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Dust, delete, de-frag: 8 ways to spring-clean computers

The advent of spring inspires thoughts of cleaning for some of us — scrubbing the toilet, sifting through the wardrobe, wiping away grime and fashion faux pas as Shania Twain wails in support.

And yet, there is one spot our rubber gloves tend to skip over, an appliance we use far more than the bathtub or the kitchen sink: the computer.

I work my computer long and hard, but I never give it loving. I'm lucky if I remember to turn it off at night. Meanwhile, flotsam and jetsam accumulate. I've got 7,242 e-mails in my Yahoo! account, and 4,125 in Gmail — not to mention 491 Gmail drafts, which I use as post-its to store my scattered thoughts. 

As to the last time I defragmented? Let's just say I flipped my mattress more recently.

"It's easy to take it for granted that your computer will be working fine," said Scott Krajewski, director of Augsburg's Information Technology Services. "But taking advantage of a regular event like daylight saving time or spring cleaning to do basic preventative maintenance is a great strategy."


With brainpower from Scott and the worker bees of Hamline University's ITS Help Desk, here are some practical ways to clean your computer this spring:

1. Organize your desktop. Storing a ton of files or folders on your desktop can slow your computer down. Make a few folders and organize those icons. Handy as it may be for an item to pop up on the desk top, it's worth the extra click.
 
2. Run a disk cleanup. Windows has several built-in utilities that can improve your computer's performance. Click on the "Start" menu, then "Accessories" and then "System Tools." From there, select Disk Cleanup and, later, Disk Defragmenter. (Doesn't this feel good?)
 
3. Scan for spyware and malware. If you don't have an anti-spyware tool yet, grab a free one like Spybot or Ad-Aware. Anti-spyware tools can both clean and protect you from spyware programs that range from the benign (pop-up ads) to the malevolent (password theft). Do a full-system scan after updating the spyware definitions. "This can take a while," Scott warns, "so reorganizing that kitchen cupboard can keep you busy while your PC churns away."
 
4. Back it up, Baby. Burn all the files you'd be lost without onto CDs or external media. Label them with the date and description of contents and you'll earn a gold star.  
 
5. Put it in storage. Transfer large files that you don't need to access regularly, such as pictures, to CDs or external media. This will free up valuable hard-drive space. If you're really swamped in pictures, consider transferring them onto DVDs. You can fit about seven CDs on a DVD, so the process will go much more quickly.
 
6. Organize files. Revamp your organizational system by deleting unneeded files and creating new folders to make it easier to navigate your hard drive. (Be sure to do this only in your My Documents folder or on your desktop, though, to avoid changing important system files.)
 
7. Sort through the inbox. Start with your oldest e-mails and delete the outdated and unnecessary. Be on the lookout for junk mail to mark as spam. Devise a better organizational system for remaining emails by creating folders or starring important messages. Then take a meander through the spam folder to see if any legitimate messages have slipped in. 
 
8. Clean external components. Use soft cotton wipes on your computer screen (but no chemicals to avoid damage). On other surfaces, an all-purpose cleaner such as 409 will remove dust and residue. Canned air, available at any computer store, is helpful for cleaning out the keyboard and the inside of a computer tower. If you dust the inside of your tower, be sure to blow the dust away from the computer to avoid embedding dust within the hardware.

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Comments (3)

OR, you can ditch Windows for a Unix-based operating system like Linux or Mac OS X, which do not require "defragmenting" and are far less susceptible to spyware and viruses.

Thanks for the other tips though! ;)

It's true, Link.

And thanks for making the addition, John. My external hard drive was well worth the money. It makes a good home for the thousands of digital pictures that were once clogging my computer. Files transfer to an external hard drive much, much more quickly than burning them to a CD. Besides, burned CDs have an average shelf life of only 6-7 years.

I'd offer the following addition:

9) If you do not already own an external hard drive, consider making the investment. Depending on the size of the external drive and features (USB vs. FireWire, for instance), you can get a lot for less than $150. Great for backups, no need to purchase or burn CDROMs or DVDs (although burning digital photos or videos to a disk is still advisable). Can be used on a Mac or PC.