Your computer is just like every car, air filter, and sock drawer you’ve ever seen: it gets dirty, bogged down, and disorganized if it’s not properly maintained. When performance starts to lag, you may find yourself replacing your computer or peripherals earlier than necessary, spending your hard earned money in the process. You probably follow a maintenance schedule for your car and air handler, (and if you don’t, you should start with one for these, too, so that they do not need to be prematurely replaced due to poor maintenance) why not your computer?
Keep It Together
When you first buy a new computer and get everything set-up “just so”, there are probably CDs, installation disks, troubleshooting guides, and user manuals strewn everywhere. They get lumped together, and if you’re lucky they wind up in a box hidden somewhere. The last thing on your mind is what you’ll do when everything crashes, but chances are you’ll need at least one of these items in the future.
Take the time to gather all the information that came with your computer. Group CDs, manuals, contact information, warranties, and product keys (which might be inside the CD case) in a way that makes sense to you, and make sure you keep it somewhere easy to remember and easy to access. An expanding, multi-pocket file folder works great for this. If you add hardware or software, don’t forget to add the product information to your computer “file”. Now if something should go wrong with hardware or software in the future, you’ll have all your relevant information and contact numbers in one location.
Put Your Computer on a Pedestal
Well, not exactly, but do try to keep your computer off of the floor and not wedged up against a wall. Why? If you’ve ever looked at the back of a computer you have probably noticed a variety of vents and possibly a fan (although yours may not be visible from the outside). These vents and the fan are essential to keeping your computer running properly, because, believe it or not, your computer is air cooled just like an old Volkswagen Beetle. Floors can be dirty places, and dust and debris can clog the vents and fan rendering them ineffective. Trust me, you don’t want to know what happens to a computer when it overheats… Similarly, having your computer backed directly against the wall reduces ventilation and airflow, so try to have the CPU off the floor and at least a few inches away from the wall.
Your Computer Doesn’t Clean Itself
It’s true: your mother doesn’t live in your computer and she will not keep it clean for you. There are two very different enemies to keeping your computer ‘clean’, actual dirt and virtual dirt, but addressing both serves to keep your machine up and running properly.
You will want a few handy tools to take care of actual dirt: a can of compressed air, cotton swabs, tweezers, rubbing alcohol, a clean dusting rag, and a clean damp cloth will get you started. If you’ve never cleaned your computer, now is the time to do so! In the future, give it a check-up or cleaning every three months or 30000 clicks.
First, turn off and unplug the computer and monitor, then unplug the mouse and keyboard. Take a look at the back of your CPU, remove any debris or dust bunnies that might be snuggling up to your fan, and give the vents a light dusting with the dust cloth. If you’re adventurous you can remove the case from the CPU and blow the dust off the inside components using the can of compressed air, but don’t try it if you’re not comfortable with it. Wipe the outside of the case with the damp cloth to keep things from looking too dingy.
Next up: the keyboard. If you’ve never cleaned a keyboard before please prepare yourself, because they can get surprisingly dirty. Turn the keyboard upside down and gently shake it. Gently! Set the keyboard back down and look closely for hair, bits of paper, or other debris that you can remove with your tweezers. Use the can of compressed air to blow between the keys to dislodge any debris that might be hiding, and repeat the “shake and tweeze” maneuver. Wipe the keyboard down with the damp cloth, and if your keys are exceptionally dirty you can clean them with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.
How you clean your mouse will depend on what type you have. For an optical mouse, clean the area around the sensor (where the light comes out) with a cotton swab dampened with rubbing alcohol. For a track ball or traditional ball mouse, remove the ball and use the damp swab to gently clean the roller mechanisms. Replace everything where you found it, and wipe the outside of your mouse with the damp cloth.
Check your user’s manual for instructions on how to clean your monitor screen. While you might be able to use a spritz of rubbing alcohol and a lint-free cloth on most CRTs, some LCDs require specific cleaning solution.
Finally, give everything a chance to fully dry before plugging it all back together and turning the computer on.
If you’ve had your computer any length of time, it is probably full of virtual dirt. These are the things that can make your computer sluggish and non-responsive, eventually leading to a lock-up and complete crash. A little maintenance once a month will help clean out the virtual dirt and keep things running smoothly.
First, make sure you have up-to-date virus software. This will keep some of the dirt from getting into your computer in the first place. Check for upgrades often, or see if the software can check for upgrades on its own.
Next, check for software you no longer use. In Windows, click the ‘Start Button’, select ‘Control Panel’, and choose ‘Add/Remove Programs’. You will see a list of programs that are installed on your computer, and you might just be surprised at what you find. Remember that game you downloaded two years ago? What about that image editing software that you stopped using? If you know you don’t use a particular program, remove it. If you’re not sure, play it safe and leave it alone.
Open ‘My Computer’, right click on ‘C:\’ and select ‘Properties’. In the pop-up box you will see a pie chart showing you how the space is being used on your hard drive, and a button that says ‘Disk Cleanup’. Click this button, but be forewarned that this might take quite some time if you’ve never done it before. Windows will search the traditional hiding places of virtual dirt and gives you the option to delete all the items in these areas. Common culprits are items in the ‘Recycle Bin’, Temporary Internet Files, Downloaded Program Files, and Temporary Offline files. These should be safe to remove, but again it may take quite a while the first time you run the process.
Go back to My Computer’, right click on ‘C:\’ and select ‘Properties’. Click the tab marked ‘Tools’. The first two options are ‘Error-Checking’ (or it may be called Scan Disk) and ‘Defragmentation’. Error-Checking will try to find parts of your hard drive that are starting to ‘go bad’ and fix them for you. As always, an ounce of prevention is better then a pound of cure.
‘Defragmentation’, or defrag, deals with how computers store information. Most use the “teen-age sock drawer” method: everything is thrown in at once, and then things are matched together as they’re needed. It makes saving files (aka filling the sock drawer) really fast but can make opening the files (aka finding a matching pair of socks) pretty tedious. Eventually, it can lead to file corruption (aka a missing sock). So, defrag slowly marches through your hard drive and matches file parts together, just like when mom would go through your sock drawer and match everything up for you. This can definitely take a lot of time so you will want to shut-down any other programs, begin the defrag process, turn off your monitor and do something else for a while. The first time you defrag your hard drive, check in on the process every couple of minutes because it may prompt you for input.
Better Safe Than Sorry
If you’re lucky, you will never have a computer that is struck by lightening, affected by a power surge, or data that is corrupted beyond repair. But if anything like this happens to you and you aren’t prepared, it can be devastating.
Make sure your computer, monitor, and modem/router are plugged into a surge protector, not just a plain power strip. In the event of a power surge in the wiring in your house, a surge protector will protect your electronics from getting “fried”. There are even surge protectors on the market that allow you to plug your phone line or cable co-axial line in them instead of directly into the computer or modem. For dial-up users, this offers protection against power surges coming into your computer via the phone line. For cable users, this can ‘ground’ your electrical circuit even if the wiring is your house is older and therefore not already grounded.
Also, make sure to back up your personal data and documents. If you followed the first tip about getting your CDs and information organized, reinstalling your software shouldn’t pose a problem if need be. But what about your spreadsheets, the book you’ve been writing, the five years worth of digital pictures of your family? If you don’t back up these types of items, they could be lost in the event of hardware or software failure.
There are many options available to you when it comes to backing up your information. You might choose to burn items to CD, copy documents to an external hard drive or flash drive, or move copies to an online storage service. Depending on the importance of the documents you’re dealing with, you might want to choose more than one. Start by backing up information once a week, but find a back-up schedule that works for you and is reasonable.
If you decide to copy items to another hard drive or a flash drive, consider using synchronization or backup software to make the job a little easier. SyncBack is a freeware program that allows you to set-up profiles each with their own back-up or synchronization strategy. For instance, you could have a ‘Photo’ profile that would copy all the items in your ‘My Pictures’ folder to an external hard drive and a ‘Work’ profile that would synchronize files between your flash drive and your desktop, keeping only the newest version of each file.
For those wanting to try an online storage service, Box.net offers a basic plan free of charge. It includes 1GB of storage space and allows files as large as 10MB. Just bear in mind that even the most reputable online storage service is at risk of being hacked, so consider carefully before you use such a service for sensitive information.