Computers don't age well. Once-speedy machines can easily slump into slothfulness after just a few years. As unwanted files pile up, wait times drag on. But with a little maintenance, you can save your PC from an early retirement.
Quick note: While most of the Monitor's computer suggestions cover both Macs and PCs, Apple fans will need to sit out this article. Also, if you're looking for tips on how to keep a new computer chugging along for many years to come, check out our companion piece.
Inside and out. Tuning up a computer means tackling both digital and physical clutter. PCs suck up gobs of dust and pet fur. This soot can coat chips and clog fans, trapping hot air that could cook a machine. Even if your computer's fan isn't thrumming like a leaf blower, it's a good idea to sweep out the dust bunnies once a year.
Get a compressed air can from an electronics or office supply shop. Back up all your files just in case, unplug your PC, and carry it into an uncarpeted room to avoid static electricity. Carefully open up the computer – this might require a screwdriver – then spray out the fuzz. Cotton swabs or a soft paintbrush can clear a choked fan. Slight amounts of water or rubbing alcohol work well on the case, mouse, and keyboard, but never use liquid, cloth, or a vacuum on a computer's innards.
Windows cleaner. Two kinds of files can slow down a system: malicious software that hogs resources and simple litter that distracts your computer.
Be aware that antivirus programs don't get along with each other. If you switch to Avast, you'll need to turn off your current antivirus software. Otherwise, the two will butt heads and possibly leave your machine unprotected – kind of like two baseball players each yelling "I've got it" at a pop fly and then colliding in the outfield.
The second kind of problematic file isn't out to get you, it's just clutter. Use Microsoft's own Disk Cleanup to sweep out forgotten corners of your hard drive. The program, which comes with Windows, will toss hundreds if not thousands of junk files. Also, sometimes Windows takes large files and breaks them into small pieces scattered across the hard drive. When you later run these disassembled files, the computer needs to search the drive for all the little chunks, slowing things down. Disk Defragmenter, another Windows freebie, glues all the pieces together again.
New engine. Some aging PCs can regain their vigor by swapping in new parts. Computer memory, or RAM, does not come as a one-size-fits-all, so be careful which kind you buy. Crucial.com has a decent database of the many options. The website, owned by RAM manufacturer Micron, walks shoppers through the process but doesn't always have the best deals. If you're certain which memory chips to buy, Newegg.com offers competitive prices.
Reader feedback. Monitor reader Jonathan Walsh wrote in to suggest that people open up their computers outdoors: "When you use a can of compressed air to blow the dust out of your computer be sure to do it, if at all possible, outside! Anyone who has tried it indoors will attest to the fact that even the cleanest of computers can fill a room with enough dust to send you running for air!"