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A guide to PC maintenance: How to look after your computer

We've all had the urge to throw our misbehaving computer out the window to the street below. They are wonders of technology, but they can also be maddening devices, occasionally put here to vex us. Deep down, though, we know the problem is often, well, ourselves. Sometimes you just don't treat the hardware – nor its operating system – the way it should be treated.

It's not like you need to buy it flowers or jewellery, but you do have to pay it some attention. In other words, you need to perform some consistent maintenance for a PC to treat you well in return. So, here’s a list of things you – or those who torture you most with unnecessary tech support calls – can do to repair your relationship with your computer, starting today. Remember, some of these tips might sound basic, but they're often ignored. And, hey, everyone has to start somewhere.

Fight the dust

Dust is the ultimate enemy of the innards of the PC, causing heat build up that can result in spontaneous reboots or worse. Buy some canned air and be sure to blow out the vents. Be sure not to spin any fans with the air, though, as that could damage them potentially – you can stop them being spun by putting, say, a screwdriver in the fan blades.

Stay off the floor

We understand that your desk space comes at a premium, but try not to put your PC on the floor. Not only will you avoid the bigger, meaner dust bunnies, but elevation keeps the computer away from overactive feet kicking out the plug, protects it from out of control vacuum cleaner collisions, and guards it from, worst of all, carpet-generated static electricity.

Out of the closet

Some computer furniture features a built-in, hideaway cabinet to store a desktop/tower PC. The computer is not Harry Potter! Do not put it in a closet. Heat build up will kill it – let your PC breathe.

Don't mash the keys

Guess what? Pushing the button for the lift multiple times doesn't help. Neither does bashing your keyboard.

Stop having lunch with YouTube

We've all had to work through lunch, or even just spent our lunch enjoying a little YouTube, so, odds are, the occasional crumb or spilled drink has made its way onto your keyboard and into your laptops. Keep the mess away from your system.

Keep inputs clean

On a computer, nothing gets dirtier than your keyboard and mouse – even if you don't eat lunch at your desk. The build up of crud can prevent decent typing or cursor movement. You should clean these peripherals with canned air, or even a vacuum with a brush.

Limit program auto-loading

Lots of programs start with Windows, but not all of them should. It’s worth taking a look at the list of applications which launch upon boot, and trimming out any unnecessary ones. To see the list of programs, you need to launch the System Configuration utility (MSCONFIG). In Windows 7 and Windows Vista, click the Start button and simply enter MSCONFIG. When MSCONFIG pops up, click the Startup tab (in Windows 8, the Startup tab can be found under the Task Manager, which you reach by pressing Control-Alt-Delete together, as ever). This tab lists all non-essential programs that launch at startup, with a checkbox to reversibly disable each item (or a Disable button in Windows 8). Go through and turn off anything you don’t want.

Wash Windows, carefully

The window to your Windows is your monitor. Keep it clean and fingerprint free – but don't use actual glass cleaner on an LCD screen unless you like permanent streaks. Use soft cloths (like you'd use on spectacles) for dust, and buy advanced monitor wipes to do any serious cleaning.

Defrag drives

As hard disk drives get bigger and bigger, it’s more important than ever to defragment the contents. This way the computer won't spend all of its time trying to find files spread across the platters. Note that if you’re one of those who has made the leap to Windows 8, you don’t need to worry on this score, as the OS handles defragging duties automatically (that’s the default setting for Windows 8). Also note that if you have an SSD, you don’t want to defrag that, as it’s not necessary, and will in fact reduce the life of your drive.

Remove old programs

We all occasionally install software we don't use regularly, if at all, in the long run. Those extra programs do more than take up space, and you should ditch them. It’s worth scanning through your list of installed programs (in the Control Panel, under Programs, you’ll find Uninstall a Program) and dumping any unnecessary apps.

Clean the (OS) crap

Those uninstalled programs leave stuff in the registry. Couple that with browsers cookies, OS temp files, memory dump files, and file fragments, and after a while your hard drive could be clogged with a whole lot of crap. Run CCleaner (guess what the extra C is for) to excise the unneeded.

Go to Sleep (or Hibernate)

It's tempting to let PCs run 24/7, but everything needs to rest occasionally. If you don't want to go through a long boot process, at least set your PC to sleep (a power-saving mode) or better yet, hibernate (it saves your work and almost powers off but comes back faster than having to perform a full boot-up).