How to mend … a slow computer
Tired of twiddling your thumbs during downloads? Try these remedies for speeding up a dozy old PC before you almost lose the will to live.
You may need a variety of bits of kit to speed up a reluctant PC or laptop. Illustrator: Emma McGowan
Probably the most common reason people ditch their old computer and buy a new one is not that the old one is broken in any way, but that it’s simply running slowly. There are plenty of suggestions online, as well as paid-for products, which claim to fix slowness. Many of these will make little difference and some may make the problem even worse. There are a few key things that are well worth trying before giving up on your trusty PC or Windows laptop (and many of these will work for Macs too), but before you attempt anything, it’s vital that you back-up your files.
Viruses and antiviruses
Viruses or malware on your computer are very likely to slow it down. If they manage to gain control of your computer before your antivirus kicks in, they can hide themselves. One answer is to run an offline virus scan from a CD or USB memory stick independently of Windows – Sophos or Kaspersky are possibilities. There are also free, reliable and lightweight antivirus programs available, such as Avast. Be aware that duelling antivirus programs can cause extreme slowness. If you’ve switched antivirus programs, make sure you uninstall any earlier programs.
Background and startup programs
Having cleaned up any viruses and made sure your regular antivirus program is functioning and up to date, the next thing to look at is whether you have any unused programs installed or running in the background. You can do this from within Windows, but it’s easier if you download the free version of CCleaner and run it. Click the Tools tab on the left and select Uninstall.
If you use Adobe Reader you can download a lightweight alternative such as Foxit Reader or SumatraPDF for viewing PDF files and then uninstall the Adobe offering. The same applies for video players. Media Player Classic is a lightweight alternative to Windows Media Player.
Resist the urge to hit your computer with a baseball bat, or to dropkick it through the nearest window. Illustrator: Emma McGowan
If you haven’t yet, you should experiment using Opera or Chrome, which are the fastest browsers available, and can perform significantly better on old hardware.
Programs which start up along with Windows, as well as browser plug-ins, can really slow down computers. The Startup button on CCleaner shows these start-up programs. It’s hard to give specific advice on what you can disable, but learn more about the things you don’t recognise and get rid of what you don’t need. And if you’ve collected any of those pesky browser toolbars which come along for the ride, you can disable them too.
A tired or full hard disk can slow a computer down. In order to keep your computer running smoothly, you need to leave 10-15% of your hard drive space free. If you’re running out of space, you should consider deleting unnecessary programs or moving files you no longer need to an external drive.
Modern hard disks can suffer from low performance before failing completely. Diagnose the health of your hard disk with software such as SpeedFan, which can give you more information than Windows.
One easy and affordable way to increase the speed for some operations in your computer is to upgrade to a solid state drive (SSD). This can reduce the loading time of the operating system, as well as the time required to load and access software and files. Make sure your computer supports hard drives using a SATA connector and that you use an operating system optimised for them (anything beyond Windows XP will do).
Reinstall your operating system – or move to Linux
If all else fails then the “nuclear option” of reinstalling Windows and all your programs and data will usually help. You might also need to install more memory: 512MB is the minimum for Windows XP, 1GB for Vista, Windows 7 or later. However, if you’re still running XP then you’re living dangerously. Think about using Linux, a free and open-source operating system – there are versions that will run happily even on an old laptop from the last century.
First of all it’s good to consider what sort of “flavour” you want. Ubuntu, Xubuntu Linux, and Linux Mint may appeal to those who are used to Windows. If you want the lightest and least resource-hungry system to make your older hardware really fly again, Puppy Linux and Lubuntu are two very small and effective options. Most Linux distributions are designed to run directly from a CD or USB stick as a “live installation”. This enables you to try the operating system out before you commit to installing it.