Spring cleaning your computer

Computer desktops can get pretty much like real desktops except that they are much harder to tidy up. With the computer, its not just the desktop, its the hard drive and often the program files themselves that all clamour for a spring clean.

The best way to spring clean a computer is to reformat its drive and reinstall its operating system. This can be a scary prospect but its not as hard, or as dangerous as it sounds.

Even if you can afford it, its rarely a good idea to get someone else to do the tidying for you because they wont know what you need to keep and what you don't. The trouble is, you often don't know what you really need to keep either so the mess just keeps on accumulating and your performance at finding things you need keeps on getting worse.

This is made worse still if you use Microsoft windows because its registry files and file system degrade with the clutter leading to the machine itself getting slower and slower.


Luckily, storage is getting cheaper on an almost daily basis and this creates a nice opportunity for an easy way to spring clean your machine without too much aggravation. I'm talking mainly about Microsoft Windows here but this applies to Linux systems too. In fact, the robustness of Linux can work against you here because they can get into a much bigger mess before performance suffers so much that you have to do something about it.


Here are the steps you can take to do your own spring clean without losing days of work or valuable files.

  1. Get an external hard drive with more capacity than your current system and test it on your system. You can get 500Gb for less than $200 these days so its unlikely this will break the bank.
  2. For a week, make a note of all applications you actually use. If in doubt, use the "Help | About" to log the software name and version.
  3. Locate and make a note of your ISP connection details, your username/passwords etc.
    A handy trick I use is a dedicated password file (see Securing passwords) and the xmarks utility to keep all my browser bookmarks (favourites) and website login information available across different machines.
  4. Collect up the installation disk for Windows, your Windows licence (it may be on a sticker on your PC), any special driver disk you received with your PC and hopefully any of the disks or installation files for the applications you have logged. Use google if necessary to track everything down.
  5. Make sure you know how to reinstall any special hardware (EFTPOS, VOIP phones etc.) - stuff like webcams, microphones and the like will generally be handled quite well by the default windows installation.
  6. Got everything ready? Take a deep breath. From here on you aren't doing any other work on your PC until the spring clean is complete. Start this at a time when you can leave the PC backing up for a good few hours and when you can spend a couple of hours after that re-installing the system.
  7. Boot Windows in safe mode. This depends on the PC or laptop but its usually done by pressing the "F8" key as the computer restarts.
  8. Plug in the external drive and copy the entire hard drive (or drives) to it. Right click on your "C drive" in an explorer and copy it to a new folder on the external drive such as "20090901Archive". Don't compress it - it will take long enough as it is and storage is cheap.
  9. Go to bed, watch a movie, have some fun. The backup could take a few hours depending on how much you've got on the drive. The big stuff is usually movies, pictures or music.
  10. When its finished, check the backup by reviewing some of the folders and files. You should be able to see that the structure and content is the same as your hard drive.
  11. Disconnect the external drive. There is a "Safely remove hardware" button (usually one of the bottom right icons) you should use for this if possible.
  12. Take another deep breath.
  13. Stick in your latest Windows CD and restart the machine
  14. Follow the prompts but press escape to bypass the "repair" option - reformat your drive and reinstall windows.
  15. Reconnect your external drive and restart your (now pristine and clean) pc
  16. Reinstall the applications as you need them. Avoid the temptation to do this all in one go because you are likely to end up installing applications you don't really need that way.
  17. As you find you need old files, go to them on the external drive and copy them onto the new machine in the place you want to keep them. Only copy the files you need when you actually need them.

Now its clean, here is a tip for keeping the desktop fairly tidy: Try to keep your desktop for "current" work and use "shortcuts" to files rather than the files themselves. That way you can delete the shortcuts without worrying about losing or re-organising the files and you'll always be able to find the files in their original folders. Don't create folders until you need them and don't be afraid of re-organising. Use Beagle or Google desktop to find files rather than spending time searching manually.

Spring cleaning is a good time to think seriously about whether you need to continue paying for your virus prone Microsoft Windows/Microsoft Office based system. Take a look at Ubuntu Linux as a great desktop replacement that has all of the office capabilities and is compatible with Microsoft files. You can test it off the disk without risking anything and you can set your machine up to boot both Windows and Linux if you are nervous about getting rid of Windows completely. Ubuntu can read the backup described above but will not run your applications directly - you will need to check for compatible or equivalent applications if you are using anything other than Microsoft Office products and web browsers.

Here are some links to more detailed reinstallation guides that you might find useful. The biggest problems usually come from driver issues, particularly with older computers but modern operating systems are generally very good at including suitable default drivers (Microsoft XP or Ubuntu Linux 8.04 and beyond) so you are not likely to encounter serious problems.


ice maker 6 years, 11 months ago

ice-making machine
Luckily, storage is getting cheaper on an almost daily basis and this creates a nice opportunity for an easy way to spring clean your machine without too much aggravation.

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Dell power Supply 6 years, 5 months ago

Very informative and well written post! I could get lot more knowledge from your article.. thanks for sharing.

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