5 Everyday Things You Can Do to Keep Your Computer Healthy

Learn how to practice safe computing.
Harvard Extension School's Computer Science E-1: Understand

Hygiene is important! Most of us have it under control for ourselves, but for a lot of our technology, it's a bit messier under the hood. Just like keeping your house clean or brushing your teeth addresses problems before they can start, a little prevention of common computer problems can save you hours and dollars down the road. And, as with any intimidating situation, even a little foreknowledge and preparation can be vastly empowering.

For complicated machines like our cars, computers and gadgets, it's easy to be overwhelmed. It's not that we're being walled off from that knowledge at all -- they're our machines, we should know how to work with them, and the information is readily available -- but it can sometimes feel like an episode of "House" in there: Change one thing over here, and suddenly it's going haywire in a completely different area. So we tend to just shrug and keep going, even though our tech could work better than it does.

If you think about how much of your daily life is spent working with, or deriving benefit from, your desktop or laptop computer, that can be scary all on its own. It's a catch-22, in a way: We don't want to mess with our computers because we don't want to cause problems, so we treat the back end like a room we never go into ... which causes problems! Not everybody can be a DIY mastermind -- I'm certainly not one -- but with a few simple routines and tips, you can keep your computer's works as clean as a whistle without ever feeling like you've crossed the line or permanently ruined everything.

In this article, we'll look at the best ways to keep your machine working smoothly and quickly without breaking your budget -- or causing more problems as you learn.

Keeping It Cool
Check to make sure your cooling fans get adequate air circulation.
Check to make sure your cooling fans get adequate air circulation.
©Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

Most of us understand that computers need to stay cool, theoretically. But the convenience of a laptop and the reliability of a desktop make it easy to forget to keep this idea in play. The desktop lives in its own special place, wherever that may be, and we go to it when we need to do something. It's easy to forget all the environmental issues that could be going on in there.

First, you want to ensure that there's plenty of airflow around all sides of the computer, especially the back on a desktop and often the bottom and sides for a laptop. While it's easy to declutter your desk or work area, it's also important to remember this tip if your tower lives under your desk, or in a special cubby, because the hot air in those situations can build up and recycle itself, getting hotter and hotter inside the space. Keep the cabinet doors open, for example, or take off the cubby's back panel to ensure proper flow.

You might have heard, or intuited, that taking the case off your computer is a good idea in cases of overheating. That's actually incorrect, because the case around your computer's guts is there to protect it from dirt and fuzz, which is one of the most common causes of overheating. Dust, pet hair, and all the rest of the daily grime are the biggest cause of PC temperature issues, because they interfere with the fans meant to cool your equipment down. If you've ever cracked a case open and looked at the fans inside, you won't have forgotten that grungy sight. Case closed, please.

Which leads us to the most helpful way to be proactive here: by cleaning and/or replacing the fans that keep everything working. While expensive solutions like water-cooling kits and phase-change units (imagine a high-end deep freeze for your machine) aren't necessary for the average computer, you can easily install extra fans for components inside the machine that are getting too excited for their own good. Chances are, whatever fans came pre-installed are not top of the line anyway, so if you're running into repeat issues on this front you might look into extra, or better, fans.

They're easy to spot: There's going to be one on the CPU, one inside the power supply, and probably another one on the front or side of the case itself. Just turn the computer off, take it outside, and clear those fans out with some canned air before deciding whether to upgrade. It's going to be nasty, but it's also pretty satisfying once you've gotten things clean again.

Powering UPS

Electrical outlets seem like a pretty simple proposition: You plug your stuff into them, and they work. (Even when you travel to other countries, with a little help.) But what we're not seeing our computers deal with is the little blips and interruptions coming out over the grid, all the time. Your average computer sold in the U.S. is meant to work off 120-volt AC power, oscillating at 60 Hz, but often that's not exactly what it's getting. Even if you never see the effect of those slip-ups and surges, the spikes and sags and tiny little brown-outs, the millisecond bumps in oscillation, your computer is feeling them.

The Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers tells us the typical AC outlet in North America gets a surge more than 600v (that's five times what your computer wants, and twice as much as what's dangerous to the equipment) about 13 times daily, and one more than 3000v (10 times the recommended maximum) about three times a week.

In fact, it's estimated that 47 percent of computer problems can be traced back, eventually, to this so-called "dirty power" [source: Superuser] An Uninterruptible Power Source, or UPS, is designed to keep the power coming steadily and constantly, even in the face of a total power outage, by using a battery and modulation system to filter the electric power. Essentially, it means your computer is always running off the UPS's battery, which the UPS is always recharging. That means there's no switchover time, like you'd imagine with a generator or other backup.

If you're convinced, just remember to keep your UPS grounded, replace the battery every three years -- you can get the replacements when you buy the unit, for convenience's sake -- and don't plug your printer or any other external devices into it. And, as is often recommended, it's probably a good idea to let the battery completely die at least a few times a year and recharge it from baseline.

Routine Software Checks
A good antivirus program will update frequently so it keeps the most current information on potential threats.
A good antivirus program will update frequently so it keeps the most current information on potential threats.
©iStockphoto.com/Rob Broek

There are three utilities you should get to know, even if that's as far as you want to go with the man behind the curtain: defragmentation, disk checks and an antivirus program. Most of the free antivirus software we'll be looking at comes bundled with analogues of the other two -- as well as a version of the very helpful task scheduler we'll talk about later -- so we'll focus there, but here are some definitions for the layman. What these terms refer to is the wilderness of digital energy inside your computer's memory drives, which are naturally a lot less tidy than you might expect.

Defrag. Whenever you change, move, copy or delete a file, your computer usually does the minimum work necessary to give you the desired result. That means bits and pieces of files are left around in the empty spaces, not useful but also not gone, meaning your "free" space isn't technically free. A defrag utility will go hunting through the wilds of your free space, collecting those random shadows and getting rid of them for good. This frees up space your computer didn't even know it had, as well as speeding up the machine by pushing all the data that still matters into a more compact area of the disk so that your CPU doesn't have to hunt around for the various pieces of stuff you still care about, mixed in with the trash.

Immensely satisfying, whether you -- like me -- simply prefer things clean and elegant, are paranoid about leftover data, or just want to make everyday tasks easier and faster for your machine. (You will have to clear out at least 15 percent of the space on the drive before it can work, so if your problem is an over-full memory, you'll need to delete some stuff before it can give you the extra space.)

Chkdsk. Hand-in-hand with the defrag utility is this holdover from the early DOS days. It's a brute-force way of checking disks for errors, and it's the kind of thing you don't think about until about five minutes too late. If you don't use a sector of the disk -- or it's been left to the shadows, as above -- you might never know it's troubled until the computer tries to save something there. That's why Defrag usually includes or requires Chkdsk before it starts sorting through your leftovers. Just remember that a disk check requires exclusive access to the volume (For example, "C:" drive) before it starts, so you might have to go play on your phone or tablet for a while.

Antivirus. Of course, we all get into trouble. Even if we're not doing anything particularly shady or questionable, viruses get in: That's what they're made for. You need a solid watchdog program, but you'll also want something you can use for analysis when you're feeling suspicious or nervous about the way something's acting. We judge antivirus software by three things: how much malware and viruses a program can detect, how good it is at getting them out of there without a trace or secondary issues, and how much memory and power they take up.

There are some great free programs on the market that excel in all three areas. The most popular ones are self-updating, meaning they're always learning new red-flags and ways of locating and immunizing against threats, they include utilities like those listed above so you can clean house all from one location (very satisfying), and they include task schedulers that can make all of these things happen while you're asleep!

Back It Up!

One easy way to remember your backup system -- which is to say, remember to actually use it -- is to remember that World Backup Day comes just before April Fool's Day, and that's no mistake. A lot of us are moving into the cloud these days, keeping our information and media online and accessing or streaming it at-will.

But if your needs are different -- if you have lots of data or media you want to keep to yourself, protect, or otherwise maintain access to regardless of equipment failure -- you really should listen to your IT guy and back that stuff up. (You also should have a backup system for all your important files you keep in the cloud.) While external hard drives have become easy to come by, there are plenty of services that provide storage, free or for a price, that can sync your data easily and seamlessly, so that you never have to worry about another crash or disaster.

Questions you should use to guide this search for the perfect match for your needs: How does the syncing work, and how often does it happen? Can you share the data with other people or computers? Can you access your data over the Web? Does it cover more than one computer? How about more than one type? Can you get a plan for both Macs and PCs at once? And how much is price a factor? You're going to be using gadgets other than your desktop or laptop more and more, if you don't already: You may need phone access or tablet access in the future that you don't need now, and the hassle of moving large storehouses of information can quickly be a real drag.

While many of the larger companies cater to a certain kind of paranoia -- as a sales tactic, of course -- these questions still matter, because you need to find the perfect backup service for you. The information that is most important to you will be just as important, at the end of the day, regardless of what you decide here. But in terms of your computer's health, and your own peace of mind, this is a comparison-shopping situation that could end up meaning a great deal down the road. Think about it this way: The more time you spend making the best choice now, the more likely you are to actually use the service, which is the end goal.

Common Sense Prevention
One of the best things you can do for computer maintenance is to become a savvy Web surfer. Don't shop at or download from questionable sites.
One of the best things you can do for computer maintenance is to become a savvy Web surfer. Don't shop at or download from questionable sites.
©Digital Vision/Thinkstock

And then, of course, comes the lecture. You've been through all the nooks and crannies, you've blown out our fans and backed up our hard drives, you've cleaned up your registries and defragged, and even set timers for all this stuff in case it turns out to be less fun -- or memorable -- than I've made it seem. (Imagine your computer's upkeep utilities as a digital Mary Poppins, cleaning up the whole place with an electronic snap of her fingers!)

But none of that is going to help you if you walk right into the same old digital traps. Hygiene and preventive care are fine for mistakes, but that's only assuming you don't go looking for trouble. Music downloads, the Petri dish of peer-to-peer sharing, malware sites you didn't even mean to open, e-mail forwards from your kindly aunt, or well-disguised Trojan horse e-mails: They all happen to the best of us, whether or not we know what we're doing.

That's why you still need to take these threats seriously. There is no installable antivirus program available to protect you from yourself. That means being smart about torrents, downloads, adult sites and file sharing programs, but also taking advantage of protections that are already built into your computer and other programs.

Your browser has safety settings that have nothing to do with content and everything to do with suspicious code -- in fact, some more progressive browsers will even throw up a gateway before you reach some sites, just to make sure it's a trustworthy place to be. If you download a song or movie file and it tells you to download a new plug-in or codec, go get those things yourself instead of simply clicking "yes." Stay away from warez, cracks and serial number generators or downloaders -- all of those are potential danger zones. And most of all, make sure that anybody using your computer is either aware of the dangers, or that you've put measures in place to keep it safe. A lot of us can be confident about our savvy on these topics, but that doesn't extend to other folks using your machine.

In the end, knowledge really is power. But just because you shouldn't be afraid of your computer doesn't mean you shouldn't be wary of jerks, pet hair, or the million other things that could slow down your fun.


White House Aims for Supercomputer Capable of Achieving Exascale

White House Aims for Supercomputer Capable of Achieving Exascale

Supercomputers are getting backing from the White House. Learn more about supercomputers in the U.S. at HowStuffWorks Now.

Author's Note: 5 Everyday Things You Can Do to Keep Your Computer Healthy

I don't know about you, but I only tend to think about things like defragmenting or doing virus checks when I'm already past deadline or otherwise frustrated -- it's easier to blame my computer's performance than my own poor time management skills! Luckily, running a quick scan or deleting old files is a great way to clear out the computer and take my mind off deadlines as they go whizzing past, all at the same time. I read a lot of reviews for different free error-check and antivirus programs, but for my personal use -- and I've never had a problem in 15 years of often risky business -- I prefer CC Cleaner and Spybot Search & Destroy (sites noted below).

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More Great Links


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