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Spring Cleaning For Computers

I spent an hour or so on Sunday helping a friend clean up her computer. It was an interesting exercise, largely because I didn't know what problems I'd find. Her ex-husband had taken care of computer maintenance until a year or so ago, and her newfound role as single mom hadn't left much time for Windows upkeep since the jerk's departure. (Wait, did I say that out loud?)

At worst, I thought I might find some massive spyware infestation. Fortunately, things weren't that bad -- but I still had a reasonable amount of work to do. In the process, I re-learned a couple of lessons that you might find useful in your own computer maintenance.

The first issue was this Dell's Web browsers. The copy of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 stalled when I tried to run it, crashing a few minutes later. I launched her copy of Mozilla Firefox and saw one clue of what might've been wrong: three toolbars eating up space at the top of the window. One was from the AVG anti-virus software, one came from Yahoo, and the third came from Verizon. None added any meaningful utility; with my friend's permission, I removed them all.

But this copy of Firefox was also a full version out of date -- Firefox 2 is no slouch, but Firefox 3 is a good deal more secure and more efficient. I installed the latest version, deleted the bookmarks previously auto-imported from Internet Explorer, and made it the default browser.

I also updated the computer's Adobe Flash and Reader plug-ins; both were out of date, the former by a full three versions. (Astute readers may notice that all the steps listed so far are part of my standard tune-up for new computers.)

Then it was time to go through the "Add or Remove Programs" control panel to see what other obsolete programs needed eviction. Some of the offenders listed there -- like the gigabyte's worth of old versions of Sun Microsystems' Java software left in place by the company's (until recently) boneheaded auto-update mechanism -- would show up on almost any PC of a certain age.

But others only demonstrated what a horrendous job Dell did with its software bundle earlier in this decade.

For example, we almost immediately uninstalled a pointless Dell Image Expert program; this application had suffered some sort of corrupted-settings problem that caused it to throw up an error message every time she tried to double-click a photo. We also yanked a cluster of add-on applications provided for the Dell's Creative Labs soundcard and nuked the MusicMatch program that Dell shipped with its PCs years after Yahoo's mismanagement had made that program irrelevant.

A third round of uninstalls covered programs added by peripherals or programs no longer in use -- like the driver for the ex-husband's Dell MP3 player, the photo-album software for an old Nikon camera, the networking helper application once employed by a Microsoft wireless router, and two components of an old Symantec security suite.

Last came the ex's own applications, mostly a bunch of games and a few photo and video editors.

I drew two lessons from this experience.

One is that you really should make a point of going through your installed programs once a year or so to see which ones no longer provide any value. Irrelevant applications don't just take up disk space; they also clutter the Start Menu and, if they break, can cause all sorts of mysterious errors.

The other is that application developers need to put more effort into their uninstaller routines. Unless they somehow think that the person removing their current program will never, ever use any other software they ship, they need to treat the uninstall experience as their last chance to make a positive impression. But most of the uninstallers I saw yesterday were insultingly bad. Creative's was the worst -- it insisted on running in full-screen mode, as if it were a video game. But many others were almost as painful to watch. I found it particularly alarming to see so many of these uninstall tools feature the same computer-plus-CRT-plus-floppy-disks icon that graced Windows 95's setup assistant; that suggests a fundamental lack of attention to detail.

Have you done any spring cleaning of your computers, or those of friends or family members? What's on your to-do list each time? Share your tips in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 6, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Tips  
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I would love to be able to clean up my computer, but I am paralyzed by the thought that I'll delete something I need. For example, I just saw that I have Adobe 6 listed with a Microsoft icon and Adobe 8 with an Adobe icon. I'm afraid to uninstall that Adobe 6. Yet I update whenever they prompt me to.

Posted by: reader35 | April 6, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I just did this to my mom's computer yesterday. Secunia's online tool to search for programs that need updating is invaluable.

FYI, I keep her programs a mirror of mine (SeaMonkey, OpenOffice, etc.) so that tech support is easier for me.

Posted by: Hemisphire | April 6, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Stuff like this makes me glad I can just drag and drop my unused applications into the trash in Mac OS X.

Posted by: ilikeike | April 6, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I switched to a Mac after years of doing seemingly continual maintenance on a PC. However, I do the upkeep on my daughter's Windows-based laptop, and the first thing I did was uninstall all the junkware every PC seems to come with. It's crazy how difficult it can be to delete all the little bits left over afterwards (not to mention the obsolete versions), for which you almost have to resort to additional software. I'm so grateful that Mac apps clean up after themselves when you update to new versions.

Posted by: krazykat23 | April 6, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I try to keep my PC running as smooth and clean as possible. After 6 months of the Microsoft Office Trial that came with my PC, I have finally switched to OpenOffice (nnow that I am in read only mode). Is there any danger in saying bye-bye to office, or should I be keeping it around for some monopolistic reason?

And what's the best format to save my writer docs in, I have been having trouble sending them to my mac friends and work computer?

Posted by: The_Dude_Abides1 | April 6, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

How timely. I was getting error messages regarding Flash when I got on the Wa Post site. IE would say "bye-bye" and close. Downloaded a fresh update of flash and reader while I was at it.

Posted by: tbva | April 6, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I do spring cleaning on my computers routinely. CCleaner is one of the first applications I install on new computers and virtual PCs. I know people try to make this a PC-vs-MAC but it's not. It's just irresponsible behavior by software manufacturers (most of whom release PC software)

Posted by: tundey | April 6, 2009 6:34 PM | Report abuse

I am in the same situation as reader35. How do I know what I can and cannot remove? My Dell has all sorts of programs I have never heard of (and my Toshiba laptop is even worse) -- but how do I know what is actually junk and what is some program I need???

Posted by: Eremita1 | April 6, 2009 9:40 PM | Report abuse

When my computer scientist son was in school, he and his friends would back off the programs that they wanted to restore, reformat the hard-drive, and then reload all of the software. Although drastic and somewhat time-consuming, this always works well because lesser measures usually do not clean up the Windows registry and get rid of a large number of obscure files (particularly device drivers).

Posted by: jmjm1 | April 7, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

One issue that I came across when helping with a recently divorced person's computer was the removal of a key-logger program that this person's ex-jerk had installed on the computer to allow him to snoop remotely (the guy was apparently a real winner).

Other items included no less than two Instant Messaging programs that would start up and automatically log-in on reboot. I figured this allowed the ex-jerk to know when she was on the computer.

I systematically hacked out all of these cyber stalker aids and did the usual software updates and removal.

So, recently separated couples should watch for this type of thing and should also change all of their passwords just to be safe.

Posted by: Annorax | April 7, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

My main daily-use computer runs Linux, so it takes virtually no maintenance.

My Windows-running video editing computer is another story. But since I need peak performance from it, I am very careful about what software I load on it (not much besides essential video and audio utilities), and once a year I spend a day doing the "wipe out and reload the OS and all software" thing.

My C drive has nothing but the OS and programs on it. All my data is stored on a second internal drive or on one of three external USB hard drives.
This makes my re-installs as quick and painless as they can be with Windows.

Posted by: roblimo | April 7, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like the author has it bad for his 'friend'.

Posted by: Classic60 | April 7, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I have a two year-old HP Pavilion PC. I would regularly do the HP Updates program until one day after a reboot I noticed the dialog "You need to Reboot to Complete Installation". Each Reboot (about 20) produced the same dialog. HP's Updates are an All-or-Nothing routine, so there is no way to unselect certain parts of the update. Finally a Restore back to about 45 days made the dialog go away. But the same thing happened with the next round of HP Updates. So I just Cancel the Updates now.

Posted by: orangepinto76 | April 7, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I have an Apple i-Mac and, consequently, have no problems whatsoever... with anything.

Posted by: squarf | April 7, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

You didn't mention cleaning up the MS IE problems. I think she'll need that if only to get manual updates from MS.

Posted by: RPinFlorida | April 7, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Ref OrangePinto76 problem. I have a 2 year old HP Pavilion. I have the auto update set and have never had such a problem.

Posted by: RPinFlorida | April 7, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

We're a MAC family, but Apple users beware of the memory trap. We've found duplicate files of stuff that simply junks up our hard drives because we've made copies of copies, and haven't deleted them.

MAC users may be relatively immune from viruses and the like, but not from messes of our own making...

Posted by: CaptainJohn2525 | April 7, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Every time I get the urge to buy a new computer because my current one is running slow I use msconfig to clean up my startup items. Saves me a lot of money! It's a little tedious because I have to search out all the new entries on the internet. I save a screenshot of the necessary items that I leave activated.

Posted by: amiller8 | April 7, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Amen about the silly Dell ad-ons. A few years ago I bought my son a Dell dual-core Pentium as he headed off to college. The dual-core was new back then, but Dell seemed to treat is as just another machine, loading it down with a horrendous number of inits, "utilities", demos, and useless advertising garbage. As a consequence attempts to install from MS Office Student Edition and a game purchased from Dell failed.

I'm not a Windows user (I use Linux), but a patient, intelligent young man in Dell tech support (yes, in India) spent 2 hours on the phone with me removing the garbage and disabling what we could not remove. I have not spoken badly about off-shore tech support since.

The experience contributed to #2 son buying a Mac when he went to college. It also confirmed my actions with 4 of the 5 Dells I've set-up--boot from a Linux CD, repartition, reformat, and load a reliable OS.

Posted by: jthaddeus | April 7, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Keep all of your data files in one directory. The first thing I do when I get a new computer is create a C:\todd directory and point the "My Documents" folder to that location. Then, any time I save a personal file, I save it to that directory or an appropriate subdirectory.

When I'm ready to do spring cleaning, I just back up all of my files to another machine or a DVD and then reinstall windows entirely from scratch. It takes less time and is less of a hassle to do this than it is to go application by application and figure out what needs to be removed and what needs to be updated.

Posted by: tgoglia | April 7, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Despite being a Mac user continuously from the Apple II+ onward, I am in the same situation as Windows users who are dismayed by trying to decide which programs, etc. can be removed without doing major damage. I have already screwed up Mac Photoshop LE using Spring Cleaning.

For those of us who are relatively computer illiterate there just seems to be no way to tackle the problem short of hiring more knowledgeable help.

Posted by: lufrank1 | April 7, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

After 6 months of the Microsoft Office Trial that came with my PC, I have finally switched to OpenOffice (nnow that I am in read only mode). Is there any danger in saying bye-bye to office, or should I be keeping it around for some monopolistic reason?

And what's the best format to save my writer docs in, I have been having trouble sending them to my mac friends and work computer?

Posted by: The_Dude_Abides1 | April 6, 2009 4:25 PM
With your OpenOffice you run no risk whatsover of saying good-bye to Microsoft Office. OpenOffice can easily import Microsoft Office files but the reverse is not true so it's advisable to save your files in Microsoft Office format to share them with your friends who may have or have not OpenOffice installed on their computers. In many respects OpenOffice is much better and more user-friendly than Microsoft Office and is in no way inferior to the latter.

Posted by: RussianCommy | April 7, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

This procedure works really well, but may seem a bit draconian. Purchase another hard drive and install it as the master; the old drive as the slave. Then get out your recovery disk and reload the operating system and then load the applications you paid for. Do not load any of the freebies bloatware) that came with the computer. Download all the updates for the installed software. Now you can download Firefox, Foxit reader, antivirus,etc. Your own personal files are still on the slave drive an can be accessed there.

Posted by: b_100666 | April 7, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

I wish you had commented on the subject of the long list of Microsoft updates, hotfixes and security fixes which populate the list when one brings up Add/Remove Programs. Does one have to keep them all????

Updates and Security fixes for 2007 Office=7
Framework 2 SP2
Framework 3 SP2
Framework 3.5 SP1
MS Office PPS =4
MS Office XP Small Business = 18 Updates, hotfixes, security updates.
Windows XP = 38 items updates etc.
Windows SP3

Does one have to keep them all?
Are they cumulative and inclusive?

Seems like Microsoft would forget to delete unneeded stuff when they update automatically. They tend to be negligent about using space.

Posted by: beagun27 | April 8, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

People should remember that spring cleaning should also include opening up your computer every year or two and remove the dust which coats the inside.

I have done this for a couple of people along with my own and been amazed how much dust accumulates. I have even salvaged a computer that someone gave away because it failed. Removing dust was all it took to get it working reliably for a couple of years as a spare PC.

Posted by: beagun27 | April 8, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

My Sister was taking her two years old HP laptop to a technician due to very slow performance. I recommended her CCleaner before doing so . After running it, that program cleaned a lot of junk that remained on her computer each time she surfed the web or uninstalled a program. The program also fixed the windows registry which was a mess, finding more than three hundred issues. Now her laptop runs almost like the day she bought it.
Run CCleaner once a week or after having uninstalled old or unusefull programs.

Posted by: m_troli | April 8, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Great article! I notice a few commenters mentioning how they would love to do something like this, but are terrified that they might delete something they need.

If you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself, the company I work for.... ... offers a service nearly identical to this that can be delivered over your internet connection (no need to take your computer anywhere or have a stranger come into your home to do it.)

For a lot of people, it really is worth paying a professional for the peace of mind of knowing that, if they delete anything you need, it can all be reversed and there is a moneyback guarantee.

Thanks for covering this important topic!

Posted by: heather15 | April 9, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

The author is letting his personal feelings impact his journalistic integrity. (1) In the context of an article on Computer Spring Cleaning, the snipe toward his friend's ex-husband was inappropriate, if not puerile. (2) The author fails to cite his friend's own irresponsibility with respect to computer maintenance. Unnecessary toolbars and out of date applications are problems that exist by choice or continue by laziness. While I agree that "application developers need to put more effort into their uninstaller routines," foregoing computer maintenance until they do so is hardly productive.

Posted by: RMNE01 | April 13, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

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