End-of-the-year cleanup checklist for Windows


Get Windows ready for next year with this easy-to-follow list of important steps to keep your PC running smoothly into the new year.

Image: iStockphoto.com/FooTToo

Windows is–for all intents and purposes–the most widely used OS in the world. Firmly entrenched in both the business and consumer computing worlds, its reach continues to grow steadily across desktop, tablet, and mobile platforms.

With the end of the year upon us, there’s no better time to perform some system upkeep chores to ensure that your system is optimized as you head into the new year. This is also the time of year when equipment is replaced by holiday gifts, with older equipment being handed down or sold to make way for the new.

Let’s work through this handy checklist of practical procedures that will keep your Windows PCs humming along.

SEE: Windows 10 apps: Which should you keep and which should you dump? (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1. Upgrade applications

Truthfully, updating applications should be part of a regular maintenance cycle, but the task sometimes falls through the cracks. Take great care to ensure that applications are always current to maximize compatibility with newer hardware and to support the overall security posture of a system. Don’t head into next year with out-of-date software.

2. Back up data

This critical task should be performed on a regular basis to ensure that data is recoverable in the event of loss, theft, or catastrophe. But without a properly configured, automated backup scheme, the next best thing is to manually perform a full backup of all your data, especially if you’re upgrading to a new PC and looking to recycle your current device.

All versions of Windows since Vista have included a modern backup application built into the OS itself, which allows for backup to an external drive or shared folder on a network drive. Although not as robust a backup solution as some of the third-party offerings, it works as advertised and even allows for backups to run on a schedule.

One backup client worth considering is CrashPlan. It offers a simple interface and a powerful backup feature set–like encryption of local and remote backups and file versioning, not to mention various options for backup destinations. CrashPlan has both free and paid choices, including business and enterprise options that add cloud-based backup and recovery for added peace of mind.

3. Update Windows

Windows XP featured the ability to integrate systems updates automatically. Such a simple feature has continued to be streamlined into current Windows versions to keep machines patched against malware and security threats. Even so, millions of devices worldwide do not regularly receive system updates. I can’t think of a better time than the new year to develop the habit of performing system updates to protect your devices and keep them stable.

4. Clean temporary files and cache folders

With the large amount of data going back and forth online and the increased reliance on web-based applications, the temporary folders and cache folders, including cookies, that store all this data can grow to unbelievable sizes in a short amount of time. To free up storage space–and to prevent this type of data from being used to compromise your system and accounts–it’s important to delete these temporary files to clean your system.

Among the many applications available that offer system cleaning utilities, CCleaner stands out as powerful and easy to use. Even the freeware version has enough capabilities to clean out all temporary folders and caches, and it free up storage space with its handy scripts. You can set it to run upon startup, so that your system is always clean and functioning properly.

5. Update anti-malware and run a full-system scan

The popularity of Windows, while great for market share, places a bulls-eye on you for security threats. With so many threat actors looking to compromise Windows PCs, an updated malware detection system is often the only thing standing between keeping and losing your data.

Dozens of choices exist on the security front, but some packages offer high detection rates, are free or low cost, and won’t tank your PC’s performance. Offerings from BitDefender ($39.99-44.99) and Kaspersky ($34.99-49.99) work to keep your PC totally protected, bundling in additional security protections, such as a firewall and web and email filtering. Free apps, such as Avira, Windows Defender, and Avast also rate highly, though they have a slight impact on system resources while offering top-notch performance.

6. Use System File Checker (SFC)

Windows files get modified as system updates occur or applications get installed and upgraded. They can also be corrupted by malicious software or incomplete updates. Bottom line: When system files aren’t as they should be, weird things will occur to your Windows installation.

To prevent Windows from acting erratically or failing to load the system or applications correctly, you should regularly run SFC–the built-in Microsoft utility to check and fix system file issues. Here’s how:

  1. Launch CMD with elevated privileges.
  2. Type sfc /scannow to begin the verification process for all system files. As the scan progresses, any corrupt files will automatically be corrected from the cache stored locally in the Windows directory.

7. Uninstall unused applications

We all use a variety of apps to get work accomplished. Some are small, while other are large suites. But make no mistake: Over time some of these apps lose their viability and no longer serve their function.

This presents a problem on a couple of fronts. First, keeping unnecessary apps installed can lead to bloat. Second, they can present security issues. If the apps no longer being used are also no longer supported by the developer, there could be an even greater security risk. Close out the year by ridding yourself of these unused apps before data loss occurs.

8. Transfer Windows data from one PC to another

If you’re upgrading to a new PC or swapping out your gear, you can transfer your account profile, including Files & Folders and settings, from your old PC to the new one. Microsoft has a partnership with LapLink to officially provide Windows 10 support for its PCMover Express software ($14.99-29.99) to migrate data to a new Windows 10-enabled PC. The application also includes regular and enterprise editions that may be used over corporate networks and provides zero-touch support.

9. Perform a PC reset

This, too, will apply mostly to those looking to trade up from an existing PC to a newer model. Typically, formatting the hard drive and reinstalling Windows would be the course of action. But from Windows 8 on, Microsoft has included recovery options to fix non-working computers, as well as adding the option to factory-reset an installation. This essentially deletes all user data, including apps, and reloads the Windows OS back to its defaults.

To accomplish this, follow the steps below:

  1. Go to Settings, Update & Security, Reset This PC, Get Started.
  2. Choose the option Remove Everything, as it will be the best option to fully clean the internal drive, settings, and all user data. Depending on the speed of the computer, the process will typically take two hours or so to complete.

10. Reboot Windows to clear out stale data

I’m guilty of this one on the PC as well as on the Mac. I do it almost 99% of the time. I use my PC for work and when I’m done, I put it to sleep. Hardly ever do I reboot, and I never shut down unless the system has become unstable or the battery runs out of power.

Windows has come a long way with its sleep and hibernation power schemes. It used to be that users would sometimes lose the data they were working on when a device was put to sleep or hibernation because  the data would not properly cache to temporary storage. Luckily, this is largely a thing of the past, and modern versions of Windows work great when it comes to managing power schemes. 

That said, heavily used systems that rely on sleep—not power cycles—between uses should be restarted once every so often to clear out any junk data that may be lingering from previous sleep sessions or that may be temporarily cached to a paging or hibernation file. This helps keep the device free of clutter, optimize storage space, refresh resources, and keep the computer humming along nicely.

11. Upgrade hardware

Unless you’ve got a brand new machine, it may be a good time to reassess the viability of continuing to use your existing device. You may need to upgrade it by adding more RAM or swapping out a mechanical HDD for a solid-state drive. Or you might consider upgrading to a larger external drive or adding some accessories, like a docking station, to boost performance.

If you choose to go the total system upgrade path, performing the tasks listed above will prepare your current PC for its new owner by ensuring that your data is completely backed up and ready to be transferred to its new home and that the older equipment is in primo condition for the next user.

12. Audit system permissions

Most of the time, our computers are for us to use solely for getting our work done. But if it’s a shared resource, an audit of user permissions should be accomplished at least once a year. By determining if these accounts should be allowed to log in or have privileges on the system, we can make sure access to the system and, more importantly the data contained therein, is strictly for authorized users only.

13. Enable new security features

With new versions of software, like operating systems, typically new features, such as disc encryption,  are introduced to enhance security and provide greater protection of data. Depending on how Windows is upgraded, you might receive a prompt to enable BitLocker. The full-disk encryption service resides within Windows, and the added layer of protection is a highly recommended method of protecting your data at rest. It’s  particularly important for those on mobile devices or in shared environments, where the added data security would prove beneficial to all users.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated in December 2019. 

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