Perhaps you've wondered, "Is it just me, or is my PC getting slower?" Well, your PC is getting slower, as what we affectionately call gunk collects in it. Gunk is data, files, and programs you don't need, and debris from applications you've uninstalled. It's the entropy of hard drive fragmentation, and chaos in the Windows Registry from abandoned or corrupted keys. It's spyware and adware, which beyond compromising your privacy can slow your PC and make it unstable.
All this is reversible, though. Once you've swept out your PC, it will be faster and more reliable. Discipline and good habits are important; with regular care, digital gunk will never get the better of you again.
Here are our top five PC degunking techniques. They're most effective when done in the order given.
Purge Your Sent Items Folder
Nearly all e-mail clients keep a copy of every sent message. Though most messages are small, in aggregate their size quickly grows. If you mail large files, you may have many megabytes of them—most of which are stored elsewhere and can be deleted—saved in the Sent Items folder.
Outlook also allows you to delete sent messages automatically after a specified period of time. Choose Tools | Options. Click on the Other tab and then select the AutoArchive button. One option lets you permanently delete items older than a specified age. For other e-mail clients, you may be able to write a filter that automatically deletes messages after a period of time, but the easiest way may be to sort your messages regularly by date, highlight messages older than 30 or 60 days, and then delete them as a batch.
Get Rid of Spyware and Adware
You should eliminate spyware and adware. Many "free" utilities install a program that transmits details about your Web browsing habits to a server owned by an advertising company (if you're lucky). This process will tailor ads (often pop-ups) to your interests, but it may also bring a torrent of spam. Such programs are installed with little warning and are hard to remove. They slow your machine, clog your Registry, and may compromise your PC's network machinery.
And that's just the "legitimate" spyware. Related programs (and much worse) are Trojan horses that steal passwords and open network back doors into your PC for malefactors to exploit. They can also turn your PC into a spam proxy without your knowledge.
It's best to avoid installing spyware in the first place. Before you install a "free" program, see if it comes with spyware. Read the licensing agreement carefully. Also, go to Google and type the program's name, followed by "spyware." If spyware is associated with it, you'll find Web sites carrying other users' cries of agony.
Not all spyware is installed with another application; it may come from a Web site. A pop-up may ask if you want to install something and make it appear that it's a condition of entry. Don't click on Yes. Better, use a pop-up stopper utility, or a Web browser like Mozilla Firefox ( www.mozilla.org/products/firefox ) with a built-in pop-up stopper. (An upgrade to Internet Explorer in the forthcoming Windows XP Service Pack 2 will also have a built-in blocker.)
The most notorious spyware sources are file-sharing utilities, spam-promoted Web sites, and sites offering sleazeware such as porn, warez (pirated software), and cracks (tools to defeat software serial-number registration.) Stay away from these and your defenses won't be tested as often.
Some spyware goes to great lengths to avoid removal. Some nastier items modify the Registry and install small boot-time service routines: If removed, they will reinstall themselves from a hidden file!
The best way to get rid of spyware and adware is to use a utility that's specifically designed for this. Our current favorite is Webroot's Spy Sweeper ($30 direct), followed closely by the free Spybot Search & Destroy ( www.safer-networking.org; donations are encouraged). In addition to spyware, these programs remove cookies from known spyware and adware companies. Both programs are very easy to use; run them regularly to be sure that nothing sneaks past you.
Use Windows Disk Cleanup and Then Defrag Your Hard Drive
After using Disk Cleanup, defragment your hard drive. Windows 2000 and XP have a built-in defragging utility, which is in the same System Tools menu as Disk Cleanup. But you can have better, more reliable defragging with Executive Software's Diskeeper 8.0 Professional Edition or Raxco's PerfectDisk 6.0. Both received Editors' Choice in our recent Utility Guide.
Disk defragmentation will reverse a sort of entropy that gradually breaks down the files stored on your hard drive into small, scattered chunks. When you erase a file, Windows reuses that space. Deleting files opens up free space holes on your drive, which Windows fills as new files are created. Windows knows exactly where each piece of a fragmented file resides, but it has to do a lot more chasing in order to access the scattered fragments. Defragmentation reorganizes your hard drive so that its files are stored as single sequential blocks and thus reading these files can be done as quickly as is physically possible.
clean Your Registry
Abandoned, incorrect, and corrupted entries in the Windows Registry top our list of gunk. Often people are terrified of trying to clean the Registry, having been told that doing so is about as safe as defusing a nuclear weapon.
There is some truth in this. The Registry is Windows' most vulnerable subsystem, in that relatively small changes done incorrectly can render the system unbootable. The Registry is crucial because it is the central database where Windows "remembers" how its thousands of pieces are configured and work together—everything from what color your title bars are to how Windows boots the system and what files it uses when it does.
As you install and uninstall applications, keys are abandoned or invalidated. Many applications store their lists of recently accessed files in the Registry, and as you move files around or swap removable media, keys representing these lists are invalidated and must be built again—adding still more keys to the Registry and slowing your system down. (Windows needs time to determine that a given Registry key is invalid, then it must search the Registry again for a valid instance of the same item.)
The safest way to deal with Registry gunk is with one of several excellent third-party Registry cleaners. V Communications' RegistryFixer, part of the company's Fix-It Utilities 5, is our current Editors' Choice in this category, as described in our Utility Guide.
Another decent product in the category is Rose City Software's Registry First Aid (www.rosecitysoftware.com). It's inexpensive ($21 direct) and extremely careful with your system. It backs up the Registry before each cleaning run and prompts you to back up your system through Windows Backup if you choose. It deletes only keys it knows it can remove without harming Windows; fortunately, these are the most common ones and the ones most to blame for system slowdowns. Registry First Aid lets you select what sorts of Registry problems to scan for ( Figure 5 ). As the program scans, it builds a list of problem keys ( Figure 6 ). Though the scan can take time, removing the bad keys takes just seconds. The program lets you schedule Registry cleanings regularly.