. Then go ahead and install. If you ever want to un-install, just restore the backup!

    Reply
  16. Recently I experiences hard disk failure. After I replaced it with a new one and re-installed OS, I was amazed how much faster it was to boot up. Used to be 2 minutes, now it is 30 seconds. Not just booting up, but the speed of opening demanding programs, such as Photoshop.
    Conclusion, the best remedy to software rot is to re-install operating system and other software.

    Reply
  17. Buddy u are doing enough for maintaining your system’s performance. There is this one application named “Advanced System Optimizer” that has all the utilities you want right from system optimizers to uninstaller. You can use “System Cleaner” to clean off the garbage from ur system disk…Registry cleaner and Registry Optimizer is there to clean and optimize registries.You can also use Disk Optimizer for the disk optimization and there is also an “Uninstall Manager”. You can try this as this may be useful to you for all your requirements and it is available at cnet. Please be sure to rply if u are benifitted 🙂

    http://download.cnet.com/Advanced-System-Optimizer/3000-2094_4-10147659.html?tag=mncol

    Reply
  18. But Leo (insert whining voice here.),
    When I reinstall Windows or upgrade to W7, do I have to go back to a bare disk and install drivers and utilities? My old Dell seems to have had so many driver changes that I went to the Dell site to download them – no back up disk. Is there a best way to now load those drivers?

    Thanks,

    Adam

    Reply
  19. Leo,
    I read somewhere, maybe on your newsletter, that you can do an upgrade install of your current Windows operating system and it will install the operating system and keep all the current system settings and drivers and data. Then all you have to do is install the Windows updates and you have a clean system? Is this correct and if so can you go over the procedure?

    Reply

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.