Yes, you should worry. Or, you should at least be aware that you may need to worry. Computer systems easily and quickly become untidy and messed up. If you don't clean yours, you run the risk of big problems down the road.
Do I really need to point out the benefits of a clean computer system? (I do - a little later in this chapter.) Does someone need to come into your house and point out why you need to pick up your clothes, dust the furniture, wash the dishes, and tend to the dog? Probably not; you know that a clean house is healthful, inviting, and safe.
It's the same with computers. Over time, your computer can become cluttered with unused programs, unknown data, and unwanted visitors. With a little effort, you can clean your system so that it runs at top form, and you can breeze through your work faster and easier than you can in an unclean system. In addition, clean systems are more reliable, less prone to failure, and easier to protect from attack by malicious programs.
Before you can begin cleaning, however, you need to recognize the need to clean and why you should spend the time to do it.
How can you know if your system needs cleaning? I've compiled a list of several sure-fire signs that you need help (envision Jeff Foxworthy standing in front of your computer):
You know you have a messed-up computer ... If virus software refuses to install itself on your system
Perhaps such observations aren't worthy of Jeff Foxworthy, but this list highlights those things that really are good indicators your computer needs cleaning. The next few sections detail some other obvious signs that you need help.
The view from the desktop isn't pretty
Does your desktop look like the one shown in Figure 1-1? If so, you have problems. Maybe you bought into the old adage that a clean desk is a sign of a sick mind, and in the process lost your ability to effectively use your system. Whatever got you to this point, you need your Windows cleaned. Badly.
Your computer desktop is supposed to be a clean, inviting place where you store only a few icons of your most commonly used programs. For too many people, they become "catch-alls," repositories of every stray icon that comes their way.
A cluttered desktop is a good sign that your entire PC is cluttered. The solution is to clean your system and rid yourself of all that mess.
If your desktop is as cluttered as the one shown in Figure 1-1 - and especially if it's even more cluttered - head to Chapter 12, where I give you some help regaining control.
Traversing the Start menu jungle is an adventure
Can you imagine running Windows without the Start menu? Neither can I. The Start menu is indispensable to quickly and easily finding the programs you want to run.
At least, that's the way it's supposed to be.
On many systems that I've seen, the Start menu gets unorganized and cluttered with lots of programs the user seldom, if ever, uses. Figure 1-2 shows one such Start menu, just itching to be cleaned.
The Start menu is supposed to provide a convenient path to all the programs installed on your system. Over time, some paths are used more than others, and some paths become completely unused. Removing unused items from the Start menu and organizing what is left can make your system easier to use.
As you remove unused programs from your computer (which I show you how to do in Chapter 5), your Start menu will look better and better. When you really need to give your Start menu a makeover, Chapter 12 (where I discuss taking back control of the user interface) will be invaluable.
Your PC is slower than molasses
I remember shortly after microwave ovens first came out (yes, I'm that old) watching my grandma use one to bake some potatoes. She would anxiously look through the oven's door and mumble "hurry up, hurry up."
I chuckled about it then, but years later I find myself doing the same thing with my computer. When I got the computer, it seemed really, really fast. Now, after using it for a year or so, it seems to be slower than I remember it. Yes, it is still faster than doing things "the old way" (sort of like baking potatoes in a conventional oven), but I find myself talking to the computer, begging it to "hurry up."
If your PC seems slower than it should - particularly if it seems slower than when you first got it - then your system is a prime candidate for cleaning. Over time, the detritus that's collected during everyday use can start to bog down your computer. If you don't periodically banish that junk, it can affect the work you do. The change is typically slowly, ever so slowly, until you notice one day that your computer just doesn't run like it used to.
If you want to make your programs run faster, you're in luck because I show you how to do that in Chapter 4. To make Windows itself hum right along, check out Chapters 13 and 14, which cover getting the cobwebs out of Windows and making your file system run faster, respectively.
You have files older than your dog
I've had my dog for just over eighteen months, which makes him ten or eleven years old in dog years, right? Does that mean he's been chewing up my son's shoes for eighteen months or eleven years? Hmmm.... Converting people years to dog years may be philosophically confusing, but there is nothing confusing about examining the age of the files on your computer. If you use My Computer or the Windows Explorer to look at the files on your computer, I'll bet you could find some that are three, five, or even ten years old.
I can hear you now: "Not on my system. I just got it a year ago, so I don't have anything as old as your dog." Wrong, bucko! Computer files tend to follow you around, over the years, without you even realizing it. For instance, computer files are commonly transferred from an old system to a new system. When transferred, the files retain their old file dates - they are old files.
You may also share files with other people in your office, family, or circle of friends. Place the files on your computer, and you may quickly forget about them. But they are there, aging like a not-so-fine wine, taking up space and adding to the general clutter of your system.
A large number of old, old files are a sure sign that you need to clean your system. You can archive your data or create backups that allow you to remove unneeded data from your hard drive, freeing up space for other data and tasks. Chapter 7 gives you the straight scoop on how to keep only the data you need.
Your system tray looks like a parking lot
The system tray is the area at the right side of your taskbar. Take a look at the bottom of your computer screen. Now, shift your eyes all the way to the right. You probably see the current time, and you may see a few icons. Even if you don't realize it, that's the system tray (refer to Figure 1-1).
In Windows XP, the system tray is a little deceiving because it hides some of the icons. Perhaps the folks in Redmond don't want you to be consciously aware of how cluttered this area can become. Don't let that stand in your way, however. If you click the small left-pointing arrow at the left side of the system tray, you see the entire contents of the system tray.
Each icon in the system tray represents a utility program that is currently running in your system. You may see icons for any number of programs. How many do you see? Five? Ten? More? Some programs that you install on your computer are a bit egotistical. They think they're so important that they deserve a place of honor in your system tray. When you install one of these egotistical programs, besides adding itself to your Start menu and your desktop, it stakes out prime ground in your system tray.
Clutter, clutter, clutter. If you have a bunch of icons in your system tray, your system is a prime candidate for cleaning. Get rid of a few of these babies, and you may find your system running leaner and faster than before.
Don't try to delete any of the system tray icons yet. Some of the icons will go away as you remove old programs. You also find out how to reclaim this prime area of your system by controlling what programs are run when your computer starts; Chapter 13 provides this important information.
Cleaning Up: The Pros and Cons
If your system needs cleaning, you've come to the right place. Cleaning Windows For Dummies is a great resource that you can use to get your system back to near-new condition. If you're not convinced that your computer needs a good cleaning, then you're obviously a discerning person who needs to examine all the ins and outs of an issue before making a commitment. (That, or you're in denial and won't make a change until you're operating in crisis mode. Don't clean, and, I promise you, the crisis will come soon enough.)
If your mind works like mine - I know that is a scary thought for some - then you will want to examine the pros and cons of cleaning your system. Doing so can help provide the rationale for the cleaning work you do.
You've finally reached the big time - the pros! Oh, sorry, wrong homonym.... In this instance, "the pros" mean benefits. Specifically, the benefits of cleaning up your system, which I list here: