April 05, 2013, 1:43 PM — 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.
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
Encrypt your private data
How much of your life resides on your computer? Do you keep medical records, bank statements, or other files that you wouldn't want other parties to access? I'm not saying that you shouldn't store sensitive data on your computer--it's one of the best ways to keep track of such things, assuming that you have a strong backup plan. You should encrypt those sensitive files, however, to make sure that your information stays safe and secret even if your data winds up in someone else's hands.
First, find all of the sensitive files on your computer--financial and medical records, contracts, and anything else you wouldn't want strangers to see. Place them all into a folder. You can (and should) organize them in subfolders, just as long as you have one root folder that encompasses all of them.
Next, install TrueCrypt, a free and open-source program that provides easy-to-use, government-grade encryption. TrueCrypt stores encrypted files inside a container file called a volume; think of a volume as a safe, and TrueCrypt as its key. Click the Create Volume button and then choose the Create an encrypted file containeroption. Proceed through the remainder of the volume-creation wizard. Each step is explained pretty clearly, and if you don't understand something you can safely leave the default selected.
Once the utility has created your volume, you need to mount the volume. Think of this action as opening the safe, although it will remain open only while TrueCrypt is running. Click Select File, and find the volume file you just made. Click the Mount button, and enter the password you created with the wizard.
When TrueCrypt mounts a volume, your computer will see it as though it were a new hard drive. Open Windows' File Explorer and look for the new drive on your system--it should be empty. Move the folder of sensitive files onto this drive. When you're done, close TrueCrypt; the virtual hard drive will disappear. The sensitive files are now hidden inside the encrypted volume.
Whenever you want to access those files, you will need to remount the volume in TrueCrypt, so make sure that you don't lose the volume file or forget its password. Speaking of passwords...
Change your passwords
Performing this task is just as crucial as backing up your data. Most users, unfortunately, make several fundamental password errors that can compromise their online accounts and data, and the easiest way to fix them is to start over from scratch. When you're selecting new passwords, you should keep the following three tips in mind.
First, create a strong password. A password that's too short or too simple is a password that's easy to crack. To keep yours safe, make sure that it contains at least 10 characters, and include a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters as well as symbols and numbers. A letters-only password, however, can still be secure as long as it's at least 20 characters long.
Second, don't use the same password across multiple websites. Even people who pride themselves on using a secure password often fall into the trap of reusing passwords. Do that, and a security breach at any site you use could compromise your most sensitive accounts. If you absolutely can't manage different passwords for each of your accounts, at least use a unique password for your email account and for any accounts with sensitive financial information.
Finally, don't get too attached. No security system is perfect, which is why it's important to change your passwords regularly. If somehow one of your passwords is cracked or leaks, you don't want someone to be able to snoop on you indefinitely. By changing your most important passwords every six months and your less-sensitive passwords every year, you can minimize the damage done in the worst-case scenario.
If you're following these three rules already, congratulations: You're one of the responsible few. If not, it's time to get serious about password security. If you're worried that following these rules might be difficult, one simple program that can help you out is KeePass, a free, open-source password-management application that can track all of your passwords as well as generate randomized, highly secure passwords on demand.
One of the most frustrating experiences in computing is waiting for a slow-as-molasses startup to finish. You have to wait through the POST (power-on self-test) screen, then pass the Windows Startup screen, and then tolerate the most irritating part of all: when you can see your desktop but the computer is still unresponsive and too slow to use. Of course, it wasn't always like this--when you first bought the PC, startup was a breeze. So what happened?
Software happened. You installed all sorts of applications, and they took liberties with Windows, setting it up so that any variety of programs and services now launch automatically when the operating system boots. These days, Windows is launching 30 programs every time it starts up, meaning that you have to wait an extra few minutes before you can check your email.
You need to take back control of your computer's startup sequence.
First, run CCleaner. You used this application earlier to clear out some hard-drive space, but the utility does double duty as a startup manager. Click the button labeled Tools at the left of the CCleaner window, and then click Startup. You'll see a list of every program that is currently set to launch when Windows starts. Scan through the list, and whenever you see a program that you don't need to use every time you start the computer, click it and select Disable.
If you want finer control over the startup process, I recommend WinPatrol, another great free application. Like other utilities, WinPatrol shows you a list of startup programs and services--but it also gives you the option to schedule startup so that your computer doesn't try to load everything at once. To do this, find the program that you want to delay in the main Startup Programs tab, right-click that program, and select Move to Delayed Start Program List. After that, you can switch to the Delayed Start tab, select a program, and click the Delay Options tab, where you can choose how long you want Windows to wait before launching the selected program.
Organize your inbox
When you're trying to get things done, email can be your worst enemy. Sure, it's invaluable for doing business and for keeping in touch, but it can also be a distraction and a massive time sink. You might not be able to get back all of the hours you spend on email, but you can at least reclaim the wasted time spent staring at your overflowing, messy inbox.
First, create multiple folders ('Labels' in Gmail) dedicated to specific topics in order to better organize your messages. An average user's selection might include folders designated for work, bills and receipts, newsletters, and the like. Create a new folder in Outlook 2010 by selecting the Folder tab and clicking New Folder (in the New group). In Gmail, click More labels > Create new labels in the left pane.
Next, clean out the inbox. I know that the task seems daunting, but the purpose of the inbox is to serve as a temporary holding zone for new messages, not to be a permanent warehouse for every email you've ever received. Sort your messages into the folders you just created, ruthlessly deleting any items that aren't worth retaining. Keep email that needs responses in your inbox, or better yet, create a 'Needs response' folder and sort the messages there.
To keep your inbox clean going forward, continue the practice of sorting messages as you receive and respond to them. Alternatively, you could use Outlook rules (File > Manage rules & alerts > New Rule under the Email Rules tab) or Gmail filters (Gear icon > Settings > Filters tab > Create a new filter) to automatically sort incoming email to specific folders based on criteria such as the sender or specific words included in the message. Most major email clients support message filters.
If you don't want to deal with the hassle of manually maintaining your inbox's sanctity or creating a plethora of automated rules and filters, check out Sanebox, a $5-per-month service that works with any IMAP email account and does a scarily good job of sorting your incoming messages.
Finally, get proactive and unsubscribe from any newsletters or daily-deal email that you don't regularly read. You'll be surprised at how much inbox clutter that action can eliminate.
Next page: Automate everything. Plus, should you defrag your drives?
Keeping your PC running smoothly and securely doesn't have to be a headache. Many of the tasks that are described in this article have to be performed only once, or involve software that updates automatically. For the rest, Windows' baked-in Task Scheduler can help you keep programs running on a regimented schedule.
Start by searching for Task Scheduler by name in the Start menu (in Windows Vista and 7) or Start screen (in Windows 8). Once it's open, click the Create Basic Task option to make a simple but automatic, timer-based action. The wizard that pops up will ask how often you want the task to be performed, and what program you want it to launch. For example, you could set up a task that launches CCleaner and SpaceSniffer every two weeks.
Since a basic task won't actually launch a scan when it opens a program like CCleaner, it isn't a completely automatic approach. Still, postponing necessary maintenance is a lot harder when Windows pops up the needed tool on a regular basis. Windows ninjas can coax programs into running specific tasks using a mixture of the Create Task option, called-out command-line arguments, and a hefty dose of experimentation--but that's a whole article in and of itself.
Should you defrag your drives?
If you've been using PCs for more than a year or two, you have probably heard about how important it is to defragment your hard drive regularly. Defragmenting ("defragging," more commonly) consolidates the data on your drive. Although modern hard drives don't see much of a speed boost when they're defragged--unlike the drives of yesteryear--it's still a good idea to defrag your storage periodically to prevent heavy fragmentation from becoming an issue over time. If nothing else, the odds of recovering lost data after a disaster are increased if you defragged your drive recently.
If you're using Windows Vista, 7, or 8, the operating system automatically defragments itself once a week, late at night. Just search for "disk defragmenter" in the Start menu or Start screen and click the result if you want to see when the process runs. If, however, you're still using Windows XP, you need to manually defragment every couple of weeks or so using the built-in defragmenter (Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter).
However, you'll want to disable Windows' automatic disk defragmenting if your machine contains a solid-state drive. Fragmented data doesn't slow down SSDs because of the way they read and write information--in fact, hardware manufacturers say that defragging adds unnecessary wear that can reduce the life span of an SSD. So in this case, turn it off!