I often hear complaints about the built-in utilities that the various versions of Windows contain. The complaints are mostly about disk-management tools such as the disk defragmenter and various disk cleanup utilities. The Windows defragmenter is notorious for not dealing well with disks that are heavily fragmented and have little available space. Microsoft acknowledges this limitation, and if you're willing to run the defragmenter frequently, the problem rarely manifests. The fact that you can run the defragmenter only manually gives third-party vendors the opportunity to produce applications that perform the same basic disk maintenance as the built-in utility but automate and improve upon what the utility can do.
I usually tell users to make use of Windows XP's disk cleanup utility in addition to the defragmenter. Many applications leave all sorts of detritus behind them, and staying on top of cleaning these remnants can help optimize your computer's performance. However, many readers have told me that the XP disk cleanup tool (available from Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Cleanup) will often hang for no apparent reason. The usual suspects--an overcrowded and overly fragmented disk--aren't present according to these readers, so the question they usually ask me is, "What's causing these application lockups?"
This problem is actually a simple one to solve. The presence of corrupted temporary files will cause the Disk Cleanup application to hang. So, when readers ask me what to do, I tell them to delete the files in their Temp directory, then rerun the cleanup application. After talking with a few folks who told me that even after they deleted all of their temporary files the cleanup application would still hang, I realized that we were talking about two different operations.
In these Internet-happy days, when I tell someone to delete his or her temporary files, many users delete their temporary Internet files. Now, doing so isn't a bad thing, but it has nothing to do with the temporary files I'm referring to. Open up a command prompt window, type Set, and hit Enter. The resulting display of information lists the current environment variables that are set in the OS. Two of these variables are TEMP and TMP. In most cases, these variables both point to the same directory (in XP and Windows 2000, the variables point to the Temp folder under the users Local Settings folder). This Temp folder is the one from which you need to delete the contents (don't just delete the folder). You might find that some of the files are locked when you try to delete everything, but delete as many of the files as you can. Rerun the disk cleanup tool, and the hanging problem should disappear.
I also receive a lot of requests for recommendations for pop-up blocking software. Lately, I've been using the Google Toolbar (available at http://www.toolbar.google.com ) to perform this task. The more paranoid among you might be uncomfortable with the fact that to get full functionality from the toolbar you must let the tool report your search habits back to Google, but I spend so much time using the Google search engine that I don't begrudge Google the anonymous user information. The Google Toolbar is simple to use and provides real benefit to users.