A Guide to Routine Preventative Maintenance
— by Lisa Richards, Educational Outreach Writer
Most of us depend on computers for everything from work to coordinating a social life, and it can be easy to take a personal computer for granted. Hearing about viruses and hackers isn't anything new, but it's not just online criminals that can damage a computer. Just using a computer can make it run more slowly through the natural accumulation of temporary files and forgotten downloads. To make sure that your computer continues working at peak performance, a little bit of preventative maintenance is required every now and then. Don't panic - we've compiled a checklist of sorts to help guide you through the process.
Preventative Things To Do Weekly
- 7 Backup Strategies for Your Data, Multimedia, and System Files: Backing up your computer is something that should really be done daily, but if you find yourself strapped for time, make sure to back up your hard drive at least once a week. By backing up your files, you'll still have all of your documents if your computer gets infected or crashes (or even if you just spill your coffee on it).
- Scan for Malware: Malware is a fancy term for the viruses and worms that can infect a computer system. Give your computer a good scan once every month to keep it running smoothly.
- Disk Cleanup: Over the course of the week, your computer will acquire temporary files from the Internet or from a crash. These files aren't harmful, but they can definitely make a computer run more slowly. By running a disk cleanup, you'll help your computer maintain top operating speed, and you'll free up some disk space as well.
- Defragmenting Your Computer Hard Drive: Files will naturally "fragment" as you use your computer - think of it as a kind of digital bread-crumb trail that gets left when you work. Again, the bread crumbs aren't harmful, but they can reduce your computer's efficiency. Run a defrag on your machine to clean up the file bits and keep your computer running quickly.
- Clear Your Web Browser Out!: While you surf the Web, your Internet browser picks up and stores cookies, data, and a history of all of the websites you've visited. Clear it out at the end of the week to keep your browser running quickly and to keep your computer's memory free.
- Empty Your Recycle Bin and Securely Delete Data (PDF): Moving a file to the recycle bin doesn't instantly erase it. You'll have to manually empty the recycle bin, and if you have particularly sensitive documents that you're getting rid of, you'll want to make sure that they've been thoroughly deleted.
- Shut Down Your Computer At Least Once a Week: Everything you do on your computer leaves behind a kind of temporary file. Shutting down your computer regularly is the only way to clear out these temporary files, and if you leave your computer on too long, the files can accumulate and cause system slowness.
- Update Your Anti-Virus Software: New viruses are being developed all the time to get around computer defenses. Make sure to update your anti-virus software every week to keep abreast of any and all new viruses.
- Clean Up Your Desktop: When you're looking at your desktop background, you'll likely be looking at it through a bunch of file folders or program shortcuts. Having files on your desktop can actually make your computer run more slowly, so if you don't use it on a regular basis, move files from your desktop back into the user files or program folder. Similarly, if you find yourself getting frustrated hunting for a program you use daily, you may want to create a desktop shortcut to help you open it more easily. It's your desktop - make sure it's set up the way you like it.
Preventative Things To Do Monthly
- Keep Your Computer's Operating System Up To Date: Every so often, a computer manufacturer will release a software update to improve your computer or to fix a known issue. You can find most updates available for download at the manufacturer's website, but if you're unsure how to proceed, the University of Massachusetts has a tutorial to walk you through it.
- How Do I Scan My Hard Drive For Errors?: Scanning your hard drive can help you locate problems that might make files unreadable. Check out this page from the University of South Florida to learn how to scan the hard drive of your computer.
- Physically Clean Your Computer: Many of us eat or drink over our keyboards, and while that might help productivity, it can also make your keys stick. Give your computer a little TLC and give it a good cleaning every month or two.
- Remove Unwanted Startup Programs or Computer Programs: A ton of startup programs (programs that boot up as soon as your computer does) can make the latest model run like a dinosaur. Go through your computer and get rid of that program you downloaded to watch a video on a website that one time. Your computer will thank you for it.
- Change Your Password: Yes, it's a hassle, but your computer and your online presence (email, forum accounts, and social networking pages) will be safer for it. Change your password every month or so to keep your information safe and secure.
- Clean Out Downloaded or Outdated Computer Files: We all download stuff on a whim. Maybe it's a .gif of a group of penguins chasing a butterfly or a free ebook, but if you don't clean out your files regularly, they can add up and take up disk space. Go through your folders and make sure that you're only holding onto the files that you really want to keep.
- Clean Out Your CD/DVD Drive: If you use your CD/DVD drive frequently, it may be due for a light cleaning. Give the lens a quick blast with some compressed air to keep it clean and dust-free.
Miscellaneous Preventative Maintenance Tips
- How to Unzip and Zip Files: Zipped files are wonderfully versatile. If you have files that you never use but need to keep, zip 'em up! They'll take up less space, and they'll still be there when you want them.
- Protect Against Phishing and Harmful Spam Messages: Don't miss out on this ounce of prevention! Viruses and malware can make computer repairs expensive and, in some cases, useless. Learn what to watch out for, and empty out your spam folder regularly.
- Keep Your Mouse Clean (PDF): If you use a mouse with a roller ball, then you'll need to clean it out every once in a while. Just like a keyboard or computer screen, it can pick up lint!
- Save Important Email Messages (PDF): Most mail services back up messages automatically, but even they can hiccup every once in a while. Make sure to save or back up important email messages to prevent against accidental loss.
- Upgrade Your Computer's Memory: This is not a task for the faint of heart, but by taking your time and doing your research, it could really pay off. Increasing a computer's memory does require some time and money. But the reward is a drastic increase in the operating speed of your machine.
- Turn Off Indexing: If you don't frequently use the search function on your computer, then turning off indexing can help speed up your computer's processing. This page from Georgetown University has the steps to walk you through it.
- Utilize Dropbox: If you have files and multiple computers or devices that you use to access them, storing them on Dropbox may not only be a great way to back them up but provide an easier method of access without having to manually shuffle the files around. Purdue has a great page that explains what Dropbox is and how it works.
- General Computer Maintenance Tips: Computer maintenance can extend to how you transport it. These tips from Yale University help address some of the little things that are easy to forget about.
- Basic Computer Maintenance: Emerson College has a tremendously useful page that walks you through the steps of basic computer maintenance. The guide includes tips for both PC and Mac users.
- Computer Security and Maintenance Checklist: For a one-stop quick checklist on keeping your computer safe, you won't do better than this one from Northwestern University. There's even a printable checklist available for a more hands-on reminder.