Unless your computer is fresh out of the box, it's probably not running as fast as it used to. Our PCs fill up with all sorts of good stuff -- documents, music, videos, programs, games, downloads -- and bad stuff like viruses and spyware, too. Over time they can get bogged down.

Much like oil changes for your car, a little periodic maintenance can help extend your computer's lifespan. And in a tight economy, it's smart to take a few simple steps to help keep your PC running like new, instead of buying a new one.

We've collected a series of tips and tricks to help your computer run more smoothly and broaden its useful life. They are easy enough that anyone, even a novice, can run them -- but they can all help bring that “new car smell” back to your computer.

Computers with Windows XP and newer operating systems come with several simple utilities to check, clean and de-clutter your hard drive. Doing so will free it up to access your programs and files more quickly.  Disk Check identifies and removes hard disk errors caused by crashes or power failures. It's a good idea to run it every few months to make sure the drive itself is functioning properly. 

• Click on My Computer
• • Right click on C drive
• • Choose “Properties
• • Select the Tools Tab
• • Click the "Check Now" button under "Error Checking"
• • Check all the boxes
• • Click Start

Disk Cleanup removes temporary files and unnecessary detritus from your hard drive, freeing up space. For example, when browsing the Internet your computer collects thousands of temporary files to help Web sites load more quickly. But over time these files create clutter, so it's a good idea to clean them out. We recommend running this around once a month.

• • Click on My Computer
• • Right click on your C drive
• • Choose “Properties”
• • Select Disk Cleanup

The Disk Defragmenter improves hard drive performance and speed by piecing together parts of files that have been broken apart. As you use your computer, files are constantly added, changed and removed. Over time, these files and folders are broken into chunks of data, so when you want to access the file your hard disk has to work harder and look in more places to find all of its contents. This is known as fragmentation. The more full your hard drive becomes, the more likely it is your files will be fragmented. The Defragmenter pieces those chunks of data back together, so your hard drive can load them more quickly.

We recommend using this utility at least once a month -- and it's best to run when you're finished using the computer for the day, as it can often take over an hour to complete.

• • Click on My Computer
• • Right click on your C drive
• • Select Properties
• • Choose the Tools tab
• • Click "Defragment Now" button under "Defragmentation"

Windows XP and higher can automatically check to see if it needs to be updated. Microsoft often supplies patches, updates and security fixes for Windows (as well as Office and other Microsoft programs) that should always be installed to keep your PC up-to-date. The beauty of Automatic Updates is that it checks with Microsoft on its own and lets you know when you need to do something. So just make sure that Automatic Updates are on:

• • Click Start, and then click Control Panel
• • Click Automatic Updates
• • Choose Automatic (recommended)

Though it sounds counterintuitive, dropping an unwanted file in the Recycle Bin doesn't actually remove it from your hard drive. To prevent accidental deletion, a file can remain in the Recycle Bin and continue to take up space. Periodically emptying the Recycle Bin helps free space for the files you want to keep.

Finally, perhaps the most common causes of computer sluggishness are viruses and spyware. You may already have computer security software installed on your computer, but with so many new threats created every day, it must have updated definition files to be of any use.