How to Clean and Maintain Your PC (Beginner’s Guide)

CG Director Author Tim Whiteby Tim White   /  Updated 
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How to Clean and Maintain Your PC (Beginner’s Guide)

Few things are more frustrating than a PC that takes ten minutes to load your favorite Software and Games.

If yours is taking its sweet time, it may be the case that it’s simply old and nearing the end of its life—but don’t take it to the recycling center just yet.

There are quite a few things you can try that might improve its performance significantly.

Start Simple

There are many reasons your PC might be running slow, and just as many possible solutions to the problem.

More often than not, if the problem is fixable, the fix will be relatively simple. In this guide, we’ll start with the easiest solutions and leave the more time-consuming stuff for the end.

Make Sure Your PC Actually Is Slow

Before you spend too much energy optimizing your system, it’s a good idea to do a bit of testing to see if your rig is performing appropriately, given the hardware that’s in there.

Programs like 3DMark and Geekbench are great general-purpose benchmarking tools and would be a good place to start for testing your machine’s capabilities.

They’ll comprehensively stress-test your whole system and let you know if you have any bottlenecks. Most such programs will also give you scores that you can compare against similar hardware to see how yours stacks up.

Alternatively, if you’re only having problems with specific Software & Games, you could try running benchmark tests that are purpose made for that Software or Game, if they offer that option.

Sometimes, the answer is as simple as it is sad; it may be the case that some of your components just aren’t powerful enough to run the Software you need for work or the Games you want to play, in which case it’s time for upgrades.

But if your benchmark scores are lower than you think they should be, there are many things you can try to boost them.

TimeSpy Benchmark Scores showing a Benchmark run with score 9862

Restart It

There are two kinds of people: those who shut down their computers every night and those who leave them running 24/7/365.

There are pros and cons to both, and although leaving your computer running for weeks on end was not a great idea 20 years ago, it’s usually not a big deal nowadays, apart from its impact on your power bill and the environmental implications.

The longer your PC is on, though, the more junk it accumulates in its RAM.

Check RAM usage in the Taskmanager - Maintain your PC

Check RAM usage in the Windows Taskmanager (CTRL+Shift+ESC)

Every program that’s running in the background consumes more system resources, and you may not even know it’s happening because some programs don’t actually close when you tell them to (looking at you, Skype).

Restarting your computer flushes everything out of its RAM, and many speed-related issues can be solved this way. If you notice a significant improvement after restarting, the cause of your problem was likely clogged RAM pipes (to use the technical term).

In that case, shut down your computer every night, or at least 2–3 nights per week, and you should be good to go.

Physically Clean Your PC

When you searched for “how to clean up your computer,” you probably were looking for ways to improve its performance by performing various system tasks (and we’ll get to those, we promise).

But keeping your PC physically clean is super-important too, and many of us don’t dust off our towers nearly as often as we should.

Dusty components get hot faster, which can definitely impact system performance. (If you do professional video editing or 3D modeling and rendering, your PC components are already working hard enough—don’t stress them any more than necessary!)

If it’s been a while since you cleaned out your tower, go ahead and pop off the side panels after shutting down and unplugging your computer. Spray a healthy dose of compressed air in there to blow out the big dust bunnies, then wipe down the exposed surfaces of each component very gently with a microfiber cloth or feather duster.

Finally, hit everything with another shot of compressed air, taking care to blow out any pieces of lint or feathers that you may have left behind. Here’s a handy device that creates compressed air and is re-usable.

If your case fans are dirty, remove them from the case and clean them in the same way. Fan screens can be hard to clean with rags or compressed air, but unless yours has wires or electronic parts running through it, you can simply rinse it out in the sink if need be—just be sure it’s completely dry before reinstalling it.

If you live in an arid, dusty region, it’s best to do all of this at least once a month. If dust is less of a problem where you live, every two months should be fine.

Regularly dusting the room your computer occupies can help, too—if there’s less dust in the room, it can’t get into your delicate components as quickly.

Check for Malware

Viruses and other malware are rarely designed to slow down your computer and call it a day, but they certainly can slow everything down while they’re wrecking your computer in other ways.

If your PC is slower than you think it reasonably should be, even after a restart and a thorough cleaning, checking for malware is the next thing you should do.

If you don’t already have an antivirus program installed, you probably should install one—there are plenty that are cheap or free.

When you find one you like, be sure to schedule daily quick scans and perform deep system scans at least once every few weeks.

Perform Hard Drive Maintenance

Another common cause of a slow PC is a hard drive that’s outdated, fragmented, or simply too full. (Note that only hard disk drives can become fragmented.

Also, note that cleaning up your hard drive is more likely to help if your computer is only slow when trying to access files or programs stored on that drive. If you have a solid-state drive, don’t try to defragment it.)

We recommend installing a program like WinDirStat or TreeSize to help visualize the state of your hard drive. Such programs scan your drives and sort their contents by file size.

They’ll also let you know if any programs or files are taking up more space than they should be or having an unusual impact on your system performance.

Screenshot showing WinDirStat that has analyzed a Storage Disk

Let’s start simple by deleting any files or programs you no longer need, or moving them to cloud storage such as Dropbox or Google Drive.

Once that’s done, go ahead and defragment your hard drive (again, only do this if you have a hard disk drive. Never defragment solid-state drives).

  • On Windows 10, simply type “Defragment” into the system search box and select “Defragment and Optimize Drives.”
  • Windows 7 users should open the Computer window, right-click the hard drive to be defragmented, select “Properties,” then select “Tools,” and finally click the “Defragment Now” button.
  • macOS periodically defragments hard drives automatically, and there’s no way to do so manually.

Next, you should run Disk Cleanup to get rid of any unnecessary files that WinDirStat may have missed.

  • On Windows 10, simply type “Disk Cleanup” into the main search bar.
  • On Windows 7, click the Start menu, then go to All Programs > Accessories > System Tools and select “Disk Cleanup.”
  • macOS has a native “Optimize Storage” utility that can free up space on your hard drive, but it moves those files to your iCloud account, so at that point you’re paying to back up junk files—not an ideal solution. We recommend downloading a program like CleanMyMac to deal with unwanted files more efficiently.

Finally, you should uninstall any programs that you don’t use regularly enough to justify keeping them installed.

Not only will this free up some hard drive space, more importantly, it could reduce the number of programs that constantly run in the background, which will free up more system resources.

  • Windows 7 & 10 users can type “Control Panel” into the main search box, select it, then select “Uninstall a program.”
  • macOS users should open the “Finder” application, click “Applications,” click the program to be uninstalled, select “File > Move to Trash,” and finally empty the trash.

If, by now, you’ve determined that your hard drive is on the fritz—or if that 512MB drive from 2005 isn’t cutting it anymore and you simply need more space.

Once all that’s done, go ahead and reboot your PC. If your speed-related woes still aren’t resolved (or if you’re just on a roll and want to give your computer a super-thorough deep cleaning), read on.

Streamline Your Startup Programs

Remember when we talked about programs that run in the background and hog your RAM? You may not even know it’s happening.

These days, programs that start themselves when you start your computer without ever asking if you want them to do that are pretty common.

If your PC is intermittently slow, but noticeably and consistently slow within the first few minutes of starting up, your problem may be a pile of background apps fighting each other for resources.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to limit the apps that are allowed to start themselves automatically.

  • If you’re using Windows 10, navigate to Start > Settings > Apps > Startup and turn off any startup apps that you don’t use often or that don’t absolutely need to be running all the time.
  • Windows 7 users can press Win + R to open the “run” box, then type “msconfig” and press Enter to open the system configuration utility. Click the “Startup” tab and uncheck any programs you don’t want automatically launching themselves. Use caution and don’t disable an entry if you don’t know exactly what it is. Some of these are system files that can cause problems if you disable them here.
  • If you use macOS, you can do this by opening “System Preferences,” then choosing “Users & Groups” and finding your account name on the left. Then select the “Login Items” tab, and for each program that you want to disable on startup, highlight it and click the “–” button. Restart your Mac when you’re done.

Screenshot of a Win10 Window showing Startup Apps

Resource-hungry programs that launch themselves at startup are so common that you should see at least some improvement after restarting your computer, even if such programs weren’t the primary cause of the problem.

Check Your Scheduled Tasks

One way that Windows optimizes its usage of your system resources is by scheduling certain resource-intensive tasks for times when it thinks you won’t be using your computer.

This is a helpful feature when it works as intended, but it doesn’t always. (macOS doesn’t handle scheduled tasks in the same way and you’re not likely to see speed improvements from messing with it, so this section will only cover Windows computers.)

It’s possible that your PC is slow at certain times because Windows is performing scheduled tasks while you’re using it.

  • To check, type “Control Panel” into the main search box, open it, and navigate to “System and Security.” Then, click on “Administrative Tools” and select “Task Scheduler.”
  • Alternatively, you could simply type “Task Scheduler” into the main search bar, but for some reason, it doesn’t always pop up.

Most tasks should be named in such a way that it’ll be obvious what they are, but if you don’t recognize what a task is, click on it to view its description. If you’re still not sure what it is, it’s best to leave it alone.

  • To edit a scheduled task, right-click on it, select “Properties,” click over to the “Triggers” tab, and edit the task to start at a different time.

Screenshot of the Win10 Task Scheduler

In most cases, it doesn’t really matter when scheduled tasks run, so you can set them to start at any time that works for you.

For example, your daily antivirus scan can run during your lunch break or late in the evening, and if you frequently move lots of data back and forth in Dropbox or Google Drive, you can tell those programs to only sync themselves after your normal work (or gaming!) hours.

Upgrade Your Hardware

If all else fails, it may just be time to update or replace your PC or some of its components. The bad news, of course, is that a new PC can be expensive.

The good news is that modern hardware is incredibly powerful and will be able to handle most modern games and Software and routine computing tasks for many years to come.

If you can spare the cash, consider investing in some mid-grade or top-tier hardware now to lengthen the time you’ll get out of your new setup.

Since many speed-related PC problems are related to RAM in one way or another, adding more to your system is a good and relatively cost-effective place to start.

For full System recommendations, we’ve built a PC-Builder tool that will recommend the perfect parts for you in seconds.

Hopefully, at least one of our suggestions helped and your computer is now running more smoothly than it was before.

Do you have any other tips for speeding up a sluggish PC? Let us know in the comments!

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Tim White - post author

Hi, I’m Tim, a freelance writer and editor who spends a lot of time gaming and tinkering with the inside of my PC.

I once got a GTX 970 to (kind of) run Crysis at max settings.

If you have comments or questions, drop them here—I’ll help out if I can!

Also check out our Forum for feedback from our Expert Community.