Desktops

Digital Maintenance: 5 Ways to Spruce Up and Protect Your Gear

It's time to treat your online accounts, laptops, and phones the way you handle a garage or a closet. Digital accounts and electronics need regular cleaning and maintenance, just like shelves full of motor oil and cleaners.

Otherwise, they turn into a frustrating mess, which can even harbor some hazardous materials. Honestly, when was the last time you even looked at your router settings? But that's something you should do, to keep yourself safe from hackers.

Though the year is young and the days are short, set aside a morning for digital housework. In just a few hours, you can clean up your inbox, free up storage space, and protect your personal data from online criminals.

Here's your digital maintenance to-do list for this weekend:

1. Fix Your Passwords

"If I had to pick the most important online safety strategy of them all, it would be safely managing your passwords," says Gary Davis, chief consumer security evangelist at Intel Security. (And, yes, that's his real title.) "Having a truly complex password, and changing it regularly, is one of the most important things you can do to secure your online life.”

Try to create new passwords for each of your app and website accounts. This prevents one compromised password from creating multiple breaches.

When it comes to passwords, the longer and more nonsensical, the better. 

Davis recommends using a password manager, which can be a huge time-saver. "Integrated password managers can automatically log users into websites and applications," he says, "which is tremendously convenient and can generate ridiculously complex passwords that you never need to type in." 

2. Do a Security Check

It seems as if we hear of a new data breach almost every week. To see whether your personal info was swept up in the hacks at LinkedIn, Adobe, Dropbox, or Yahoo, plug your email addresses and user names into haveibeenpwned.com.

The website takes your user info and matches it up with the publicly leaked data. It also lets you sign up to receive notifications if your accounts get compromised in the future.

"Consumers should take seriously every online interaction they have," says Mike Baukes, the co-CEO of cybersecurity firm UpGuard. "They should also be vocal in holding their favorite brands accountable for their security practices." 

It's also not a bad idea to review the privacy settings on your Google and Facebook accounts.

3. Unsubscribe From Unwanted Emails

If you’re anything like me, you have few qualms about handing out your personal email address for a free app download or 10 percent off on a tube of toothpaste. But, sooner or later, that cavalier attitude nets you an overstuffed inbox.

Though you could spend an afternoon opening every last email and clicking on the unsubscribe link, there's an easier way to clean house. It's called Unroll.me, and it wades through your inbox and compiles a list of subscriptions. From there, you can pick and choose what to keep and what to jettison.

In my case, it helped me whittle the list from 474 to 13.

And the next time you feel tempted to swap an email address for an online deal, make it a point to use a site such as 10MinuteMail.com, which offers a secure, temporary email service that self-destructs in 10 minutes. 

4. Free Up Space on Your Smartphone

The days of 16GB storage capacity are coming to a close, but even a 64GB smartphone isn't a bottomless pit. With large apps, 4K video, and high-res photos becoming the norm, we may all be destined to suffer through limited space headaches. Here are some solutions:

Delete unused apps. Perform a quick audit and get rid of the ones you haven't accessed in a while. (This is also good for privacy and security—the fewer apps you have, the fewer companies there are collecting data on you.) It's also worth checking out how much space the apps you do use command. 

For iOS users, go to Settings > General > Storage & iCloud Usage > Manage Storage.

For Android users, go to Settings > Storage & USB > Internal Storage (or Storage) > Apps.

Clear your browser cache. When you visit a website, your smartphone temporarily stores files so that the next time you go to the site, it will load faster. As a result, the browser cache can get quite large. To fix that, you should clear it out every so often.

Each mobile browser has a different method to accomplish this. But here are a couple of examples.

Safari users should go to Settings > Safari > Clear History and Website Data.

For Android users with Chrome, go to the Chrome app and select More > Settings > Advanced > Privacy > Clear browsing data. Next, select a time period (such as the past hour or from the "beginning of time"). Select Cache and tap Clear data.

Send your photos to the cloud. If estimates from market research firm Infotrends are accurate, more than 1 trillion photos will be shot in 2017. That's a lot of images, and they all have to go somewhere. You could squander precious onboard storage on your rarely viewed snapshots, but why not move them to the cloud?

For iOS users, make sure your iCloud Photo Library is on. Now go to Settings > iCloud > Photos and turn on Optimize Storage, so that when your phone is low on space, a smaller image file will take the place of each full-resolution picture (which will be sent to the cloud).

For Android users, make sure to have the Google Photos backup enabled. Open the Google Photos app and select Menu > Settings and turn on Back up & sync. (Google Photos is also available to iPhone users; download the app.)

5. Update Your Router's Firmware

Neglecting your router could put your home network and even your online accounts at risk. So it's important to regularly update the firmware to obtain the latest security features.

Though some newer routers provide automatic updates, many older models require you to do the work. At the least, you'll need to log into your router through a browser using the device's IP address and accept any updates that the router company has prepared for you. But you may even need to download the update from the manufacturer's website, then do the installation. Here are links with step-by-step instructions on how to update the models from some popular brands: Apple, Asus, D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear.  

To prod yourself to check for future updates, set up a quarterly reminder in your calendar. You can also consult with the manufacturer to see whether there’s a way to get security notices via email.

Copyright © 2005-2017 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.