How to Check the Health of a Windows 2000/XP/2003 Computer

Think your server or desktop computer is running up to par? Maybe it is, and maybe it's not. But in any case, it pays to check. Neal Nelson, president of Neal Nelson & Associates, tells you how to go about it.

In some ways a computer is like a car because a small amount of regular maintenance will dramatically improve its performance and extend its useful life.

This article outlines six basic steps to a check the health of a Windows computer. It is necessary to have "Administrator" permissions before these diagnostic steps can be performed. Microsoft has revised the menu tree and moved programs around on the various versions of Windows. I will be giving the menu sequence for Windows 2000. It may be necessary to use another sequence on the particular version of Windows that you are running.

I suggest that you bring the machine up to a "normal" state before you perform the following steps. If you normally have copies of Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Acrobat, Media Player, Quick Books and six Web browser windows all running and minimized at the same time, then re-create this load before starting the check-up.

Step 1: Observe the Disk Activity Light

There is almost always a disk activity indicator light on a computer system. This light goes on whenever there are reads or writes taking place to the computer's disk. Many times there is a picture next to the light that looks like a small beer can. A great deal can be learned by observing this light. If, during the computer's boot sequence, the light is constantly on the computer's memory might be too small or the data on the computer's disk drive might be severely fragmented. If the light is constantly on, or furiously flashing, during normal operation the computer's memory might be too small (causing swapping) or the memory size is adequate and the machine is a very busy Web, file, e-mail or database server. For "normal" operation of a workstation computer, the light should be off most of the time with occasional flashes as programs access the disk. It is easy to glance at the light from time to time and use this as an early warning sign that something is wrong and more investigation is required.

Step 2: Check the Event Viewer

Microsoft maintains a log of events that it feels are either troublesome or noteworthy. Microsoft also provides a program to display the entries in this log. It is called the event viewer. On Windows 2000 the menu sequence to run this program is "Start->Settings->Control Panel->Administrative Tools->Event Viewer." This will open a window with a scrollable list of events. The most recent events are at the top. Double click on any event to open a small "Event Properties" window that displays a more detailed description of the event or error. The Event Properties window includes up and down arrows that allow you to scroll through the events and view the detailed descriptions. Pay particular attention to errors (marked with a red X) and watch for words like "Harddisk ... has a bad block". Consult with your hardware repair resource about any messages of this type.

Read more here about how to check the health of a Unix/Linux server.

Step 3: Check Task Manager - Memory Size

Microsoft also supplies a program called Task Manager that provides a quick display of the system status. Run this program by clicking the right mouse button while the mouse pointer is positioned on the task bar (normally at the bottom of the screen) then select "Task Manager". Click on the "Performance" tab which will display two sets of graphs and some tables of numbers. Make a notation of the number listed for "Physical Memory (K) - Total". This is the total physical memory (RAM) in the computer. Next note the amount of memory currently being used, "Commit Charge (K) - Total", and the maximum memory used at any point since the last boot, "Commit Charge (K) - Peak". If the Commit Charge - Total (memory in use) is greater than the Physical Memory - Total, the machine is currently swapping or paging. If the Commit Charge - Peak is greater than the Physical Memory - Total, the machine went into a swapping state at least once since the last boot. Swapping or paging is very bad for computer performance. If there is swapping, you should seriously consider increasing the machine's memory size or decreasing the computer's task load to eliminate the swapping. Swapping consumes significant CPU resources so if swapping is taking place don't bother to perform any other analyses until the swapping is corrected.

Step 4: Check Task Manager - Percent CPU Busy

The top two graphs on the Performance Tab of the Task Manager show the percent busy for the computer's central processing unit. A healthy and idle workstation computer will tend toward 0 percent busy with occasional spikes of activity. A healthy server may have a constant fairly low percent busy with more frequent spikes. A continuous high percent busy requires investigation. The first step to investigate a high percent busy condition is to click on the "Applications" tab of the Task Manager. Review the names of the activities listed. Look for any programs that you do not think should be running. If you find any, consult with your system administrator and possibly have them turned off. The second step to investigate a high percent busy condition is to click on the "Processes" tab of the Task Manager window. This is a list of every low level process that is currently running on the computer. The names can be quite cryptic. Look at the values in the "CPU Time" column. These numbers indicate the total CPU time that the process has used since the program started (or since the last boot in some cases). Any process consuming a lot of CPU time, (ignore the "System Idle Process"), is a candidate for investigation. It is often helpful to do an Internet search for the cryptic process name. You may find a Web page that explains what that process does and whether or not it can be safely disabled.

Step 5: Check For Disk File Fragmentation

The information on the computer's disk drive is stored in files that are made up of "pages." The pages for any file may be stored in a contiguous sequential group or they may be divided into multiple chunks which are called fragments. Access to a severely fragmented file is very slow when compared to access of a contiguous file. There are several programs available that will analyze and possibly "defragment" the files on a disk drive. The first is the standard file defragment program supplied by Microsoft. This program can be accessed by clicking Start->Programs->Accessories-> System Tools->Disk Defragmenter. There are other disk defragmentation programs. These can be found be searching the Internet. I am fond of a free program called "jkdefrag." Two other popular defrag programs that have license fees are diskeeper and O & O Defrag. Note that the complete defragmentation process could take many hours and you should not interrupt the process once it has started.

Step 6: Check/Clean the Cooling Fans and Heatsinks

You will almost certainly want to have a qualified technician help with this step. Many systems have "sleeve bearing" cooling fans because sleeve bearing fans are cheaper than ball bearing fans. After a while, sleeve bearings dry out, which causes the fans to slow down or stop. Also, the fans are normally blowing over a heat sink with tiny fins. These fins can collect substantial amounts of dust and dirt. In either case the computer will not be receiving proper cooling, which will cause it to slow down or stop. With the help of a qualified technician make sure the fans and heat sinks are clean and functioning properly.A Note About Disk Cache. Windows uses a part of the main memory for a disk buffer cache. This cache holds copies of frequently accessed disk blocks. When these disk blocks are accessed from memory cache rather than from the physical disk the computer's overall speed improves. Windows automatically adjusts the size of this cache based on the amount of "free" memory. This means that increasing the size of main memory (RAM) would likely increase the size of disk cache and could result in improved overall performance.

A few minutes for this type of preventive maintenance can greatly improve your system's quality of service and also extend its useful life.

{mosimage} Neal Nelson has more than 35 years experience with all aspects of complex computer systems. As the chief developer, owner and president of an independent hardware and software performance evaluation firm he has tested more than 500 computer systems. A Web site with some of his test results can be found at For further information send an e-mail to