How to Do a Data ‘Cleanse’

New year, new you, right? You may be headed to the gym, but what about the health of your phone, computer and all your precious data? Here are some tips to get your digital life in order.

By David Pogue

If we need a checkup on our health, our finances or our cars, we can find doctors, accountants or mechanics. But who checks up on our digital lives?

There’s no such thing as 10,000-mile scheduled maintenance for your hard drive or an oil change for your smartphone. You’re on your own.

Some people go years without giving their data much thought. As we start a new year, here’s one more item to wedge onto your New Year New You list: a comprehensive checkup on your own data.

Following these four steps takes some time and attention, but it’s the only sure way to avoid eventual data disaster.

Sooner or later, your hard drive will die.

Even its manufacturer admits it. Right there in the manual’s fine print, you can find its M.T.B.F. That’s “mean time between failures,” or “typical time until it croaks.”

If that drive contains the only copies of your files and photos, then your countdown to catastrophe has begun.

What you need is an automatic, continuous backup system — something that only 6 percent of us have set up.

The easiest solution is an online backup service like Backblaze, which is preferred by Wirecutter for its low cost —$50 a year — and lack of size limits. Its software continuously copies your computer’s contents to the cloud. Should disaster strike, you can download your stuff right back again.

Online backup services like Backblaze require an annual fee, but they’re entirely automated and invisible until a crisis.
Online backup services like Backblaze require an annual fee, but they’re entirely automated and invisible until a crisis.

Better yet, these backups are offsite. Fire, flood and fiendish burglars are no longer your concern. (Well, they’re not great, but at least you won’t lose the sole copy of your data should your computer be damaged, destroyed or go missing.)

The downside, of course, is paying that fee forever.

For that reason, some people prefer backing up their stuff onto a second, external hard driveWirecutter suggests the 4-terabyte Western Digital My Book, which costs about $100.

Once it’s connected, you can set up the Mac’s Time Machinefeature or Windows’s File History feature to do the backing up, quietly and automatically.

The drawbacks of this system: First, your backup isn’t offsite, so a local disaster can take down both the original and the backup. Second, no backing up takes place unless the external drive is plugged into your computer — something to remember if you’re a laptop lugger.

There’s a third option, by the way, that’s ideal for a household with several computers. For about $300, you can buy a huge hard drive that connects to your Wi-Fi network and backs up all of your machines wirelessly.

In order to scare off novices, the industry calls these drives NAS (network-attached storage) devices. They’re usually not simple to set up, but the result is free, wireless, continuous backup of all the computers in your house.

Ask a hundred people what they’d rescue first from a burning house, and you’ll hear a lot of “my photos.”

Dropbox, Flickr, Apple’s iCloud and other companies can back up your phone’s photos and videos, wirelessly and automatically. But they’re free only if you have a tiny photo collection. If your picture collection is of real-world size, you’ll have to pay. (It’s $36 a year for 200 gigabytes for iCloud, for example.)

But two excellent services, Google Photos and Amazon Photos, can back up your complete photo collection for free, with a footnote apiece:

  • Google’s promise: Unlimited, free backups of all the pictures and short videos on your phones, tablets and computers, with spectacular searching and sharing features once they’re online.

    The catch: Google’s algorithms compress your photos to take up less space. Now, unless your camera takes photos larger than 20 megapixels, it’s impossible to see the differencebetween the downgraded copies and the originals. Still, deep down, it may bug you to know that you haven’t uploaded exact copies. (Google Photos can back up the exact originals for a fee: $36 a year for 200 gigabytes, for example, or for free if you buy a Google phone.)

  • Amazon Photos offers the same free service without compressing your photos. It can automatically back up either your computer’s photo stash or your phone’s (iPhone or Android).

    The catch: It’s part of Amazon Prime, the $119-a-year service that offers free two-day shipping, streaming movies and music, discounts at Whole Foods and other features.

If you’re among the 100 million Americans who are already Prime members, great! It’s a good bet that you didn’t even know about this feature.

Nobody knows where the term “cruft” came from. Maybe it began life as a reference to Harvard’s Cruft Laboratory, or maybe it’s some mash-up of “crust,” “crud” and “stuff.” In any case, that’s what it is: crust, crud and stuff that builds up over time.

Software cruft refers to digital dust bunnies: duplicate files, orphaned “temporary” files, forgotten downloads, files attached to ancient emails, abandoned files from apps you deleted, and so on.

Cruft is bad. As it piles up, it can waste a shocking amount of storage space. Eventually, it can slow down your machine.

Fortunately, Apple, Microsoft and Google have all recently joined a global anti-cruft crusade. They’ve each added cruft-removal tools to their operating systems. You just have to remember to use them:

  • Windows 10: From the Start menu, open Settings, System and then Storage. If you click “Free up space now,” Windows displays a list of cruft categories that it’s safe to delete, and shows how many gigabytes you’ll reclaim.

    Here, you can also turn on Storage Sense, which prevents cruft from accumulating in the first place. (Click “Change how we free up space automatically” to adjust the frequency of the deletions.)

Windows 10 offers a simple way to reclaim disk space from orphaned files.


Windows 10 offers a simple way to reclaim disk space from orphaned files.
  • Mac: Apple’s cruft cruncher can reclaim huge swaths of space. (It’s available on macOS High Sierra and later.) To see it, from the Apple menu, choose About This Mac; click Storage; and then Manage.

Here, you’ll see options like “Automatically remove watched iTunes movies and TV shows” and “Download only recent attachments” (in the Mail app). Click Review Files to see a sortable list of everything on your drive, which makes it easy to spot duplicates, or your biggest and oldest files, and delete them.

The Mac, too, suggests ways to pinpoint abandoned and gigantic files for deletion.


The Mac, too, suggests ways to pinpoint abandoned and gigantic files for deletion.
  • Android: Beginning with the Oreo version of Android, Google has made it fantastically easy to clean out junk files from your phone: Tap Settings, Storage & Memory, and then “Free Up Space.” The resulting list includes downloaded files, photos and videos that you’ve already backed up, and apps you haven’t used in some time. You can delete them by category or individually.

When your Android phone is feeling stuffed, open Settings to lighten its load.


When your Android phone is feeling stuffed, open Settings to lighten its load.
  • iOS: On the iPhone or iPad, tap Settings, General, and then iPhone Storage. You’re now facing iOS’s cruft-removal options: Offload Unused Apps, Review iTunes Videos (enormous TV and movie files), plus an app-by-app listing of space gobblers. Music, Photos, Podcasts and TV usually top the list.

    To delete the individual songs, videos, photos and other files that are eating up your space, you still have to open the corresponding app. But at least now you know where to begin.

The iPhone and iPad make it easy to see which big and underused apps are junking up your storage.


The iPhone and iPad make it easy to see which big and underused apps are junking up your storage.

More sophisticated cruft-crunching apps are available online — some free, some not. But start with these free, built-in options.

Every year, Apple, Microsoft and Google offer free updates to their phone and computer operating systems. Each update generally makes your machine more secure, less buggy and more richly featured.

The operative word, of course, is generally. Grizzled computer veterans are full of stories about the time some upgrade fried their PCs, introduced bugs or took away beloved feature.

Maybe that’s why some people avoid installing the updates, which do, after all, take time to install and learn.

But here’s the thing: Software companies don’t create these updates to make your life miserable, or even to make money. (The updates are usually free.) Their primary motivation is making your machine better so you’ll love it enough to buy the same brand the next time.

Thanks to better (and more public) testing, it’s been a long time since any of these companies introduced a disastrous operating system release. By all means, study the reviews of the latest update. But if it seems fine, make the jump. You generally wind up with a computer or phone that runs faster, feels newer and does a better job at resisting internet nastiness.

Four steps, four nagging projects, four ways to ensure a better future for your life’s data. Having to perform this kind of nerdy checkup may not be your idea of fun, but look at the bright side: It costs a lot less than visiting a doctor, accountant or mechanic.

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