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.
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').
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.
Windows XP users will be better off using a Virtual Network Computing (VNC) system. These are generally secure, simple to install, and place no special requirements on the client. The open source UltraVNC is an excellent example, having more options than most of the free competition, and allowing connection to your host PC from any Java-enabled browser.
Move to Windows Vista, though, and it's a very different story. The problem here is that if you do anything on the remote PC that requires security approval, the usual UAC 'Windows needs your permission to continue' dialog pops up. And this appears only on the host PC – it doesn't make it to your remote VNC client – so you're locked out of the system until you get home.
You could disable UAC as a workaround, but reducing your security just because a program can't cope with it is a really bad idea. And anyway, we have a better option: sign up with LogMeIn instead. This is incredibly easy to set up, no tinkering around with firewalls to worry about, you just install the software on your host PC and you're done.
Then, on the remote system, go to www.logmein.com, log in with your user name and password, choose your host PC and it'll connect for you. No special software is required, it just works, and (according to our tests) performs equally well on Windows Vista and XP. Well worth a try.
Monitor CPU temperature
We've identified plenty of reasons why you might like your PC to be running 24 hours a day, but is it up to the task? Heat is a particular problem. If your CPU is already running too hot, then leaving it active all the time could make for an unreliable system, with a much shorter lifespan.
To get a feel for whether you may have a problem with increased temperatures, check your CPU specification at the AMD or Intel site to determine its maximum temperature (or more easily, browse the tables assembled at Hardware Secrets.
Now compare this with your own CPU temperature using an appropriate monitoring tool. Your motherboard manufacturer may provide one, but if not you can always try a third-party utility such as Hardware Sensors Monitor or Motherboard Monitor. If these don't work for you, then look for an option called 'PC Health' (or similar) in your BIOS set-up program, which should contain similar information.
Try checking the PC's temperature soon after you turn on your PC, then straight after running something CPU-intensive like a fast 3D game, and again at the end of the day. This will give you a feel for how it's performing over time, and if you're getting close to the CPU maximum.
Even if you're well under the limit, there's no harm in cutting temperatures further. So blow away the dust from inside the case, and clean the grime off your fans and the grille on your case and power supply. Don't leave the case open, either; you should get better airflow with it closed.
Explore your BIOS set-up menu and you may find other useful options, including the ability to increase fan speed when the CPU temperature is above a certain figure. Tweaks here can prove effective if your processor is running hot, but may also significantly increase system noise levels, so are probably best applied only in extreme situations.
Avoid memory leaks
It's important to ensure your hardware can cope with running 24/7, but don't forget, there are software issues here, too. Some badly behaved programs regularly allocate memory and system resources as they run, for instance, but don't free them all again later. And the result is a memory leak, where free RAM falls constantly over time.
If the leak is slow then you may not notice it during normal desktop use, but leave the PC for days and it's sure to become more significant, eventually grinding your system to a halt.
Could this happen to you? Try monitoring your system to see how it's performing. The simplest way to do this in Windows XP is to close all your applications, launch Task Manager, switch to the 'Performance' tab, and note the Commit Charge (allocated memory including the paging file).
Now minimise Task Manager and continue running your PC, returning to check the Commit Charge occasionally when you've no programs running. It's normal for the figure to increase sometimes, perhaps because a background program requires more resources, but if your Commit Charge shows consistent growth, even if the PC is left running overnight, then you may have a problem.
Fixing memory leaks can be hard, though, and beyond removing the offending program altogether, may not be possible at all. So our advice is to forget the technicalities, and get back to basics. The most important thing is to simplify your system, ruthlessly stripping out the Windows start-up programs you don't need, and uninstalling any applications that are surplus to requirements. The fewer you have running, the less likely you are to have problems.
You can also work around these problems by rebooting your system occasionally. If you're at home then do it yourself, on a daily basis (or weekly, or monthly, depending on how quickly your resources are being eaten up).
But you can also automate the process, using Task Manager to force a reboot at the time of your choosing. Use the instructions we described earlier for automating a defrag, but with the command line "%windir%\system32\shutdown.exe -r -t 00 -f ", and your system should restart just fine.
Don't leave programs open, though, as any unsaved data will be lost. And make sure any scheduled reboot won't interfere with other automated processes, such as a disk defrag, or you could be left with a corrupted hard drive.
Reduce power consumption and save money
Running a 24/7 PC has advantages, then, but of course this comes at the cost of increased electricity use and higher fuel bills. If you're making good use of your full-time PC then we don't think this should put you off the idea altogether, but it's important to address the power consumption problem.
You should start by only plugging in and turning on hardware you'll actually need. Some devices have an 'Off ' button, but this only switches it into an idle state, and could still be using 10W or more. Anything connected by USB could also be using electricity, even if it seems to be powered down.
You might also try turning down the brightness of your LCD monitor. We took a 19in model, turned the brightness from the maximum to minimum setting, and power consumption halved from 48 to 24W. A similar test on the 22in Chimei CMV 221H saw power use fall from 41.5 to a mere 14.2W.
The image it still readable, too, once your eyes get used to the new look, but even dropping from 100 to 60 per cent could save a significant amount, though this depends on the monitor.
Windows Vista users can also benefit from creating a new power plan. First click on 'Control Panel | Power Options | Create a power plan, use Power Saver' as a base'.
Choose this power plan, then click 'Change Plan Settings | Change Advanced Power Settings', locate 'Processor Power Management' in the list and check 'Maximum Processor State' is set to something like 10 per cent. And while you're there, set 'Search and Indexing' to 'High Performance'.
Selecting this power plan last thing at night ensures your CPU will only run at very low speeds, but it will still cope just fine if you're only downloading files. And again, the money savings are very worthwhile: our test system saved 20W on idle, 40W on light processor activity.
You could now have cut your power consumption by more than 50W, enough to make a real difference to your bill. But why stop there?
Borrow a power meter and try some of these other ideas, particularly monitor brightness, with friends and at work. These power savings don't justify you leaving a system on just because you can't be bothered to wait a couple of minutes while it boots, of course.
But if you're making good use of your 24/7 PC through the ideas we've suggested, and maybe others, then you should at least now be able to enjoy the benefits without feeling any green guilt or paying too much for the privilege.