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Spring Cleaning? Don't Forget About Your Computer and Smartphone

How to organize your apps, delete old files and back up what you really need

Person deleting files from computer

StockGood / getty images

En español | Just as your home can get cluttered with things you amass over the years — a stack of unread magazines here, a box of old DVDs there, and a table crammed with framed photos of the kids and grandkids — your devices can fill up with stuff.

But with your computer, phone or tablet, the stuff is software such as programs and apps, both of which are names for the same thing, and files, like documents, music, photos and videos. All this stuff can clutter up your device, taking up valuable storage as well as looking messy.

Having too much on your devices can affect their performance, too.

But that doesn't mean you need to buy brand-new ones that have more storage. You can safely remove what you no longer need, organize what's left to keep things clean and back up important files, just in case you have a glitch.

Apply the idea of a home spring cleaning to your devices, refreshing their insides, so that your tech gadgets look and run like new.

Clean 'em up

Is your computer desktop littered with so many icons that you can't see the photo behind it? Or have your musical tastes changed since you went through that country-and-western phase in 2017?

Windows 10 users can type the word “remove” into the search window at the bottom left of the screen to find the “Add or remove programs” area. Now you can go through all installed software and remove the programs you no longer want.

And remember that now more than ever we're streaming media, which doesn't require you to first download files to your device. So you don't need a high-capacity hard drive. With Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Spotify and YouTube, having a lot of local storage isn't as important as it once was.

On a Mac, open Finder and click Applications. Drag the icon of the program you want to uninstall to the Trash.

On a Chromebook, click the launcher in the corner of your screen, select the Launcher (the circle icon) and then the up arrow. Now right-click the app you want to remove. Select Uninstall or Remove from Chrome.

You can also delete files, such as movies and songs, that you no longer need. (See below for some backup options.)

On a smartphone or tablet, tap and hold on an unwanted app. Then you will see an option to uninstall it from your device — whether you're on an Apple iPad or iPhone, or an Android device.

If you want to better manage your apps, tap and hold an app, then drag it to another app and let go; this will create a folder based on the kind of apps inside. Your device will give it a name, like Games, Photography or Social Media, but you can change the title. And you can continue to drag apps into an already created folder.

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If you're storing e-books on your device, they don't take up a lot of space because the files are just text. But whether your book will be gone forever if deleted depends on how you obtained the e-book.

If you used a subscription service, you often can delete the e-book and then download it again when you like. The service should know you've already paid for it, though it doesn't hurt to double-check that first.

But if someone sent you an e-book file, which usually has an .epub or .mobi extension, you will need to save it elsewhere before deleting it if you want to return to it.

Time for a tune-up

With all three major computer operating systems — ChromeOS, macOS and Microsoft Windows — updates should install automatically or at a time of day of your choice.

But also remember to update individual programs as software makers fix problems or add more functionality. You may see a notification about updates when you launch the program, or you can go into the Settings or Options area of your favorite software and look for updates there.

It is important, too, to look for software updates for your hardware, such as wireless routers and printers, because that also can patch up any vulnerabilities. Go to the Support area of device websites and search for terms like “firmware update."

Don't forget to back up

As Joni Mitchell reminded us in 1970, in the chorus of “Big Yellow Taxi” on her Ladies of the Canyon album, “You don't know what you've got until it's gone.” So be sure to back up your important files regularly in case of fire, flood, hard-drive malfunction, power surge, theft or nasty virus.

Local backup solutions include an external hard drive or USB flash drive (also referred to as a thumb drive or jump drive). But you can leverage free online cloud accounts, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud or Microsoft OneDrive.

The cloud simply means that files are securely stored online on a company's computers, instead of on your own. You might get only five gigabytes for free, which is ample for documents and photos, but video files may require more space, so you can opt to pay for extra storage.

If you buy a hard drive or flash drive that plugs into your computer, open up a program like Windows Explorer on a PC or Finder on a Mac, and use your mouse to drag and drop files onto the external drive for safekeeping.

Tip: Keep your physical backup solution in another location if possible; otherwise, the backup files could be destroyed if your home catches fire or floods.

Examples of files you should back up are irreplaceable calendar appointments, digital photos, documents, email addresses, home movies, spreadsheets and website bookmarks.

Always use security software

Scan today's headlines and you'll see that scammers are increasing their attempts to harm people online, especially as everyone spends more time on the net. That makes it critical to use cybersecurity software to safeguard your computer and mobile devices from hackers, phishing scams, spyware that can monitor your web surfing, and damaging viruses. To further minimize the chances of a data breach, use strong passwords or passphrases for all of your online activity.

For important activities like online banking, opt for two-factor authentication, which combines something you know (your password) with something you have (your smartphone). You typically will receive a onetime code on your mobile device that you'll need to type in, along with your password, to confirm to a site that you really are the one logging in.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geek speak into street speak.

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