So you’ve spent thousands on buying the latest, greatest technology, but six months later your speed demon has slowed to a crawl and needs more reboots than a World Cup penalty shootout. And that happens even without a spyware invasion. Good news: cleaning out and sprucing up your PC has become a software cottage industry and some of the best tools are available for free.

FIRST, DO NO HARM

A solid personal firewall, an antivirus program and malware remover are the first and most essential steps to carefree computing. Many new PCs come pre-loaded with protection software, but free Web downloads have caught up with the professional antivirus packages in terms of functionality and efficiency. AVG Anti-Virus, Spybot – Search & Destroy, Avast, Lavasoft and F-Secure are the pick of the freeware bunch. Pay for Kaspersky Lab. Email-borne viruses and worms are not your PC’s biggest vulnerability, rather targeted phishing attacks and Spybot worms are now the favourite routes for online criminals.

Phishing filters like the one that comes standard with Internet Explorer work fine and many spyware protection systems are getting better, but being suspicious about a website’s credentials is the best way to stay protected.

Tip: Make sure you download from a reputable source such as www.download.com or www.softpedia.com.

DEFINITION – PHISHING
Pronounced “fishing”, it is a method of stealing valuable information like credit card details, user IDs and passwords, by sending a user to a spoof website made to look like that of a reputable one, usually a financial institution. “Spear phishing” is a personal attack while “whale phishing” is when the attackers target a high net worth individual or company executive.

NEED FOR SPEED
As more programs are installed and uninstalled, updated and shifted around, your PC inevitably becomes unstable. Boot-up times take longer as more and more programs start up automatically and hard drives become cluttered with file fragments. Unresponsiveness and general sluggishness are usually problems of the registry system. It is not a good idea to fiddle around with it unless you know what you’re doing. Among freeware, Auslogics Disk Defrag does a quick and thorough job of defragmenting your hard drive. TweakNow RegCleaner is a simple utility to clean out the registry and Glary Utilities adds other clean-up tools such as fixing broken short cuts, finding duplicate files and managing your start-up files. Pandora Recovery finds and “permanently” restores deleted files. GoneIn60s recovers closed applications.

Tip: Formatting your hard disk and re-installing your operating system is a radical solution, but it fixes all bugs. Just back up your data first.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Now that your PC is away from the clutches of hackers and running smoothly, it’s time to personalise it. Sexing-up your Windows PC is no longer just a question of changing wallpapers and screen savers, as menu, window and taskbar structures can now be overhauled to make sure everything is at your fingertips. You can customise the look of your windows Windows. Free customisation tools can be found at www.wincustomize.com.

Tip: For skins, themes, sound schemes, icon sets, avatars, font libraries, plug-ins and widgets (Web-based applications), search Google. You’ll find millions for free.