If you haven’t been organizing and discarding files as you go, it’s likely your hard drive is stuffed with downloads, unwanted photos, file copies and other digital dust bunnies. This can reveal itself in slower performance, that unsettling humming noise, and the Mac’s dreaded spinning wheel or Windows’ inverting hourglass.
You may even have, like me, taken advantage of the Mac’s awesome Migration Assistant to shift all your documents, files and settings from one Mac to another — only you now have duplicate Downloads and Documents folders in different destinations, causing bafflement every time a file is saved.
Deep cleaning your computer of unwanted files and streamlining your folder system can not only free up storage space, but improve your computer’s performance. From decluttering tips to apps that do your organizing for you, here’s how to spruce up your computer and make sure it stays that way.
Find duplicate files
You’d be surprised how much storage is used up by duplicate files, whether they’re files you saved twice to different locations or multiple downloads of the same file. If you buy music on iTunes, you may have a few gigabytes of duplicate songs from, say, buying a greatest-hits album that contains tracks you already own.
The easiest way to find those superfluous files is to download a third-party app that will scan your folders for duplicate content, then let you review the dupes to decide if the extras should be deleted.
Mac: Head to the App Store on your computer and search for “duplicate cleaner.” We like Duplicate Detective ($2.99), a simple app with a straightforward interface for hunting down duplicates. Duplicate Cleaner For iPhoto (free) is an easy to use app for zapping double images, even if they’ve been edited.
If you fancy doing it manually, you can also click All My Files, order the files by selecting Name from the drop down sorting icon, then scan for files that have the same name. However, this method is less effective if you’ve saved the same file under different names.
Windows: There are quite a few good options for free duplicate zappers for Windows, so we’ll skate over the manual method, and recommend Duplicate Cleaner (free) and DupeGuru (free, no official Windows 10 support), which comes in three versions: regular, a Music edition and a Pictures edition that can find duplicate songs and images even if the files are coded differently. For example, if you have the same music track at different bit rates, or if a picture has been resized or slightly edited, DupeGuru will flag it and let you decide which to keep.
Clear your system’s cache
The processes your computer runs through when you use files or programs creates tons of tiny, temporary files that help it retrieve the information you’re need faster. Clearing your computer of all these can often help speed up its performance.
Mac: Start with Disk Utility (Applications > Utilities), and hit First Aid > Repair to scan and patch up your hard drive. Next, search for “Mac cleaner” apps on the App Store, such as Dr. Cleaner (shown), to clear your computer’s cache of temporary files from browsers and other programs. Dr. Cleaner found 12.89GB out of my meager 140GB storage that could be reclaimed, with 12.82GB coming from application-cached files. This app also gives you to option to clear your Downloads folder, but unless you have a clever structure in place to automatically save important downloads (see the final section for relevant tips), don’t check that box just yet.
Windows: For Windows 10, search for “Disck Clean-Up” in the search box, and for Windows 8, head to the Control Panel and find Disk Clean-up. If you’re on older versions of Windows, find it in System Tools. You can then start cleanup for temporary and system files that are no longer needed.
Clear the downloads folder of unnecessary files
The Downloads folder can be expunged of detritus such as PDFs of old plane tickets, GIFs and humorous cat pics from emails, torrent links to files you now have, .dmg (Mac) or .exe (Windows) installers of apps you now have, and so on.
Mac and Windows: Open the Downloads folder, and view its contents by file type, then go through each category and drag the unneeded files to the Trash (Mac) or Recycle Bin (Windows) or right click and select Delete (both Mac and Windows). Make sure you Empty the Trash or Recycle Bin when you’re done.
Leave the documents, photos, music and videos for now. They can be dealt with when you’re ready to start sorting the files you want to keep (see the next section).
Mac: You can delete unused programs by dragging them from the Applications folder into the Trash. This deletes most files associated with the app, such as data generated, but not preference files and support files. Preference files contain info about your settings in the app and are usually only a few kilobytes, while application support files can range from kilobytes to gigabytes when it comes to large media apps such as DVD Studio Pro or GarageBand.
To delete these, head to Finder, click on Macintosh HD (or Home) > Library > Application Support, where the files will be listed by app. You may even find some old files from apps you’d thought you were totally rid of. Dump them in the trash by dragging and dropping. Be careful in here: only delete files from apps you know you deleted, otherwise you may end up deleting crucial files from, say, Microsoft, which makes the Silverlight video plugin you probably use regardless of whether you have any Microsoft programs. Alternately, try out AppZapper, which lets you delete five apps and all their associated files for free; after that it costs $12.95.
Windows: Windows PCs have a pretty spiffy uninstall feature that removes everything associated with an app, so on all versions of Windows, head to Control Panel > Programs and Features, select a program and select uninstall.
Although some programs may leave behind settings info in the registry, a database of configuration settings, the data is minimal and Microsoft recommends not modifying the registry unless you really know what you’re doing.
In the long-ago times of early 2000s computing, most of us incorporated disk defragmentation into our cleaning rituals. Disk fragmentation occurs as a file system loses its ability to keep related data together, causing the hard drive to work harder to bring up data related to current tasks, thus slowing down performance.
In general, Mac computers don’t need to be defragged, especially newer Mac laptops that have solid state drives (SSD), use a different method of maintaining data. Windows 8 and Windows 10 automatically run a disk defrag (now called disk optimization) on a weekly schedule for machines with hard drives.
If you want to hasten a defrag (or optimization), Windows support has the lowdown for Windows 8 computers (says it’s for Windows 8 but also works for Windows 10 machines with hard drives) as well as PCs running Windows 7 or older.
Zap spyware and trackers
It’s possible that in the course of your internet browsing, you acquired some trackers, spyware or even minor viruses (unless, of course, you have been using up-to-date security software). Even so, malware is an ever-evolving beast, so it’s a good idea to run a scan of your system with an anti-malware program such as Avira Free (Mac/PC), which scans for viruses, trojans, trackers and other malware.
Mac: In Finder, if your Favorites column contains links to unused folders, delete them by right-clicking and selecting “Remove from Sidebar.” And don’t be afraid to remove applications from your Dock unless you really need daily access to them. Just close the app first, then hold on its icon in the Dock, and drag it to the Trash.
Windows: Minimize the number of programs that get to be in the Start Menu (Windows 10 and Windows 7) or Start Screen (Windows 8) by right-clicking the unwanted app, and selecting “Unpin from Start M