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PC MAINTENANCE FOR BEGINNERS / HOW-TO GEEK SCHOOL

How-To Geek

Lesson 2: Cleaning your Computer Inside and Out

Using CCleaner

CCleaner is a free program from Piriform software that takes the work out of cleaning up your computer. Make sure that you download the “Slim” installer version that doesn’t contain any toolbars or other crapware. Yeah, it’s ironic that a software named “crap cleaner” actually distributes more crapware by default, but as long as you don’t download the wrong version you’ll be fine. And it is otherwise a good piece of software.

When you first execute CCleaner, it opens up to the “Cleaner” screen, which allows you to clean up your system such as browser cache files, recently used items, and also clear things related to specific “Applications” such as cache and log files.

When you click “Analyze” all the stuff on your system that can be deleted will be displayed. If you don’t want to delete something, then you can uncheck it. Otherwise click “Run Cleaner” to scour your system clean. In this example, when we clicked the cleaner, we were able to clear up about 4 gigabytes of drive space!

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What we’re really interested here is the “Tools” functions, specifically “Uninstall” and “Startup.” On the “Uninstall” pane, you can bypass the “Programs and Features” control panel altogether and uninstall stuff here. Simply click the item you want to remove and click “Run Uninstaller” to begin the removal process.

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Moving to the “Startup” tools, we see we have the same kind of options as in “Sysconfig” and the “Task Manager.” You can disable/enable anything by selecting the item or items (hold the “CTRL” button to select multiple items), then click “Disable.”

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While this method isn’t as informative as the Task Manager’s with its “Startup Impact,” it’s just as effective, and puts everything in one place. If you want a more extensive tour of CCleaner’s features, then we urge you to check out this article.

Disk maintenance

Disk maintenance is kind of a misnomer. You don’t really need to “maintain” anything and in fact, your computer will likely do a lot of stuff automatically to keep you disks running optimally. Nevertheless, we feel you should educate yourselves on how disk drives work, and what you can do to extend their life.

SSD vs. HDD

Today, hard drives in computers come in two flavors: the SSD and HDD. An SSD or solid state drive, is sort of a container full of flash memory. Basically it’s RAM, but unlike RAM, the content in an SSD retain their contents after you turn off the power.

Hard drives by contrast, are comprised of quickly spinning platters, on which all the data in your computer is written. To find and retrieve the data, a hard drive has heads, which read the surface of these platters kind of like you might walk to the stacks in a library and retrieve a book or books from their shelves.

SSDs, because they’re so similar to RAM, are superior to old school spinning hard drives because they’re consistently faster at accessing and retrieving data. In other words, when you load an application from an SSD, you don’t need to wait for the head to find and read the data on spinning platters, it’s just there and the only delay you might experience is the time it takes for the SSD to read its contents and store it in the computer’s memory.

Do you need to defrag?

The thing about HDDs is that over time, the books you take off the shelf are replaced by other books, any books your want to return to the stacks are stuck wherever there is space. So instead of having all your data in contiguous chunks, it ends up spread about or “fragmented.” Over time, it becomes increasingly more time consuming to retrieve your data because the hard drive has to read part of it from one area on the platter(s) and another part of it somewhere else.

Defragmenting software is meant to take all those books and put them back together on their shelves so the computer can find them again more efficiently. This works to great effect on traditional spinning platter drives, but not so much on solid state drives, and can actually decrease the lifespan of your SSD.

You can only write to an SSD a finite number of times. Over the course of time, it will lose its ability to hold on to the data and go bad. When you defrag, it reads data scattered about your hard drive, stores it in RAM, and then deposits it where it needs to be. If necessary, it will read data that is stored in the wrong place and deposit in another empty space on the drive in order to put all the data back together.

Doing this, as you can imagine, means that the drive is read and written more than with normal use and as such, defragging effectively shortens the life of an SSD by unnecessarily writing data to the drive. In truth, you don’t even need to defrag an SSD because of the way they work.

How to Defrag

Defragmenting your drive is easy and the computer likely already does it for you around once a week. Still, if you use your computer a lot and do a lot of things where you’re copying many files to and from the hard drive, then you may see some fragmentation. And while we don’t think it will be enough to really slow your system down, you can still initiate a manual defrag anytime you want though to be honest, it’s not as much fun as the animated defragmenter on Windows 9x.

You can launch the defragmenter in Windows 7:

All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools -> Disk Defragmenter

Or simply click on the “Start” button and type “defrag” in the search box.

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Similarly, the fastest way to open the defragmenter in Windows 8.x is to hit the “WIN” button and type “defrag.”

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Note, in Windows 8.x, the defragmenter has been renamed to “Optimize Drives” because you can’t defrag an SSD. Instead, the drive optimizer “trims” your SSD, which essentially means it tells the computer which parts of your drive no longer contain data and frees them for later use.

As you can see in the example below, we have several drives to choose from and the optimizer lists your drives’ media type so there’s no guessing which is an SSD and which isn’t.

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Click the “Change settings” button to access further options.

If you want to change the optimization schedule, you can have it run on daily, weekly, or monthly basis, or you can turn it off altogether. Remember though, you will need to optimize your drive manually if you do turn off the schedule.

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If there are any drives you don’t want to optimize automatically, then you can deselect one or all the drives from their optimization schedules. If you do this however, remember you will need to perform optimizations manually.

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Checking Your Hard Drives Integrity

While hard drive’s integrity and reliability isn’t an everyday PC maintenance thing, the fact is if you’ve never had a hard drive fail on you, then you’re very lucky. There’s no sure way to tell if a hard drive is about to fail, they’re like earthquakes – you might get some warning or usually it’s over before you understand what’s happened.

That said, hard drives use a technology called S.M.A.R.T. to test their reliability and give you an idea of whether they’re failing. You can’t access your hard drive’s S.M.A.R.T. data without third-party software but you can view its status.

Simply open a command prompt by typing “WIN + R” and then from the “Run” window type “CMD” and hit “OK” or “Enter.”

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From the “Command Prompt” type “wmic” and then hit “Enter”. Then type “diskdrive get status” and hit “Enter.” Depending on how many devices you have installed, it will cycle through and check the S.M.A.R.T. status of each and return a result.

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As the above screenshot indicates, we got results for nine drives (4 or which are removable disks) and there’s no telling them apart. Needless-to-say, if we did get a troubling result, we’d need to investigate further with special software.

We suggest reading further on how to see if your hard drive is dying. If you have a hard drive that is starting to fail and you catch it in time, you can probably save most or all your data!

You may not do Windows, but you’ll still have to dust

There are many reasons you should routinely clean, as in literally sweep out and dust your computer.

There are a couple of really good reasons you should do this and they all have to do with heat. Heat is hard on electronics and when hair and dust collect on your computer’s internals, it essentially blankets your components and prevents heat from escaping.

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Further, over time your system’s cooling fans become clogged and caked with dust, which compromises their effectiveness.

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So, what you’re dealing with is a system that cannot quickly shed heat and thus ends up cooking itself. You can usually tell when you need to clean your computer by looking at the intakes and exhaust ports. Usually it’s as easy as glancing at the little holes that allow air to enter and exit. If those are covered or caked with dust, then it’s time to clean your computer.

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You’ll have to shut down and unplug your computer before you begin, and then we recommend you take the entire unit outside. Once you start cleaning it out, all that dust and hair that has collected inside will need to be dislodged. You don’t want to introduce, or reintroduce all that into your house.

Canned air or vacuum?

While it may see easy to simply get out the vacuum cleaner and suck all that stuff out, don’t. Vacuum cleaners can discharge static electricity onto your computer’s delicate electronic components. We recommend canned air, to blast the dirt out.

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How-To Geek provides a thorough how-to on cleaning out your computer. It’s not a terribly complicated operation but it is necessary, and can extend the life of your system.

Coming up Next …

Tomorrow we’re going to move on to system security. We’ll be detailing essential security necessities including threat avoidance, anti-virus software, browser extensions and, finally, last but certainly not least, creating strong passwords.

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Born and brainwashed an Ohio State Buckeye, Matt now lives a warm, snow-free life just north of the Texas/Mexico border. He fancies himself a modern-day jack-of-all-trades; favorite conversation starters include operating systems, Android, BBQ, quantum physics, and roller skating.

  • Published 03/11/14

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