How To Clean Your Tech

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Clean the Crud From Your PC

Cleaning Out the Crud: Multiple Options

You can, of course, manually clean out a lot of the junk on your system. Here are some ways to tackle the job.

Disk Cleanup

The past few versions of Windows have shipped with the Disk Cleanup utility, which you can launch by clicking Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Cleanup. When I used this tool on my machine, I discovered 16.3 gigabytes of Zune temporary converted files.

The Disk Cleanup tool.
You can manually clean out old system files, as well--but that can be perilous, so delete such files with care. Also, Disk Cleanup allows you (under the More Options tab) to delete all but the most recent System Restore and Shadow Copy files. I recommend avoiding that--you never know if you'll need an older restore point to get a usable machine back if you run into problems.

Defrag Your Drive

Defragmenting your hard drive is useful after you've performed a sweep with Disk Cleanup. During the defrag process, your system performance will slow down, since the defragger keeps the hard drives pretty busy. The Windows 7 defrag utility is somewhat smart about this, but your PC will still be less responsive during the process; it's best to run the utility when you don't need timely system access.

System Configuration Utility

This tool is more commonly referred to as Msconfig. You launch it by typing msconfig in the Run bar.

You can selectively enable and disable background services in Msconfig.
Using Msconfig lets you manually specify services to run, as well as startup applications. It's far from perfect, however: It doesn't give you any advice as to what services can be safely disabled, though you can hide Windows services, which makes the Services tab a little more manageable.

This is all the stuff that launches on boot.
The Startup tab is more useful. The caution here, though, is that if you disable everything willy-nilly, some of your applications (such as your antivirus software) may not work. Still, stuff like the QuickTime Helper app and the Adobe Acrobat helper can be safely disabled.

Registry Editor

Use the Windows Registry Editor, aka "regedit," with caution. You could easily delete keys from the Registry permanently, and render your system unusable. A less serious risk is that you could make applications unusable, and then have to reinstall them. I've run into situations, however, in which a partial Registry edit makes it impossible to uninstall or reinstall an application--but the app won't run. If you're going to edit the Registry yourself, back it up first.

Edit your system's Registry at your own risk.
This screenshot of the Registry Editor shows only the first-level view; on lower levels the typical Registry contains many thousands of entries, often with arcane names such as HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\{9F5FBC24-EFE2-4f90-B498-EC0FB7D47D15}. Understanding what to delete and what to keep can be fraught with peril.

If you're trying to root out Registry entries for an incompletely uninstalled piece of software, the editor does allow you to search. If you do this, be very specific with the search string. The application name is much better than, say, the company name. Searching for "Zune," for instance, will likely yield much safer results than searching for "Microsoft."

Third-Party Tools: Two Useful Choices

Although you'll find plenty of useful third-party tools out there, don't go near anything called a "Registry-cleaning tool." The Windows Registry is an insanely complex database, and no Registry cleaner can know every Registry key that an application may touch. I've had to help users who have run Registry cleaners that have rendered their applications unusable and unable to reinstall. That said, some Registry-related tools are useful.

Soluto

Soluto's main claim to fame is that it can shorten the time Windows takes to boot--sometimes by a substantial amount. You can download Soluto for free.

If you have a lot of startup apps, Soluto can help.
The utility contains a database of known boot applications, and gives you advice on whether they're safe to remove from the bootup process. But Soluto doesn't just put boot items into "run" and "don't run" categories; it can also defer certain items that you may want to run at startup but can afford to run a little after the desktop becomes responsive.

Soluto will show you just how much time you can save on boot.
Soluto uses a social networking paradigm, so it depends on users to help develop the database of items that are safe to delay or pause. Note that one malicious person's vote won't count for much, so it's not as if you'll see Soluto recommend that you pause an essential Windows service. By the same token, if you have as many items loading as I do, you'll see a lot of entries for which Soluto doesn't have any advice to give.

Revo Uninstaller Pro

This handy utility is a little more complex than Soluto. Revo Uninstaller tries to be a more complete uninstaller, and generally it works pretty well for that purpose. It also has an autorun (startup) manager, but Soluto is probably better for that task. Similarly, Revo Uninstaller can act as a backup manager, browser cleaner, and evidence remover, but I'll focus here on its main use.

Revo Uninstaller lets you purge every last trace of an old app.
From a user perspective, Revo Uninstaller behaves pretty much the same way as the Windows uninstaller does. You just double-click on what you need to remove. Revo gives you the option of a safe, moderate, or advanced uninstall. After the process, you can scan for leftover files or Registry items specific to the application.

For uninstalling one or two apps, you can download Revo Uninstaller for free, but the full version costs $40 for a single license or $80 for four computers. Revo Uninstaller helped me out with a pesky iTunes 10 installation problem--I kept getting errors that prevented iTunes from completely installing. Revo Uninstaller managed to remove all the Apple residue, and a complete iTunes install was possible after that.

Maintaining a Clean System: Steps to Take

Once you've cleaned out the crud, how do you keep your Windows system relatively clean? Here are several pointers.

  • If an application has an "advanced" install option, use it. Go ahead and install to the default locations (if you want), but check what's being installed. Sometimes you'll have the option of telling the program not to run anything at system startup.
  • Always watch the installer dialog box. Many users merely click the Next button every time the application's installer prompts them to do so. But often the window will have checkboxes that install additional items, such as browser toolbars, quick-startup utilities, or other crud.
  • If a window pops up in your browser asking you to install something, make sure you know what it is. It may just be a simple tool to help your browsing, or it may install something that runs at startup and saps your system resources. (Weatherbug, anyone?) In the worst-case scenario, it will install malware.
  • Use tools such as Soluto and Msconfig frequently to make sure useless junk isn't running at startup.
  • Clean your drive frequently, particularly temporary Internet and temporary installation files.

It takes only a few minutes a week to keep your system relatively clean, and if you do that, you'll likely be able to postpone the dreaded reformat and reinstall for a very long time.

Want to share your PC-cleaning tips? Post them in the comments!

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