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I just can’t stand junk on my PC. I recently bought a new Sony Vaio. First thing I did was clean off every possible pre-installed application that I could. Then I did a “bottom-up” style configuration — only adding those things which were absolutely essential. The result is a clean, fast little machine that does what I need it to do. It never crashes and never has problems.

So apart from obsession, there’s good reasons for keeping a clean computer: Every program and hardware device you add increases the chances that your computer will become slower and more prone to crashes. It also dramatically increases the difficulty of diagnosing problems.

How many crashed PCs, tech support calls and ruined weekends are due to crap on a person’s machine? It starts with “personalizing” a PC with themes and cute screensavers (how many times have we heard a computer fart, squeak, groan and splash from some Plus! pack installed?) And then it goes on to “clean-up” utilities, bloated suites and all the rest.

So I propose a new regimen for your computer, turning your computer from a bloated beast into a sleek machine that hums along happily. It’s Alex’s Fresh and Clean Computing!

Here are some ideas to start everyone off. Now, I realize that many of those who read this blog are expert level and really don’t need to be told the things that I’m writing here. So if you have any other ideas, give me your suggestions!

Decrapify! Getting a new computer? Decrappify-it. Or spend an afternoon cleaning all that junk off before doing anything else.

Leverage the operating system. Whatever your complaints, Microsoft has done a Herculean job of making a lot of devices work with Windows. Getting a new printer? Don’t jump to use the supplied drivers. First, see if Windows has a built-in driver already available. If so, use that one. If you think about it, imagine all the crap you could get rid off if you just used the built-in drivers — as opposed to software to operate your wireless keyboard, color printer and all the rest. You’ll find that in most cases, the Microsoft-supplied drivers work just fine and you’ll save yourself one more hassle to deal with. So don’t install a third-party driver unless you feel you absolutely must — and I don’t care what the manufacturer says in its instructions.

Separate your data from the rest. Either partition your drive or get an external drive to hold your data, and keep your primary drive for the operating system and your applications. One reason is organization. But a more powerful reason is that you may need to re-image your drive at some point, so you really should keep your data separate. Yes, a partitioned drive will likely result in a slight decrease in performance, but on the other hand, it will result in much better data management. It’s not vital to do this action, but it’s something to consider.

Consider setting all your accounts to limited user. It’s sometimes a hassle, but it makes a huge difference in security. Remember that kids are some of the biggest sources of infection. Put them on a limited account if you value your PC. (Personally, I don’t run as limited, as I don’t want to bother with hassles. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.). Oh, and have guests in town? Consider setting up a temporary guest account just for them.

Consider re-imaging your drive or deleting your user account. Windows gets clogged up. So if you have good data management in place (see above), reinstalling Windows will be a wonderful fresh start and not difficult. Not interesting in taking such a drastic action? Simply creating a new user account will result in performance gains and start you on the road to Alex’s Fresh and Clean computing.

Ditch the utilities. I was in the utility business for years. I know this space like few others, and I can say that a lot of the stuff out there is of questionable value (and it’s why I got out of that field). Do you really need to buy a defragmenter? Just use the built-in one in Windows (and I even question the value of obsessively defgramenting these days — more on that in some other post). Do you really need one of these “utility suites” you see that seem to promise so much? I don’t think so. Or how about a registry cleaner? They may be spiffy, but I doubt you really need them (and LifeHacker debunks their value, preferring instead the free CCleaner). Do you even need WinZip anymore with the built-in XP zip compression?

Always look at the cost/benefit: You’re adding a program which may dump 40MBs on your hard drive and has all kinds of whiz-bang features. But is the performance tradeoff there? If you love to tweak your machine, that’s cool. Just remember what you’re getting in return and make sure you need it.

Kill AOL. There’s a reason PC World voted AOL #1 on the worst technology products of all time. So cancel your AOL subscription, get a normal internet service provider and start using, at least, Outlook Express or any of the other email programs out there. Again, leverage what’s already in the operating system, instead of using some antediluvian shell to access the Internet.

Kill AIM and Windows Messenger. AIM and Windows Messenger both load a web page every time they startup. You can replace these with a web-based client like Meebo (my favorite) or Trillian. One instant messenger program to rule them all.

Stop with the damned Plus! packs, goofy screensavers and pretty backgrounds already! Wow, you want to kill performance? Use those monstrosities referred to as Windows Themes. Even screensavers hurt performance. (Ok, a confession — my wife loves her Plus! pack and would kill me if I removed it. So there are exceptions, like ensuring continued marital bliss). But do you really need smileys, messenger add-ons and all the rest?

Kill the toolbars. A toolbar has its use, but you only need one: Google’s or Yahoo’s. Choose one. Ashcan the rest.

Question security suites. One of the worst culprits of performance-killing are the security suites. Your system is certain to lose at least 10%–20% of its power by installing one of these programs. Replace security suites with a) common sense and b) best-of-breed point products.

Get your security down to the irreducible minimum. Figure out what you must have. For example, the most significant attack vector for viruses and malware is actually email, so must have an antivirus program. But do you really need three antiphishing toolbars running? I get emails from all sorts of people, and the amount of security crud on these machines gets sometimes quite baffling.

Use the Vmware player. My strongest advice to not get infected is to stay on the main highways of the internet. Most of the really nasty stuff we see is on porn and crack sites. However, here’s a great idea: Download the free Vmware player and use the Ubuntu Browser Appliance. This is free. I constantly do security research and simply couldn’t survive without Vmware.

Any other ideas? Share away!

Alex Eckelberry