Over time every PC will begin to slow down. We explain some simple ways to get a computer back up to speed
PCs don’t grow old gracefully. After a short time, your once-nippy Windows XP or Vista PC can feel as though its hard disk is running in a bath of super-thick custard. And after a few years the problem can get so bad the PC is almost unusable. It can take forever to start up and then promptly stops or slows to a crawl whenever you try to do anything useful with it.
If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. There are lots of ways to fix a sluggish PC that won’t cost you a penny. In some cases performance improvement is so good that a PC previously destined for the scrap heap is good for another year or two of use. And in these financially uncertain times, that has to be worth a try.
Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow
If you have experienced the joy of turning on a new PC for the first time, you will probably remember being impressed with how fast it seemed to run. Sadly, this joy soon turns to frustration. The longer you use your PC, and despite your best efforts, Windows just seems to run slower and slower.
There are lots of ways a PC can slow down. It might take ages from the time you turn it on until you see the Windows logon screen or desktop, you might have to wait a long time for programs to open, browsing the web might become a chore rather than a pleasure, or perhaps the PC is always crashing or freezing up – usually at the worst possible moment. So why does this happen to so many PCs and what is the solution?
We are not going to spend too much time explaining the technicalities of why Windows PCs slow down over time, but you cannot always blame Microsoft. A good proportion of the problems are self-inflicted, even if we do not realise it, and many other common faults can be caused by badly-written software programs.
The reason a new PC feels quick is because it has little to do. Only the ba sic components needed to run the operating system are installed and these are under Windows’ tight control. The trouble begins when we start installing and uninstalling new programs.
It might sound obvious but it’s easy to forget that every new program installed needs to make use of some of the PC’s resources: memory, hard disk space, processing power and so on. Some programs are more greedy than others, though, and some programs are not particularly good at sharing with others. With more and more programs fighting for computer resources it can get to the point where none work very well.
First things first
Before you start trying to clean up your PC, remember to take the usual precautions to prevent against data loss by performing a full backup. If you are unsure how to do this you will find full instructions about backing up on our website.
You should also run a complete anti-virus and anti-spyware scan before taking any other action. There is no point trying to improve performance on a PC that is being slowed down by malicious software. Another important step is to ensure your hard disk has no errors. This may sound scary but it’s actually very easy to do:
1. The files and directories on your PC can be corrupted by power cuts, Windows crashes or by turning your PC off at the mains. It’s worth checking these before defragmenting a drive or if you are getting regular freezes or crashes. Open My Computer (XP) or Computer (Vista) and find the disk drive (usually labelled C:) that contains your Windows folder.
2. Right-click the C: drive icon and choose Properties from the menu. Click the Tools tab and press ‘Check now’. In the box that appears, tick the box labelled ‘Automatically fix file system errors’ but ensure the one below it is unticked. Click Start and Windows will ask if you want to schedule a check the next time your PC Starts. Click Yes (XP) or ‘Schedule disk check’ (Vista).
3. Shut down Windows and restart your PC. Before Windows starts, you will see a screen in XP that runs the disk check automatically. In Vista it is a black screen with white text. It can take quite a while to complete, depending on how fast your PC is and if any problems are found. Then it will restart your PC automatically and go to the usual Windows login screen.
How many programs have you installed on your PC during its lifetime? If the answer is ‘none’ we would be very surprised. Most of us have tried out lots of programs, and if you count things like software updates and add-ons for web browsers, most of us will have added dozens since our computer was new.
The next question is, how many of those programs did you uninstall afterwards? Any program you install takes up space on your hard disk and depending on the particular program it could also install components that try to run when your PC starts up, even if you never use the program.
It doesn’t take many such programs to use up a good chunk your PC’s available memory and slow down your PC. Even if you try to meticulously remove every unwanted program, many leave remnants behind, cluttering up the PC and slowing it down. Watch our video tutorials on how to add memory to a desktop or laptop PC here.
Less is more
If your PC takes more than a couple of minutes to get to the Windows login screen, the problem is more likely to be related to drivers. This is harder to fix and usually requires you to re-install Windows itself.
However, if your PC boots up to the Windows login screen in a reasonable time but takes ages to load the desktop after typing in your login details, the culprits are likely to be installed programs loading bits of themselves. Look at the right-hand side of your Windows Taskbar, next to the time display. If there are more than a handful of icons there, this could explain your PC’s sluggishness.
Each icon in this part of the taskbar (known as the Notification Area) is a program or utility that is loaded into the PC’s memory and using up precious computing resources. Some can be useful, such as the clock and volume control, but others often do nothing but slow down the computer. Fortunately there is a built-in tool in Windows called Disk Cleanup that is a great place to start on your quest to rejuvenate your PC. Find it by clicking Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools then Disk Cleanup.
Although it’s a safe tool to use, there are three items that you should think twice about removing with Disk Cleanup. The first is ‘Office Setup Files’ if it’s listed. Removing these files will not break Microsoft Office, but you might get pestered by Office to insert the original installation disc. If you have the disc, you can safely tick the box, but if not it’s best not to choose this option.
The next exception is ‘Compress old files’. This reduces the size of files that have not been used for a while by compressing them. While it can gain you quite a bit of space, it can take a very long time to complete even on a fast PC. If you decide to use this option, be sure to have a few hours spare.
Finally, the ‘Hibernation File Cleaner’ item should be left unticked if you are using a laptop. This may be a large file, but it’s part of the power management system and, without digging deep into the power management settings, you will not be able to make your laptop go into a ‘sleep’ mode if you delete it.
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