Inevitably, your PCs at home and at work are going to start becoming less efficient and less speedy. As users bang away on them—going about their daily communications, traveling the Web, downloading tools and documents—the computer gradually gathers detritus like a sleek automobile succumbing to grime and rust. I’ve been known to react to such loss of performance and accuracy by simply upgrading to a new computer and tossing the old one aside. But that’s not exactly the most cost-efficient solution.

How about actually fixing the problem? How about cleaning up the clutter? That’s the promise of a cool little utility from Large Software called PC Tune-Up, which I recently spent a couple weeks playing with.

My four-year-old HP system had been experiencing significant slowdowns. In particular, startup was a painful, glacial process that put obvious strain on the processor. I would find myself starting the system and walking away for a while—eat breakfast, take a three-mile walk, chat with coworkers, have my midday snack—then returning to begin my work after everything was finally loaded up and calm.

There had to be a solution short of discarding an otherwise perfectly fine system. After searching around for free utilities, and coming across a few that helped incrementally, I landed on PC Tune-Up—not a free tool, but a fairly cheap one at $29.95. The package claimed to offer the ability to “bring your computer back to life and stop it from running slow, freezing, and crashing by removing the items that impact its overall health.” I decided to give it a try.

I downloaded the product from the Large Software website and had it installed on my computer in a snap. It’s a sleek little thing, at 3MB in size. After an easy registration process, I was presented with the product’s Quick Start screen, which provided a user-friendly graphic of the entire four-step PC Tune-Up process: Back up your system, Scan for problems, Repair found problems, and Defrag your computer.

The system backup lets you set a restore point for your system should anything go wrong in the PC Tune-Up process or should you not like some of the changes it makes in its effort to streamline the system. You simply choose a backup location and let it go.

The system scan took about 25 minutes on my system, searching for errors in the registry and across the hard disk. After the scan was finished, PC Tune-Up took another 20 minutes to “search for solutions.” Admittedly, I attempted multi-tasking on the system, and that slowed down the process considerably. But after all was said and done, PC Tune-Up had found a multitude of problems. I scanned through the list, finding many broken registry paths and suspicious downloaded files, and I chose the Repair All option, which took all of two minutes to rid the system of clutter. (You can also choose to correct each problem individually.)

The system didn’t immediately crash and burn, so I was pleased. I moved onto the defragmentation step. This final step in the quick process took about 15 minutes behind the scenes and gave me a graphical representation of the streamlining it had done. I finished up by rebooting the system. PC Tune-Up then ran a second scan, requiring another reboot. I thought, Huh, but let the tool do its best.

After the second reboot, system startup and performance seemed a bit quicker. I wouldn’t say that everything had become new-computer rosy again, but some of the sluggishness was gone.

Wanting to go further, I checked out PC Tune-Up’s more advanced options. First, I clicked the Optimize button on the left panel and saw an option for Startup. Curious, I selected it and found that this option searches out all the programs that are starting automatically at boot-up and lists them so that you can determine whether you need them to be starting at that point (or, indeed, whether you need them at all). I found this Startup option to be one of the most useful features of PC Tune-Up. After performing the search, I walked through the list (which provided helpful knowledge-base advice about whether each item was necessary) and purged about 75 percent of the items. There were a few I was unsure about, so I left them alone. (Better safe than sorry.)

Upon the next restart, I noticed that startup was vastly quicker. I delved into a few more advanced features, which offer more fine-tuned control than the Quick Start options. One option is called the Magic Button—which runs all four Quick Start steps manually or at startup. The rest of the advanced options focus on little system tweaks you can perform that all add up to better performance. Finally, the Protect option keeps your system safe from hundreds of malicious ActiveX objects.

PC Tune-Up is a nifty little 3MB performance helper that you can keep in your USB toolkit, for use on Windows Vista and Windows XP systems. It’s not free (although you can download a free trial), but it provides enough benefit to warrant its $29.95 price tag. The GUI is extremely easy and helpful, and the tune-up process is straightforward and smooth.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars