Remember how quickly your computer worked when fresh out of the box? Over time, installed programs, unused desktop shortcuts, saved files and downloaded data accumulate, making your system slower.
There may even be malware—spyware or viruses that you’ve unknowingly downloaded by clicking links or opening emails.
Just like your home requires regular inspection to ensure that everything is in tip-top shape, your PC also requires maintenance. Here’s our list of how to clean your computer, from freeing up valuable memory to an actual physical wipe down, to prolong the life of your system.
1. Sort Out Your Desktop and Delete Duplicates
Computers slow down when there are too many files on the desktop since the operating system must catalog previews of all those files for quick viewing.
Consider your PC’s desktop much like your actual workspace. Sure, it’s convenient to keep regularly used documents within arm’s reach, but you wouldn’t just leave them spread across your desk’s actual surface.
That’s what filing systems are for—and you can do the same to organize your computer’s desktop:
- Bundle documents into relevant groups.
- Delete any duplicate files, folders, or shortcuts.
- Create new folders by right-clicking on the desktop, choosing New, then Folder.
- Rename new folders by clicking the folder’s name until highlighted, then typing over the text.
- Drag-and-drop relevant files into the new folder.
Since everything on your desktop takes a little bit of your computer’s resources, you want to make sure it’s as clean as possible, only leaving the items that are regularly in use.
Aside from documents (which should now be neatly organized into folders), you’ll also want to remove unused shortcuts from your computer’s desktop.
Right-clicking the shortcut icon and choosing Delete won’t remove the program, but it will help keep things more organized.
2. Install Your Updates
Do you forget to regularly install updates? Doing so leaves your system vulnerable to attacks.
That’s because Microsoft regularly issues patches and security updates—if your system isn’t set to download and automatically install them, or you’re not super diligent about checking for, downloading, and installing these updates, then you put your system at risk.
Follow these steps to manually update Windows:
- Choose Start → All Programs → Windows Update. In the Windows Update window, click Check for Updates.
- In the resulting window, click the ‘Updates Are Available’ link to see all optional or important updates link.
- Click to select available critical or optional updates that you want to install and then click the OK button.
- Click the Install Updates button.
- Click Restart Now.
While manually updating windows is relatively simple, remembering to do so daily can be a pain. Instead, we recommend that you set up Windows Update to run at the same time every day.
To do so, click the Change Settings link in the Windows Update window and choose the frequency (such as every day) and time of day to check for and install updates.
Two notes about running automatic updates: Your computer needs to be on to run updates, so if you choose a time late at night, be sure your PC is set to sleep mode, instead of powered off.
Also, three a.m. might be a convenient time for your computer to run updates, but it does mean that the screen will abruptly start to glow. If you sleep in the same room as your computer, be sure to turn off only the monitor to avoid being woken up.
3. Backup Your Important Files
Now that you’ve deleted duplicate files, it’s time to create copies of the important stuff. If you have Windows 8 or newer, create a system-wide backup using Window’s File History:
- Connect an external hard drive to your computer.
- Open the Settings app from your Start menu.
- Navigate to Update & Security.
- Click Backup → Add a Drive. If you have multiple external drives connected, choose the appropriate option.
An option to automatically backup your files will appear as selected, we recommend keeping the setting as is. It means that Windows will automatically backup your files whenever that hard drive is connected.
If you’d like to be extra careful, consider making a second backup of your hard drive to be stored in the cloud. Personally, I choose to selectively backup certain files and store them on Dropbox.
However, there are programs that will automatically backup your entire hard drive at intervals of your choosing.
4. Disable Startup Programs
Disabling items that automatically launch when your computer starts up is one of the best ways to free up resources and shorten how long it takes the system to boot up.
If you have Windows 8 or newer, doing so is simple:
- Go to the Task Manager direct from the Taskbar or hit the WIN key, and Task Manager should be the top result.
- Once Task Manager is open, select the Startup tab to see all the programs that your computer is opening every time it turns on.
- You can sort these items in multiple ways by clicking different columns, but to understand how they affect your computer, sort by Startup Impact.
- To disable a startup program, uncheck the box next to it, and then restart your system.
Before you start removing programs from the Startup list, it’s important to understand what they do. Right-click any item, and select Search Online to learn more.
Do you have an older version of Windows? If so, disabling Startup programs has to be done a different way:
- Launch a Run window by simultaneously hitting the WIN + R keys.
- Type “msconfig” into the box.
- Select the Startup tab.
- To disable a startup program, uncheck the box next to it, and then restart your system.
Microsoft provides a breakdown of startup apps and guidance on how to deal with several categories of startup apps, including utilities that sync your PC or for backup and recovery, updates, notifiers, and more.
5. Remove Unnecessary and Unused Programs
You could go through all of your computer’s programs, researching each one before deciding whether or not to delete it. Or, save some time and allow Should I Remove It? to do the heavy lifting for you.
Should I Remove It? is a free Windows program that helps even non-tech savvy computer users identify and easily remove all sorts of bloatware (programs that were unnecessarily bundled in with ones you needed), adware, toolbars, and more.
If you’re not so sure about downloading the program, read PC World's thorough (and positive) review of Should I Remove It? for extra convincing.
6. Run Disk Cleanup
Disk Cleanup is a simple tool that wipes clean temporary internet and cached files, freeing up space on your hard drive.
In Windows 7, you can run Disk Cleanup by following these steps:
- Choose Start → All Programs → Accessories.
- Select System Tools and click Disk Cleanup. A Disk Cleanup dialog box will appear.
- In the Files to Delete list, check the boxes next to the names of the files you want to remove and clear the boxes next to any files you want to keep.
- Click the Clean Up System Files button and a More Options tab will appear.
- Click the More Options tab to clean up programs you don’t use.
- Click OK to start the process.
- Click Yes when Windows asks if you’d like to delete these files.
In Windows 8 or newer, you have several options. The easiest is to hit the WIN key and type “disk cleanup,” then choose “Free up disk space by deleting unnecessary files.”
If you choose not to install Should I Remove It?, you can also remove unneeded programs in this step. Just click the Programs and Features button, then select any unnecessary and unused applications.
7. Dust and Wipe Down Your Computer
There are a few reasons to wipe down your computer after cleaning up the hard drive: germs, a dirty screen, and dust—the last of which can blanket your computer’s internals, locking in heat.
First, shut down and unplug your computer, as you don’t want any electricity running through your machine during cleaning. If you’re cleaning a desktop tower, not just a laptop, you may even want to take the system outside, so any dislodged dust and dirt doesn’t go right onto your carpet. Then, follow these steps:
Clean your keyboard out with a can of compressed air. It might be tempting to use the vacuum, but doing so can potentially damage your system’s delicate electronic components.
Lightly go across your keyboard down with a disinfectant wipe—and don’t forget your mouse and touchpad.
Use a dry microfiber cloth to wipe down your screen. If any stubborn bits of grime remains, dab a solution of half white vinegar, half water onto the cloth to clean. (Never put any liquid directly onto your computer’s screen or casing.)
Wipe away any dust that’s accumulated near the air intake vents. If you have a laptop, these are generally located on the bottom. If you’re cleaning a desktop tower, look in the back.
Remember: Computers Need Regular Maintenance to Work Their Best
Computers are magnets for unneeded software, viruses, and other stuff you’re better off without. Even if you’re careful never to click a suspicious link, the number of files and applications that your system is made to deal with naturally grows over time.
However, you don’t have to spend money on a cleaning program to keep your PC in great shape. Instead of purchasing something that promises to help speed up your computer, follow the steps above to use the free tools that Windows gives you for regular maintenance.
Performing PC maintenance every month doesn’t only help speed up its performance, doing so can help significantly lengthen the life of your computer and can be completed without any training.
Neglecting the tasks, however, can slow your system’s performance or cause components to overheat—problems that could lead to an expensive trip to the repair shop.
» For Further Reading on This Topic:
- How to Get Free Anti-Virus Software
- How to Develop Your Digital Literacy Skills
- How to Tell If an Online Store Is Legit
- How to Delete Your Social Media Accounts