Is your PC running as safely, reliably and efficiently as it can? If not, here's how to save time and hassle, not to mention save money.

Scheduled downloads

One major advantage which comes from leaving your computer on overnight comes from making more efficient use of your Internet bandwidth, by scheduling downloads that might otherwise reduce peak-time browsing to a crawl, saving money.

Look at the basic £9.99 account offered by PlusNet, for instance, and its 1GB data allowance doesn't look like a great deal. However, if you read the small print, you'll find something unusual: they don't count any overnight (midnight to 8am) usage.

Even a 2Mbps connection could grab 7 or 8GB of data in that time. So if you can live with the 1GB peak-time usage, then you'll still be able to grab more than 200GB of data every month, and even some supposedly unlimited accounts costing considerably more may not let you do that.

Taking advantage of this timeshift approach is easy, too, once you have the right software. Orbit Downloader will intercept browser downloads, and can schedule them with ease. And uTorrent can be configured to download torrents overnight (click 'Options | Preferences | Scheduler' and disable daytime use), leaving your peak-time bandwidth free.

Don't forget about those Windows Updates, which can often be sizeable files. Make sure they're scheduled to be downloaded at an off-peak hour (see 'Control Panel | System | Automatic Updates in Windows XP').

Automate maintenance

Now you have time-shifted your downloads, why stop there? A virus scan, for instance, can tie up your system for an hour or more: why not run it overnight instead?

Running your backups overnight also makes sense. Not only is it more convenient, but there's also much less chance of files being locked, as you're not around running applications. At the very least you should sign up for an online backup service, such as Diino or Carbonite.

Sending your most valuable documents to another site means they'll survive even if your house burns down or the PC is stolen, and as you can get a 2GB Diino account for free there's really no reason not to do this.

Open the Windows Task Scheduler ('Control Panel | Scheduled Tasks') and you'll probably find jobs created by other applications. Could they be best run overnight? Then just right-click and select 'Properties | Schedules' to reassign it.

Of course you can also use the Task Scheduler to automate processes of your own, if they have a commandline interface.

To defrag your hard drive on a schedule with Windows XP SP2, for instance, right-click in the window, select 'New | Scheduled Task', and call it 'Defrag C'. Then double-click the task, enter '%windir%\system32\defrag.exe c: -f ' in the Run box, click 'Schedule' and choose an appropriate time. Click 'OK', enter your Windows account password and you're done.

Master remote access

Having your PC available all the time can be particularly handy when you're away from home. Let's suppose you're at work, and suddenly realise you've forgotten to bring in an important file. Under normal circumstances all you can do is apologise and try again tomorrow.

But if your PC is on, has its broadband connection open, and is running a remote access package, then it's a very different story. You'll be able to log in to your home PC from any other Internet-enabled system, then view and operate your desktop just as though you were sitting in front of it, including viewing documents, transferring files, or uploading them somewhere for easy access from your current location.

Windows XP and Windows Vista provide their own remote access package in Remote Desktop, however this is only included on Windows XP Professional or one of the Business or Ultimate editions of Windows Vista.