Review: 3 disk-cleaning apps declutter your PC's hard drive

Old file fragments and registry detritus can slow down your Windows PC. We tested three well-known disk cleaners to see if they could help.

It's no secret that computers (like their users) slow down with age. Disks fill up with the detritus of use, from old file fragments to the echoes of programs that once lived but are now remembered only by their placeholders in your registry. Meanwhile, your browser retains old images and cookies from sites you'll never visit again, and Windows itself scatters files in diverse places. All of this slows your computer down.

You can do something about these problems. There's a disk defragmenter and a disk cleanup utility built into Windows. Your browser will clear out old Internet files. But to use these functions, you have to know that they exist, and you have to make the time to perform each task when you think it's needed.

A more convenient solution is to use a package that does much of the thinking for you. I looked at three such packages: the iconic Norton Utilities (the roots of which predate Windows), System Mechanic and the CCleaner freeware package.

CCleaner v2.17

CCleaner doesn't try to be a comprehensive answer to system performance. Instead, it's a freeware solution intended to clean junk out of your registry and off your disk. It will also protect your browsing privacy by killing your browser's history files. That's it.

If you want disk defragmentation, you'll need to get it from another Piriform Ltd. product called Defraggler. If you want to recover lost files, then you'll need Recuva. All of these are free downloads from Piriform's Web site.

What's nice about CCleaner is that it's just what it says it is. You don't have to deal with functions you don't need, and you don't have to worry about getting lost in complexity. With CCleaner, you load the program, run an analysis to see what the program thinks you can do without, make any changes in what you want it to do, and let it go. It's fast and effective.

However, you do have to know something about your computer and the functions you perform with it. For example, CCleaner will clear out all of the cookies that Web sites place on your computer, and it will give you a list of proposed deletions that you can make changes to. However, you need to know which cookies are important so that you don't, for example, inadvertently keep your favorite e-commerce site from recognizing you. It's a long list, but fortunately, CCleaner remembers your choices from one use to the next.

Like the other products in this comparison, CCleaner is able to analyze your registry and remove entries that don't need to be there. Also like the other products, it didn't always get everything on the first pass -- CCleaner found 1,029 registry issues, but it took three passes to do it. However, unlike the others, it doesn't provide a report of exactly how much it found, although it does tell you what it proposes to do and later what it did, both of which are nice in case something goes wrong.

CCleaner also has some capabilities that you won't find in other packages, including the ability to run the program from the command line and to run in the background. Both capabilities can be handy for some applications, such as keeping your hard disk free of junk without having to think about it.

Disk cleaners

CCleaner

Click to view larger image.

One other CCleaner feature that can be a real help in some cases is a software uninstaller. Of course, you know that Windows includes an Add or Remove Programs choice in the Control Panel. What's different about this one is that it will uninstall programs that Windows won't for whatever reason, and it will remove programs on the installed programs list -- which is a real help when a program is partially uninstalled but leaves its ghost behind in the form of nonremovable icons.

To its credit, Piriform doesn't make any claims that CCleaner is anything other than what it is, and the company provides tools for other system maintenance tasks. In addition, the instructions for CCleaner are very clear upfront that the program is highly configurable, and it suggests that you start with making some basic configuration settings -- like choosing which cookies to keep. The interface isn't fancy, but it is clear.

The bottom line is also clear. If you want a package that will do it all, this isn't it. If you just want to get the junk off of your hard drive and out of your Registry, CCleaner will do it -- for free.

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