Spring might be a ways off (especially in the Southern Hemisphere) but any time is good for a clean-up — for your computer as well as your home. This advice is for Windows XP, Vista or 7 (sorry Mac/Linux users but I wouldn't know where to start!) and should be super-easy for anyone to follow.
Before we start:
- Try not to use your computer while you do this. It's faster and some of the programs require you to close your internet browser or need data used by other programs. It's a good idea to print this text out so you can close your browser, too!
- I recommend running the steps in order for best effect. You won't waste time making your viruses more efficient when you're just about to delete them and some steps will make others more effective (like deleting unnecessary files before defragmenting).
- How long the process takes depends on the size of your hard drive(s) and how often you check it. On my computer it takes about 30-40 minutes, but I once spent all day doing the same thing on my mum's computer because it had basically never been checked, ever.
Step 1: Anti-virus
Update your anti-virus software and run a scan. If you don't have anti-virus go get it. Right. The fuck. Now. There are plenty of reliable free options out there (I recommend AVG Free) and you shouldn't be online without it.
How you do a scan will depend on what program you're using but most have very clear instructions right from the start. Unless you know there's a problem I recommend doing the programs default scan. You only need a full scan if you know you've got a virus and the default hasn't found it. I also recommend plugging in any external hard drives so they get checked at the same time.
Step 2: Anti-spyware
Spyware is nasty stuff. It's downloaded without your knowledge to collect and share data on you. Mostly it's pretty innocuous — collecting marketing data for example. But at best it's eating up your memory to bring you better pop-ups. At worst we've got the basis of identity theft right there. And these companies don't share — you won't have just one of these programs, every time you encounter a new infected page or download online you'll get a new one. If your computer always seems to be slow for no reason my money's on spyware being the problem.
Most anti-virus programs do a basic spyware check too, but I like to do both to make sure. There are many options for spyware removal software, both free and paid. I like Spybot: Search and Destroy, but feel free to pick your own. Many also offer to protect your browser(s) against future incursions which I'd recommend as it can save you a lot of time and trouble.
Like anti-virus programs how they work will vary but it's usually super-easy to see what you need to do, often you just click a button and let it go.
Step 3: Empty your recycle bin
Super-easy but easily forgotten too. Just because you've deleted something doesn't mean it's actually gone, if it's sitting in the recycle bin then it's still on your hard drive and still taking up memory. Disc Cleanup (See Step 4) will empty the recycle bin automatically, but I like to do it manually just in case anything important ended up in there by accident.
There should be a recycle bin icon on your desktop, but if not it's on the start menu. Just open the folder, check what's in there and click 'empty recycle bin'.
Step 4: Disk Cleanup
This is another easy step because it's built into Windows. You'll find it by going to Start>All Programs>Accessories>System Tools. Pick the drive you want to scan (your main hard drive(s), any that are just used for data storage won't have problems) and let it go.
It finds files that aren't needed any more and odd bits of data that got left behind. Stuff like web pages that were archived automatically, temporary files that never got deleted, old service pack backups and so on. It then presents you with a list of what it's found and how much memory each item is taking up. You can pick and choose which ones to delete but I like to do the whole lot.
Step 5: Defragment
This could be the most time-consuming step in the process, but if anyone else remembers the old days of having to do it over night (and sometimes well into the next day) with that strangely hypnotic animation of little blocks disappearing and reappearing you'll be glad to know it's much quicker, but less interesting to watch.
Again this program comes with Windows, it's in the same place as the Disk Cleanup tool. It's a straightforward process; pick a drive, ask for analysis and if it says it needs defragmenting let it do it's thing. I strongly recommend you go elsewhere while it's running because running other programs can mess with it.
Step 6: Configure your startup
This is a bit more complicated, but extremely useful. First, you need to open the Run program (Start > Programs > Accessories). Type 'msconfig' and click OK. When it opens go into the 'Startup' tab. This is a list of everything that runs automatically when you switch your computer on. If you're not sure what something is it's best left alone but there should be some familiar names there too like iTunes or MSN.
Ask yourself if these really need to be running in the background each and every time you switch the computer on and uncheck any that don't make the cut. Then click apply, then OK. Next time you start up your computer those programs won't start with it. You can still open them manually and they'll work exactly the same way, but they won't be hogging resources when you're not using them.
End! You're done. You should now find your computer works faster and you have more free memory to play with. Happy spring cleaning!