Like any computer, Windows PCs benefit from an occasional bout of physical and virtual cleaning. Here are some simple, easy–to-follow tips to give your trusted machine a new spring in its step.
Clean Up Your Hardware
We'll start with the outside of your machine. Turn it off, unplug everything, and find an open area where you can easily reach everything. Whether you have a laptop or a desktop, your main priority is probably going to be the keyboard and mouse or trackpad. Luckily, you can clean them pretty easily with just a few household objects. If they're looking a little greasy, you can always clean them up with a magic eraser.
You'll also want to get inside your computer's case and clean any dust out of the fans to keep everything running cool and quiet. We've shown you how to do this on a desktop before, and all you need is a little compressed air to do a pretty thorough job. Laptops, unfortunately, usually require a lot more work. You'll have to refer to your computer's instruction manual for more information on how to take it apart.
Tame Your Cable Clutter
As you head back to your desk to replace your newly-cleaned computer, take some time to organise your cables first. We've shared a number of ways to do this, from simple cable shortening techniques to full workspace solutions. I can personally vouch for both the rain gutter method and the IKEA Signum cable manager, but you can experiment with your workspace to see what works best. If you're using a laptop, slapping a couple of binder clips on your desk is just about the greatest way to save them from falling on the floor whenever you go mobile, too.
Get Up To Date
Alright, so you've plugged your machine back in at your pristine workspace, and now it's time to get down to the good stuff: software. Before you do anything else, head to Windows Update and make sure all your software is up to date -- drivers, service packs, security updates, and so on. Unlike our Mac guide, I don't recommend you upgrade to Windows 7 if you aren't already on it. With Windows 8 expected before the end of the year, upgrading to Windows 7 now just seems like a waste of money. If you're on 7, great -- you're running the best version of Windows yet -- but if you're on XP or Vista, hold off for just a few months. Even though Windows 8's Metro interface isn't that great, it contains a number of other improvements (like speed increases) that are worth waiting for.
Uninstall Unnecessary Apps
If you've followed our advice about being conservative with the apps you install, you shouldn't have too many unnecessary ones floating around -- but no matter how careful you are, it's bound to happen. Skip Windows' built-in Add/Remove Programs dialog and use something like Revo Uninstaller for quicker, more thorough uninstallations. This is also a great time to de-crapify your printer or scanner setup, as it undoubtedly contributes a few unnecessary apps to your hard drive.
You might also want to take a look at your startup items in
msconfig and uncheck options you don't need. This will decrease your computer's boot time significantly, not to mention free up a few resources. If you're having trouble deciding what to disable, we highly recommend checking out previously mentioned Soluto, which will help guide you through the process.
Reclaim Hard Drive Space
If you're starting to run out of space on your drive, it's time to take a really good look at what might be causing it. That means ditching Windows' built-in Disk Cleanup app (which is fine, but probably won't gain you a lot of space savings) and check out something like WinDirStat or Disk Space Fan. They will show you exactly what's taking up so much space on your machine, organised by folder, file type, and more. Armed with that information, you can start deleting stuff you don't need and getting some of that disk space back. For more information, check out our feature on how to analyse, clean out and free space on your hard drive.
Do Some Maintenance And Optimise Your System
Now it's time to really dig in and start cleaning up the cruft that can slow down your machine. If you don't already have the fantastic CCleaner maintenance tool, download it now and run through its cleaning process. This should clean up some of those extra caches, temporary files, log files, and other things strewn about your system. While you're at it, set it to run on a schedule so you don't have to worry about it ever again.
Apart from that, the only maintenance you need to do (besides the other things mentioned in this post) is keep your anti-virus program turned on and up to date. We recommend Microsoft Security Essentials: It's good at killing viruses, and dead simple to use. But there are lots of other options out there.
Most users shouldn't have to do much more than this -- Windows 7 users don't need to defragment, clean their registry, mess with Windows prefetching, or do anything else you've been told to do over the years. Check out our guide to Windows maintenance for more info.
Back Up Your Refreshed PC
Lastly, it's time to back up your newly cleaned PC. Hopefully, you had a backup system in place before this whole thing, but if not, we recommend setting up a bulletproof, offsite backup system with CrashPlan. Once you set it up, you never really have to think about it again.
Alternatively, you can always just back up to an external drive using the built-in Windows Backup -- I personally use this to back up to my NAS -- but we'd still recommend backing up your super-important files to something like Dropbox, since this won't protect you from things like fires, earthquakes, drive failures or anything else that could destroy your backup.
Alternative: Do a Clean Install
It's worth mentioning that some people just prefer to reinstall Windows every once in a while to keep everything running smoothly. This is totally fine -- I do it myself, in fact, just because I'm a bit OCD that way -- but you really don't have to. As long as you take care of your computer, it should run just as quickly, smoothly, and cleanly as a freshly-minted installation.
If you do want to do a clean install, then I highly recommend checking out how to customise your Windows installation with RT Se7en Lite and create the OS of your dreams. You can remove unnecessary Windows components, add Service Pack 1 to your installer, and even automatically install all your favourite apps in one fell swoop (you could always use something like Ninite, too). As you go through the process, be sure to check out our Lifehacker Pack for Windows to make sure you get all the essential apps installed on your new machine.
That's all there is to it. Windows doesn't need quite as much maintenance as it did in the old days, but there will always be a few things you can do from time to time to keep it clean and fast. Have any Windows cleaning tips we left out? Share them with us in the comments.