Freeware Computer Cleaning Programs

Parts I, II and III looked at how to keep your machine safe. This last section looks at maintaining general computer speed, health and disk space. We'll look at registry cleaners, removing junk files, general pc tweaks and defragging. General optimisation has its limits but is usually worth doing regularly. As well as giving you a slightly faster computer, it tends to smooth operation, increase disk space and on occasions prevent more serious items such as corrupt files, crashes and program malfunction. It’s also the area of computing with some of the wildest claims. Pay for our program and get up to a 2000% increase in speed and the likes. Most of which is hogwash.

Spring Cleaning
Spring Cleaning

Gentle Giant of Cleaning

The program I use most often is Piriforms Ccleaner. Formerly crap cleaner, I guess they decided that it wasn't the exact image they wanted. Names aside, it’s a very very useful tool. The interface is very easy to use with clearly laid out tabs for each primary function. As the name suggests, cleaning is its primary function, and the two things it cleans are files, such as internet browsers, history and cache, some temporary files, the windows recycle bin, some system log files and some program traces.

These all take up space unnecessarily and Ccleaner helps you to regain some of your hard disk space, both freeing space and increasing speed and performance. It also has some advanced items such as a specific folder cleaner, although beware as this actually wipes everything in that folder, and it also has a free space or slack cleaner. Everything is clearly listed by little tick boxes down the left hand side.

Registry

It’s second very useful function is as a registry cleaner. Every time you install and uninstall programs, change programs, and sometimes do nothing at all, Windows registry creates another entry. A good portion of these, if you’ve never had it cleaned or optimised, are not needed. Editing the registry yourself is a very dicey proposition even if you know roughly what you’re doing. Bugger that one up and your machine is a giant paperweight. So you get Ccleaner to do it for you. Ccleaner calls them ‘issues’ and these vary from file extensions that are not used to shortcuts that don’t work and the main group, keys left behind for programs that you don’t have anymore.

You click analyse, it looks for the items it can clean, you select the items it finds, either by select all or individual if you want to police it, and then it cleans them. You can also save the cleaned registry files – indeed it is highly recommended that you do, if only for the first few times you use it, in order that you can roll back the clean if something appears wrong. I’ve never had an issue from this program and although it does leave some junk behind, sometimes others which are more thorough have been overzealous in their cleaning and removed something that Windows thinks it wants

System Care...Advanced!

The next program along these lines contains a few more tools but is no less usable and efficient. IObit’s Advanced SystemCare performs much the same functions as Ccleaner with a whole heap of other tools thrown in for good measure. It is rare that one tool will clean all the junk files off your machine, so having two is a bonus. Advanced SystemCare comes in a free and pro versions with the last being $19.99. It features everything from a registry cleaner to a junk file cleaner with a spyware sweeper and privacy (browsing traces and the likes) cleaner in the Windows maintenance section to game booster and internet optimiser in utilities. This section also contains disk defrag, a registry defrag and a RAM optimiser tools.

The diagnose system section looks at security and Windows configuration settings to see if you could improve speed and security on your system and then either applies the settings or makes suggestions. All in all, a very comprehensive tool, albeit, slightly more complex than Ccleaner. The buy version seems to have one or two more tools, options to automate everything, improved or faster versions of the tools on the free version and award winning support to cover it all. Nice! (but probably unnecessary).

Comodo Dragon

Comodo, the same company who makes the free firewall I use also does a system cleanup tool. Similar to Piriforms Ccleaner, it has a registry cleaner, a disk cleaner and a privacy cleaner. It has some more advanced features that make it worth a peak if you’re one for cleaning out the junk.

One of these is a most useful scheduling tool. You can automatically schedule any of the cleaners to run on day, week, month or once settings with optional time and date. A worthy fire and forget approach to basic junk cleaning. As well as some system information and specific area wipers, it also possesses an autorun manager and basic system settings.

The autoruns manager allows you to see which programs and services are set to autorun on your machine, including the bootup list and which services are running currently. This manager has full termination, enable and disable functions for these. I’d be careful with altering service settings and some of the autorun programs, such as antivirus should be left strictly alone but you can happily delete or disable items like apple updates, sun scheduling updates, programs that you only use once ever blue moon and can wait an additional 5 seconds for them to start.

In this way you can reduce your boot up time quite significantly by reducing the programs the computer has to start on boot up. If in doubt either look up the program or leave it alone though. It also has a duplicate file scanner. Music and pictures that you’ve managed to duplicate can eat up an awful lot of hard disk space for no particular reason. Maybe its time for a little house cleaning?

MMH Kills .tmp Waste

One other of note that I’ve used is MMH cleaner (freeware). Although this doesn’t seem to have been updated in a while and I also can’t get it to work (although it does install) on my vista machine, this tool had one useful function. It appeared to delete .tmp files. These are temporary files that windows leaves behind after (it appears) opening anything from a word document to a picture or movie.

They are created as dumps when the file being handled is too big for the system in one go. For some reason, the extensive amounts of these files that seemed to gather after a couple of months of hard university work on my XP laptop, were not deleted by the other tools I had. When I first used it, it took away a little shy of 400mb of these files, no small amount when that machine has a 30GB hard disk. I’m not greatly keen on MMH cleaners general look and usability, but given its removal of these files, I carried on using it.

Cleaned Out

Bought cleaners I hesitate to comment on. There are so so many of them each claiming more outlandish things than the last without personally trying them it is very difficult to know what to recommend. Therefore I’m going to take the coward’s way and say either stick with freebies that only cost you the time or go with word of mouth recommendations. On a last note, set system restore points or at the very least back up until you’re certain that the program won’t weed your registry of items you (or windows) needs.

I did use a very highly recommended program called XP tune-up and while the program did its job admirably and certainly seemed to ‘customise’ ‘speed up’ and generally change most of my basic system settings, it was also so vicious at cleaning, the registry cleaner left my machine having to hunt for legitimate and oft-used programs that no longer worked, simply because I didn’t vet the four or five hundred excess registry keys it turned up to delete.

Its other extensive sets of adjustments, while doing no harm that I could detect, didn’t really make a lot of noticeable difference. Added to this the cost and the ability of other free programs to do much the same thing and I didn’t see the point. I know many people who deal with computers much more than I do (i.e. for a job or every day high spec gaming etc) who swear by this tool, so maybe if you’re feeling rich, it’s worth a shot

I was merely...optimising - Preston
I was merely...optimising - Preston

Defragging

This is one aspect of basic cleaning and optimisation that doesn’t get performed nearly enough. When your computer stores files, it splits them into nice little sections or clusters that represent the smallest amount of disk space allocated to hold a file. The sections themselves are quite small so one file may cover quite a few sectors.

Much of the time these sectors are contiguous or at least close. The rest of the time the files are split wherever the computer can place them. In this way files are fragmented. Split files are slower to open and more prone to corruption. It’s like storing your plates in the kitchen, your cups in the bathroom and your cutlery in the bedroom and then expecting to set the table in the dining room in an orderly and efficient manner.

While the cluster size is, for most machines, 4kb and a file may be many times this size, it’s easy to see how fragmentation can occur. A defragging program collects the fragments of files into mostly contiguous sectors. This enables the computer to seek the parts of the file and open them with minimal delay or seek time. This basically means that files open faster and programs (opening and using files) run faster.

Defrag Programs

The default defrag program in most Windows is not great and in Vista, it’s horrific. The actual process of defragging is, as far as I know, perfectly fine. The speed at which it does the task is not. There are many free defrag programs and I recommend you get one rather than wasting hours defragging using the Windows tool. As a quick comparison, I defragged my machine at 12% fragmentation with the Vista defrag tool. It took a little over 5 hours. A third party tool with the same level of fragmentation took just 20 minutes.

The tool I use is called Auslogics Disk Defrag. I can’t really comment on any of the others because I’ve never had the occasion to use them. It performs its task admirably and in a timely manner and I recommend it. The only issue I have with it is that it tells me I have a number of junk files on my computer and then tries to charge me for a program to remove them. I would just ignore this and close the program when it has finished defragging. If you constantly shift large files around or high numbers of files (movies and pictures), you may want to run this program quite frequently. In any case, it will tell you, based on the percentage of fragmentation, whether you need to run it or not.

The Final Wall

You are advised, before installing or uninstalling programs, cleaning disks and registries, changing settings and generally doing anything where you don’t exactly understand what the program is doing, to back up, create restore points and generally be prudent. While most of the programs above are very good at helping your computer, they do carry the ability, depending on your particular setup, to cause great hindrance and death. (Well maybe not quite the last part but you get the message). If in doubt don’t do it.

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