Stump the Geeks

Computers need spring cleaning, too

April 29, 2012 

As anyone can tell by glancing at my desk, I’m not what you’d call a “clean as you go” person.

At its most coherent, my organizational strategy is to let newspapers, magazines and printouts pile up until I can’t take it anymore. Then, in a mad frenzy, I’ll file or toss everything away for a clean slate guaranteed to last about a day.

My bad habits are no different on the digital end. All of my desktop screens are packed with miscellaneous files without a home.

It’s not that I like clutter – I hate it, in fact. But for me, maintenance has always been easier to do all at once than a little bit at a time.

That’s what makes an annual spring cleaning so important for keeping desktops and laptops secure and in working order.

According to Paul Rosenberg, owner of the Chapel Hill-based repair shop Love Your Computer, now’s a great time to physically clean the innards of your desktop by removing the side panel and vacuuming out the accumulated dust and dirt near air vents.

“Make sure that vents are open on the outside as well, not covered with papers or pressed up against the wall,” Rosenberg said in an email. “Airflow is critical to the long-term health of a desktop computer.”

Old software

It’s also a good time to inventory your installed programs. The longer you’ve used your machine, the more software you’ve probably collected, so figure out what you no longer need and remove it.

“Over time, you may find that you have two, three or more programs that all do essentially the same thing, along with a load of others you installed ages ago but no longer use,” IBM Distinguished Engineer Jeff Crume said in an email. “Some of these may load when the system is booted and run in the background all the time, using up valuable resources and potentially exposing a system to additional vulnerabilities.”

Spyware accumulates in a similar way, so Crume suggests clearing it out with programs like Spybot (free) or Ad-Aware (free to $3 a month).

If you’re feeling particularly uninstall-happy, Rosenberg says to consider ridding your system of Java, which he said is the most common backdoor for malware attacks on your operating system.

“There is an excellent chance your computer has several old versions installed,” Rosenberg said. “There is just as good a chance that, at this point, you do not need it for anything.”

If you’re still partial to the platform, he advises keeping only the latest version and staying on top of updates.

Get backed up

Java’s not the only program with bugs, though, and some can affect your system’s security. If you’re running Windows, make sure Windows Update is configured to notify you when updates and patches are ready to be installed. And Crume says to pay attention to other programs on your system, especially Adobe Acrobat.

“There are loads of other programs sitting around on your system that may not have been patched in years, and that means they are vulnerable to any number of exploits floating around the Internet,” Crume said. “Newer versions are better about automatically taking care of this for you, but that is of little consolation if you are running a version older than dirt.”

Last tip: If you don’t have one already, get a back-up solution. Crume recommends buying an external hard drive, leaving it connected, and letting an automated backup and recovery program do the job for you. Hard drives can fail without warning, and reformatting or replacement means losing valuable – even irreplaceable – files.

“Storage is cheap, data recovery is decidedly not, and most users’ data sets are growing all the time,” Rosenberg said.

An overhaul like this might not last you all year, but it will save you some trouble down the road. Plus, starting with a clean slate’s not a bad feeling – even if it is temporary.

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