Technology Trend: Computer Maintenance

It’s nearly spring, and before the weather gets too nice to stay indoors, it’s time for a clean up—for your computer, that is.

Computers run faster and more efficiently when the data stored on the hard drive are minimized and well organized. The bits and bytes that make up programs and files exist in physical spots on the disk. Over time, after numerous downloads, deletions, and hours of visiting websites, the information on the disk can build up with clutter, and become disorganized across the drive, which slows computing. Some of the files on your computer won’t even have been placed there by you but by others when you visited their websites, even once years ago. Here are a few things you can do to optimize your computer's performance.

Disk cleanup

First, take out the trash. Have a look through the files you’ve created and delete those you no longer need. This can be a time-consuming process, so you may want to set yourself a time limit for the task and move on. If you haven’t emptied the “recycle bin” for awhile, do that with a right-click/empty on the bin icon.

If you have reached that time limit and are nowhere near done, you may need a better filing system. Be sure to file every document in an appropriately named file every time you create one. Keep file names uniform across e-mail, word processing, presentation, and number-crunching file folders (e.g., “annual report” or “2013 grant proposal”). Setting aside a day to clean the “Documents” folder can be like cleaning the basement—an arduous task. A good filing system makes it easier to select files to delete when the time comes to do so.

Unless it is absolutely necessary to your job, don’t save every draft of every document. But if you are one of those people who cannot bear to delete anything, archive all files more than six months old on a DVD or external hard drive and delete them from your hard drive. A computer works faster when it doesn’t have to wade through years of data to look for each document.

Check your "Downloads" folder too, and empty it if you can. When you download a file, as noted above, you should rename it and place it in the appropriately named folder. You don't need a second copy still in "Downloads."

Now, you are ready for an automated disk cleanup. This will delete files that you don’t even know you have: downloaded pages of websites you’ve visited and the mini-programs and files that came with them. All computers running Windows will contain the “disk cleanup” function. You can access it from the start menu.

Along with making your hard drive more nimble, cleaning the disk will also make you a bit more anonymous when surfing the Web. It can delete your browsing history, the list of all websites you have visited, so that no one else can see the list. You can also elect to delete some or all “cookies,” small files installed on your hard drive to track your movements, such as during an online transaction. Cookies can remain on your hard drive for years without expiring and tend to build up. Note, however, that deleting cookies will not make you anonymous on the internet, as your IP address, the unique number of your computer, will still be visible when surfing.

If you are the only one using your computer, you can review the cookies before deleting—disk washer programs allow you to select which ones. Keep those cookies associated with services you trust, such as the employee section of your university website. It is possible to delete a cookie containing your password. If you do accidentally delete one of those, you will need to type in your username and password next time you access that site.

Anti-virus and anti-adware

Having gotten rid of some files, you may now need to add some. If you don’t already have an anti-virus program installed, get one. Computer viruses, written by malicious programmers and spread through e-mail, Internet, and USB drives can damage or delete files and cause havoc for you. Trial versions of anti-virus software are available for download and are commonly sold with new computers. These programs are not cheap but are necessary, especially for PCs. Macintosh computers are less prone to viruses, but a good anti-virus program is still recommended. The most popular include MacAfee and Norton.

Somewhere between cookies and viruses lie “adware” and “spyware.” Adware are small programs that run advertisements and track your movements on the Internet, usually for market research purposes or to run advertising on your computer. Spyware is a program that implants itself on your hard drive surreptitiously, and can steal your personal information such as credit card numbers. These sneaky programs are not viruses because they can’t be passed on to another computer by you. They do, however, present security concerns and slow down your computer’s performance.

Microsoft has some free software tools to help guard your Windows system against malicious programs and adware. You can download Microsoft Security Essentials and Microsoft Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool. Together these tools help protect your system against emerging threats and remove detected infections.

Update your anti-virus and adware programs regularly—ideally daily—so that they will search for new types of viruses and other threats that appear. You can tell the program to update itself and run on start-up, shut-down, or at a chosen time daily such as during your lunch hour. Note that the computer must be online during that time.

Get organized

The final step for PC users is to defragment. Data exist on a computer’s hard drive in little bits. Over time, after numerous additions and subtractions to these bits, the files are scattered across the drive in a disorganized fashion. Defragmenting unites the pieces that need to work together, making it faster for the disk reader to travel between them and thereby speeding computing. Macintosh users have it a bit easier because Macs perform this function automatically. Mac users can go straight on to the next step, back-up.  

To defragment using the built-in Windows utility, once again go to the start menu, select Control Panel, then Performance Information and Tools, then “Rearrange items on my hard drive to make it run faster.” Then go out to lunch—this process can take an hour to complete. Alternatively, you may use one of the defrag programs sold that claim to do the job automatically and constantly, without a manual defrag session. If you do a manual defragment, this only needs to be done once or twice a year.

Lastly, perform a back-up, making a duplicate of everything on your hard drive. If you are working in a university environment, your information technology department will probably be doing this automatically, making this step unnecessary, but it's best to check with them to make sure. No one knows when the grim reaper will come for your hard drive, and if it dies an untimely death, you will have lost all the files stored on it.

In summary, a good computer maintenance routine should include the following:

  • regular filing of documents
  • frequent updates of anti-virus software followed by running the program
  • weekly or monthly manual clean-outs
  • weekly or monthly automated disk clean-outs
  • back-ups of all files as often as you think is necessary to avoid losing vital files should your computer die
  • annual or semi-annual defrag sessions

The result will be a nimble hard drive and a more secure computing environment.

Author(s), Presenter(s): 
CYFERnet Technology Team
Year published or updated: 
2013