Martha Stewart's spring cleaning probably involves homemade lemon-scented beeswax and complex polishing rituals. For me, it's time to open the windows, clear my desk, and get rid of the keyboard crunchies. You know what I'm talking about: the remains of every muffin, cookie, and Pop Tart you've eaten over your computer's keyboard.
Yes, your average PC-beautification project typically involves system-optimization tasks--drive defragmentation, spyware sweeps, and the like. This story includes those, too. But let's face it: The outside of a computer can get as nasty as the inside.
When the tax man cometh and leaves start to appear again on the trees outside, it's a good time to give your PC a thorough cleaning, inside and out. Perhaps you live somewhere that requires you to run the heat and keep the windows closed all winter, and now your home's dust quotient has hit its peak. Once summer hits, you're not going to want to park in front of the PC for an afternoon of cleanup chores. So, from dusty monitors to disorganized hard drives, it's time to get your PC in order--before the mess catches up with you.
Bust the dust. PC cases can get truly dusty, which is a risk to the long-term well-being of your computer. First, make sure to turn off the PC before doing any cleaning tasks. Then look at the fan on the back of your system: If it's fuzzy, use a can of compressed air (sold at hardware stores for less than $10) to spray off the dust in a sideways direction. Dust other case surfaces with a disposable dusting cloth, like Swiffer-brand cloths. If there's other gunk on the case (maybe a late-night coffee stain) a slightly damp paper towel will do the trick. Note: While dust lurks inside, too, don't go there unless you're very familiar with the PC's internal organs.
Detail your printer. To prevent printer jams and other foul-ups, give a small burst of compressed air to the printer mechanism that rolls in the paper. With an inkjet printer, make sure to print at least a page once a week in order to avoid cartridge clogs. To clean the outside of the printer case (usually unnecessary, unless the printer lives in a kitchen and has a close encounter with flying food), use a slightly damp cloth. Check out PCWorld.com for more printer-cleaning tips.
Kill keyboard crud. More goodies may lurk in your keyboard than live under your couch. (Unless you're the parent of a small child--in that case, the keyboard is one of the only surfaces beneath which you'll never find Cheerios.) Unplug the keyboard, and then turn it upside down to shake out the cookie crumbs and edible artifacts. If you want to take the keyboard apart and do some surgical cleaning--say, between the keys--you can. But remember: You could buy a new, clean one for between $10 and $20.
Improve your view. When was the last time you dusted your monitor? Unplug it and dust it with a disposable dusting cloth. If it's really dirty--say, with dirty fingerprints or a yogurt-covered handprint--unplug it and use a slightly damp cloth with water only. (Some monitor makers sell cleaning solutions, but you probably don't need one unless you have a fancy or expensive monitor.) Note: Do not use Windex-type glass cleaners or household detergents. And never spray water directly on the display.
And Now, Your System's Innards . . .
With the outside of your PC all clean and new, it's time to turn your attention to the insides, namely to the bits and bytes that can end up strewn everywhere after prolonged PC use. If it's springtime, and you haven't done any of these things, do them now. And try not to wait a whole year before taking some of these measures again.
As always, before optimizing your PC, back up your important data.
Update your Windows. If you have time for no other cleaning chores, make sure you keep your Windows operating system updated. Otherwise, invaders worse than bathroom mildew could take over your PC. In Windows XP's start menu, right-click on My Computer, then choose Properties, Automatic Updates, and choose a time for Windows to update itself daily.
Check antivirus protection. Antivirus software does you no good unless you keep the definitions up to date. The software can't protect you if it doesn't know what's on the latest watch list. If you own Norton Anti-Virus, for example, you must pay yearly for access to updated definitions. Not sure if your definitions are up to date? Click on your antivirus software, and it will tell you if you need to renew, or the date on which you're going to need to renew (most programs will hound you for weeks leading up to the expiration date).
Play "I spy." Spyware programs, those devious little applets that camp out in your PC after you open a malicious e-mail or visit a rogue Web page, can be tough to find. You're wise to check for them regularly. If your system's running slowly, your Web browser settings seem to change automatically, or you have strange icons in your system tray, it's definitely time to check for spyware. Try SpySweeper 4.5, $30 at webroot.com. Also check out Process Explorer, a free utility that will tell you if strange things are happening in the background.
Defrag the hard drive. Your PC's hard drive needs help to stay in tip-top shape. If you regularly defragment your hard drive, your reward will be quick access to files and software programs. Windows XP will do the work for you: From the Start menu, go to Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter. Got an older version of Windows? Try this.
Stop file mayhem. If you don't organize your PC files once in a while, your hard drive starts to resemble the junk drawer in your kitchen. First, clean out your temporary files: From My Computer, right click the C: drive, then select Properties and Disk Cleanup. Check Temp Files and Recycle Bin and click OK. Next, in order to get rid of duplicate files, try a free utility such as Duplicate File Finder.
More Spring-Cleaning Tools
You've done the bare minimum it takes to gear up your system for another 12 months of action (and remember, some of these maintenance chores shouldn't wait another 12 months). Now you're really in the spring-cleaning spirit, correct?
Here are some handy utilities (most are free) to help you clean up even more messes lurking inside your PC. One can even help you recover from accidental deletions.
- RegSeeker: Warning: Messing with the Windows Registry is not for novices, or the faint of heart, and it can seriously impact your PC. However, if you're the tinkering type who wants to clean up the crud lying around in the Windows Registry, consider RegSeeker. It's free.
- IE Privacy Keeper: Keep your Web-browsing tracks clean with this free tool, which lets you schedule regular cookie, history, and cache cleanups.
- ScrubXP: Not only can Windows and your browser reveal plenty about you, so can your programs--they can give away things like what documents you've recently viewed. Scrub XP gets rid of temporary files, plus any auto-complete and document lists that may reside in your apps. The cost? Can you say "free"?
- Sandra 2005 Lite: This combination pack of testing and tune-up tools will help you diagnose and address issues affecting different parts of your computer, from hard drive to memory. This handy program will help you maximize performance and spot problems early. The trial period is free, but it costs $35 to keep.
- Restoration: In case you accidentally delete a file or two while you're doing all your spring cleaning, check out this free utility. It can find what you tossed.