Clean It Up: Easy Ways to Extend the Life of Your PC

Like your body, your house, and your car, your PC needs regular cleaning to keep it running smoothly. There might be dust bunnies choking its fans, junk files clogging the hard drive, maybe even stealth viruses slowing down the entire system. Fortunately, with a little maintenance of your hardware and software alike, you can restore your PC to its former trouble-free glory, and perhaps even squeeze a few extra years out of it.

With a little maintenance of your hardware and software, you can restore your system to its former trouble-free glory, and perhaps even squeeze a few extra years out of it.

Clean out the dust

Computers generate a lot of heat. Fans help dissipate all that heat, which would otherwise shorten the life of internal components and even cause system crashes. Unfortunately, as time goes by, those fans suck in a lot of dust and pet hair, which accumulates to the point where components don’t cool properly and the fans themselves get clogged--sometimes to the point of failure.

That’s why it’s essential to blow the dust out of your PC, and do so on a regular basis (at least every six months). If you have a desktop PC, turn the system off, remove the side panel, then use a can of compressed air to blow out all the dust. (You may want to do this outside.) Hit the fan blades with short bursts as well, making sure to get all the fans inside the system (including those inside the power supply and on your video card). Pay special attention to any heat sinks you see; they usually reside on the motherboard on your video card.

Laptops require a bit more surgery. After turning it off, remove the battery and unplug the AC adapter. Now flip the laptop over and look for an access panel that’s in close proximity to any air vent on an outer edge of the laptop. (Some laptops have multiple panels, others may have a single, very large one.)

Using a small screwdriver, unscrew that panel and remove it. You should see a fan somewhere underneath. Now it's time to blow out the dust with your can of compressed air (again, outside may be preferable). Hit the blades, the areas around the fan, the air vents, and anywhere else you see dust within the laptop’s guts.

After you've blown out all the dust, replace the access panel and battery, then power up the system. It should run quieter and cooler than it did before, and the added bonus is your components will last longer.

credit: Rick Broida

Clean out the junk

Every spring you clear out all the stuff that’s cluttering up your house, right? Your computer can get similarly cluttered with so-called “junk” files, which accumulate over time. These are temporary and/or superfluous files produced by Windows and various programs, and the more of them that pile up, the slower your PC will run.

Fortunately, a PC “spring cleaning” doesn’t require a mop, a broom, or even a trashcan. (Well, maybe a virtual one.) All you need is a utility designed to find and remove all that accumulated junk.

One popular option: Piriform’s CCleaner (which was originally known as “Crap Cleaner,” which should give you some idea as to its function). This free program, available for both Windows and Mac, scours your computer and Web browser for temporary files, form histories, and other potentially unnecessary stuff. On Windows machines it will also clean the Registry of old and unused entries. Run CCleaner every few months to keep your computer, well, clean!

credit: Rick Broida

Defrag your hard drive--if you have to

There’s another kind of “junk” that can accumulate on your PC: Tiny file fragments that get scattered across your hard drive over time. Years ago, it was important to run some sort of defragmentation utility (colloquially known as a “defragger”) to put your drive’s house in order, so to speak.

Today, things are a bit different. If your PC has Windows XP and a relatively small hard drive (320 gigabytes or less), a monthly defrag is still a good idea. You can do this using Windows’ built-in defragger: Open My Computer, right-click the icon for your hard drive, then click Properties. Switch to the Tools tab, click Defragment Now, then click Defragment to begin.

Newer PCs with larger hard drives don’t really need this kind of manual attention, especially considering that Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 all have automated defraggers that run at scheduled times. That said, many users swear by pro-level utilities like Diskeeper, which promise to do a faster and more effective job than Windows’ own tools.

One caveat: If your PC has a solid-state drive (SSD), don’t defrag it. Doing so can actually shorten its lifespan, and the nature of SSD technology is such that there’s no benefit from defragging anyway.

Wipe the hard drive

If you really want to “clean” your PC, consider a radical step: wipe the hard drive and reinstall Windows. That’s the kind of project that can consume an afternoon, if not an entire weekend, but the end result is a computer that’s literally like new—and probably good for another couple years of duty (assuming the hardware is still ship-shape).

The broad strokes of this process look like this: You make a list of everything important on your PC (programs, documents, photos, bookmarks, address books, and so on), then use a backup tool to offload all the data to an external hard drive. (The programs can be reinstalled from discs and/or downloads, so there’s no need to preserve them.)

Next, you use whatever system-restoration discs came with your PC. (If it didn’t come with any, contact your manufacturer about creating or obtaining a set.) This will erase the hard drive and reload Windows (along with any software supplied by the manufacturer). When that’s done, you simply reinstall your programs, then restore your data.

There are countless tutorials online that provide step-by-step instructions for this procedure, and it’s a good idea to review the entire process before beginning, just so you don’t encounter any unwelcome surprises. Again, this can be a somewhat scary exercise, but when the work is done, you’ll love the snappy, like-new performance of your squeaky-clean PC.