Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Clean-Up Your Computer & Devices

Preparing for Cleanup | What to Cleanup | Uninstalling Programs | Removing Data | Storing Archives | Checklists & Resources

Cleaning up your computer and electronic devices.

When to Clean Your Computer

There are several situations where you should be cleaning up your computer, including:

  • before selling or otherwise disposing of a computer;
  • at year-end when you are archiving annual tax information;
  • spring cleaning; or
  • when archiving data.

When I use the term computer it can also apply to any of the various electronic devices that we use these days including smart phones and tablets (even smart devices like Google Home). All of these carry personal information that should be managed like you would your paper filing systems.

Preparing for Cleanup

Prepare Your Computer

Before you begin the cleanup process, you'll want to ensure that your computer is ready.

  1. Close all programs and open windows, then reboot your computer.
  2. Run CCleaner (including the Registry Cleaner) to remove temporary files and clear caches.
  3. Run a ZoneAlarm security scan choosing full scan with archive files (or follow your security program's most aggressive scan for viruses and malware).
  4. Backup your critical data files.

This process ensures that there is nothing running that will interfere with the cleanup process and that you're not backing up infected or unnecessary files.

Clean-up Downloads

This would also be a good time to move files into their proper location.

It is common for all your downloaded files to be automatically saved into the Downloads folder, including copies of electronic invoices, photos and documents. Sort and rename these files into their appropriate folders so that you can find them later.

It is common for all your downloaded files to be automatically saved into the Downloads folder, including copies of electronic invoices, photos and documents. Sort and rename these files into their appropriate folders so that you can find them later.

Duplicates and Obsolete Downloads

People often download multiple copies of an installer. Determine the latest version and remove the rest, ensuring that you don't delete any unique files that happen to have the same name.

Also remove any installers that you no longer use or are obsolete (archiving them, if they are important or cannot be downloaded again). This will make it easier the next time you need to install a program or reinstall Windows. Most such programs can be obtained again if you require them — protect the rest by placing them into a permanent folder.

Backup Your Files

I strongly recommend that you backup your files before proceeding. Even though you may be planning to delete or archive unnecessary files during your cleanup, this provides a recovery option if you mistakenly delete a file that you may need in the future.

Now that you've prepared your computer and have a reliable backup, you can proceed to the cleanup process.

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What to Cleanup

This is where you plan your cleanup process. Consider the following when choosing how to deal with files and programs:

  • If you are disposing of your computer, you'll want to ensure that everything is removed that is personal or for which you have a license that you intend to use on another computer.
  • If you are cleaning out files that you are intending to archive externally (online or using a removable storage device) consider how you can best prepare these files and if any may be needed in the future.
  • If you are removing an obsolete program, ensure that you'll be able to access the data in the future without the program by exporting data into a usable format.
  • If you are deleting files you don't think you'll use again such as sample files or obsolete emails, consider archiving them in a separate file that can be deleted on its own if you determine they are unnecessary in the future.
  • If you are deleting personal files belonging to another person (a child or spouse) you may wish to create an archive for them first, especially if they haven't had an opportunity to backup their own files.

Each situation requires a different strategy for backup and potential recovery.

Preparing for Disposal

Disposing of a computer can be any of the following situations:

  • junking an old computer (see Disposing of Old Computers Safely);
  • lending or giving a computer to a friend or family member;
  • recovering a business computer when a former employee may have compromised the computer; or
  • selling your computer.

When you are planning to dispose of a computer, you want to ensure that it is clean of any personal data and programs first. The easiest way is to backup your data and any information necessary to install the programs and data on your new computer then do a clean install of the computer you're disposing of.

You will need the operating system installation media (CD, DVD or a recovery partition), driver disks and the registration key (usually a sticker on a Windows computer) to reinstall your operating system and the necessary drivers. Details are found in Recovering the Operating System on the Backup & Recovery Strategies page.

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How to Uninstall Programs

How you cleanup your computer will depend upon how what operating system you have, the sort data you have and what your plans are for the computer.

Moving or Removing Programs

How you deal with programs will depend upon the situation. If you don't intend to use the program on another computer, you may simply delete them, but you should determine if a program is truly obsolete (and therefore unsafe to use) or simply unnecessary. You need to deal with them accordingly.

Obsolete Programs

Obsolete programs that you cannot use in the future or those for which the license has expired may only require the data is backed up (first ensuring running any export utilities that can save the data in a format compatible with newer software).

Unnecessary Programs

How you deal with unnecessary programs depends upon whether you wish to retain the option for future use (or upgrades).

Remember, expired programs may provide a cheaper upgrade option in the future if you retain the installation media and license.

Transferred Programs

If you're transferring programs from one computer to another one, you generally have to deactivate many programs before uninstalling them, ensuring that no portions remain on the old computer. Only then can you install them on the new computer and reactivate them.

Some programs may not be compatible with your new computer and may need to be either upgraded or you may need to purchase a platform-compatible version (e.g. a Windows program such as Microsoft Office other than Office 365 is not generally licensed for a Mac and requires that you purchase the Mac version). You may enquire whether a cross-platform upgrade price is available to you in such situations.

You may also find that you need to find a suitable replacement for the software if it is not supported on the new operating system. LibreOffice and similar open-source programs can provide free alternatives, but you need to be sure that the free license is usable if you are using it for a business.

Leaving Programs on the Old Computer

If you intend to leave any programs on the old computer that didn't come with the computer, ensure that you provide the licensing information with the computer and that you don't use the software again unless it is freeware. In most cases the licensing goes with the computer and you cannot legally use the program(s) elsewhere.

In most cases this software will be installed automatically by the recovery software or partition but if external media such as a CD or DVD is provided, it belongs with that computer. Some exceptions may apply, but you have to assume the new owner will install the software at some point in the future even if you don't before selling it.

Learning More

There is more about the complications of transferring and reinstalling software in Recovering Programs on the Backup & Recovery Strategies page, including the complications of moving Windows software to another computer.

Uninstalling Windows Programs

The easiest way for Windows users to uninstall programs is to use the Programs and Features in the Control Panel (Apps & Features in Windows 10 settings).

Remember, some programs like Photoshop and Microsoft Office require deactivation before you uninstall them, especially if you're reinstalling Windows or removing the programs permanently. If you don't, you may be unable to reinstall them without dealing with the software company's support team.


CCleaner provides an alternative when you have difficulty using either the uninstaller that comes with some programs or the Programs and Features (Apps & Features) built into Windows. Click on Tools then Uninstall and select the program to be removed.

Programs that Can't Be Uninstalled

Not all programs can be uninstalled (especially Microsoft apps like Xbox and Films & TV in Windows 10). The clean install will take care of those programs.

Uninstalling Mac Programs

Mac programs are installed differently than Windows programs and are uninstalled differently.

Programs obtained from the App Store can be deleted by holding the mouse down on the icon until it begins to shake (some call it “wiggle”) just like on the iPhone or iPad. If a red X appears beside the icon, it can be deleted by clicking that X.

Third party programs not obtained from the App Store usually can be simply deleted from the Application folder. Unlike Windows programs, most Mac programs don't create files everywhere. However, ensure that you still have the installer and any registration information because, unlike App Store apps, there is no simple recovery mechanism if you accidentally delete a wanted program.

If you have difficulty with a third-party application, contact the developer for help.

If Something Goes Wrong

If something goes wrong and you delete something you shouldn't have, remember you created a backup before you began this process (or should have if you followed my instructions).

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Removing & Archiving Data

Data is somewhat different than programs in that it is generally unreplaceable at any cost. While you could purchase a new program that was accidentally removed, the same cannot be said of your photos from your Hawaii vacation or the spreadsheets for work or your tax files.

Archiving Data

When I use the term “archiving data” I mean removing data that is no longer actively in use to an external location that is safe and from where you can recover the data if required in the future even if your computer is stolen or destroyed.

  • Tax information should be stored by the year it applies to in a separate location that can be retrieved if you are audited or otherwise need it.
  • Email data should be exported into a format usable without the program (or that can be imported into current and future programs) before the program is removed.
  • Photos and similar data can be archived into folders by date, by subject or a combination. You can archive larger photo originals while retaining a resized version on your computer to save space on your hard drive.
  • Documents can stored either in their original folders or archived according to year or subject.

When archiving files, I prefer to separate these from regular backups so that individual files can be recovered or disposed of permanently in the future as the situation demands.

Retention of Archives

The retention of archived data files depends a lot on your personal requirements for that data and on legal requirements.

  • Tax information must be retained for as long as the CRA (IRS) requires.
  • Email data should be purged when it is no longer useful as long as there is no legal or personal reason for retaining it.
  • Photos cannot be replaced and are very personal in nature so you'll need to determine what your retention policies should be.
  • Documents archives can be disposed of when they are no longer useful unless there is a legal or business reason to retain them.

Removing Data

When you are permanently removing data from your computer that is no longer useful and for which you have determined that you do not require an archive you may still want to retain a backup copy for a while. Like buyer's remorse, you may have a change of heart after deleting some files. The backups can be removed when you are certain that you no longer need the files in question.

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Storage of Archives & Backups

When choosing how you will store your archives and backups you'll want to consider the following:

  • Security for your data.
  • Reliability of the storage medium.
  • Cost of storage.
  • Accessibility.

Storage options (backup devices) are covered on the Backup & Recovery Strategies page.


Choose a backup device and plan that works for you and your circumstances. After a computer disaster is a poor time to learn that your archives and backups are corrupted or unavailable.

Security is probably a more important concern for businesses than individuals, but loss of this data can affect individuals as well if the backup device is stolen, misplaced or damaged.

Online Backups

Consider the cost if your identity and login for the service is compromised in a data breach. These have become far too common and many companies use form-based security questions that are easily answered based upon your Facebook profile or postings.

USB Backups

USB devices in your possession are not subject to what happens in a faraway location, but are also subject to theft and other disasters.

Many such devices can be secured with encryption (check that feature when purchasing the device if it is important to you) but the safest and best security is to physically store the devices in a safe or similar secure environment.


Reliability of the storage medium. After a computer disaster is a poor time to learn that your archives and backups are corrupted or unavailable.

Be sure to make a note of your passwords, whether it be for your online backup service or encryption used for your backups or on the backup device itself. I recommend LastPass for safe, reliable storage of passwords and other sensitive information because it is encrypted and available online from any device.


Cost is a factor of price and features. Consider how you can quickly increase the available backup space if your circumstances or the amount of data increases suddenly.

Online Backups

You'll want to consider the cost of storage and how it is being charged. A monthly or annual fee for online backups may provide a predictable cost for business or personal backups.

As well as the subscription fees, online backups will affect any bandwidth caps enforced by your ISP or cellular data provider, potentially resulting in overage charges or the need to increase your data plan.

USB-based Storage

A one-time fee for a removable backup device with sufficient space for the foreseeable future may be less costly in the long run than a monthly service fee. You can purchase such devices virtually anywhere.

A thumb drive is very portable and can be purchased very reasonably with a significant amount of storage for documents and similar data with smaller file sizes. It can also be store easily and even carried with you without concerns about bulk or weight.

Such devices do fail just like online services and you need to ensure that there is alternative backups, particularly for archived material.


The security and reliability of a backup service or device is of little help if you cannot access it.

Online Backups

Online services require a working Internet connection as well as a reliable vendor. I recommend a local backup to supplement your online backup that contains at least the most critical files as well as any files needed to recover your system to the point where your online service becomes available.

As well, companies change and some services become unavailable. Be sure you're covered if you lose access to your online backups for whatever reason.

USB-based Storage

A USB-based hard drive or thumb drive can be stored nearby and the smaller devices can be stored in a safe or other secure location to protect them from theft, fire or other disaster.

More sensitive information may be more secure in a safety deposit box or similar storage, but you will have limited access based upon the bank's hours. Business owners need to ensure the business can access any necessary backups if you are incapacitated or are otherwise unable to retrieve the necessary device.

Acronis True Image

Acronis True Image includes an archiving feature which allows you to move large or rarely used files to either a backup device or the cloud.

USB-based Storage

A USB-based hard drive or thumb drive is easy to use but limited in both the size of the storage media. Unlike online services, it cannot be automatically increased by changing your subscription but requires that you purchase a new, larger device. Fortunately, pricing for larger media has been dropping as time goes on.

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Checklists & Resources

There are some other resources and recommendations for the process of cleaning up your computer or other devices. Choose one that meets your circumstances and hardware.

Cleanup Your Computer

Cleanup Your Smartphone or Tablet

Some of these sites may include software downloads but none (except CCleaner) have been tested by me.

App Recommendations

I don't use cleanup apps on my iPhone, preferring to do it manually. These sites may give you a heads up on the best options if you prefer the work done for you.

Cleaning Your Hardware

You might want to consider cleaning up the physical computer and components at the same time. Be sure to read the cautions to avoid damaging anything.

When you improperly clean your screen, be it your computer monitor or your television, it's only a matter of time before you damage it. — How-To Geek

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Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

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Updated: October 29, 2019