Home Computer Maintenance 101

Computers are at their best -- and their most secure -- when well-maintained. Without regular cleaning and organization, your hard drive gets cluttered with data, your file system becomes messy, and overall performance slips. Without frequent backups and weeding, your data is less secure. And, unless you occasionally update your software and renew your subscriptions, your programs will not perform optimally.

Even the physical cleanliness of your hardware affects the quality of your computing experience. Monitors get smudged, dust gets into your keyboard and grime builds up under your mouse.

Home computers have become so reliable and convenient that it's easy to take their efficient operation for granted. But, just like your home or your car, your computer requires attention from time to time. The following regular maintenance will keep your computer running safely and smoothly:

Step No. 1: Give your system a checkup  Your computer works harder than you think. It's constantly prioritizing tasks, storing files, executing commands and allocating memory. Over time, however, errors occur on your hard drive, data gets disorganized and references become obsolete. These little problems add up, and as they do, your operating system slows down, system and software crashes occur more frequently, and start-up and shut down operations take longer and longer. In order to get your system back on track, or even better, to keep it from slowing down in the first place, set up a monthly maintenance schedule. Be sure to include these items in your routine:

  • Scan your hard drive for errors and fix any corrupt sectors
  • Defragment your hard drive
  • Remove invalid Registry entries and broken shortcuts

Step No. 2: Do some housekeeping  Removing old programs and drivers frees up memory and reduces the potential for system conflicts. Deleting obsolete and temporary files opens up space for today's important work. And, the fewer unnecessary files you have on your computer, the safer you are from threats like online identity theft. Beyond digital cleanup, it's also important to give the physical parts of your computer some TLC. Left too long, dirt and grime can build up and cause damage to your hardware. So, set aside some time each month to complete the following tasks:

  • Remove old programs and temporary files
  • Delete obsolete data
  • Make sure private and financial data is stored securely
  • Clean your keyboard, mouse, monitor and computer case using manufacturer-recommended cleansers and tools

Step No. 3: Back up often  System crashes happen. So do power outages. And sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you inadvertently delete files. Back up your system regularly to make certain you never lose data. We recommend backing up at least once a month. When you do, always make at least two copies: one for home, and one to be stored in a separate location. For example, you might want to back up to two CDs and keep one disk at home and the other at work.

Or, if you work at home, use an online service to store your data remotely. That way, should you experience fire, flood or theft, your data will be safely stored on a remote server. If you haven't already, you should also create a bootable system disk. With a system disk, you can start your computer from another drive should you be unable to boot from the hard disk. Don't ignore these other basic backup tasks:

  • Back up data at least every month
  • Store your backups in two separate places
  • Create an emergency system disk and store it in a safe place

Step No. 4: Upgrade regularly  From a performance and security standpoint, keeping your software and operating system current is as important as keeping them clean. The new reality is an ever-evolving world where staying on the cutting edge is a clear advantage. To remain current, check for software updates or upgrades each time you perform system maintenance. You should also check your subscriptions and licenses to make certain they haven't expired. This is especially important for security subscriptions. Security threats are in constant flux. New viruses and methods of intrusion appear daily, and you need to keep your security tools up to date in order to stay protected. The next time you do ordinary system maintenance, be sure to add these items to your checklist:

  • Update your software and operating system, paying special attention to security patches
  • Renew any lapsed software subscriptions services
  • Consider upgrading to the latest version of your favorite software

Step No. 5: Stay secure  Now more than ever, you should include a thorough security check in your maintenance routine. At a minimum, your security check should include a virus detection scan and a virus definition update. You should also review your security software settings to make sure they're turned on and functioning to provide the best protection. Beyond these basic tasks, you may want use a tool to perform a full security checkup.

In addition to regular security checkups, you should also review your security setup whenever you make a major change to your system. For example, if you've recently upgraded to DSL or cable Internet service, you should step back and re-evaluate your security situation. You may find you need to take some new precautions, like adding a personal firewall to your configuration. If you take the time to perform periodic security assessments, as well as the following routine tasks, your computer will remain well-protected and secure:

  • Run a weekly virus detection scan using a trusted virus protection program
  • Make sure all your security tools, including your virus definitions, are up-to-date
  • If you have a firewall or a comprehensive security program, review your preferences and settings to make certain they're in-line with your security situation
  • Run a security diagnostic tool on your system to make sure you have the kind of protection you need

Most every part of your computer requires occasional attention, from defragging the hard drive to reviewing security to cleaning the monitor and mouse. If you don't set up a regular schedule, it's likely you'll never get around to many of these tasks. Use this article to build a comprehensive maintenance routine, and run through that routine at least once a month. The payoff will be a healthy, reliable and safe computer.