Spring cleaning your computer

Apr 1, 2013 at 9:00 a.m. ET

Spring cleaning shouldn't be limited to throwing away all the junk in your attic. Your computer could use a little TLC, too. We'll show you how to organize your computer and perform a little maintenance that will make your computer seem like new.

Woman on computer


Spring cleaning shouldn't be limited to throwing away all the junk in your attic. Your computer could use a little TLC, too. We'll show you how to organize your computer and perform a little maintenance that will make your computer seem like new.

Whether you have a Mac or PC, you need to perform routine maintenance to make sure your computer stays in the best shape possible. While you should do this more than once a year, if spring gets you moving, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Clean out your drawers, young lady!

Throughout the year, you save countless files to your computer that you’ll never use again. Organize your files into folders to make them easier to find. Many people make the mistake of saving every file to their documents folder or on their desktop, so they can’t find anything no matter where they are.

For example, if you use your computer for work and for personal use, have one folder within your main documents folder called “Work” and another called “Home”. You can further subcategorize those into more folders. Keep things simple. Too many folders becomes overwhelming and difficult to navigate.

Quick tip: If you have several of the same types of files, come up with a naming convention to make it easy to search. For example, if you do invoicing in Excel, you could call all your invoices “INVOICE_Name of Client_MMDDYY.”

After you get your desktop cleaned up, keep it that way. Tim Lynch of Psychsoftpc says, "You should actually never use [your] desktop for anything other than shortcuts to frequently used programs. What is not commonly known is that you can actually create folder[s] on the desktop and put shortcuts in these to further organize things... you can even put shortcuts to other folders in these."

Your desktop should be clear of any files you aren’t immediately working on. Save current files within their permanent home, then create a desktop shortcut to access them easily.

It may take some time to set up this system, but if you stick to it all year long, next year’s spring cleaning will be simple. If you’d like to save older files, consider using a thumb drive or external hard drive. Or upload them to a free file-saving and sharing system like Box or DropBox, rather than saving them on your computer.

Save what’s important... forever

Many of us have our entire lives on our computers: treasured family photos, financial documents and work files — things that are irreplaceable. Depending on the frequency of your computer use, we recommend weekly backups to archive your files.

Macs come with something called Time Machine, which allows you to back up to an external hard drive with ease. There are similar backup programs for PCs. These features pair well with other services that protect your files against fire, flood or other natural disasters (or even theft).

Services like Box and Dropbox have free versions of the account you can use. You can also upgrade to the pro services for more storage. There are also services like Mozy and Carbonite (just to name a few). To find the service that's right for you, research reviews on third-party sites and choose to compare their various features. If you need to archive sensitive files with personal or financial information, consider a service that is HIPAA-compliant. Even if you don’t have to comply with HIPAA, that level of security will keep you protected.

Lynch recommends you have both onsite and offsite backup. "I recommend having an onsite backup in addition to one of the internet systems. You can't trust that the internet will always be available [to you]," he says, "The internet is always slower than local access. What happens to your stuff if... you forget to pay your bill?"

Don’t forget to clean the baseboards

Your computer needs more TLC than just moving your files around so you can find them. Go through and delete any old programs you don’t use anymore. To uninstall it properly, use the add and remove programs function on Windows or download a program called App Cleaner for Mac. But Lynch cautions us against removing programs unless you truly don't need them. They take time to download and larger hard drives are inexpensive these days.

Quick tip: Consult an IT professional or Apple Genius to find out what the best software is or to ensure all the files from software you deleted are gone. They can make more specific recommendations based on your needs, especially for antivirus software.

Update your antivirus and firewall software, too. If you don’t have any, get some. There are plenty of free versions available. Norton and McAfee have their merits, but are more expensive and can be a bit clunky. Additionally, Lynch advises that Norton has been missing things lately. For free antivirus software, he recommends Microsoft Security Essentials (which is very good and free) and Superantispyware Free and Malwarebytes Free. "The free versions don't offer protection," he cautions, "but can be run once in a while or in case of emergency." He also explains that all programs will miss something.

Add a little spit and polish

Finally, make sure your computer looks as good on the outside as its motherboard is feeling. There are a multitude of cleaning products on the market specifically designed for cleaning your computer. We recommend using one of these products. Under no circumstances should you use window cleaner — too much vinegar, ammonia or other cleaners can harm electronics or ruin your screen. Also avoid using paper towels or any other cleaning device that could leave residue.

Quick tip: Check the owner's manual for specific instructions on cleaning and maintaining your hardware. Some items may require speical cleaning or have specific things you should avoid.

Power your computer and monitor off (including all the accessories) and allow it to cool. Remove the batteries from your keyboard, mouse and other peripherals.

Use a microfiber cloth (or one provided by the manufacturer) to wipe down the screen with either monitor cleaner or a solution of distilled water and (optionally) a small amount (25 percent or less) vinegar. Make sure your cloth is only lightly dampened so nothing drips into any exposed electronics. Wipe it dry with a second microfiber cloth. Rub horizontally at all times (never in circles) and resist the urge to press hard or use your nails on stubborn spots. Look at your monitor from multiple angles to ensure you don’t miss anything or leave streaks.

Do the same to clean your desktop or laptop parts and keyboard. You can use a cotton swab to reach hard-to-clean places, but again, make sure it’s not dripping wet, only slightly damp, and don’t allow any water to seep into the electronics. Under no circumstances should you ever spray any kind of cleaner, even an approved electronics cleaner, directly on your machinery — spray it on the cloth instead.

Quick tip: For maintaining the new shine on your computer, you can use moist towelettes specifically designed for electronics or a cotton swab with a tad bit of isopropyl (not ethyl) alcohol. Just test it in an inconspicuous area to ensure it doesn’t discolor your computer or remove the lettering from keys. We also think Cyber Clean is a fun and easy way to clean your keyboard between spring cleanings, but test it first. It’s a jar of "slime" similar to what you bought to play with when you were a kid, but you can press it on your keyboard to remove debris.

If necessary, you can gently remove the keys from most keyboards (take a picture so you remember how it goes back later) using a fingernail or soft-edged instrument. You can soak them in a solution of lukewarm water with one or two drops of dish soap and use a soft-bristled toothbrush for extra-tough stains (be careful of the letters or characters on the keys).

You may want to leave large keys in place, as they can be hard to replace. Use a dry microfiber cloth to wipe the dampness off and allow them to air dry for 24 hours. Don’t put any keys back on the keyboard until they’re completely dry.

After spring cleaning and weekly (between cleanings), use compressed air to blow dust out of the keyboard and electronic components. Follow the directions carefully, as the propellant in compressed air can damage electronics if you spray too closely, for too long or at the wrong angle.

More computer cleanup and backup tips

6 Tips for cleaning up your computer
How to clean your computer
How to back up your photos online