Faster, better, stronger: Get your PC in tip-top shape

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Trying to keep your PC running smoothly sometimes feels like an impossible task. Windows is prone to all kinds of bloat, which can bog down your PC or—in severe cases—even render a system functionally useless. Over time, it’s almost impossible to prevent unsavory apps and other files from infiltrating a Windows PC, regardless of how careful a user you may be. There are simply too many ways for junk to seep its way in.

With regular maintenance and a bit of effort, however, it’s possible to keep a Windows system relatively clean and performing at its peak. Some of the things we’re going to cover here may be second nature to long-time PC aficionados, but these tips should come in quite handy for casual users. At the very least they’ll help you keep your system clean, updated, and better protected from potential threats.

Update, update, update

Keeping your software updated can help plug security holes and ensure optimal performance.

Vulnerabilities in Windows and many popular applications are quite common. To mitigate the possibility of such vulnerabilities being exploited on your system, it’s important to keep your OS and all of your applications patched and up to date. If you haven’t already set Windows to automatically update, do so now by opening the System and Security settings in the control panel, clicking Windows Update near the bottom-left of the window, and then clicking the Change Settings option. Should you want to install updates manually, remember to do so about once a week. Microsoft tends to release most updates on “Patch Tuesdays”, but if a severe vulnerability is found and fixed quickly, MS may release a patch at any time.

It is also important to keep your antivirus and antimalware utilities patched and updated. Nefarious malware programmers tend to be a couple of steps ahead of the good guys, so it’s important to keep your digital defenses as current as possible. Antivirus and antimalware apps should update themselves daily (or even hourly), but if a problem has occurred (or your system is already infected), auto-updates may have been disabled. Check the status of your antivirus and antimalware apps often to ensure they’re updated and enabled.

Many other applications and plug-ins, such as Office or Adobe Flash, can be prone to vulnerabilities as well. Keep those apps up to date too; the option to check for updates is often listed in their Help menus.

Uninstall unwanted applications

Utilities such as the aptly named PC Decrapifier show you what's installed on your PC and let you delete it with just a few clicks.

Even if you’re extremely careful about which websites you visit and the applications you install on your PC, unwanted apps or programs will inevitably creep their way in. Whether through unpatched exploits in the OS or commonly used applications, user indifference, or an unintentional “OK” click in a dialog box, over time, numerous unwanted programs tend to appear on Windows-based systems.

Removing these unwanted programs will free systems resources—and we’re not just talking about disk space. Any program that launches with Windows or with a regularly used app (such as a browser) will also consume memory and potentially CPU resources as well. Getting rid of those programs will free up all of those resources for other things, which will ultimately improve the responsiveness and performance of your PC.

There are a few ways to remove unwanted programs. The first is to simply navigate to your control panel, click 'Uninstall a program' to open up the Add/Remove programs menu, highlight the application and select the option to uninstall it. That can take a lot of time if you're deleting several applications, and some applications—especially malicious ones—may not be listed in the Add/Remove programs menu. An application removal tool like PC Decrapifier can help in those scenarios.

Using PC Decrapifier couldn't be easier. Simply download and run the small app and follow the on-screen prompts. The program will walk you through the process step by step, identifying and explaining what many apps do, and then giving you the option to remove them en masse with just a few clicks.

Clean the junk

Windows’ built-in Disk Cleanup tool can remove a shocking amount of junk data.

There are a multitude of utilities available for ridding a PC of junk data, applications, and malware, but there are three in particular that we find indispensable—the aforementioned PC Decrapifier, CCleaner, and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. A fourth handy tool is Windows’ own built-in Disk Cleanup utility, but it’s more of a quick-and-dirty tool for wiping temporary data rather than a full-blown utility. Still, running Disk Cleanup is a good way to reclaim disk space, which can be especially helpful on low-capacity SSDs where every gigabyte is precious.

To clean up most—if not all—of the junk data from your drive, we’d recommend running Disk Cleanup first. Simply right-click on your drive in File Explorer, choose Properties from the menu, and then click the Disk Cleanup button next to the pie chart of free and used disk space. After the tool (generously) estimates the amount of space it can free up, click the Cleanup System Files button, and the window will refresh in a few moments with an additional tab labeled More Options.

Click the More Options tab, and if your system is behaving properly, click the Clean Up button in the System Restore and Shadow Copies section of the window. This will purge old restore points and shadow copies and potentially free up a ton of space. Don’t clean up these items if your system is misbehaving, however, as you may need to use a previous restore point to fix things. On the Disk Cleanup tab, you’ll see a window labeled 'Files to delete'. It’s usually safe to check all of the options here. After selecting everything you’d like to delete, click the OK button and let Disk Cleanup do its thing.

To compliment Disk Cleanup, we also recommend running CCleaner. Whereas Disk Cleanup purges junk from Windows and associated temp folders, CCleaner purges junk from a myriad of popular apps as well. Download and install CCleaner, launch the program, and on the Cleaner tab, tick all of the Windows and application-rated temp data you’d like to remove. Then click  the Run Cleaner button and CCleaner will take out the trash.

Once you’ve got the junk files and date cleaned from your system, it’s also a good idea to run a thorough malware scan to purge any tracking cookies and potentially malicious malware. Download and install Malwarebytes Anti-Malware—the free edition will do just fine—and run a Full system scan. The first time you launch the program, you’ll be asked to update its definitions. Perform the update and then follow the on-screen prompts to complete a Full system scan. Even on a well-maintained system that’s behaving normally, you may be surprised by how much crud Malwarebytes Anti-Malware can find on a system.

Disable unnecessary startup items

CCleaner helps you get rid of junk and wrangle control over your PC's start up.

CCleaner is also a handy tool for disabling programs from starting with Windows and plug-ins from launching with your browsers. Microsoft has built-in tools to do the same things, namely MSCONFIG and the Startup tab in the Windows 8 Task Manager, but CCleaner makes the process much easier in our opinion.

Disabling unnecessary startup items is one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve the overall the performance of a system, especially an older or underpowered system. As we’ve already mentioned, any application or add-on that launches automatically consumes memory and potentially CPU time. Killing those apps and add-ons frees up those resources to do the things you actually want to do with your PC.

To clean up unnecessary startup items, launch CCleaner and click the Tools icon in the left margin. On the resulting screen, click the Startup button; you’ll see a number of tabs for Windows and any browsers you’ve got installed. The Windows tab lists all of the programs that start with the OS, while the tabs for the browsers list any add-ons that launch automatically. If you’re unsure about which items can be safely disabled or deleted, do a Google search with the file name to find out what it does and if you need it. Odds are, most items can be safely removed, save for any security apps or apps that run scheduled tasks. In our example screenshot, everything can be safely removed except for the AVAST Software entry.

Optimize and defragment

Defragging's effect on everyday performance is questionable, but it's a good idea to do it after a thorough PC cleaning.

After updating your system and removing any junk data and malware, it’s always a good idea to run a disk defragmenter to minimize file fragmentation and improve the perceived performance of your hard drive. To defrag a drive, right-click on it in File Explorer and then choose Properties from the menu. Click the Tools tab in the window that pops up, and then click the Defragment now (Windows 7) or Optimize (Windows 8) button to launch Window’s built-in defragmentation tool. Once the defragmentation tool opens, highlight your hard drive and start the defragmentation process.

Please note that you should never run a disk defragmentation tool on a solid-state drive. SSDs are not affected by file fragmentation in the same way as hard drives are and don’t need to be defragged. (In fact, defragging SSDs actually shortens their lifespan.) Most modern SSDs have idle garbage collection or a feature called TRIM that will optimize free space when a system is idle. After purging a bunch of data from an SSD, it’s a good idea to restart your system and just let it sit idle for a while to let the SSD do its thing.

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