Computer running slower than when you got it? Feels like it takes forever to boot up? Weird unexpected stuff happening? Feeling sluggish? Here’s how to safely get your computer feeling like new again.
This article is designed for computers running Windows 7 (or newer). If you’re still running Windows XP or Windows Vista, read below as to why it’s about time to upgrade.
Why is my computer slow?
Here’s what’s going on… to be productive you need a clean work environment with the tools you need at hand. It’s like having a clean office with a desk, chair, and the few tools you need, right? Right. Unfortunately, as you’ve been busy using the computer and having ‘visitors’ (aka programs) to your office, it is becoming more and more cluttered to the point it’s counter productive. Many of these these visitors are leaving behind a trail, their cousin Vinnie, to keep an eye on your business (aka startup apps or viruses). Most of the time you don’t even notice this happening like you would in a real-life office, instead they’re just piling up behind the scenes. Even fairly legitimate programs and websites will cause troubles if not protected against.
Don’t be Fooled!
Many Most of the “Free PC Scan” or “Speed My PC” tools like maxmyspeed.com, stuff advertised on TV, websites that state they’ll disinfect your computer, and the such are outright scams. They prey on people’s fears and actually infect your computer with more viruses, malware, Trojans, and adware. Wired Magazine had a good article about two entrepreneurs that built a ‘successful business’ off this practice: How Two Scammers Built an Empire Hawking Sketchy Software
How to Improve: Clean House & Be Secure
Generally a computer has slowed down because too much stuff has gotten into it. So you need to remove stuff to get it back to optimum performance. Just adding another “clean up” program isn’t going to help. In fact, your computer already has some good cleanup programs on it. You just need to take a few moments to use what’s already available. The second part is keeping your computer secure and protected from bad programs getting on it in the first place. Both are covered in this guide.
Is meant to be as comprehensive as possible with all the little tips and tricks I’ve learned over the last 20+ years helping friends, family, my own PC, and managing an IT department at work. It’s written in a style I hope helps an average computer user, like my uncles, but with some breadth in techniques that will hopefully provide a new angle or two to PC professionals.
Quick Performance Boost
While there are many things that can be done to help improve your computer’s speed, I’ve found just these two quick easy steps make the largest difference in most cases.
- Turn Off Automatic Startup Apps
The single most effective task is to disable those pesky little programs that are starting up behind the scenes without your knowledge. Effectively disabling those “cousin Vinnies” left behind by other apps will speedup boot time and free up processing power and memory. Windows includes a program called msconfig.exe that makes it easy to disable these. My recommendation is to start off disabling every startup program listed. See how your computer goes. If there’s something no longer running that you used, go back and turn it on. Most of the apps there are to check for updates or make loading their parent programs a little faster. Very rarely are any of them essential; and you can turn them back on at any time. Doing this doesn’t actually remove anything from your computer, it just prevents them from automatically starting. Your programs will still run when you actually need to use them.
Then disable startup items under the Startup tab. All Windows core services needed to run your computer are run as Services (under that tab), so you don’t run a risk of disabling critical computer functions by turning off the items under the Startup tab. You can also turn any of them back on at any time.
For more detailed info, see this post: How to use MSCONFIG in Windows 7
p.s. There are some startup items that can be helpful, like if you have an iPhone there is a startup item that will automatically start iTunes when you plug your iPhone in. Not actually necessary for the computer to work (you can start iTunes manually to sync your iPhone), but handy to leave active.
- Get a Better Browser
Most people are using the Internet Explorer web browser because that’s what came with their PC. Unfortunately it is prone to getting a lot of toolbars, clutter, adware, and other nasty stuff. There’s even a term called “Toolbar Hell” to describe the extreme state of toolbar overload. Even one toolbar can slow down your browser, start showing random popups, and install other bad programs. Better all-together to switch to a different browser that doesn’t have this tendency, such as Google Chrome. It is simple, fast, and clean.
For a laugh, here’s an example of “Toolbar Hell”. I’ve never personally seen a computer this bad, but in my experience even one of these toolbars is ‘too much’ and can wreck havoc on a computer.
Beyond the above quick tips, here is the more compressive list of techniques to clean up the computer and protect against bad stuff from getting in.
- Hard Drive Space
If your computer gets down to less then about 10% of disk space free, it can dramatically affect performance. Imagine an office with only 10% working space available, you’d end up spending more time moving things around than getting stuff done. In PC land, over 10% free space (like 20% or 30%) doesn’t really make a difference in speed so there’s no need to keep a whole lot of free space available, but it is something to keep an eye on. Here’s how to check your drive’s free space, and tips to clean it up:
- Remove Temporary Files
Your PC keeps lots of little bits of temporary files around that can be removed. Windows has a program called Clean Manager (cleanmgr.exe). It removes old left over files that can be safely removed.
- Remove Big Files
WinDirStat is an awesome free little program that shows you visually at a glance what’s taking up space on your drive.
- Uninstall Unused Programs
There are probably many programs installed on your computer you’re not even aware of. Many apps install additional apps you probably didn’t want (called creepware). Most PC manufactures install apps before you get the computer (called crapware); they even get paid kickbacks for doing it. It is common to remove these as a first step in cleaning a computer. I’ve put it further down my list since it’s actually the programs running that slows down the computer, which is addressed above. Removing these programs still makes a difference, and can help the computer ‘feel more clean’ by removing popups, ads, and other annoyances. Yes, even pre-installed anti-virus software is considered crapware, like a dandelion in a flower bed, it’s still considered a weed since it should be there (see below for a better anti-virus). Here are instructions on how to remove programs. My recommendation is to remove all of the programs you are not actively using. They can always be added back later if really needed. When provisioning new computers at work, we remove almost every program that came on pre-installed on the computer. Note: This only removes legitimate well-behaved apps. For viruses, malware, etc the other techniques below are required.
- Upgrade to a Modern OS: Windows 7 (or newer)
If you’re not using the latest operating system, you don’t have the latest protection against intrusive programs and technology in keeping a computer fast. For example, in Windows 7 (as compared to Windows XP), it does a number of things to help keep your computer optimized. Such as automatically defragmenting the hard drive, pre-caching frequently used applications, supporting the latest hardware (like solid-state drives), and many improvements in security. If your computer came with an old OS (like Windows XP or Windows Vista) then it’s probably a good idea to ditch the computer itself, since it’s so old anyway, and get a new computer. (Windows XP was released in 2001, 11 yrs ago at the time of writing this, even Windows 7 was released in 2009, three years ago now)
- Power Settings: High-Performance
Windows 7 by default is set to try to balance computer performance with power consumption. This can be handy in a laptop running off battery, where battery life could trump performance. Just choosing “High performance” is all that’s typically needed, particularly for desktop computers. See Manage Power Settings
- Keyboard Speed: Decrease Repeat Delay
There is a small setting in Windows to adjust how quickly the keyboard starts to repeat a key. Just decreasing this time makes the keyboard can make the whole PC feel faster. I’ve changed this one setting on people’s computers and they swear their computer is faster. Particularly helpful when using the arrow keys to move the cursor. 1 min video: How to Increase Keyboard Speed
- Get a Faster Internet
Most of the time spent on the computer these days is utilizing the Internet in some way. A slow connection turns the world-wide-web into a world-wide-wait. You can measure your connection speed at http://speedtest.net. For normal web-browsing, I’d consider a fast connection to have: (1) a ping time of less than 30ms (the time it takes for a signal to get from your computer to a remote computer) and a download speed of about 4 Mbps or more (how wide your pipe is). The better connections tend to be (in order): Verizon FIOS (fiber-optic, about 25 Mbps), AT&T U-verse Fiber, cable from a cable TV provider (usually 6 Mbps+), with other options avoidable if possible (DSL, dial-up, and wireless). Just visit Verizon, AT&T, or the local cable company’s website or call them to find out if their service is in your area.
- Use a Reliable 3rd Party PC Cleaning Tools
There are a few 3rd party applications that help further clean a PC that are well respected and reliable. If the other tips here are applied, these typically give just a slight improvement. Specifically CCleaner, used to be called “Crap Cleaner”, does what Clean Manager (cleanmgr.exe, above) basically does but cleans a few other areas as well. It’s like a good flossing for the computer. Be very careful here though, even previously legit cleaners like AdAware sometimes get purchased by scammers and turned into scams.
- Reinstall the Operating System
When all else fails, there’s always the option of starting over fresh by clearing the hard drive and starting over again. If the other practices here are used regularly this shouldn’t be needed, but if computer upkeep has been neglected, sometime this is the best way. When doing so, remember:
- Have your Windows CD or USB key on-hand
- Write down the applications you use (you’ll re-install them after)
- Back up your entire computer (at least all your data, but the whole thing is preferable)
- Make sure your backup is thorough!
- Boot from the Windows CD or USB key
- Run through the windows installer. When prompted for a drive to install to, choose Advanced options, delete the current drive, then continue the installer. Windows will automatically create a new drive letter and install completely fresh and clean.
- After Windows is installed, apply all the Windows Updates possible (keep rebooting and running Windows Update until it says there are no more updates and no reboot needed)
- Re-install your programs and copy your data back over
- Follow the other tips here to keep the system performance at top notch and keep it secure
There are an endless number of small tweaks that trade computer experience for performance. Things like disabling certain visual elements or styles in Windows, removing hotfix installers, registry tweaks, etc. I find these to generally provide very little improvement in performance, reduce the experience of a nice modern computer, and even be detrimental to the computer’s stability in some cases. I generally recommend avoiding them.
- Keep PC OS Up to Date: Automatic Updates
Fortunately Microsoft does actually care, quite a bit, about your computer’s health. They are constantly looking out for any new vulnerabilities. Like keeping an eye on a huge dam holding back the bad programs from flooding your computer. MS is providing fixes to potential leaks before they’re a problem. If your computer isn’t set to automatically apply updates (which is free), the dam can break and bad stuff gets through. Many viruses these days take advantage of the fact many people don’t keep their computer updated and target those vulnerabilities after they’re found. See here about Windows Update and how to turn it on to apply automatically.
- Use a Decent Anti-Virus: Microsoft Security
If you don’t have some anti-virus software on your computer is certainly less protected. Good anti-virus isn’t everything, but it does help. Like taking vitamin C helps, but you still don’t want to go walking down a dark scary ally downtown at 3am. Many anti-virus programs are just trying to dig deep into your pockets for cash or are more obtrusive than the viruses they try to protect you from. Norton Anti-Virus is that way, even McAfee can be troublesome. Thankfully Microsoft actually has a free, effective, completely innocuous solution called Microsoft Security Essentials. Just click that link to get it. They can’t bundle it in Windows by default due to concerns of the anti-virus companies suing them. But it is free, effective, and stays out of the way unless there’s a problem (like a good anti-virus should).
- Keep the User Account Control Turned On
Windows 7 introduced the concept of “User Account Control” which prompts the user anytime a program tries to make a system change to the computer. Such as installing a program or changing a system file. By default this is turned on in Windows 7. Many admins turn this off (I do), but it really does help cut down on bad programs getting on your computer without you knowing it.
- Use the Web-of-Trust Browser Plugin
This amazing little free plugin gives an indication of the reliability of the websites visited in real-time. It can help protect your browser from going to sites known to have viruses. http://www.mywot.com/
- Be Aware, Use Your Brain
When it comes down to it, the most important step in keeping a computer secure and at top performance comes in being careful. Don’t open that suspicious email attachment. Even though it says “I Love You”, it doesn’t. If it looks questionable on the web, it probably is. If you feel your heart rate increase when seeing a website saying it detected a virus on your computer or your PC is infected, run away! Those sites will infect your computer. If you’re seeing popup ads when using your computer, it’s already infected, get it clean fast before it gets worse.
If you’re really looking for a more drastic change, improving your computer’s hardware of course helps. I’d certainly recommend applying the above before making hardware changes as if the computer isn’t clean already, just throwing more hardware at it may not make a difference. A computer has three main hardware components affecting speed:
- Processor (or CPU)
The brains. How fast your computer can think. Generally it’s not something you upgrade unless getting a new computer. Most CPUs these days are quite fast enough for general use, particularly the Intel i5, i7, or newer.
- Memory (or RAM)
The easiest to improve in most computers is the memory. Taking a system from 2 GB (gigabytes) to 4 GB of RAM can make a noticeable difference in Windows 7! See: Find out how much RAM your computer has This upgrade isn’t all that expensive these days, around $40.
- Storage (or hard drive)
This is where programs and data are stored (pictures, video, etc). It’s not just about how much you can store these days, but how fast can it be retrieved. In my opinion, this is the single most effective piece of hardware to upgrade to improve performance (assuming the other factors are reasonable). Replacing a standard drive with a Solid-State-Drive (SSD) makes a huge difference.
Here is a simple comparison. The first pic is a benchmark of a standard “high speed” laptop drive at 7200 RPM. The second pic is of the Crucial 512 GB M4 SSD I replaced it with.
As you can see, it has a 3x faster sequential read and 171x faster “4K QD32” write speed (which means data is written in various locations across the disk). And this is an older SSD with faster drives now available. See Jeff Atwood’s blog post on The Hot/Crazy Solid State Drive Scale if you need more convincing. Bang for the buck, if you’ve got an okay computer, a SSD drive will kick it into a turbo awesome computer.
This is upgrade can be expensive. See Newegg’s SSD section for current pricing. Crucial, Intel, and Vertex are excellent SSD brands. Not all SSDs are fast! In fact some are slower than regular hard drives. Check reviews and generally those brands are the fastest and most reliable. SSDs do fail more often than a classic HDD, so make sure you have a reliable regular automated backup in place (which is recommended anyways since all drives will fail, it’s just a matter of when).
- Check the Experience Index
Okay this doesn’t actually speed up your computer, but it can tell you where what the hardware bottleneck on computer could be. Here’s how to check the rating, info from Microsoft about it, and what my mid-line MacBook Pro 13” w Windows 7 experience index is for a totally non-benchmark reference.
Just by playing it safe from the start by using Windows 7 can keep the computer in a clean optimal state. The basics are: disable startup items, uninstalling crapware, have automatic updates turned on, install Microsoft Security Essentials, use a clean browser like Google Chrome, and be mindful of not letting questionable programs onto your computer. While there are more scams and viruses than ever before, good computer maintenance is also easier and keeps a computer in top shape better than ever.
Here are additional resources if you’d like to learn more…
- Scott Hanselman on What geeks need to tell our parents about shopping online safely and securely
- The How-to-Geek Blog on Simple Tips to Reduce Disk Usage in Windows 7
If I’m missing anything or you have another favorite tweak, let me know in the comments.