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Originally published Friday, March 2, 2012 at 6:12 PM

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Patrick Marshall: Easier speed-ups than wiping your hard drive

Defragmenting the hard drive, checking your system memory, and reformatting the drive while reinstalling Windows are all easier than wiping the drive and starting from scratch.

Special to The Seattle Times

Is your computer bootup taking forever? Join an online discussion on what you can do about it at Plugging In: A Tech Users Forum. seattletimes.com/pluggingin
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Q: I have a Dell desktop with Windows Vista that has slowed down to a snail's pace. I tried various cleaners such as System Mechanic, but finally decided to completely wipe the hard drive. I attempted to use the free version of Kill Disk, but it seemed to give only the option to wipe the unallocated space. Is there a free version out there that will completely wipe the drive? Or is there a better way to go about it? I do have the software to reinstall the OS, etc.

— Brian V.

A: First, have you defragmented the drive? A fragmented drive can seriously slow down performance. And you'll find a defragmentation utility by going to the Start button, clicking on All Programs and selecting Accessories. Next click on System Tools and then select Disk Defragmenter.

It's also worth checking how much free system memory you have. You can see this by opening Task Manager. If you don't have enough system memory for the applications and data you're loading, Windows will use "virtual memory," which means it will write the data to your hard drive. That's relatively slow.

One more thing to check is how much free space is available on your drive. If it's below 15 percent, and if you're using so much of system memory that Windows uses the drive for virtual memory, you'll see real slowdowns, too.

If you really do need to start over to boost performance, rather than getting a utility to wipe the disk, the simplest thing would be to reformat the drive while reinstalling Windows. To do so, you'll want to boot your computer from the Windows installation disk and then follow the directions to perform a custom installation. It will allow you to format the drive before installation. More complete directions are available at windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-vista/Installing-and-reinstalling-Windows-Vista.

Starting over from scratch will have the added benefit of eliminating no-longer-needed drivers, applications and downloaded junk we all accumulate.

As for disk-wipe utilities, there are many available for free download that will completely wipe allocated and unallocated space. Just search the Internet for "complete disk wipe."

Q: Several times weekly I get the same Microsoft error-reporting box that says, "We have created reports about the errors for you to send to us." Of course, I send the report. But if Microsoft is getting that information, it surely isn't advising me what's wrong with my PC or how to fix it.

Must I pay Microsoft to tell me what error is and how to correct it, or is there another resource (such as you) that might advise?

— Jon Hahn, Woodinville

A: Most often when you send a report to Microsoft, it is channeled to troubleshooters on development teams. Because errors often are caused by hardware or misbehaving third-party applications, it would be unrealistic to expect Microsoft to track down the problems and respond to each user report.

Instead, the troubleshooters look for problems that can be addressed by updating Windows or Microsoft applications. And, as you know, Microsoft regularly issues updates.

So each time you see an update, you can figure there's a good chance that your report contributed to smoothing out the problems.

Q: I was looking at some old pictures that were still on a floppy disk, and I made the mistake of leaving the floppy in the drive when I shut down the computer. The next time I was ready to boot up the computer, I realized the floppy was still in the drive so I ejected it before I booted the computer.

The computer was nearly finished booting when I got the following error message:

"Windows — No Disk Exception processing message."

The only way I now can get the computer to finish booting up is to insert a floppy in the drive and click "Try again." That allows the computer to finish booting up and running as normal.

Any ideas on how I might get this error message to go away?.

— Ray Murrell, Maple Valley

A: Ah, those were the days! Floppy disks!

Try this. When your computer is booting, employ whatever key combination gets you into your BIOS configuration utility. A message on the screen will tell you what key combination to press. Find the section where you specify bootable devices and take the floppy drive off that list. This should solve your problem.

Patrick Marshall may be sent by email to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/

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