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The complete guide to spring cleaning your computer

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If you want to keep your house clean, you need to dust it regularly; if you want your car to run well, you should service it annually; and if you want your computer to stay speedy and responsive, it needs its own maintenance—a digital spring clean.

We’re not just talking about wiping down your keyboard, but also clearing up the digital clutter taking up room inside your system, including the apps and files that you no longer use. Here’s how to get started.

Get rid of older apps

a screenshot of a cell phone: <p>Removing older apps&nbsp;</p><p><span style="font-size:13px;">Uninstalling apps you no longer use can instantly improve your computer's performance.</span></p>© David Nield/Popular…

What’s the harm in leaving unused applications on your computer? These programs take up precious storage space, and they also make your operating system work harder than it needs to. They force your computer to incorporate entries in the Start menu, sift through settings files, and install updates for programs that you’re not actually using. In addition, each application on your system can become a target for hackers or data-mining companies, so the fewer you maintain, the better.

Take the time to identify the programs you no longer need and uninstall them—you can always reinstall them later if you change your mind. On Windows, open the Start menu, go to the Settings screen, and then click System followed by Apps & features. You can sort apps by size or date to weed out the ones you don’t need, or click an app to remove it. On macOS, open Launchpad, click and hold on any app, and hit the delete button. Some programs might require you to launch an uninstall utility. To do so, open Finder, navigate to the Applications folder and look for the uninstall program. If it doesn’t have one, then just drag the app’s entry from Applications to the Trash.

While you’re sifting through your applications, you’ll find some that you want to keep. For those, download updates to make sure you’re running the latest versions.

Clear away digital clutter

a screenshot of a cell phone: <span>Plenty of third-party programs will tidy up your system for you.</span>© CleanMyMacPlenty of third-party programs will tidy up your system for you.

It’s an inevitable consequence of modern-day computing that as you use your device, junk files will build up: items you’ve created and forgotten about, temporary files created by the operating system or applications, and so on. You can’t stop this from happening, but you can stay on top of the mess with a regular clear-out.

Unless you really know your way around Windows or macOS, it’s a good idea to get assistance from a third-party program for this task. CCleaner (for Windows and macOS) has long been one of the best free options in this department, and we also like CleanMyMac (macOS) and System Mechanic (Windows), though those last two aren’t free.

If you’d prefer not to rely on these programs, you can probably do some simple clean-up jobs yourself. Sit down and spend an hour or so deleting those photos you’re never really going to look back on or clearing out old documents and spreadsheets that are no longer relevant.

Tidy up your browser

a screenshot of a cell phone: <span style="font-size:13px;">There's plenty to tidy up inside your browser too.</span>© David Nield/Popular ScienceThere’s plenty to tidy up inside your browser too.

We spend a lot of our computing time inside a browser, and this is another area where you can do some serious tidying. The aforementioned CCleaner does a good job of clearing out digital garbage that your browser doesn’t really need, but each browser has options of its own that you can also employ.

In Chrome, go to Settings and click Show advanced settings followed by Clear browsing data to erase cached files, browsing history, plug-in data and more. This should make your browser a little lighter on its feet. On Firefox, the option is under Preferences, Advanced, Network, and Cached Web Content. In Microsoft Edge, you need to go to Settings then Clear browsing data. Finally, in Safari, open the app menu and choose Clear History.

While you’re slashing and burning, check your downloads folder for files you’ve forgotten about. Delete the ones you don’t need to free up more space.

Finally, removing unused browser extensions can have the same benefits as uninstalling unused applications. This will streamline your browser, lowering its demands on your computer’s resources and keeping you safer as well. Open up your browser’s extensions or plug-ins page and see if there are any add-ons you can do without.

Organize your system

a screenshot of a cell phone: <span>Google Drive and other services can keep your files in the cloud and remove local copies.</span>© David Nield/Popular ScienceGoogle Drive and other services can keep your files in the cloud and remove local copies.

If no one sees your computer except you, what’s the point of keeping it tidy? (You may have the same attitude about your house.) Well, as we’ve mentioned, it means an easier time for your OS and applications, and it also saves you time when you’re looking for important files. Plus, if everything is organized neatly, there’s less chance of files getting forgotten and eating up hard drive space that could be used for something else.

Sort your files into the designated user folders (like Documents) and you’ll notice the benefits the next time you need to open something quickly. In particular, you should try to avoid keeping masses of files and shortcuts on your desktop, as it gives your computer extra work to do every time you view the screen. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes clearing up the Start menu or the Dock (depending on your operating system), to make sure the shortcuts you really need are available and any unused ones are cleared away.

A whole host of cloud services, including Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and iCloud will store your files on the web and give you the option to delete your local copies. This is a handy way of freeing up some hard disk space and lightening the load on your operating system at the same time. Just be sure you keep the online versions and don’t delete both the local and cloud-based copies of your files at the same time (each service has instructions on how to do this).

Physically clean your equipment

a person using a laptop computer: <span>Microfiber cloths and compressed air cans are the way to clean the outside of your hardware.</span>© Dust-OffMicrofiber cloths and compressed air cans are the way to clean the outside of your hardware.

While you’re tackling a computer spring clean, you may as well do some physical cleaning at the same time. It will make your machine look shiny and fresh, in some cases, you can actually prevent future problems (like the insides of your desktop getting clogged with dust). You don’t need expensive equipment or even that much time.

Start by powering down and unplugging your computer. Then grab a can of compressed air, which blasts dirt off of keyboards and ports. Next, use a dry microfiber cloth to wipe down the outside of your machine and any of its peripherals, such as mouses and keyboards. (You can read our full keyboard-cleaning guide here.) Cotton swabs are another helpful tool in the computer cleaner’s arsenal, as they help you clear away built-up dirt from nooks and crannies.

For a more comprehensive clean, lightly dampen your clothes or swabs with isopropyl rubbing alcohol. Plain old water can work too, but as you’re dealing with electronics, you need to gently dampen your clothes and swabs rather than getting them completely wet. If you’re dealing with a desktop PC and you know your way around it, you can dismantle certain parts to really get into those dusty corners, but this step isn’t essential.

With the digital and physical spring cleaning complete, you can power your computer back up and enjoy the benefits of your rejuvenated system—at least until the same time next year.

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