5 free ways to clean up Windows

5 ways to spring clean your PC or laptop

If your PC or laptop is running slower than you’d like, try these five easy ways to speed it up. Think of it like a spring clean: clearing out applications you no longer use, removing temporary files which are taking up room on your hard drive are chores you’d probably rather not do, but they can make a big difference to any PC or laptop. We’ve explained the tips in detail for Windows computers, but the principles apply to any computer, including Macs and gaming PCs.

(In fact, if you have a gaming PC or laptop, you should also read: How to make your games run faster: improve fps)

Before we dive in – one way to automatically, rather than manually, make your PC run quicker is by using a decent, trusted disk cleaner. It’s often hard to discern which free online programmes are legitimate and which are nasty virus laden software. Not to worry, as we’ve just the ticket. Click here to download CCleaner, a free, easy to use piece of software that addresses all the major causes of slow PCs to start you off.

Then, follow these 5 steps!

1: Clean up your hard drive

As any PC or laptop ages, data will fill up the hard drive. This in turn slows performance, as your PC has to go further and work harder to find the files and programs it needs to access. This doesn’t apply to SSDs, although if any hard drive is completely full (or almost full) Windows won’t have the space it needs to run properly. You should always aim to have several gigabytes empty (ideally 10-20GB).

Removing as much junk as possible will help to restore your PC- or laptop’s responsiveness. We’ll start with duplicate files. Typically these will be music or photo files. There’s no downside to removing such junk, and the free Easy Duplicate Finder will speed up this process. Install it and follow the simple instructions.

Now you can use Windows’ built-in cleanup functions to create more space: they do so by emptying the Recycle Bin, and removing temporary and other files you no longer need. In Windows 10, just type Disk Clean-up in the search box next to the Windows Start button.

In Windows 7 Go to Start, All Programs, Accessories, then choose System Tools, Disk Cleanup. In Windows 8 go to the Search Charm and type in Disk Clean-up. Click on the result for ‘Clear Disk Space by deleting unecessary files’.

The wizard will identify the files it thinks you can delete, also telling you how much hard-drive space it will free up. Click ‘View files’ if you aren’t sure which files it’s pointing to. If it offers to delete a file you want to keep, simply remove the tick in the box beside it before clicking ‘Clean up system files’.

This can remove a whole load of unnecessary files, including old Windows installations, potentially freeing up tens of Gigabytes of storage space.

2: Delete programs you don’t use or need

Next, remove any programs you don’t use – again Windows has its own tool for this. In Windows 10, just search ‘Add or remove programs’.

In Windows 7 head to Start, Control Panel, Programs and choose ‘Uninstall a program’.

In Windows 8 head to the Search Charm and search ‘Uninstall’. You’ll see an entry for ‘Uninstall programs to free up Disk Space’.

In each case you can see a list of programs and the space they take up. Scroll down the list and select the program you want to remove, then click the Uninstall button at the top of the window. Remember you want to delete only programs you don’t use.

It isn’t always possible to completely remove all traces of a program using Windows’ utility. For this, you need a third-party tool such as Revo Uninstaller. In Revo’s interface, double-click a program’s icon to remove it. You can then scan for and remove leftover files or Registry entries. We’ve rounded up a selection of the the best Windows Uninstallers.

3: Defrag your hard drive

Once you have removed uneccessary files and programs from your PC, a good next step is to compact the remaining data so that your PC can access data in as efficient manner as possible.

Defragging or defragmenting your hard drive is a way of speeding up your PC or laptop in Windows – in principle, at least. The idea is that as data is saved and resaved to the spinning disc in your hard drive, small packets of information are deposited in random places all over the platter. This then takes longer to read, when Windows calls upon your hard drive to find out information.

By defragmenting or compacting that data the operating system removes the gaps between packets of data, moving it all closer to the middle of the disc. This in turn makes each access of the hard drive quicker, by a tiny amount. It should improve the speed of your PC or laptop, even if it does so by only an imperceptible amount.

The only exception to this is if your PC has an SSD. Defragmenting an SSD doesn’t make sense as the technology is completely different, so don’t do it!

To defrag the drive in Windows 7, click the Start button. Select All Programs, then Accessories. Choose System Tools, and then select Disk Defragmenter.

Then hit Defragment Now.

In Windows 8 and Windows 10 your PC, laptop or tablet will defrag itself by default every week, thanks to the scheduled task: Optimise Drives. So if you haven’t changed any settings, you shouldn’t need to defrag. But if you aren’t sure and you want to check the status of- or manually defrag your drive open Search and type in ‘Defragment’. One of the results will be ‘Defragment and optimise your drives’. Select this.

You’ll see a dialog featuring a list of the hard drives in your PC or laptop, their media type, when they were last defragged, and how fragmented they are. You really need to defrag only if the drive is more than  10 percent fragmented. If you can’t see a figure in Current status, to find out if a particular drive needs to be optimized highlight it and hit Analyze. Then confirm your choice. This will update the Current status column.

If any of your drives is fragmented by 10 percent or more, highlight it and hit Optimise. Confirm your choice.

4: Stop programs from starting automatically

You don’t have to get rid of a program from your PC to speed things up. You could just prevent them from automatically loading when you start Windows. Many programs default to starting with Windows so you don’t need to wait around when you later want to use them. But some really aren’t necessary and you may never use them.

You know how your older Windows PC takes an age to boot up? Removing startup programs will help.

In Windows 7 type msconfig in the Start menu Search bar. Click the Startup tab in the System Configuration window and deselect any programs you don’t want to launch at startup. Press Apply, Ok.

Free boot-analysis tool Soluto offers advice on which programs can be safely removed from the startup process. This handy utility improves on the System Configuration tool’s functionality by also letting you defer certain items to load just after the desktop becomes responsive.

Services can also be prevented from running at startup, but be careful: Windows will require some of these to function properly. Enter services.msc into the Start menu Search bar to display a list of startup services, then head to Black Viper to identify which of those services can be delayed or disabled.

It is easier to stop programs launching when Windows 8 or 10 boots as you can do it in Task Manager.

Via search: hit the Windows Key and Q, or bring up the Charms bar in Windows 8 and click the search icon, then type ‘Task Manager’ and hit enter. Then select the Task Manager icon that appears. Alternatively, within the desktop you can right-click on the taskbar, or hit Windows Key and X to bring up the secret Start Menu, and select Task Manager. Finally, you can use Ctrl+Alt+Delete and select Task Manager.

Once you have opened Task Manager, you need to select the Start-up tab. This lists all the programs that launch along with Windows. It also tells you each app’s publisher, and the impact on startup performance listed as either ‘low’, ‘high’ or ‘medium’.

Now simply click on the programs you don’t want to start with your PC, right-click, and select ‘Disable’. Or highlight a program and click ‘Disable’ in the bottom righthand corner of the window. You can reverse this process at any time by clicking on the item and right-clicking, then selecting ‘Enable’, or hitting ‘Enable’ in the bottom righthand corner.

5: Clean up and organise your desktop

Finally, here are some tips to make your life easier when using Windows. They’ll help you find files and folders quicker, regardless of the state of your PC- or laptop’s hard drive.

If you need to find a file in a hurry, enter its name into the Start menu Search box. With Windows 10 search is great, as the box is right there on the Task bar.

In Windows 7 the Windows Search Assistant is useful. But the latter is no match for a desktop-search engine such as Copernic. This free program indexes your entire hard drive to make finding the file you’re looking for much faster.

Documents should be stored in relevant folders, not on the desktop. Open Windows Explorer (File Explorer in Windows 10 and 8).

Go to the Documents folder and create a new folder by right-clicking in some white space on the right and choosing New, then Folder. Named ‘New Folder’ by default, you can rename your archive simply by typing over the highlighted text. Drag-and-drop relevant files into your folder.

Remove unused shortcuts from the desktop – this won’t uninstall the programs they link to, but it will help to keep things tidy and organised. Next, right-click the desktop and choose View, ‘Auto arrange icons’. This will force your remaining shortcuts into a neat grid on the left side of the screen.

You should be able to identify a file’s content from its name, without needing to open it. Adding the location to holiday photo filenames is a good example. It can also be useful to include the date. If you’ve got lots of similar files to rename, copy and paste the common information into each file being renamed.

Get a better view of what’s in your folders: click the ‘Change your view’ icon at the top-right corner of a folder and select Details. File size, creation date and other information will now appear next to a list of your documents. Reorder the list by date, file size and so on by clicking the various tabs at the top of the window.

Keywords, which are visible when you right-click a file and choose Properties, make a file easier to search for. In Word, go to File, Properties, fill in the Keywords field and press Ok. For photos, tags are the equivalent of keywords; click the Tags field at the bottom of a Windows Explorer pane to add them.