Like any machine, a PC will benefit from maintenance. A few routine maintenance tasks will help your PC run better and safer.
The average PC user will benefit from quarterly and yearly maintenance.
For quarterly maintenance I recommend
- delete unnecessary computer files (ie Internet browser cache) with CCleaner
- check that Windows Update is working
- check that the antivirus software is updating and scanning
- run a secondary on-demand virus scanner (ie MalwareBytes)
- check your backups
For yearly maintenance I recommend
- cleaning the inside of the PC
In this post I’ll explain why I recommend these actions, how to do them and at the end some advanced suggestions. If all this sounds advanced, check with your local kid, nerd or me (for a fair fee).
Deleting unnecessary computer files
Our computers store a lot of information on the disk as we use them – our pictures, email, and documents are data that we like to save. But the PC stores a lot of information we really don’t need like Internet junk and log files. The worst offender is the Internet browser cache. An excess number of files can slow down a PC.
The Internet browser cache is where the PC saves Internet web sites that you visit. Originally the cache was useful to speed up your Internet in the days of slow Internet connections. Now the cache is a bunch of files on your PC that you do not need and will slow down your PC and compromise your security. The cache can grow to thousands of files!
There are multiple ways to clear the Internet cache (see below) but I recommend installing and running the free, highly regarded program Piriform CCleaner. CCleaner not only deletes the Internet cache but also deletes a lot of other files that you really don’t need all in one simple task.
Without CCleaner you can also manually delete the Internet cache from the browser menu – following are IE and Firefox techniques
Keeping your software up-to-date
Keeping your PC software up-to-date is very important for security. Important software to keep updated includes Microsoft Windows itself, your antivirus software, Adobe Flash, and if you have them, Acrobat Reader, Java and Microsoft Office. Actually ALL software needs to be kept up to date for optimum security but these are the common ones.
Microsoft Windows has the Windows Update feature that checks daily for updates and downloads and installs them as needed when the feature is enabled. The feature is enabled by default (good) but you will want to periodically check that it is enabled and doing its thing. Microsoft likes to save up its updates for a monthly download and install on the second Tuesday of each month, street name “Patch Tuesday,” but will push critical updates at any time.
Updates often require a reboot which explains why you occasionally find your PC rebooted with an information bubble saying “Your computer was recently updated!”
Your antivirus will automatically update itself with new virus definitions at least daily and periodically run virus scans. This is normal. The new virus definitions help keep your PC protected from new malware in the constant cat and mouse battle between the bad guys and the antivirus manufacturers trying to protect us. Antivirus programs will work “real time” by inspecting files that we open, web sites that we visit, email that we receive and more. Antivirus programs will also run a scan of files on the PC on a schedule (ie weekly) to look for problems. People that leave their PC on 24×7 won’t notice a file scan run in the middle of the night but it can be a big performance hit for people that only turn on their PC when they want to use it because after booting, the antivirus program will realize that it has not run lately and kick off a file scan which will slow down the PC for a period of time.
To check that your antivirus is updating and running scans, open it and check history (Microsoft Security Essentials shown here)
Last scan OK
Other software such as Flash, Acrobat, iTunes and Java need to be kept up to date also. These softwares will alert you that a new version is available and offer a way to update. This is all good. Even better is software silently updating as needed (Firefox, Chrome for example).
Secondary on-demand virus scanner
Although you have one antivirus program running real time, I recommend that you have a second on-demand antivirus program available for a second opinion. My favorite is MalwareBytes, a free and highly regarded antivirus. Download and install this antivirus and use as necessary. There are two times when I suggest that you use MalwareBytes to run a scan – if you suspect that your PC may be infected by a virus or as a routine maintenance scan. An on-demand scanner means that it only scans for malware when you run it, it isn’t running all the time. This is OK for your secondary antivirus. When you run it, always updated it with new virus definitions before scanning and do a full scan if you have the time which can take 1 or more hours!
Backups. This is most important. Please backup your data. Think of the pictures, documents, data that you would hate to lose. Make copies. Back up. Some strategies to backup
- get an external (ie USB) disk and use Windows Backup or other backup program to copy files to the external disk (good quick recovery, complicated setup, single location of failure)
- manually copy important files to a USB disk or thumb drive
- copy important files to a free cloud storage service (ie Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, Dropbox, …)
- subscribe to an Internet backup service (ie Carbonite, Amazon)
Having your data on a laptop, desktop, external USB drive are all subject to theft and disaster loss. Having your data on a cloud service is subject to the cloud business failure (think megaupload) and loss of account access. So for really important data put it in multiple locations (PC, USB, burn to disk, cloud, mom’s house, your attorney’s office, etc). Protect your data in proportion to how much you’d hate to lose it. Test recovering data. Encrypt sensitive data.
Cleaning a PC may seem like avoidable house work but heat is bad for a computer and dust is a major way to defeat the computer cooling system. Computers have fans, heat sinks and openings to create air flow for cooling. All can be slowed and defeated by dust, dust bunnies and worse. Overheated computer components can fail. You can take the side off of your PC and check it for dust and debris and if present blow it out with a can of compressed air. I actually use a leaf blower on the patio! Laptops are also highly susceptible and can be cleaned with with compressed air blowing into the cooling intake and exhaust ports. By the way, don’t block these ports unintentionally by setting your laptop on a soft surface like a bed or sofa.
You can place icons on your desktop for easy access to these tasks and to remind you to do them. Group and place them on the right desktop for emphasis.
Keeping software up-to-date can be a challenge as each vendor has their own ways to check and update their software. Another pitfall is a bogus recommendation to “update your flash.” One unified solution for monitoring all software is secunia.com
Speccy and Speedfan can help monitor temperatures.
Checking Windows Error Log may reveal Windows problems.
General performance issues can be diagnosed with the Windows utility Task Manager.
Disk fragmentation is not a problem for the average user. Vista and later automatically run disk defragmentation.
Registry errors are rarely an issue. Don’t fall for that advertisement.
For the average home user, I recommend maintenance tasks as quarterly and yearly, your mileage may vary. If you use your PC a lot or run a business on it or visit dodgy web sites then you will need more frequent maintenance and precautions. If your PC is acting up you may need immediate remedy.