A Few Ways to Speed Up A Slow PC

21st April, 2010 in Advice

A customer recently asked me for advice on how to speed up their office computers that have been running quite slow lately. There are quite a lot of reasons this may happen so I decided to document a few of the top ways I use to identify and remove the causes of a slow computer. But if these don’t work then it may just be time for a new computer! Note: this is for Windows XP, Vista and 7.

Identify Any Processes Using High Resources and End Them

It may be possible you have a program running in the background using high processor or RAM usage. So the first thing I would do when a computer is really slow is take a look at the processes that may be causing it.

  • In XP if you press “Control + Alt + Del” you can bring up the “Task Manager” (Note: In Windows Vista and 7 you still press Control + Alt+ Del but need to click Start Task Manager in the menu that appears).
  • Once in Task Manager, click the “Processes” tab at the top. You will see all the processes running on the computer

Check CPU (Processor) Usage

  • Then click the “CPU” heading to sort by CPU. This is the percentage of processor power a process is using. If you sort the highest at the top we can see if any process is using a lot of processor power. If you see something that is high (say above 50 to 100) then this may be the process slowing the computer.
  • Make a note of this process for later reference.
  • Select this program and choose “End Process” and monitor your computer to see if it speeds up. 

Check Memory (RAM) Usage

  • Additionally you can sort by “Memory” which is the amount of RAM a process is using. If you have a low RAM computer (say < 1Gb) but many processes open using a lot of RAM, it will also slow the computer.
  • Identify any processes using a lot of RAM (e.g. > 200,000 K of memory).
  • Make a note of this process for later reference.
  • Select this program and choose “End Process” and monitor your computer to see if it speeds up.

If you identified a process causing the computer to slow down then you need to identify what program this process was for (Google it!) and uninstall that program, upgrade to its latest version, or contact the software developer.

Note: ending a process like this may end something required to operate your computer, such as Windows explorer, or end a program you are in the middle of using like Microsoft Word! So make sure to save all data and close all open programs before attempting this!

Check for Spyware

Spyware are programs that may run in the background without you knowing and be sending information about your PC or Internet habits to another computer on the internet. This will therefore use resources and also can infringe on your privacy. These programs can sometimes be installed without you knowing when you install other programs downloaded online (such as free software). Browser toolbars may also be a spyware program.

Install a spyware scanning and removal tool to scan the PC for spyware and remove any found. A suitable free program for this will be Microsoft Defender. An alternate system to use that is free to try is Spybot Search and Destroy. There are paid for versions of course, but usually it’s paying for the software that puts people off having them, hence the free versions listed.

Note: It is possible some legitimate software on your PC may require the background spyware process to be running on order for that program to be running. It is a means for the free software developers to make money, by selling advertising or information to 3rd parties. In my opinion you should not be using this main software program if it requires the operation of a spyware program.

For future safety, when installing software in the future, take note at what other software it is installing. Most times the install process gives you the option of installing the 3rd party software or not. This is very common for Toolbars (e.g. the Yahoo or Google Toolbar).

Check for Viruses

It’s possible you have a virus running in the background undertaking some malicious task on your computer like trying to hack into other computers or sending a million emails out per second (Ok maybe not so much but still a lot!). So it is vital you check for viruses. So many people do not have an up to date anti-virus!

If have an anti-virus (AV) program on your computer then first check it is up to date. This is because many AV programs included with computers these days are only for a trial period and then they ask you to pay (e.g. Mcafee or Norton). Many people do not pay, but they think they have an AV installed (I have one of those Dads who fits this criteria). Without paying for the software (usually an annual subscription), it will not update with the latest virus definitions and so your computer becomes vulnerable to newer virus definitions being released all the time.

Once you know your AV program is up to date then run a full system scan on all drives to make sure you have no viruses, or remove them if any are found.

If you do not have an up to date AV program, or no AV program at all, then two free programs that I have used for many, many years and have not once been infected are AVG Free and Avast. There are paid for versions of course, but usually it’s paying for the software that puts people off having them, hence the free versions listed.

Defragment (Defrag) The Computer

When you buy a new computer the files are all stored nice and organised on the hard drive. Over time files get spread across different locations (fragmented) and become less and less organised. The time taken for Windows to read files from the hard drive increases due to the time the hard drive needs fetching all the various files and parts of files from different locations on the hard drive. A Disk Defragmentation will organise the files back into more efficient locations on the hard drive and in theory speed up the computer. I personally have not noticed much of a performance increase defragging the hard drive though. I suspect it has to be very fragmented to see any difference.

To defrag the computer:

  • Go to Start Menu -> Programs -> Accessories -> Disk Defragment (or similar, possibly dfrgui in Windows 7)
  • Choose the drive (probably (C:) )
  • Optionally choose Analyse Disk if you want to first check if the disk needs to be defragmented
  • Click Defragment Disk

Note: this can take a while, several hours, if you have a large disk in need of defragmentation so go make a very large cup of coffee.

More detailed instructions can be found on the Microsoft website.

Disk Cleanup

Many files build up on the computer over time, perhaps in the Recycle Bin, cache from browsing the internet, temporary files and more. Disk Cleanup will allow you to easily delete all these unwanted files thus freeing up a lot of space that may improve performance. I personally have not noticed much of a performance increase after running Disk Cleanup.

To run Disk Cleanup:

  • Go to Start Menu -> Programs -> Accessories ->  Disk Cleanup
  • Wait for the program to analyse the computer
  • Optionally choose Analyze Disk if you want to first check if the disk needs to be defragmented
  • Click Defragment Disk
  • Select the “Files to Delete” checkboxes, mainly ones that have a lot of disj usage (especially in the GB’s!)
  • Click Clean up system files

More detailed instructions can be found on the Microsoft website.

If your computer is still extremely slow then it may be another issue not mentioned here. Unfortunately it may also be your computer is quite old and unable to handle modern programs that demand more processor and RAM resources. If your computer is over 2 or 3 years old you should consider purchasing a new computer.

Firewall

A firewall will be an unlikely cause of a slow PC, but if you pass all the above and have a spyware and virus free computer again, a Firewall is just as important as an anti-virus and will not only stop hackers attempting to get in to your computer, but to prevent any malicious software that does make it to your PC connecting to the internet to perform malicious attacks on others (which may be a cause of a slow PC!). It is therefore vital to install a firewall. Windows comes with Windows Firewall. In my opinion Windows XP Firewall lacked the configuration options I needed, and warnings, so I did not know if was effective or not. Windows Vista and 7 should have more configuration options, but as yet I have not seen any/many warnings appear for new programs or suspicious activity, so I also do not how effective it is. So if you want something else other than the built in Windows Firewall, a suitable free one I have also been using for years is ZoneAlarm Free. There are paid for versions including ZoneAlarm of course, but usually it’s paying for the software that puts people off having them, hence the free version listed.

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