How to Speed Up your Old Computer

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. 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.
  4. Install a Solid State Drive (Cost = $120+):  If you REALLY want to pep things up its worth replacing your current hard drive with a solid state (SSD) model.  SSDs are flash-based drives that offer greater reliability and faster performance over traditional magnetic hard drives.  While this type of drive is still relatively expensive (around $1/GB) the performance improvement is 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 accidently gets knocked off the table).  Since the installation is a bit tricky its best to have a professional handle it.  Even with the additional labor cost it’s well worth the investment.

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.

About Chris Hughes