A Clean Computer is a Happy Computer

Actually, the computer doesn’t care, but you might be happier if you cleaned your computer once in a while!

This blog post is for my sister and my brother-in-law, whose computers always seem to have issues. I offer these tips with no guarantees or warranties. No one is forcing you to try it, but it might avoid problems down the road.

For the techno elite that might run across this article, it’s not written for you. It’s written for someone who doesn’t want to learn any more about computers than absolutely necessary. It’s purposefully simple. (As simple as I could think of without going to Baytown to do it for her.)

In Windows, there is usually more than one way to open a dialog box. I’m only explaining one way of doing these steps. That doesn’t make your way wrong, just not the way I’ve written it here. I’m also writing it from the standpoint of Windows 7. The steps are different on different operating systems (OS), but the premise is the same. If you’re still on Vista or <gasp!> XP, run, don’t walk, to your nearest computer store and get a new one. (On my Netbook, I was able to upgrade from Vista to Windows 7 online. Easy peasy.)

This Microsoft support article lists several Windows shortcuts that can save you time and frustration. When you see a key name, a plus sign, and then another key (ALT+TAB), that means hold down the first key on the keyboard while pressing the second key, then release both keys.

You DO NOT have to be connected to the Internet. If you have to manually connect to the Internet, don’t connect. You don’t need it. If your computer automatically connects to the Internet (i.e., you have cable Internet or some such), that’s OK, you can leave it connected. This is mainly for my sister who has a USB Internet connection.

Step 1: Uninstall applications you don’t need

Before you start cleaning, it is a good idea to uninstall—delete—applications that you no longer use. Some people (certainly not you!) just blindly click, click, click, through installation wizards and don’t pay attention to what it’s doing. (READ the messages!) Sometimes it’s installing “free” applications that you might not want. For example, some might install a free virus toolbar that appears when you open a browser. That’s not malware or a virus, but you probably don’t need it.

To uninstall applications that you don’t need

  1. Open the Control Panel by clicking Start > Control Panel.
  2. Click Uninstall Programs.
  3. Scroll through the list of programs to determine if there are any you absolutely don’t need. If you’re unsure, leave it alone. Or, you can do a search for that name to see what it is. For example, go to www.google.com, then in the search box, type Adobe Reader. The search results will tell you without even clicking on them that you need Adobe Reader to read PDF files. That one you don’t want to delete.
  4. If you find one you do want to delete, right-click it, then click Uninstall. Wait for it to complete before deleting another one. When it says to reboot, skip it. You will reboot later.
  5. It’s OK if there are no programs to delete; move to Step 2.

Step 2: Delete unnecessary files

Most applications “poop” all over your hard drive. When they run, they leave bits and pieces in various places on your hard drive so they can do their thing. Most of them are notoriously bad at wiping their own butts, so you have to do it for them. That’s Step 2 in keeping your computer clean: delete unnecessary files.

To delete unnecessary files

  1. Open Windows Explorer by pressing the Windows key+E.
  2. Right-click the C: drive (in the left pane), then click Properties.
  3. In the Properties dialog box, click Disk Cleanup.
  4. Let it do its thing. It will probably take a while. It is searching for files that it thinks you can delete.
  5. Eventually, a Disk Cleanup dialog box appears. If you scroll through the list, you will see that it may (or may not) have found Downloaded Program Files, Temporary Internet Files, Offline web pages (cache), Recycle Bin, Setup Log Files, System error memory dump files, Temporary files, and Thumbnails. You can delete all of them. Leave the check boxes selected.
  6. Click Clean up system files. Again, it will go off and think for a while. Under Description, it will say “Remove system error memory dump files.” Click OK.
  7. If any check boxes cleared when you did this, select them again. A message appears that asks if you’re sure you want to delete these files. Click Delete Files.
  8. The Disk Cleanup message box appears and shows progress. Depending on how dirty your computer is, it might be a long time before it’s done.
  9. Leave the Properties dialog box open for the next step.

Step 3: Defragment your hard drive.

Think of your computer’s hard drive like an old-school record player. It has a flat, round, flimsy piece of recordable media called a “platter” (think of that as the album) and an “arm” that moves back and forth across the platter to read and write the data (similar to the stereo’s arm with the needle that reads the grooves in the album). That noise you hear when your hard drive is working–sometimes called “seeking”–is the arm going back and forth across the platter either trying to write data or trying to read data that you want to use.

Your computer installs applications somewhere on your hard drive (usually in Program Files) and stores data that the application needs (in ProgramData, User > Application Data, and numerous other locations). Because of the extremely slow way (compared to RAM) that the hard drive reads and writes data, it just dumps it in the most convenient locations. It might store 100K here, 50K there, 1MB over there, and so on, until the whole program is installed or the data you want to save is written. And while you’re using your computer, you may have installed and deleted stuff numerous times since your last cleaning. As a result, your hard drive becomes “fragmented”–through no fault of your own–and you need to tell the hard drive to clean up its act, AKA “defrag”!

To defragment your hard drive

  1. Back in the Properties dialog box, click the Tools tab.
  2. On the Tools tab, click Defragment now.
  3. In the Disk Defragmenter dialog box, click the C: drive, then Defragment Disk. Again, this will take a long time if you haven’t done it in a while (or never) or if you have a very large hard drive. It’s best (and faster) if you don’t try to do anything else while it’s running. It will be much slower and counter productive because you are likely creating new files while it’s trying to clean up—that’s like trying to bathe your dog while he rolls in the mud. (Note: If you also have a “System Drive,” leave it alone.)
  4. When the computer is done, it will display a message saying it is complete. While you’re in this dialog box, why not set up a schedule? This way, you don’t have to remember to do it. Choose a time when you are not likely to be using the computer and when it is on. Click Configure Schedule and follow the prompts.

Step 4: Run Windows Update

Windows is the most popular OS in the world—and as such it makes a good target for hackers to exploit. Microsoft frequently finds and plugs security holes and fixes bugs in its software. Microsoft is not trying to steal your information, they are not trying to make you dependent on them, they are just trying to fix their buggy software so that you curse them less often. This is why you need to run Windows Update regularly. The best way to do this is to set up a schedule.

I have a little Netbook (a laptop with a 10″ screen—the precursor to tablets like iPad) that I only use when I travel. Because it’s off and in a drawer most of the time, it can’t run regular updates. So a week or so before I go out of town, I get out the Netbook, connect it to the Internet, and run update after update. Before my last trip, it needed to run 37 updates! So setting up a schedule is not always ideal, and you will have to do it manually.

To run Windows Update 

  1. Click Start > All Programs > Windows Update.
  2. Click Check for updates.
  3. If/when it tells you there are updates available, install the “Important” updates. You can skip the “Optional” updates if you want.
  4. If it tells you to reboot, then reboot.
  5. When you are all done installing updates, click Change settings.
  6. On the Change settings page, click the down arrows to specify that it should:
    • Install updates automatically (I think that’s the default)
    • Install new updates Every day at (whatever time you won’t be using your computer)
    • Select each of the check boxes.
  7. Click OK.

Finally, a clean computer!

Reboot your computer and notice how much faster it responds! If it still doesn’t respond, there could be numerous other issues, such as a slow CPU (need a new computer), not enough RAM (buy more if it can hold more), too many things running at startup (stop applications from starting automatically), malware, or viruses (keep your antivirus updated). Too much to cover in this blog post!