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How to Spring Clean Your PC

  • Category: Features

By Eric Griffith

It's that time of year, when the dirty aftermath of winter gives way to the desperate need to clean your home before the sun starts to pour through the window, exposing just how little housework you've done. As you prepare to tackle the floors, windows, and everything else you've neglected, you should seriously consider giving your PC, be it desktop or laptop or even handheld smartphone, a thorough cleaning as well.

There are two aspects to thoroughly clean you PC: There's the physical cleaning, or manually cleaning actual gunk out of your computer, and the digital cleaning, or using tools to get the Windows operating system back in fighting shape after gaining all that holiday weight.

We've got tips for both…

Cleaning Hardware

Tools
First, gather an arsenal of cleaning tools:

  • Canned air (sometimes called a gas duster)
  • Cotton swaps and a bottle of 70 percent Isopropyl alcohol
  • A computer vacuum like the Metro Vacuum/Blower
  • The yellowish goop called CyberClean (as seen on TV!)
  • LCD screen cleaner on pre-moistened cloths, a spray cleaner like Audiovox Surface, or make your own out of 50/50 mix of distilled water and white vinegar and put in a misting bottle
  • Electrostatic dusting cloths (like Swiffer Duster)
  • Small bottle of mechanical oil lubricant like 3-in-1 Oil, even WD-40
  • A small screwdriver, maybe with a bendable neck and ratcheting head
  • Keep in mind, when there's liquid involved, never spray anything directly at or on a computer screen or peripheral.


Input Devices
Start off by cleaning the devices you touch the most. Three years ago, news reports cropped up stating keyboards are up to five times as germ-laden as the office toilets you share with others; tests even found E. coli on keyboards. Chances are you still eat lunch hunched over those keys, so now's the time to clean up.

First, disconnect the keyboard (wired or wireless) after you shut down your desktop PC. Turn it upside and shake it to get the obvious stuff out—the typical crumbs and dog and cat hair. This is a good time to hit it with some canned air to knock lose any debris you can. Next, make a pass with the vacuum, using a brush nozzle to work in-between the keys. Even with this, you probably won't get rid of all the crud, so take the swabs dipped into a little alcohol (not dripping isopropyl) and work them in-between keys to get the truly baked on badness.

You can do the same with a laptop, just turn it off and remove the battery before you start sticking swabs between the keys, assuming you can even get into the tight spaces. This is a particularly nice time to crack out the plastic tub of CyberClean. This goo flows like the slime and Gak you played with as a kid, but isn't very wet. In fact, the whole point of it is to smoosh it into the keyboard and let it collect up as much crud as possible. It won't last forever, but you'll get a few months out of it for quick spot-cleaning, if nothing else.

Mice are much easier to clean than the old days when they had balls inside (and if you do have a ball inside—take it out, rinse it with warm water and dry it thoroughly...then go buy a new mouse with optics). You do still need to wipe the mouse's "feet" on the bottom; they're running over the desk or mouse pad surf ace all day, picking up microscopic nasties you don't even want to think about.

Desktop Chassis
The greatest enemy of the chips inside your computer is heat—the heat that those chips themselves generate. When it gets dusty inside your chassis, the dust acts like insulation, trapping all that new hotness. It also clogs the fans that are supposed to be running to keep things cool. An increase of just a few degrees can make the hard drive inside your machine work 10 times harder. Computers work best when cool, so you must remember to dust, especially if you're a pet owner or smoker.

Take the side off the desktop case and use the canned air to get rid of all dust you can. Then blow the fans clean (don't miss the one on your graphics card). This will put a lot of dust in the air, so you should have a vacuum nearby to catch some of it before it resettles inside. You can also wipe down the plastic blades of the fans with an anti-static cloth to spare yourself the dust tornado.

Once all the vents are clear, get that lubricant and put just a drop at the center of the fans on the back, to keep them moving smoothly. You might have to pull out a rubber plug or peel back a sticker to get to the center.

Once you're done, do yourself the favor of making sure all the cables are seated snuggly for your hard drives, optical drives, etc. Then you're ready to set it back up and get back to work.

LCD Screens
It's very easy to get streaks on your screens from just a couple of finger swipes. LCD wipes or a soft dust-free cloth sprayed with your home-made solution of distilled water and white vinegar can clean that up in a jiffy. First, use the canned air to get rid of the bigger bits of dust. Then rub the moistened cloth or wipe the screen in circular motions. This goes not just for your monitor, but your LCD TV as well.

Audiovox Surface is a favorite that comes in both a 200ml spray bottle with a microfiber cloth for $20 or in wet/dry screen wipe packages, just like the wipes you get at the BBQ place up the road a spell. Search Amazon and you'll find a wide variety of Surface branded cleaning tools for your digital gear.

Mobile Phones
Don't forget about your mobile phone, with all of its face grease and germs. Although the latest generation of phones have actual glass front screens, you still shouldn't wipe them with a window cleaner. Even Apple says iPhones and iPads should be cleaned with a lint-free cloth dabbed with a bit of 70% isopropyl. Again, don't spray such things directly on a phone—there are microphone and speaker holes you don't want to saturate.

CyberClean can come in handy here as well, getting into nooks you would otherwise miss. And don't neglect your case, if you have one. If there are particles stuck inside the hard plastic shell, sliding it on and off a phone will cause scratches. Make sure to wipe down the inside of whatever protects your phone when you remove that outer skin.

Cleaning Software

You've shaken the cobwebs from your computer, now it's time to consider going even deeper inside, by cleaning the operating system. Some of these tips aren't so much "cleaning" as "straightening up," but they all lead to the same result: a faster performing PC.

Remember, before you do any of these tasks, run a full backup on your important data: documents, photos, music, videos, etc. You don't want to throw out a treasured memory just because you're cleaning up. You can use DropBox to sync files with other computers or an online backup service to store files online.

Get Rid of the Crap
The company Piriform provides many free tools to help your PC, and none is more important for spring (or anytime) cleanup than CCleaner. That extra C stands for exactly what you think it does, because the software goes into the Windows OS and pulls out all sorts of useless crapola. The amount of "temporary files" generated by Web browsers and more can grow astronomically if unchecked. CCleaner, run every once and a while, performs that check. Don't be surprised to gain back several megabytes of space when you run it.

Disk Defrag
A hard drive isn't like an old phonograph record with one long groove. The head jumps around on the platter inside, writing data willy-nilly wherever it can. However, the closer the data is to similar data, the better the drive performs. Moving data around to improve speed is called a defrag. You may have Windows 7 taking care of this for you in the background regularly. If you don't, or maybe even if you do, you can try a free third party tool like Smart Defrag 2, which is now has a brand new interface. It will even defrag the boot-time area of your hard drive to make Windows start up faster.

Delete the Unneeded
You may be the type to install interesting new software whenever it catches your fancy. But most software doesn't have that much staying power. You should take this time to be ruthless with uninstalling any software you're not using on a regular basis. Revo Uninstaller is one of our favorites for handling program deletion, because it goes farther than the standard installers that come with programs, by checking the registry for extra items that should also be trashed.

If you want to clean away all those extra files—even duplicate files of your own data, perhaps from restoring a backup one to many times—try DoubleKiller. It checks file names, file sizes, file dates, even what's inside a file to see if there's a few doppelgangers. Then it helps you get rid of them.

Stay Up to Date
If you're the type who doesn't do frequent software updates, now is the time. Start with your operating system by running Windows Update. Windows 7 users should be using Service Pack 1 by now, for instance. Perhaps most importantly, make sure your anti-malware software is using the latest definitions. This should be automatic with most programs, but check that you've got a live account; companies like Symantec require yearly subscriptions to get the latest definitions. Chances are you've been nagged about it by the software if you let it lapse. If you're behind, update it or uninstall it and try a new malware tool from among the Best Antivirus Software in 2011.

But don't stop there. Make sure the software you use, everything from browsers to e-mail to utility are running the latest version. Old software can have vulnerabilities; developers are always finding holes that need to be filled. (Software today is never really "finished"—we're all perennial beta testers.) If you use Apple-based software on your Windows system, such as Safari or iTunes, run the Apple Software Update utility occasionally to automatically get new versions. You can check sites like FileHippo.com, which offers a Free Update Checker utility, for the latest, even beta, versions. Others software updaters include KC Softwares' Software Update Monitor Lite, and Secunia's Personal Software Inspector.

This article is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.