Chances are, your PC is different from the way it was at the start of this year. In fact, because you're the kind of PC user who reads articles like this one, I'll bet your PC is different from the way it was even a few days or weeks ago: Perhaps you added or removed some software. Maybe you installed a patch or update, or allowed one to be installed automatically. Perhaps you adjusted a system setting to make Windows look or act more the way you wanted, instead of the way Microsoft or whoever set up your PC thought it should be. Perhaps you tried out a performance tweak or other system change that you read about here or elsewhere.
No matter the reasons, we all change our PCs. And over time, the little and not-so-little changes add up. At least once a year, it's smart to perform some extra routine maintenance to help ensure that the changes aren't piling error on error, and that our PCs remain fundamentally sound.
Here are some steps I take on all my PCs, from Windows 98 through XP. Yes, the total number is somewhat arbitrary; you may decide that your systems need more or fewer steps. That's OK: The important thing isn't how many steps there are in your preventive maintenance program, but rather simply that you give your systems whatever maintenance they need. Use this list, then, as a general guide to get you pointed in the right direction; a jumping-off point you can use to get your PCs ready for safe, trouble-free computing in the coming year:
Take out all the trash
Windows is a pack rat. As you work, it collects a prodigious number of temporary files, and it does so for a good reason: The \Temp, \Temporary Internet Files, Recycle Bin and other files all exist to give you fast access to items you might need again. But there's a point of diminishing returns. And you can end up with hundreds of megabytes of these files, wasting space and decreasing performance as the operating system tries to wade through the rubbish.
At a minimum, run Disk Cleanup: You'll find this utility on this Start Menu submenu: Start > (All) Programs > Accessories > System Tools. Better still, use the extensive information here to reduce your PC's tendency to accumulate excessive amounts of temporary files; to better control the actions of the Disk Cleanup tool; and to automate the process of deleting trash files from folders that otherwise would require laborious manual attention. It's not uncommon to recover hundreds of megabytes--and sometimes gigabytes--of space with these tools and techniques, even on systems where the owners thought they already were running lean and clean!