The most visible messes are the easiest to deal with. A moist paper towel will freshen up your monitor; a cotton swab can scrape the crud off the rollers in your mouse; a good burst from a can of compressed air will get the dust out of your keyboard. If your computer desktop is as messy as your real one, that's easily corrected too. You just have to be merciless. Dump those obsolete documents. Delete old e-mails without looking back. Trash any program you haven't used since the last millennium.
Unfortunately, out of sight is not necessarily out of mind. Operating systems have a way of surreptitiously backing up everything you do, and some programs tend to grow roots. Just because you put something in the recycling bin or ran an uninstall program doesn't mean you got rid of it. On Windows machines there are several different files associated with each program, and to do a thorough cleaning job, you have to root out every one.
The problem is that deleting the wrong files can give your computer serious fits, so tread lightly. There are several popular utilities that will do the work safely for you. As a rule, you should stay out of the real guts of the machine--the files and settings that run your operating system--unless you really know your stuff.
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You may still have to get rid of the temporary backup files that your computer made when you didn't hit Save often enough. Windows users can try to find and delete all files that end in .tmp. You'll be surprised how many hundreds have piled up; just don't delete any that the system says it still needs. After that, run your built-in mop-up programs--in Windows, look in System Tools for Disk Cleanup; with Macs, it's Disk First Aid in Utilities--and let the computer check itself for errors.
Now it's time to deal with everything your Internet browser brought home from its travels on the World Wide Web. Use Options or Preferences to get rid of unwanted cookies and clean out your cache files. Give your computer a blood test by going on the Web and downloading the latest in antivirus software. Then run a disk defragmenter to straighten out the tangle of files stored on your hard drive. This can speed up your computer's performance. But as with any major renovation, you should back up important documents beforehand, just to be safe.
The last step for desktop-computer owners is often the most satisfying. Grab your can of compressed air, unplug and open up your computer's box and behold--without touching anything--the dust bunnies that have been breeding in there ever since you brought it home. Eek!
Got questions? E-mail Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org