12 easy PC tasks you should be doing (but aren't)

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Update your software

Unlike fine red wine, software does not get better with age. Rather, software is like chocolate milk: Great when you first get it, but more and more likely to make you sick the longer it sits. In other words, old software is a security risk, often containing vulnerabilities that an attacker can use to get into your system. Plus, failing to update apps means missing out on any cool new features that the programs’ creators may have worked in.

You have an easy, free way to scan your PC to find software that needs updating, however. Just download and install the Secunia Personal Software Inspector. After you run the installer, Secunia PSI asks what you want it to do when it finds an out-of-date ap­­plication; you can choose to manually determine which updates to download, but I suggest selecting the automatic option. The point, after all, is to make it easier to keep everything current.

Afterward, click the giant Scan button. Once the scan completes, you’ll see a list of the programs installed on your computer, along with a subset of programs that aren’t up-to-date. Secunia PSI can update some of the programs for you (and if you chose the automatic option during setup, it will already be downloading the updates for those applications), while others require manual updating. Below each nonautomatic update, you’ll see a Click to Update link. Click it, and Secunia will start the process.

Secunia PSI starts on boot by default and runs in the background, keeping a vigilant eye out for insecure programs. Once per week the utility prompts you to update any outdated software.

I also recommend setting Windows Update to download new patches automatically, if you haven’t done so already. In Windows 8, open Settings in the charm bar on the right side, and then select Change PC Settings and click the Windows Update option. In Windows 7 and Vista, click Start > All Programs > Windows Update > Change Settings.

Organize your files

I’m not judging you for letting your data get out of hand—it happens to the best of us. Sometimes it’s just too tempting to save time right now by dumping files and folders into your Documents folder, or your C: drive, or onto the desktop. You can always organize things later, right? Well, later is now.

First, you should download a utility called DropIt. Imagine that you owned a magical trash can, and that any item you dropped into it would instantly teleport to the proper place. That would make cleaning up the house a lot easier, wouldn’t it? Simply go around and shovel everything into the magic can! That’s what the open-source DropIt is, only it’s for your computer.

The utility puts an icon on your screen and automatically sorts any file you drop onto that icon according to rules you define. When you run the program, you will see a blue box with an arrow, which you can drag around your screen. Right-click the box, and click Associations. A menu will open where you can create rules, such as “Any file ending in ‘.jpg’ or ‘.png’ should move to my Pictures library.” Setting up a comprehensive list of associations can take a while; but once you do that, you can organize any folder on your computer in no time at all.

After you have installed and configured DropIt, you can make the rounds and bring order to your computer’s cluttered file system. Start with your desktop. The desktop functions best as a temporary space to keep files as you’re working on them—filling it up with icons merely slows you down every time you have to find something there. The Start menu or the taskbar (with jumplists) is a better place to store shortcuts to programs and files that you regularly access. Other places that frequently get cluttered are your Documents folder, the root of the C: drive, and your Downloads folder.

If you’re using Windows 7 or 8, take advantage of the built-in Libraries feature, if you haven’t already. Libraries provide a great way to organize a collection of files, even if those files are not all stored in the same place.

Toss out the chaff

While you were organizing your files, you probably noticed a different problem: You have a lot of old and useless files, documents, and applications taking up valuable space on your hard drive. More than likely, you cleared some of them out while you were organizing, but chances are good that those were just the tip of the iceberg. Your next step should be to conduct a thorough audit of everything on your hard drives.

Start with SpaceSniffer, a free application that visualizes all the data on your machine, showing you each folder as a colored square—the bigger the box, the more drive space that folder is occupying. A full scan takes only 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the capacity and speed of your drives. After the scan is complete, you can double-click any square in the graph to drill down and discover what’s taking up so much room. SpaceSniffer lets you easily see where all your gigabytes are going.

It’s simple to delete excess files, but getting rid of programs can be more of a pain. PC Decrapifier can help you quickly uninstall multiple programs at once if you’re doing a truly deep clean. Revo Uninstaller is a handy tool if you try to uninstall a program but still find it taking up space. Revo Uninstaller lists all the software on your PC and lets you manually obliterate any stubborn programs. It then scans for data or Registry entries that the program may have left behind, and deletes those as well.

Once you’ve given your PC a thorough, manual cleansing, run an automatic cleaner such as CCleaner to see if you missed anything. CCleaner scans your computer for known space-wasters, including temporary Internet files and log files. You can review the files it finds, and then tell CCleaner to erase them all, potentially clearing up gigabytes of wasted space.

It probably goes without saying, but make sure that you understand what you’re deleting before you pull the trigger. Freeing up a bit of space isn’t worth the risk of nuking an important system file or losing a valuable document.

Next page: Encrypt private data, change your passwords, optimize startup, and organize your inbox

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