12 must-do PC tasks

The excuses end here! Get your PC into tip-top shape by performing these 12 simple tweaks.

Computers may have become a lot more user-friendly over the past decade, but they're still far from perfect--PCs require a certain amount of configuration and maintenance to operate at their full potential. Unfortunately, because we humans are also far from perfect, we frequently don't put in the work we should, and we end up with a slower, sloppier, less secure machine as a result.

No more excuses! Whipping your PC into the best shape it can be requires but a dozen simple tasks. None are complicated, most take a matter of minutes, and all will have a major effect on how well your computer works for you. Even better, by the time you're finished you'll never have to worry about doing many of these tasks again.

Clean the case, keys, and display

The first task is the most basic: Are you keeping your computer clean? It's not just important because a dirty PC looks gross, or is less pleasant to use. Simply put, a clean computer can last longer. Dirt and dust buildup in and around your computer can clog the fans and air intakes, causing your hardware to run hotter, which lowers its expected life span. So if your PC is looking a little musty, take the time to clean it.

To do so, you need to have only a few things on hand: a Phillips-head screwdriver, a can of compressed air, paper towels, and rubbing alcohol.

Once you're ready to begin, shut down your computer, unplug it, and move it somewhere with a little open space in which to maneuver. Look on the back panel, and find the screws that hold the case's side panels in place. Unscrew them--making sure to put them someplace safe--and remove the side panels, usually by sliding them backward and then pulling them away. If you haven't cleaned the computer in a long time, you should immediately see some areas where dust has collected.

You're likely to find the most dust bunnies on the fans inside the computer and on the vents outside. You can remove a lot of dust simply by wiping the fans gently with a paper towel, and by using a lightly dampened paper towel on the vents. Once you've wiped away any piled-up dust, use the can of compressed air to blow the dust out of the inside of any heat sinks, such as the one attached to the CPU or the graphics card. Use the air to clean out remaining dust from the system's various fans too, but be careful: A sustained blast of air can overspin the fan, damaging it. Either use short bursts of air or hold the fan with your finger to prevent it from spinning. Afterward, clean out any other dust you see inside the case.

Your keyboard is next. Start by clearing out as many crumbs as possible: Simply turn the keyboard upside down and give it a good shake or two. Unless you're interested in seeing a disgusting reminder of why you shouldn't eat Ritz crackers at your desk, you should perform this step over the sink or a trash can. Use the compressed air to dislodge any crumbs that may still be stuck under the keycaps, and then repeat the flip-and-shake procedure. If you have a mechanical keyboard, you can also pop out individual keys to remove particularly stubborn debris.

If your keys have gotten grimy, lightly moisten a paper towel with rubbing alcohol and scrub the tops and sides of the keycaps. While you're at it, use the rubbing alcohol to give your mouse a thorough rubdown. Pay special attention to the areas where your fingers make contact, as they tend to become the oiliest and grimiest. Flip the mouse over and make sure that the sliding surfaces (where it makes contact with the desk or mousepad) aren't dirty, and that dust isn't collecting in the optical sensor.

Finally, wipe the monitor. Although paper towels are useful for most other PC cleaning tasks, I don't recommend them here as they can scratch your screen. Instead, use a microfiber cloth--the kind that comes packed with most glasses, sunglasses, and computer monitors. You can also find them in the cleaning section of just about any store. Give the screen a quick, light wipe, and see if any dirt persists. If it does, dampen the cloth with water, or a fifty-fifty mixture of water and vinegar, and wipe it again.

Back up your data

The 12 tips we describe in this article aren't necessarily ranked by importance. If they were, however, this tip would be first, followed by about seven blank pages, and then everything else.

Your computer is not invulnerable. Hard-drive failures happen, as do floods, fires, earthquakes, thefts, and other calamities. The hardware in your computer is replaceable, but the data inside--whether critical business documents or precious family photos--might not be. If you don't want to face the gut-wrenching realization that you've lost something important, you need to have a backup plan. Here's how you can protect yourself, right now.

First, you need backup software. A number of perfectly fine options--such as Carbonite and Mozy--are available, but for our purposes here I'll recommend CrashPlan, which provides all of the functionality you need for local and offsite backup absolutely free. To get started, just download and install the CrashPlan software. When the program runs, you'll see the straightforward CrashPlan backup procedure: Select drives or folders to back up, choose a location to back them up to, and click the Start Backup button.

The simplest form of protection is to back up your files to another location in your computer, to an external drive, or to other computers you own. This approach allows for fast and easy transfers, but poses some risks--if your house burns down or a robber breaks in, for instance, you could lose your backup alongside the original data. That's why it's smart to use offsite storage, as well.

Fortunately, CrashPlan makes offsite backup easy. You can back up your data--encrypted, no less--to a friend's computer for free, as long as that person is also running CrashPlan on their computer and can spare the storage space. If you don't have a friend with enough disk space (and you don't want to buy them a new external hard drive for the purpose), you can sign up for CrashPlan's online backup service, which runs $33 per year for 10GB of storage or $60 per year for unlimited space.

Whether you're stashing your data online or offline, CrashPlan's automatic-backup feature takes a lot of the headache out of backup management. Even if you don't want to bother with software utilities, however, you owe it to yourself to back up your most critical files. Manually slapping data onto a DVD or an external hard drive is a lot better than doing nothing.

Guard against malware

If you've been using computers for a long time, you might be tempted to think that you don't need to run antivirus software. "I never open suspicious email attachments, and I stay away from sketchy websites," you might say, "and I haven't gotten any malware in years." And yet, you're still vulnerable.

As the Java breach in early January shows, you don't have to do anything stupid to get a virus, and it takes only one infection to make you wish that you had spent a few minutes to set up an antivirus suite. If you haven't done so yet, do it now.

The big question is whether to use free or paid antivirus software. Paid products offer the most comprehensive protection, and usually come with extra features such as a firewall and live support. However, if you follow basic precautions regarding what you download online, the core features of free antivirus utilities should be enough to protect you in conjunction with the baked-in Windows Firewall.

I recommend starting with AVG Anti-Virus Free. Our testing has shown that the AVG suite offers top-notch threat detection and removal, and the free version comes with a surprisingly robust set of features, including email, hyperlink, and download scanning. AVG Anti-Virus Free takes only a few minutes to set up--simply grab the downloader from the website and let it do its thing. Just be sure to uncheck the various AVG Secure Search and Security toolbar op­­tions during installation to avoid filling your system with unwanted bloatware.

The program prompts you to run a full system scan after it installs. If your ma­­chine has any malware, AVG will quarantine it and offer to clear it out for you. After that, you can leave the program running in the background; by default it will automatically update its virus definitions daily, and scan your PC once per week. You can change the frequency and timing of those tasks by going to Options > Advanced Settings > Schedules.

Next page: Update your software, organize your files, toss out the chaff

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.

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