How to clean out your computer

When was the last time your computer had a spring clean? It may not be something you've ever considered, but it’s important to keep your system running at its best.

In this article we're going to look at how to spruce up the hardware and software of your laptop or desktop computer.

(We are going to focus mostly on Windows and standard PC hardware, but much of this is general advice and so applies to Apple Mac and Linux too. If there is not a Mac or Linux version of a particular application you can usually find an alternative for your platform).

Software maintanence

When making any changes to your operating system it's a good idea to use System Restore (or its equivalent for your OS) so if anything goes wrong you can quickly revert to a previous configuration.

Uninstalling applications

Remove unused applications to free up hard drive space and memory.

You can uninstall software through the operating system, but there are also specialist tools such as Revo Uninstaller which can do a more thorough job and remove remnants of old apps which may hang around.

Freeing up hard drive space

Even if you're careful not to hoard downloaded files and often remove unused software, you'll find that over time your device storage will get filled up as data is stored in various places around your hard drive.

To get an idea of where you can free up space use a disk analyser, this will give you a quick visual overview of disk space usage so you can quickly identify junk. There are lots of different tools out there, but our favourite is SpaceSniffer.

Disk cleaner tools such as BleachBit and CCleaner can also rapidly analyse your hard drive and identify junk data for removal. Both of these also provide secure file erasure to prevent data being recovered.

Remember that when deleting files via the operating system they will be sent to the Recycle Bin (or Trash folder on Mac). This means you can restore something which is accidentally deleted, but you will not recover a lot of space until the bin is emptied.

Take control of startup applications

Many applications will attempt to start when the operating system boots up. This is often useful, but having lots of software loading at boot time can increase the time it takes to start, and consume a high amount of memory (RAM) which could impact performance.

If it's not an application you use frequently and you cannot see a good reason to have it load automatically then you should stop this. First, look for an option in the software. If there's a stubborn application which doesn't seem to offer this (or it's not obeying the setting) use the msconfig command in Windows to manage startup applications - press Win+R and type msconfig.

If you want to take even more control over this process try installing WinPatrol. This utility makes it easy to manage background applications and services, and monitors Windows for changes to startup apps so you can decide whether to permit or block a new startup app when it's installed.

Hardware maintanence

Keeping your computer free of dirt and grime will not only make it look nice but also aid performance and power effiency.

Dusting your computer

Over time dust will gather on both the inside and outside of a computer, particularly around fans. This can reduce the cooling efficiency, making components run hotter and potentially reducing its lifespan.  

To properly dust the computer you will need to delve inside the casing. If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry - so long as you don’t get rough it’s pretty hard to cause any damage. The most important thing is to make sure you’re grounded so you don’t zap any of the hardware with static. There are various ways to do this, though most commonly it's achieved by wearing an anti-static wristband or regularly touching an unpainted metal surface.

Before you begin you’ll ideally need a can of compressed air, rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol), cotton buds and a clean cloth. At minimum you can get by with just a cloth.

1. Remove all cables and peripherals.

2. Take the PC outside. No use blowing the dust around your house!

3. Pop the case off.

4. If your case has removable air filters, take these off and remove as much of the dust as you can by hand (or cloth) before giving them a blast with the compressed air.

5. Wipe up the worst of the dust from inside the case. This is where a touch of alcohol (just a little, it should be damp but not soaking wet) on the cloth comes in useful for extracting the muck, and cotton buds are handy for the corners.

6. Once the worst of the dust has been cleaned up manually use the compressed air to blow out tight spots.

7. The case, graphics card and CPU fans will probably have quite a lot of gunk too. Use cotton buds to wipe down the fan blades. The compressed air can also be used on the fans, but hold the blades in place with a pen or cotton bud so they don't spin too fast and get damaged.

8. If you’re confident with PC hardware you can go a step further and remove components for a more thorough clean out. It’s a lot easier to get accumulated dust out of a graphics card if it’s removed from the case, plus you can get at the ports and other areas of the motherboard. The CPU can also be removed and re-seated but make sure you’ve got some fresh thermal compound as this will need to be re-applied.

How do you clean laptops?

Dusty laptops can be much trickier to clean as it’s more difficult, if not impossible, to get at the insides without breaking something.

Some models will have removable panels on the bottom which can give limited access. Check your laptop user manual or look for a service manual online to see what can be safely taken apart, but make sure it isn’t going to void the warranty.

If you can pop a panel out compressed air can be used to dislodge dust, though take care when cleaning cooling fans, use short bursts so they don’t spin too fast. You also want to try to avoid pushing dirt deeper into the casing.

If the laptop is older and out of warranty it might be possible to dismantle it further for a very thorough spring clean. However this can be a delicate and slightly complex job, often requiring you to take the keyboard off and unhook the display, and should not be carried out on anything you can’t afford to lose.

In many cases there will be no way to access the inside of the laptop, particularly when it comes to slimline ultraportable models. The best you can do is use compressed air to dislodge dust from the cooling exhaust ports. If it’s really bad and still within warranty speak to the manufacturer about an official repair.

Cleaning keyboards and mice

It doesn’t take long for gunk to form in the nooks and crannies of these peripherals and it can become seriously gross.

Both can be easily and safely cleaned with a microfibre cloth, cotton buds and a little rubbing alcohol (again, damp not wet). Use the cloth to wipe them down, if there are stubborn dirt spots use a cotton bud and alcohol. On mice pay particular attention to the feet and areas around the buttons.

The inside of keyboards can also be cleaned. On some models (often mechanical keyboards) the keys can be removed so you can get at the areas underneath, though another solution is a wet, rubbery cleaning compound (marketed under various names such as Cyber Clean and Super Clean) which can be pushed down onto the keyboard to extract debris. This gloop can be used several times and is effective at getting at the hard to reach places of your keyboard without taking it apart.

Cleaning computer screens

Computer monitors can be easily cleaned with either a dry microfibre cloth or a small amount of water and white vinegar.

Often it just takes a gentle wipe with a cloth to give the display a shine, but don’t press hard as they can be easily damaged with pressure. If there are stubborn spots use a little water, or a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar. Liquid should only ever be applied to the cloth, do not put it directly on the screen.