How to Speed Up your Old Computer (Updated)

Although this article was originally written in 2012 the suggestions made are still valid and relevant in 2019.  The only difference is the cost of solid-state hard drives has dropped dramatically.  So much so that there is no reason not to have one installed (or do it yourself) and take advantage of the dramatic improvement in performance they provide.  In fact we’ve added a link to our recommended hardware at the end of the article to make it easy to select the right one.

Anyone over the age of 40 will tell you as we get older we tend to slow down and computers are no different. While there probably aren’t any 40 year old PC’s still in operation, many people still depend on a four or five year old desktop or laptop as their primary system. Just like us, without proper care and maintenance the performance of those machines will begin to deteriorate until they eventually fail altogether.

The good news is that there are many simple and inexpensive ways to improve the functionality (and extend the lifespan) of most computer hardware.  First, what NOT to do:  Although it’s tempting to believe the claims of promoters selling performance-enhancing software (e.g., SpeedUpMyPC™, Registry Mechanic™, etc.), don’t do it.  Not only do these products rarely achieve the desired improvement they often make the situation worse.  By taking a “shotgun” approach to remedy the sources of common performance related issues, they can cause “collateral damage” by disabling essential files and processes required for normal operation.  Even in a best case scenario why pay for something that you can easily do yourself.

Second, don’t start randomly deleting files if you ARE NOT SURE what they do.  Unless your primary hard drive has less than 5% of free space left on it, wholesale data deletion will have very little (if any) positive improvement on speed.  In fact it may make things worse by further fragmenting the drive or crippling a necessary application.

Now that we know what not to do here are a few simple things that can speed things up.

  1. Delete or reduce your start-up programs (Cost = Free): Once Windows finishes loading its essential services it launches many third-party programs that run in the background and perform a variety of tasks.  This can be anything from periodically checking for updates to installed software (e.g., Adobe Reader) to advertising your on-line status for Skype or Instant Messenger applications.  Most often they are represented by icons in the lower right corner of your task bar (just to the left of the clock).  However regardless of their value they always increase the time it takes to boot-up and consume precious resources unless they are turned off.  Anything that runs in this capacity is not essential to the operating system and can usually be safely disabled without any negative consequences.  Even better, Microsoft has made it relatively simple to enable/disable these programs so you can easily determine their usefulness and/or performance consequences.  Simply open the “run” command from the start menu or by pressing the Windows Key (usually located between CTRL and ALT on the bottom left side of the keyboard) + “R”.  Then type “msconfig” in the box and press enter. This will open the System Configuration tool.  Select the “Startup” tab and then deselect  any listed programs.  Alternatively you can click the “Disable All” button if you are not sure which ones to pick.  Reboot your computer and you will immediately notice how quickly it now starts.  If you don’t like the results you can reverse the process by following the same steps but ticking the boxes of any programs you want to run at start-up.
  2. Get rid of the Toolbars and Browser Helper Objects (Cost = Free):  Some people have so many toolbars on their browser that the viewable area for web content is less than half the page.  These helpful utilities (NOT!) spend most of their time collecting information about your surfing habits and serving you related advertisements from clients of the companies that create them.  It’s no coincidence that a day or two after you Google “heartburn” that every website you visit seems to offer a coupon for antacids.   Another common toolbar displays the temperature or general weather conditions.  Once again, anything that pushes live content to your screen is competing for resources with the other programs on your machine.  Depending upon your browser (e.g., Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, etc.) the method to permanently remove these is slightly different.  However most toolbars have a tiny “X” embedded somewhere that allows you to delete it.  Most toolbars are passively installed when downloading another program.  The next time you perform a software update or upgrade look closely at each page before you click “OK”.  More than likely you see an “optional” add-on buried somewhere in the fine print.  By eliminating a page full of toolbars you can improve your computers performance and retain some degree of privacy.
  3. Install a Solid State Drive (Cost = <$100):  If you REALLY want to pep things up its worth replacing your current hard drive with a solid state (SSD) model.  SSDs use flash-memory instead of rotating magnetic platters and offer greater reliability and faster performance over traditional drives.  These types of drives have significantly come down in price since this article was originally written but the performance improvement is still profound.  A five year old machine with an SSD can easily outperform many current models.  Even better, when installed in a laptop a SSD drive will significantly extend your battery life since they have no moving parts.  Additionally they generate no heat and are very resistant to trauma (like when your laptop accidentally gets knocked off the table).  While there are lots of manufacturers that offer these drives, we recommend the Samsung 860 EVO line.  A 500GB model is currently less than $80 on Amazon where it has a five-star rating.
  4. Add more memory (Cost = ~$40):  One of the best hardware upgrades you can make is to increase the amount of Random Access Memory (a/k/a RAM) in your computer.  RAM provides temporary storage for data enroute to the processor from the hard drive.  When it comes to adding system memory, the general rule of thumb is the more, the better. On average, doubling the amount of memory in your system will give you ample “space” to work and will make an obvious difference in overall speed. This is especially true with today’s memory-hungry applications such as office programs, multimedia editing packages, and graphics-intensive games. More memory allows you to run more programs at once, and your favorite programs will be easier to use.  One of the best ways to determine what type and how much memory to add is to use the on-line scanner offered by Crucial Technology, a well-respected manufacturer of RAM.  The Crucial System Scanner (http://www.crucial.com/systemscanner)  automatically analyzes your computer memory information and suggests an upgrade that’s guaranteed compatible.  Additionally their website offers step-by-step directions for installing your new hardware.

These tips are just some of the ways you can breathe new life into an old machine without breaking the bank.  With proper care and maintenance there is no reason why your PC can’t have a long and useful life (like the rest of us)!

This article was originally published in the Technically Speaking column of the September 2012 issue of I’On Life magazine.

The Importance of Strong Passwords

If you use the Internet and/or store valuable or personal information on your computer; you must defend against a multitude of threats in today’s computing environment. We are constantly bombarded with viruses, bots, and worms that want to access our computers or on-line accounts and obtain information that can be used to make money for the cyber criminals who create them.

In many cases having a good, strong password is the first line of defense against these thieves. The stronger the password, the harder it is to crack and the longer it will take. Like most thieves, hackers want to get in, get the goods, and get out as quickly as possible to avoid detection. Therefore, just like a burglar will move on to the next house if he sees a dog or an alarm system, so will a hacker seek an account with a weak password rather than waste time cracking a difficult one.

Essentially what determines a password’s strength are its length, and combination of letters, numbers and symbols. Let’s look at these characteristics one at a time:

  1. First, longer is stronger. A password should be a minimum of 8 characters in length and ideally at least fourteen characters or more;
  2. It should not contain a word found in any dictionary (English or otherwise). For maximum effectiveness your password should be composed of a completely random string of characters. If you absolutely feel the need to use dictionary words, then misspell them in a non-obvious way, maybe by swapping certain letters (e.g. “bzrthday”). No matter what, you want to ensure that your password has no chance of appearing in even the most complex dictionaries used by hackers; 
  3. Use at least one lowercase and uppercase letter and one number. Most people swap obvious letters for digits that look the most similar (e.g., e=3). It’s better to do this than not use any digits at all, but if possible use a completely random digit and just avoid putting it at the end (lots of people choose Password18) to conform to password policies – bad;
  4. At least one symbol (e.g., any character above the numbers at the top of your keyboard);
  5. Memorable! If you need to write your password down, then it’s not a good password. 

I know…right about now you’re saying, “I have a hard time remembering my cell phone number; how am I going to remember a password with all these characters”?  

One good technique is to think of a phrase that you can remember; such as the first line of your favorite song or poem and use the first letter of each word. For example, “O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,” looks like “oscysbtdel” (a weak password, by the way, according to Microsoft’s Password Strength Checker). Now let’s make it stronger by using capitalization, a number and special characters. Now it looks like “O!scysbtd’3l,” and viola it is transformed into a strong password.

Lastly, it’s not good enough to have one secure password and use it for EVERYTHING. In an ideal world you’d have one password for each program or password – but not very realistic for most people.

My recommendation is to have a few secure passwords you use for different levels of ‘sensitivity’:

  • One password for logging in to your computer;
  • One password for your email account;
  • One password for ‘insecure’ and non-critical websites (eg. random forums or websites that force you to register);
  • One password for medium-level websites (eg. Facebook, LinkedIn, etc – where aspects of your privacy/identity are in play);
  • One password for critical sites (eg. Online Banking, PayPal) and change these at least once every six months. The use of strong passwords may not completely safeguard you from a cyber-attack but is an integral part of an overall strategy to protect yourself (and your data) in an increasingly on-line world.

This article was originally published in the Technically Speaking column of the July 2012 issue of I’On Life magazine.

The Importance of Data Back-Up

You have probably heard it before but you need to hear it again: Data you don’t back-up, is data you don’t care about.  By data, we mean those 10-years of precious family photos, that important business presentation, or the final draft of your doctoral thesis. Yes, that data.  Twenty years ago we stored these items in safety deposit boxes located in a steel bank vault.  Today they often reside on the same computer your kids (or roommate) use to watch YouTube or play Club Penguin.

Regardless of your data’s real or perceived value, almost all consumer PC’s store this information on a device known as a Hard Disk Drive (a/k/a Hard Drive).  These technological marvels are generally about the size of your hand (a child’s hand for a laptop) and contain one or more circular platters typically made of aluminum or glass.  The discs are mounted on a central spindle and rotate between 5400 and 7200 revolutions per minute (RPM).  For a frame of reference those of you old enough may remember that favorite KISS album spun at 33⅓ RPM.

The data is written magnetically by drive heads that “fly” above the disk surface with clearance of as little as 3 nanometers (the average human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide).  Since most drives write data to both sides of the platter, a typical device might have six heads operating in unison.  Truly amazing when you consider the average 500GB (gigabyte) hard drive can be purchased at your local Wal-Mart for less than $100.

However this article is about data back-up so the point is this: eventually, ALL DRIVES FAIL.  Not always the same way; some over time, some catastrophically, but in the end the result is the same – your data is gone.  This brings us back to the first statement, if you care about your data – YOU NEED TO BACK IT UP – TODAY.

Back-up by its very nature means just that; there exists an ADDITIONAL copy of the data that resides somewhere other than the original.  Transferring your photos onto an external hard drive isn’t backing them up; it just means they are not stored on your computer.  And external hard drives are simply hard drives stored in a plastic enclosure.  And what do all hard drives do? They eventually FAIL.

The good news is there are plenty of excellent, inexpensive options for backing-up your data.  From burning it on a CD or DVD to storing it with a cloud-based (on-line) storage service, they all offer a level of protection that is better than doing nothing.  Answering these three simple questions should help you decide what type of back-up process to pursue: 1) how much data do you have, 2) how much time can you dedicate to backing it up, and 3) how much money do you want to spend?

By ranking each of these in order of importance we can quickly arrive at the best solution for your particular needs.  Let’s describe three common scenarios and suggest a back-up solution for each.

1)      Users with an average amount of data (between 25GB – 100GB) that don’t want to be bothered by remembering to back it up should consider using a secure on-line storage service.  These companies access and encrypt your data using a small utility that runs in the background on your computer.  Most offer a reasonable amount of storage for a low annual fee (e.g., $60 for up to 25GB).  After the initial set-up, which takes about 10 minutes, you rarely need to think about it again.  Not only does this solution safeguard you from catastrophic drive failure, it also protects against theft of your device or other types of hazards (fire, hurricanes, etc.).  Data recovery from a cloud-based service can be done from any internet-connected computer or even your smartphone in most cases.  Two of the more well know providers of this type of service are MozyHome and Carbonite and both support Windows and Mac operating systems.

2)      Users with a large amount of data, or those without a broadband internet connection should consider purchasing an external hard drive and use it to copy their important files.  However, once this is done it is extremely important to physically locate it somewhere other than the site where the original data resides.  Having a duplicate copy of your data on an external hard drive is good, but if it is sitting next to your computer and the house burns down, you are out of luck.  Take the device to your office, a relative’s house, or that safety deposit box we talked about earlier.  Just remember to periodically update it so any new or changed files get backed-up as well.  For most users, once a month is plenty.

3)      Users that don’t want to spend any additional money for back-up can take advantage of the many “free” cloud storage services currently available (e.g., Google Drive).  Most limit you to 2GB – 5GB of space but this is often enough for many people.  Just be prepared to deal with the inevitable ads, continual upgrade offers and/or privacy issues that come along with the use of a no-cost product.

Regardless of what path you decide to follow for you back-up needs, please “remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.  The cost to professionally recover data from a dead or damaged hard drive can easily exceed $1,000.

This article was originally published in the Technically Speaking column of the July 2012 issue of I’On Life magazine.

What to Look for When Buying a New Computer

So you’ve decided it’s time to purchase a new computer and picked up the circular in the Sunday newspaper only to be met with a dizzying selection of merchandise highlighting features and specifications that only an engineer could understand.

In an effort to make that choice a little less daunting here are a few guidelines that should help you get the right device without agonizing over the decision.  In fact, you can narrow the field down very quickly by starting with a few simple categories.

  1. Apple or Microsoft – While Microsoft has dominated the computer landscape for as long as most people can remember, Apple’s appeal has skyrocketed in the past several years by producing elegant, functional and easy to use products.  Both brands have their advantages and disadvantages so it is important to understand these in order to make an honest comparison.  For example, while Macs integrate easily with other Apple devices within your network (e.g., iPhone, iPod/iPad, etc.) it is often challenging to operate them in a mixed platform (Windows and Macs) or corporate environment due to fundamental differences in the operating systems.  Although Macs are generally faster and less prone to many of the maladies that seem to plague PCs (viruses, the “Blue Screen of Death”), they are much more expensive to purchase and repair (if you do buy a Mac the extended service plan is a must).  Finally, even though most Mac software is well designed and quite intuitive, it can be frustrating to switch if you have been using Windows your whole life.
  2. Desktop, Laptop or Tablet – The traditional argument in favor of a desktop is that you get more — a faster processor, bigger hard drive, larger screen — for
    less.  With a laptop, you trade that price advantage for mobility and although tablets are represent the pinnacle of portability their current functional limitations make them more suited for leisure and entertainment use.  In  general, since any new desktop or laptop will meet the needs of most people for
    email, Internet, and basic office productivity, you should weight any specific  requirements more heavily in your final decision.  For example, photo and video editing benefit from the faster processors, higher performance graphics cards and larger (or multiple) monitors found on desktops.  However the convenience of watching Blu-Ray movies by connecting a laptop to your television can eliminate the need for a standalone player.  Anyone with young children probably already knows the hypnotic effect created by a tablet with a few well-chosen applications.  Ultimately as hardware prices drop the necessity of an either/or decision becomes less rigid with many people deciding to own one of each.
  3. Price – You should expect to pay $400-$600 for a nicely configured Windows desktop (with another $125 if you need a monitor) and comparable laptops tend to run about 25% higher (but you avoid the expense of purchasing a separate display).  Double or triple those figures if you are considering a Mac.  Price differences are usually based upon the quality of the components (e.g., Intel vs. AMD), the size or “form-factor” of the unit (with smaller or all-in-one units costing more) and the general reputation of the manufacturer (Apple at the top and value brands like eMachines at the bottom).

With few exceptions, any Mac or Windows consumer computer will be able do most tasks that a home user or small business requires. So don’t get caught up comparing specifications that won’t be noticeable to the average user.  Remember, the difference in computing power between a 2.4Ghz or 2.8Ghz processor is not relevant to 99.9% of consumers.

This article was originally published in the Technically Speaking column of the June 2012 issue of I’On Life magazine.