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Top 12 Ways to Degunk Your PC

by Joli Ballew, coauthor of Degunking Windows (Paraglyph Press)
05/25/2004

I'm sure you don't see too many "Top 12" lists, but when Jeff Duntemann and I started writing Degunking Windows and began systematically cleaning up our own PCs, 12 is how many steps we came up with. It wasn't long after that we began referring to the process of degunking as a 12-step program. We even added the list we came up with to the first page of the book so we could clearly define the 12 steps for our readers.

As we were writing the book, we experienced the most incredible successes; our computers ran faster, they booted faster, they shut down faster, they could be backed up quickly, they were more secure, we could find things easily, and life was, well, just better all the way around. There were no more blue screens, no more unresponsive programs, and even Photoshop and Movie Maker 2 opened faster.

In this article, I'd like to offer an overview of the 12 steps we uncovered, in the hope that you can degunk your own PC and feel the same relief we did.

Degunking

Degunking is the term we use to describe how you can clean up your computer so that it runs like it did the day you brought it home, without actually have to reformat it or give in and purchase a new one. It's amazing how a computer can bog down. Just think for a moment about all of the pictures, music, movies, and attachments you've saved. Consider the programs you installed but never use, and how your current files are organized.

The maintenance tasks are many: Using Disk Cleanup to rid the computer of temporary files, defragmenting regularly, keeping your anti-virus software up-to-date, getting Windows Updates, and backing up your system, are all extremely important to maintaining the health of your computer. It's really difficult to remember to do all of those things though, at least until the day comes when you wake up and your PC is so sluggish you find yourself performing little tasks like dusting the coffee table or organizing your office while a program opens or the computer boots up. It doesn't have to be that way.

We've discovered the following 12-step program works to not only degunk your PC, but also to keep it clean and running smoothly in the long term:

  1. Get rid of files you don't really need.
  2. Uninstall unnecessary programs.
  3. Organize your files and folders.
  4. Clean up your Desktop and Start menu.
  5. Reduce your email spam, and sort through and organize your Outlook mail.
  6. Clean and fine-tune the Registry.
  7. Optimize your hard drive.
  8. Install the latest upgrades.
  9. Incorporate PowerToys and good shareware to help keep your machine clean and running efficiently.
  10. Improve security and set up a good firewall.
  11. Back up your system on a regular basis.
  12. Use a smart approach if you think your machine is ready to be retired.

In the upcoming sections, we'll look at each of these steps in a little more detail. Of course, as with any 12-step program, we recommend that you don't skip any steps, or take any of the steps lightly.

Note: Some of the following text is taken from the book Degunking Windows (Paraglyph Press 2004).

Get Rid of Files You Don't Really Need

Most computer users have way too many files saved on their computers. Personal data files, pictures, music, and movies take up quite a bit of space. I found a movie of my daughter's marching band performance that was 3GBs!

Related Reading

Degunking Windows
Clean up and speed up your sluggish PC
By Joli Ballew, Jeff Duntemann

Deleting superfluous files might not seem necessary if you have an 80GB hard drive, but it is. When XP looks for a file, it has to search the full hard disk for it. The more stuff on your hard disk, the more stuff it has to look through. Additionally, deleting unnecessary files is certainly essential if you've received the dreaded "low on disk space" error. You'll want to search your default folders (My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, and My Videos), and also My Webs, shared folders, the root directory, and your "Unzipped" folder. Temporary files also need to be deleted occasionally too, and you can do that manually or by using the Disk Cleanup utility. Either way, I'm betting money that you've got some files you can throw out!

Uninstall Programs You Don't Need

After you've deleted all of the unnecessary documents, temporary files, pictures, movies, and music from your computer, the next step in the degunking process is to remove programs you don't use and their related files. In addition to removing programs you don't use, though, you can remove programs that you can't use, like programs that you installed with your first web cam, applications for a printer you no longer own, or programs for an older digital camera or scanner you no longer have.

Windows also automatically installs some components you might not need as well, like MSN Explorer or Games, and you could have chosen to install some things you no longer want as well. Windows Fax Services is one of them. For instance, if you have a dedicated fax machine and you don't use the fax application that comes with Windows XP, you can remove this Windows component. Once you get started, you'll find plenty to delete.

Organize Your Files and Folders

The simplest way to organize your files is to create personal folders inside the default folders. The default folders are My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, and My Videos. You can create subfolders inside of those and move data into them. These default folders make great storage areas and can be used to organize everything from your accounting files to your zoo pictures.

Clean Up Your Desktop and Start Menu

Personalizing XP by cleaning up the Desktop, Taskbar, and Start Menu might not seem like a big deal, but it is. You can tell XP how you want the Taskbar and Start menu to look, what should or shouldn't appear on the Desktop, and how you want to interact with it when you need information (setting Folder Options). By personalizing Windows XP, you can work faster and smarter and perform tasks more efficiently than if you didn't personalize it at all. You can put what you need where you need it, making it a snap to open a program, locate a file, or perform a task. This is the fun part of degunking!

Reduce Your Email Spam, and Sort Through and Organize Your Outlook Mail

You can enhance Outlook Express and the full version of Outlook in a number of ways. For the most part though, degunking email has to do with minimizing spam and organizing the email you need to keep.

You can minimize spam by performing some preventative maintenance and by using a little common sense. You'll want to prevent spam first, keep what you do get under control, and formulate a plan for reducing or eliminating spam altogether. There are lots of tricks for doing that, including creating unusual email addresses and keeping them private, having disposable addresses, learning tricks like never using the "unsubscribe" button to get off of a spammer's list, and obtaining and training spam prevention software.

As far as organizing goes, both Outlook and Outlook Express make it easy to create folders and subfolders, and move messages into them. You'll also want to delete items in your Sent folders, keep a careful eye on attachments, and keep the Deleted Items folder under control. You'd be amazed how many people have never emptied their Sent Items folder!

Clean and Fine-Tune the Registry

The Registry is another place gunk can accumulate. That's because Windows applications often store data in it but don't always clean up after themselves properly after the application has closed down unexpectedly or after it's been uninstalled. There are a few things you can do to improve on this though, including backing up the Registry, using System Restore, cleaning the Registry, and obtaining and using third-party Registry checkers. When I ran my first Registry Checker, Registry First Aid, it found about 4,000 errors. I can't even begin to tell you how fast my computer ran after fixing all of those!

Optimize Your Hard Drive

You can count on one thing; if you've deleted a lot of files, moved files from one partition to another, deleted programs and applications, and emptied the Recycle Bin, your hard drive will be a mess. When I say "a mess," I don't mean it's disorganized by our standards. I mean that the files on the actual hard drive are fragmented, or disorganized by Windows standards. There are files and parts of files stored everywhere, and they aren't stored contiguously. That causes problems and degrades the performance of your hard drive. You can optimize your hard drive by using Windows Disk Defragmenter. In addition to that, you can optimize your hard drive by cleaning up the Startup folder, and by disabling items that run each time the computer boots. These can be third-party tools, or even services that XP uses that you don't need.

Install the Latest Upgrades

You can get more out of your computer, including better performance, better security, and enhanced media capabilities in a number of ways. You know already that you can clean up the computer, do routine maintenance, stop unnecessary programs and services from running, and tweak XP to your heart's content. But you can also enhance performance by upgrading your software. You can gain access to additional features for Movie Maker or Windows Media Player by upgrading those specific components, and get better performance at the same time. You can also increase the security level of your computer by staying up-to-date with Windows Update, and configuring it to get its updates automatically. There's quite a bit available and best of all, it's all free! If you want to get the most out of your system, the free upgrades are a must-have.

Incorporate PowerToys and Good Shareware to Help Keep Your Machine Clean and Running Efficiently

PowerToys can be used to tweak your XP machine, including customizing keyboard keys, configuring a custom background for the Internet Explorer toolbar, and even using a shortcut to the Group Policy Editor for changing hundreds of additional settings. The TweakUI PowerToy is an especially nice one to obtain because it offers the ability to change options that are either difficult to find and configure, or that simply aren't available. For instance, with TweakUI, you can define what order grouped items are listed on the Taskbar (when grouping is enabled), you can configure what the first icon on the desktop should be (My Documents or My Computer), and you can configure what can and can't be added to the Frequently Used Programs section of the Windows XP Start Menu. Having the ability to personalize your computer in this way can help you be more productive, locate things faster, and work more efficiently.

Other PowerToys are available that allow you to resize images with a single click and to toggle between programs more efficiently. There are lots of PowerToys to choose from, and it's well worth it to explore these options. (PowerToys are all available from www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/downloads/powertoys.asp, and from www.wmplugins.com. Some of my favorites, available from the first link, are Image Resizer, Virtual Desktop Manager, and CD Slide Show Generator.)

Improve Security and Set Up a Good Firewall

Firewalls protect computers and networks from Internet risks just like deadbolts on a door protect your home from intruders. Therefore, just as you would secure your home with locks and a security system, you should also secure your computer (and networks) with firewalls and antivirus software.

Firewalls, even the most basic ones, offer lots of protection from trespassers and keep you feeling safe and secure. Firewalls come in all shapes and sizes, but a determined hacker can still break in, so it's important to secure the computer as completely as possible. With that in mind, you should configure your system to thwart attacks by making it as difficult as possible for an intruder to get in and access personal data. There are several ways to do that, including configuring Internet Explorer's Security Zones for extra protection, configuring and using a Guest account when company arrives and needs access to your computer, setting local security policies that affect all users of the computer, and auditing events such as failed logon attempts.

Back Up Your System on a Regular Basis

Backing up data is especially important these days because we store everything--important documents, faxes, critical records, family videos, pictures and music--all on a single hard drive. A hard drive crash can be like a house on fire, or a flood; every important file, fax, or video would be lost. You should develop a backup schedule based on how much data you can stand to lose.

If you are a casual user who just uses your computer a few times a week to email friends, a normal backup every couple of weeks should suffice with a full backup twice a year. However, if you use your computer daily, have a business you run from your home computer, or lots of digital media, you should do a normal backup once a day at the end of the day, and perform a full backup once a week.

The Windows XP Backup utility offers an easy way to back up your data regularly. Using the Backup utility doesn't require you to have any special equipment, but it does require you to have a place to save your data. This can be a second hard drive or a backup device such as a Zip disk, or if you use your own hard drive to save the backup, you'll need a CD burner to copy that backup to a CD for safekeeping.

Use a Smart Approach if You Think Your Machine is Ready to Be Retired

If you've tried everything, and you just can't get that machine running properly, you may have to give in and reformat or retire your older machine. When that happens, make sure you leave on a high note. Don't wait until it's too late to salvage your data. Backup what you have, and make sure you keep System Restore working properly. When the time comes, use the proper tools, either Windows XP's Files and Settings Transfer Wizard or a good backup, and make sure you don't transfer your unwanted gunk from the old computer to the new one.

Summing Up

To put this entire concept in a nutshell, Jeff and I know you have a nice computer, we know it has an 80GB hard drive, we know you have 512MB of RAM, and yes, we know it runs way too slow. It's gunked up with pictures, movies, music, and attachments you've saved, and you admit you've saved stuff to the wrong places. You have music in your movies folder, your pictures are named with numbers instead of descriptive names, you have applications installed for hardware you no longer own, and you've never defragmented the hard drive. It's time to take control, and our 12-step program can help you get there.

Joli Ballew is a professional writer, technology trainer, and network consultant in the Dallas area, and she is a Microsoft Windows Expert Zone Columnist.


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