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How to perform a DIY tune up of your PC

When did you last tune up your PC? Never? Maintaining your computer, whether it runs OS X or Windows, is essential to keeping it peppy – and keeping you sane. If you tune up on a regular basis, you'll probably be much happier with your desktop or laptop's performance.

This article is about doing a tune up yourself, rather than installing software that will do it for you. If you don't understand what it means to tune up a computer, or you’d prefer an automated tune up, then check out our previous article on tuning up your PC for computer novices.

Here, you'll find a more in-depth step-by-step overview for tuning up your PC yourself, with additional details and resources to illustrate the steps when necessary. My advice about learning to do tune ups isn't laden with too much technical jargon, and it focuses on coming up with a system for making sure you follow through on tuning up regularly.

What do you get out of a PC tune-up?

Tuning up your PC usually makes it quicker and more responsive, helps it run efficiently, and in some respects, extends the life of the machine. You'll be less likely to replace your computer if it continues to run just fine (well, until some new lighter and thinner, or faster and bigger eye candy whets your tech appetite). As with any other complex machinery, if you don't perform basic upkeep on your computer, you'll notice over time that it isn't performing as well as it did before.

In many ways, tuning up a PC keeps it internally organised. Essential files are managed appropriately, junk gets tossed, and parts of the system that were starting to get messy or torn apart (fragmented) are patched back together again.

How often should you tune up?

How often you tune up your computer is largely a matter of preference. Some people do it daily or monthly, while others take a more random approach. In most cases, you should probably tune up at least once every three months, but once a month or once a week is probably better. Part of the reason I recommend making it a monthly or weekly chore is so that it can become a regular habit. It's easier for most people to stick to doing something "every Monday morning" or "once a month on the first of the month" than something less rigid.

If calendars and to-do lists are your thing, set up a recurring reminder or appointment.

You could also get into the habit of doing a partial tune up on a regular basis, and save the full tune up for "every couple of weeks." There's no reason to be too rigid about your schedule or system for remembering. Do what works best for you.

Steps of a typical PC tune up

Here is a basic checklist for a typical tune up:

1.Backup your data (always, always first)

2.Run all software and OS updates

3.Check hard drive for errors/check performance/check CPU

4.Run a full malware scan with an antivirus tool or suite

5.Delete unnecessary files (this step is more complicated than it sounds – see below)

6.Uninstall unused or unwanted programs

7.Defrag (unless you have a solid-state drive, in which case, don't ever defrag)

8.Backup again

Like I said, you don't necessarily have to go through the whole list every time you tune up. Perhaps you tackle steps 1, 2, and 5 more frequently than the rest. It depends on what you do with your computer. For example, a big part of my job is to test software, so I uninstall programs much more frequently on my office computer than my home computer.

Here are a few more notes on each of the steps.

1. Backup your data

Make sure you back up all your important data to an external drive, or to the cloud (or indeed both for good measure) before you begin tinkering with your PC. Nothing is likely to go wrong – but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

2. Run all updates

Check for software and driver updates. Be sure to update not only Windows or Mac OS X, but everything, including programs, browsers and their plug-ins. Save yourself some time by setting all your software/OS to check for updates automatically. When a reminder pops up to tell you new software is available to install, either do it on the spot, or save it for the next time you shut down your machine. I prefer the install-and-shut down method because who cares how long it takes to update the software if I'm done using my computer anyway? Let it do its thing when it's most convenient for you. Note: Some users may prefer not to automate updates, vetting each one's potential issues before installing. That's fine for experts, but for the majority of users who won't be able to evaluate the updates anyhow, the small risk of automation outweighs the benefits.

3. Check hard drive for errors

Both Windows and Mac OS have a utility for checking the hard drive for errors and repairing them. See Microsoft's instructions for Windows and Apple's for Mac. (Note that with Windows 8.1, you right click the Start button, select File Explorer, and then you can select your hard disk properties and follow the rest of the instructions).

4. Run a full malware scan

Some jobs you just can't do yourself. To protect your computer from spyware, viruses, and other malware, use a good antivirus tool, and run a full scan. This step can be automated, too.

5. Delete unnecessary files

Those three little words are deceptively simple – in fact this is quite a complex task. This step may be a very good reason to use a tune up utility – even if you only want to use it for this step and turn off some of the other features so you can do them yourself. A well-used computer has thousands and thousands of files that you don't need to keep forever and which you should dump from time to time. Of course, you'll delete working files, like Word documents and PDFs that you don't need anymore, but more important are all the Internet cache files, system temp files and other detritus, such as the clipboard memory and "recently used" history. Whatever you decide, set some guidelines for yourself, like: "I'll dump my browser's cache every Friday." Make rules for yourself so that you follow through, even if that rule is: "Run CCleaner (a free tune up utility that can sweep unnecessary files) once a month."

6. Uninstall unused or unwanted programs

Periodically, uninstall programs that you don't use. Mac users can drag them to the trash bin, then empty it, while Windows users can uninstall from the Control Panel.

7. Defrag

Note: If you have a solid-state drive, do not defrag ever. Also, if you’re running Windows 8 you needn’t worry about this, as the process is automated by default. Mac users don't have to worry about defragging (or "defragmenting," which means pulling back together fragmented pieces of data on the hard drive) either because the OS does it for them since version 10.2. However, if you have less than 10 per cent free space on your Mac, the OS may not be capable of running its defrag operations. In that case, you don't need another defrag tool – you need to exercise the delete button, and then empty the trash. Windows users (who do not have an SSD) should defrag occasionally, and defrag should be very nearly the last step of a tune up. Windows comes with a built-in disk defragmenter. Run it, but also take a moment to set it to run automatically on a weekly or monthly schedule.

8. Backup again

Enough said.

Rules for tune ups

As much as you can automate PC tune ups, you also have to remember to set guidelines and rules for yourself so that you follow through with all these upkeep tasks. As with most organisational chores, the first time takes the longest. So set aside a few minutes to get your head around tuning up your PC, and then put in place all of the tasks you can automate to help you accomplish tuning up as easily as possible on a regular basis.

Or just install a tune up utility, of course.