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How To Clean Up A Sluggish Computer

WHY: After several months to a couple years, depending on how much maintenance & how often you've been on the internet, most computers become sluggish & don't operate as fast as they formerly did & some programs might not work at all, or may not work as well as they formerly did. The 3 primary reasons are viruses, spyware (adware) & too many unnecessary background services running which wastes ram & CPU resources. You might think you need a new computer, but chances are all you need to do is clean up the software in your computer, or reformat the hard drive & reinstall a fresh copy of the operating system (OS). While reformatting the hard drive & reinstalling the OS is usually the quickest way to get your computer healthy again & the most sure way of getting rid of bad stuff (like viruses & spyware), sometimes a fresh install just isn't an option. If you have misplaced your software discs for the operating system or applications & you can't borrow copies, then a fresh reinstall isn't an option. Likewise if you have large amounts of personal data work files that you have no way of backing up to another media or don't know where they are all stored, if you've highly customized your OS, if you have software applications that require a new serial number key for a fresh install but the company has gone out of business, if you can no longer obtain drivers for hardware such as your printer, etc., or if you simply want to learn what messed up your computer in the first place, then here is a tutorial on steps you might want to take to clean up your sluggish computer.

STEPS & DISCLAIMER: The following steps are in the rough order you might want to try, but you may choose to skip steps you don't need, or that you don't feel comfortable doing. Disclaimer: this is only a tutorial of the steps I often use, they come with no guarantees & you perform these procedures on your computer at your own risk. You can have a computer store charge you to do these steps, but the idea in this tutorial, is to save you money & teach you more about keeping your computer operating safely & cleanly. If you are concerned about losing any personal work data files, save copies to another media (like CD or DVD or another hard drive) for safekeeping. Installing the free or trial software mentioned below will have to be done from a user profile that has administration privileges. You might find it helpful to print out this tutorial to help you through the steps.

DOCUMENT CURRENT CONDITION: The first step is to document on a piece of paper important features of this computer such as: how much physical ram memory does it have (found in Start\Programs\Accessories\System Tools\System Information), how full is the hard drive (in My Computer or Windows Explorer, right mouse click on the hard drive your OS is in & menu to properties, note how much used & free space there is, a drive should never be more than 85% full). Ask the main users of this computer what isn't working, which programs they use & which programs they no longer need, and make a list. After a fresh boot & with no application programs running, open the task manager to list what services are running in the background (on most Windows computers, simultaneously press the Ctrl & Alt & Delete buttons, click on the "task manager" button, click on the "processes" tab). Click on the column header "image name" to sort alphabetically. Now either write down the services that are running, or print out a copy. To print, either stretch out the Windows Task Manager box so you can see all the services without scrolling, or click on the maximize button in the top right corner, press the Alt & Print Screen buttons together (which captures the image to the clipboard), open up the program called "Paint" (Start\Programs\Accessories\Paint) press the Ctrl & V buttons together to paste the image in, click yes, then if you see the Task manager picture in Paint, menu under File\Print to print the list. Keep this Task Manager list of services handy to later trace down which programs you were able to turn off & which don't need to be running in the background.

UNINSTALL UNNEEDED APPLICATION PROGRAMS: Do not just blow these away from your hard drive, properly uninstall all programs that are no longer needed, so you get out all the components. If you're not certain what they are, then don't uninstall it. To uninstall, (if your OS is set for "classic view" menu under Start\Settings\Control Panel\AddRemovePrograms button), which lists all the programs legitimately installed. One by one, click on the programs you no longer need & uninstall them by clicking on the Change/Remove button. When you have uninstalled all unneeded applications, reboot.

DUMP ALL TEMPORARY FILES: Your computer probably has a lot of old crap temporary (temp) files that aren't needed any more, so let's dump them to make the steps below less time consuming. Menu under Start\Programs\Accessories\Systems Tools\Disk Cleanup & select the drive or partition that your OS is in. This utility will list most but not all areas where there are temp files. Select with a tick, those temp files you want to remove & click on OK. Next open up your browser if it is Internet Explorer & menu to Tools\Internet Options, or if you use a different browser go to Start\Settings\Control Panel\Internet Options. Now click on the General tab. Click on the "Delete cookies" tab, but remember that besides getting rid of good & bad cookies, this will also get rid of banking account numbers & some other passwords you may have entered in your browser, so only click on this button if you are prepared to retype them. The 'delete files" button is to delete the browser temp cache files which you already did in the procedure above, but try it again just to be sure. Next click on the "settings" button & adjust the "Amount of disk space to use" for temp internet files to 80 MB & click OK. Any more temp storage than this, actually slows down your internet browsing while it searches your hard drive to find out if there is temp cache.

VIRUS CHECKER: If you have a virus checker application installed, update it with the latest patches & run it to identify any viruses. Isolate (quarantine) & delete any viruses if finds as well delete any previous viruses that were found & isolated (quarantined). Reboot & make sure you are now plugged into the internet for a verification test with another anti virus program (optional). Go to & say yes to allowing it to install the Panda anti virus software for testing (it's free & can be uninstalled later), allow it time to update & install. Close any applications other than the browser & click on the "Full Scan" button. This make take quite awhile depending on how many files are in your hard drive. When the scan is finished, copy the full results on paper of any viruses it finds, or print them out. This PC Pitstop virus checker will not remove viruses, but it does nicely tell you if you have any, what they are called & where they are stored. When you complete the entire checklist on this tutorial, you may want to return to this site to verify that all viruses have been removed. BTW, at this same PC PitStop site there is a "full test" of your computer system that may tell you other important things to check out.

REMOVING VIRUSES: After the test above, if you still have viruses & you don't have an anti-virus application installed, you can get free 30 day demo versions that can be temporarily installed, that may remove the current viruses on your computer. My preference is to not leave anti-virus software installed after you have purged the viruses, because the anti-virus software itself often runs several services in the background which can bog down your computer & make it sluggish. Some anti-virus free trial programs from Trend that you may want to try are "House Call" (quite good), or "Micro Sysclean", or "PC-cillin" (don't leave installed because it runs at least 4 background activities at all times), at   Another very limited but effective free anti-virus program is McAfee AVERT STINGER at After removing viruses, reboot.

SPYWARE WHAT IS IT?: Spyware is also known as Adware, Badware, Malware or Trojanware. Spyware is usually a program with stealth scanning abilities, that reports on your browsing activities & reveals more information about your computer use than you would want to authorize, or it highjacks your browser start up home page, or it highjacks banner ads & sticks it's own ads in place. Sometimes it can be as invasive as a key logger which can capture your passwords or other private info & used in illegal ways. Spyware is often a secret component of free software that you have installed, sometimes as simple as a free web search toolbar you've installed or a peer-to-peer music downloading program (like Kazaa). Spyware is often like a virus, but not called a virus because you've inadvertently agreed to it by not reading the long terms & conditions list & clicking on OK to installing the program. Sometimes Spyware is installed via malicious Java applet code when browsing on dangerous web sites (if you don't have the latest security updates for your browser). Some cookies even cross the line regarding how much information on you they report back & could be considered invasive spyware. Spyware can really slow down your computer, cripple some legitimate programs & cause lots of pop up advertisements.

REMOVING SPYWARE: So let's get rid of the spyware. Keep in mind that getting rid of Spyware sometimes also disables the free or shareware programs that installed it in the first place (like Kazaa). Most anti-virus programs only catch viruses, but some also have a utility to catch spyware, so give it a try if you have one installed. Just like anti-virus programs, no anti-Spyware program catches all the viruses, so you may have to use several. Two of the best free anti-Spyware programs are "Ad-Aware SE Personal"  and "Spybot"  Download, install them, run the updates for the latest patches, then run these anti-spyware programs to see what spyware they can isolate & delete. Some other less useful anti-spyware programs are HijackThis (good for picking up Spyware registry entries) (be careful what you select to delete), or CWShredder (not usually very effective) from Intermute (now part of Trend Micro) which is included in the Spysubtract program (very ram intensive & hard to completely uninstall) at or "Home Search Hijacker" at After you are finished removing spyware, reboot. I routinely have Ad-Aware & Spybot check to see if there is any new spyware on my computer. Other anti-spyware programs to consider are Spy Sweeper or, PestPatrol, Windows Defender. Click here for a list of fake or rogue or suspicious anti-spyware.

REGISTRY CLEANERS: The registry stores information on all sorts of stuff, like what programs should start when you boot, where files are stored, which programs should start which other programs, etc. After much use, the registry has a lot of old unneeded entries that slow down booting, slow closing down, cause programs to launch that shouldn't & cause error messages to pop up because certain programs are no longer installed. Manually cleaning the registry should be left to experts who really know what they are doing because deleting the wrong files can make your system inoperative (always create a safety backup copy of the registry before manually cleaning it). Programs that automatically clean the registry are usually much safer than manual deletion. Now that you have eliminated the viruses & spyware with the programs mentioned above, it would be a good idea to get rid of the registry trash with a registry cleaner program such as these. “RegSupreme Pro” at has a 30 day trial period, does an adequate job & has other tools built in. “Advanced System Optimizer” at has a free trial version I've heard is top notch & has lots of extra tools. Reboot after cleaning the registry. StartupRunv1.22 from NirSoft.

INSTALL THE LATEST SECURITY PATCHES & SERVICE PACKS:  Microsoft provides free regular updates to keep your system more secure from the types of problems that caused your computer to need a good clean up. Download them from & install, then reboot. Keep going to this site after rebooting until there are no patches left to install. Check back regularly (at least once a month), or if you have one of the newer Operating Systems, set it to automatically download & install new security patches as they become available. If you have other Microsoft programs like "Office", download the latest service packs for those & install (you may need your original disks for this).

SAFE MODE: Don't forget to visit the PC PitStop site again & run the anti-virus checker once more to make sure you got everything. If there are still some viruses or spyware left, you might have to reboot into "Safe Mode" (press F8 when first booting) & run some of the above programs again. Safe mode allows very few services to run & frequently will permit the above programs to permanently delete viruses that would normally rename themselves when not in Safe Mode. Occasionally you might also have to manually delete a virus in Safe Mode, so this is where your list from the PC PitStop virus checker comes in handy, because it tells you where the files are stored. If you can't find them in Windows Explorer, you may have to temporarily menu in Tools\Folder Options\View\ & tick "show hidden files and folder" & untick "hide protected operating system files". Reboot into regular mode.

TASK MANAGER: Once again after having just rebooted, with no application programs running, open the task manager to list what services are running in the background & compare them with the list you made before you started cleaning up your computer (give it a couple minutes after rebooting before you look at the list) (on most Windows computers, simultaneously press the Ctrl & Alt & Delete buttons, click on the "task manager" button, click on the "processes" tab). Stroke off the services on your original list that are no longer running. A really clean computer will often have 13 - 20 services running in the background with no applications opened. To find out what the remaining background tasks are for & whether they need to be running, look up the names at either of these sites  or & determine if certain ones can be "disabled" or set to "manually" turn on only when required in the utility called "services", rather than "automatically" turned on when booting. To do this in "Services" menu to Start\Settings\Control Panel\Administrative Tools\Services then double click on each of the "started" running services to open it up & see what it is. If you find one you've identified from your list that doesn't need to be running all the time, change it to "manual" or "disable" as applicable, then reboot. Open the Task Manager once more & see if you got the unnecessary services turned off. Now click on the "performance" tab & see how much "MEM usage" your computer is using at idle. If this lowest amount of ram memory scenario is more than about half of the real ram installed, you may want to consider buying more ram so your computer will operate faster (often not essential unless you are running ram intensive applications). When your computer runs out of real ram, it starts to use "virtual ram" which is basically memory storage space on the hard drive & VERY slow.

DEFRAGMENT YOUR HARD DRIVE: If you defragment (defrag) your hard drive on a regular basis, the files won't be in little bitty pieces, but instead will be larger contiguous pieces & therefore faster for your hard drive to access, so your computer operates a little bit faster. Most new OS have a defrager built in which can be accessed at Start\Programs\Accessories\System Tools\Disk Defragmenter. Make sure there is at least 15% of free space left on the hard drive, or this defrag utility probably won't be able to do it's job. Sometimes you need to run it more than once to repack the files. The less full your hard drive is, the better job the defrag utility will do. Run this utility about once a month. If your main drive is getting full, buy an additional hard drive & move your work data over to the new drive so you can free up space in the main OS drive.

CONCLUSION: Hopefully the above steps will have cleaned up your computer so that it is back to full functionality. If you have comments about this article or suggestions of cleanup programs that worked for you, please let me know. Now that you've got your computer cleaned up, teach other users how not to screw it up.

By Doug Hembruff.
April 12/2005. Last updated August 6/2005

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