Computers need to be cleaned, too

Desktop computers and laptops need a good spring cleaning, just like everything else, to keep them secure and in working order.

According to Paul Rosenberg, owner of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based repair shop Love Your Computer, now’s a great time to physically clean the innards of your desktop by removing the side panel and vacuuming out the accumulated dust and dirt near air vents.

“Make sure that vents are open on the outside as well, not covered with papers or pressed up against the wall,” Rosenberg said. “Airflow is critical to the long-term health of a desktop computer.”

It’s also a good time to inventory your installed programs. The longer you’ve used your machine, the more software you’ve probably collected, so figure out what you no longer need and remove it.

“Over time, you may find that you have two, three or more programs that all do essentially the same thing, along with a load of others you installed ages ago but no longer use,” IBM Distinguished Engineer Jeff Crume said.

“Some of these may load when the system is booted and run in the background all the time, using up valuable resources and potentially exposing a system to additional vulnerabilities.”

Spyware accumulates in a similar way, so Crume suggested clearing it out with programs like Spybot (free) or Ad-Aware (free to $3 a month).

If you’re feeling particularly uninstall-happy, Rosenberg said to consider ridding your system of Java, which he said is the most common backdoor for malware attacks on your operating system.

“There is an excellent chance your computer has several old versions installed,” Rosenberg said. “There is just as good a chance that, at this point, you do not need it for anything.”

If you’re still partial to the platform, he advises keeping only the latest version and staying on top of updates.

Java’s not the only program with bugs, though, and some can affect your system’s security. If you’re running Windows, make sure Windows Update is configured to notify you when updates and patches are ready to be installed. And Crume said to pay attention to other programs on your system, especially Adobe Acrobat.

Last tip: If you don’t have one already, get a back-up solution. Crume recommends buying an external hard drive, leaving it connected, and letting an automated backup and recovery program do the job for you.

Hard drives can fail without warning, and reformatting or replacement means losing valuable — even irreplaceable — files.

“Storage is cheap, data recovery is decidedly not, and most users’ data sets are growing all the time,” Rosenberg said.

Starting with a clean slate’s not a bad feeling, even if it is temporary.

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