Computer cleanup is the one thing you can do every day that will keep you flush with disk space and help you free up valuable system resources. Furthermore, actual physical cleanup, as in dusting, will allow your computer to literally breathe easier, and in turn prolong the life of your system.
In this lesson we’re going to start by focusing on some of the simplest actions you can apply for immediate results. These actions require no previous training or knowledge and, in fact, as a Windows user, you should or may already be familiar with many of these.
In the first section, we’ll delve into cleaning up your system including routing out all those pesky startup items, removing temporary files, and uninstalling old, unused applications. From there, we move on to disk maintenance. This task has gotten considerably easier in recent Windows versions but understanding your options is still important.
Finally, as we mentioned earlier, there’s dusting, as in literal removal of hair and dirt from your computer’s interior. We want to stress how much more effective a computer is at dissipating heat and cooling its internal components when they’re not coated in a thick coat of fur.
Disabling startup items
One of the best ways to unburden your computer and quickly free up resources, is to disable items that automatically launch when Windows boots. These startup items not only suck up system resources like little vampires, they also often cause your computer to boot longer.
The old school way to deal with startup items is to use the “System Configuration” (“SysConfig”) utility on Windows 7. Launch a “Run” window by typing “WIN + R” and then “msconfig.”
On the “System Configuration” utility, select the “Startup” tab. You do want to exercise some caution here. While you won’t break your system by disabling everything, you may disable some programs that are genuinely useful, like Dropbox.
In the preceding screenshot, there’s not a whole lot to pore over because it was taken on a virtual machine that has the bare minimum of programs installed. Regardless, to disable a startup program, uncheck the box next to it, and restart your system.
Let’s look at our Windows 8.x setup to see a more useful example. If you try to use “Sysconfig” on Windows 8.x, it will simply redirect you to the “Task Manager,” which can be more easily accessed by going directly to it either from the Taskbar:
Or simply hit “WIN” and type “task” and it should appear as the top search result:
It’s worth noting that you can also use the CTRL + SHIFT + ESC shortcut key combination to bring up Task Manager without clicking anywhere.
When the “Task Manager” opens, select the “Startup” tab and behold the glory of your computer’s burdens. You can see your startup items, their status, and the impact they have on your system. You can sort them of course, by clicking the headers. In the following screenshot, we’ve sorted by “Startup impact.”
If you’re unsure what does what, you can right-click on any item and selet “Search online” to find out exactly what something is and what it does.
According to Microsoft, impact is based on how much CPU and disk usage occurs at startup:
- High impact – Apps that use more than 1 second of CPU time or more than 3 MB of disk I/O at startup
- Medium impact – Apps that use 300 ms – 1000 ms of CPU time or 300 KB – 3 MB of disk I/O
- Low impact – Apps that use less than 300 ms of CPU time and less than 300 KB of disk I/O
One second might not seem like a lot, but keep in mind, the above screenshot depicts a system that doesn’t have a ton of stuff installed. Imagine a system with many more things in the startup routine. If you have a dozen high impact startup items in addition to the other medium and low impact items, and they’re all requiring CPU time and disk I/O, startup time increases proportionately.
Microsoft breaks down startup apps and provides guidance on how to deal with several categories of startup apps, including utilities that sync your PC or for backup and recovery, updaters, notifiers, and more.
It’s safe to say that in any event, you can disable most, if not all startup items and it will not adversely affect your system. That said, as we mentioned earlier, if you do disable everything, you may lose functionality that you otherwise wanted. In the above case, if we disabled “Dropbox” it would no longer start automatically and sync changes. We’d instead have to manually start it, so we might as well leave it enabled.
The “Disk Cleanup” utility is a very simple tool that allows you quickly delete stuff like temporary and cache files so you can free up space on your hard drive(s).
In Windows 7 you can open it from Start -> All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools.
In Windows 8.x, you have several options. The easiest is to hit the “WIN” key and type “disk cleanup” and then choose “Free up disk space by deleting unnecessary files.”
When “Disk Cleanup” begins, if you have more than one drive installed, you will need to choose the one you want to cleanup first. Here in our example, we choose the system drive (C:).
The “Disk Cleanup” tool will let you scroll through and see what is taking up space. You can read a brief description of what it is you’d be deleting. You can also view the files at any time by clicking on the “View Files” button, or if you have administrative access, you can click “Clean up system files” and the “Disk Cleanup” tool will restart in admin mode.
Note here in the following screenshot, we’ve restarted in administrative cleanup mode and “Disk Cleanup” has found another 500 MB of space it can free up (Windows Update files). This will give us 455 MB versus 90 MB in non-admin mode.
Note also, in admin mode you gain another tab named “More Options,” which gives us further ways to free up valuable disk space. Of particular note here is the “System Restore and Shadow Copies” option, which deletes all but the most recent “system restore” points. If you’ve been using your computer for a while and you’ve never cleaned out your restore points, this option can sometimes free up gigabytes of space without adversely affecting your computer – assuming everything is running smoothly at the moment so you don’t need to roll back any recent changes.
Note also, the “Programs and Features” clean up button. If you click this, it will open the “Programs and Features” control panel, which will let you uninstall unnecessary and unused applications, which we’re going to now talk about in the next section.
Uninstalling Applications and Freeing up Disk Space
Let’s say that you disable something in your startup items, but then you realize that you don’t really use that program. In that case, why not just uninstall it? That way, not only do you remove the startup item, but the whole useless application, thus freeing up disk space in the process.
On Windows 7 and Windows 8.x, removing an application is accomplished by opening the “Programs and Features” control panel. On Windows 7, open the Control Panel from the “Start” menu.
On Windows 8.x, you can access the “Programs and Features” control panel directly by right-clicking on the “Start” button and selecting it from the context menu.
With the “Programs and Features” control panel open, you can click on the application you want to uninstall.
In the above example, we see that from the previous section that Google Drive has a high impact on startup, and since we use Dropbox as our primary cloud service, we can just remove Drive and use it when we need to through the web interface.
The approach you take to this is completely up to you. You may decide you want to just disable the startup program or remove the whole shebang. That said, there’s an even easier way to do all this.