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My Computer is Slow-slow-slow

I find the reasons for slow computers are about as varied as the number of computers, but here are some things that are fairly common and you can check them yourself. I have separated the possible solutions in this article between hardware and software solutions. In most cases, you will find that the best improvement will be a combination of several things. I also assumes you are running windows 2000 or XP. If you are running Windows 95 or 98, bless your heart, but there is no help for you (in this article.)

Some other geeks might say I am over simplifying the discussion. To you I say... Yes, I am. So there! If you know enough to be critical of what I say here, write your own stuff and see how hard it is to decide how much information is too much;-) For those who want to check some simple things I enclose the following ideas for you. If nothing else, this should save having to haul your computer to your local "geek store" to determine if there is hope or it is just time to invest in a new computer. And when you go to your "geek store" after reading this, you can ask some good questions and speak a little geek. Mind you though, if "geek" is the native language of the tech at the store, he or she may still have trouble understanding and expressing English concepts. Talk slowly and keep asking them to rephrase until you find some common vocabulary. It will be good for both of you.

If it turns out it is time to invest in a new computer, give us a call we'll be glad to give you some insights for selecting a computer and I will send you some quotes from KBM affiliated vendors with the specifications. You can take that with you and ask the sales person to give you comparable information for the machines they are selling to you. If you want to try some of the suggestions in this column on your own, you can call us too, but please 9am-4pm M-F or by appointment on a weekend.

O.K. let's get down to learning some "geek". First, let's talk about the hardware possibilities. If your computer has hardware issues, all of the software issues are probably mute, so I deal with those first to determine full potential.

If you have not bought a computer in the last 5-10 years, the number one reason that your computer is slow is... drum roll please... Your computer is old and decrepit and it can't handle all of the software that you have on it. This is just like our bodies folks, the older we are, the more impact age has on our agility and computers are no different. However, just like with us, depending on care and exercise and and a little luck of the draw with internal organs, some old computers are young for their age and some younger computers are old for their age. Some computers were just born old. You will hear polite geeks refer to these as having "design flaws" and impolite geeks will use the age old adage "pieces of ..." You can fill in your favorite reference to garbage there.

If your computer is a Pentium II or an AMD K6 or older machine, the solution is a new computer or live with what you have. (Tip: You can find information about your CPU by right clicking on My Computer and selecting Properties.) But for Heaven's sake, stop adding software to the poor thing. If your back is bent and get winded running up a flight of stairs, you don't sign up for marathons! In many cases, newer software is being written with no concern for the capacity of a machine or even efficient code processing. Geeks, who write software, think fast new hardware is cheap these days because we don't have to pay all the labor to get it to work right. We do the labor ourselves. The end result is people with old machine who try to run new software written by unfrugal geeks, bring their old computer to its knees. The answer to getting your old computer running faster is... buy a new computer. If you are really a glutton for punishment, you can try maxing out the memory for your machine and removing software that you do not use, but that's all you can do and that's only if you do the labor yourself. Otherwise, it's just not worth investing. Really!... O.K... O.K. You can also try some of the other solutions in this document, I can't stop you, but REALLY the ANSWER is: GET A NEW COMPUTER!

The number 2 answer if you bought your computer 4-5 years ago is... Your computer is probably middle aged and decrepit and it can't handle all of the software that you have on it. However, if your computers CPU is 1 GHz or better, then your computer can probably be upgraded according to the suggestions below and you will see some improvement. Your computer should be able to handle most office software written prior to 2007 without bogging down. If you are doing a lot of image processing video editing or other CPU or data intensive things, it might be tough to make it work lightning fast, but it usually can be improved and can be worth a do it yourself investment consistent with the suggestions below for newer machines.

Regarding machines younger than 4 years, if you computer is slow, 9 times out of 10, there is not enough memory. Some are better than others because of the design of other parts of the machine, but most of the time, "memory is Crucial" (as our affiliated memory source's slogan suggests.) Hardware wise though, there are three things that will effect just how well your computer functions. You should look at all three of these together to decide which to tackle first..

  1. Proper bus speed: When faster CPUs first came out, mother boards (the big board that all the components plug into) were designed to use the fast CPUs, but the bus (think of this as highway through which data and commands travel.) was still slow (133 MHz or slower). This means that while your CPU can crunch data in the CPU at lightning speeds, all of the data can be stuck out in a traffic jam on the highway waiting to get to where it can be crunched. This can be complicated by number 2 and 3. Generally, you can't explicitly fix the bus speed unless you want to take a real adventure and replace a motherboard. If you have a slow bus (less than 400 MHz) then pumping that memory up is going to be your best option other than... I sound like a broken record... getting a new computer.
  2. Slow disk drives. One of many parameters that rate a drive is the rotations per second (rps) (Unlike your old LPs that were rotations per minute (rpm)). Life is just so fast these days. 5400 rps or slower can cause noticeable lag to the user especially if there isn't enough memory and you have a slow bus. You can check to see if there is a faster drive option available for your machine, but this means either getting someone to clone your current drive to the new drive or reloading all of your software and data. Likely you will want some professional help and you will get a bigger bang for your buck with number 3.
  3. Enough memory: When there is not enough memory for all of the programs that you run at one time, Windows will cache (pronounced cash) the memory to the disk. So in a poorly configured machine with a slow bus, slow drive, and not enough memory, this means the operating system moves the memory information that it doesn't immediately need to the slow disk drive over the slow bus and you end up taking a lot of breaks while your computer sits moving data around. In the worst case scenario (e.g., programs with big data elements like images, running in not enough memory with a slow disk drive on a motherboard with a slow buss) this will result in the machine spending all of it's time moving data to and from the disk and processing nothing else. The machine begins to "thrash" and usually you can hear that little disk drive in there tick-tick-ticking and the programs on your screen do nothing-nothing-nothing.

So the really critical component of all of 1-3 above is memory. If you have enough memory, then the impact of your slow bus and drive are less. It does not mean they are not a problem, but it will reduce their influence.

How much memory is enough?. Microsoft says Windows XP has a minimum memory requirement of 256Mb. They lie. Well technically it's not lying, it's just if you want to run anything besides the operating system, you will want 512 Mb of memory and lately I have been recommending 1 Gb (that's 1024 Mb) because we all have to run so many firewalls, spam, and spyware tools. Once you get all of those running, there is no more room for anything else. That's why you buy a computer right, so you can run an operating system, firewalls, spam checkers and spyware tools? No! We want to write email, read jokes, search for good stuff to buy, and do our bookkeeping. Well we don't "want" to do bookkeeping, but it's a necessary evil.

A memory upgrade will run you $100-300. Some might say, "Well for $300 more, I can just get a new machine." Yes you can, but be careful. Make sure that you have all of your CDs for your software and that the licenses can be transferred to a new machine. Oh! you thought you would just order the machine with all new software? Well, then you are probably not going to pay $500. For the most part, $500 machines come with an operating system and a bunch of trial software. (Which is the first thing that needs to go when you get it by the way. But that's another article. Also, if you find you have all your CDs etc. and you get a $500 machine, watch out for Windows Vista, because most of the bargain machines are being sold with Vista on them. Some of my customers are reporting driver problems when trying to load many of their legacy software applications. Also, the $500 computers are not well configured for Vista (There are video, onboard cache, and we are recommending 2GB memory requirements for Vista, but that is a whole other article to write.)

So those are the hardware reasons for a slow machine. There are also software and utilitarian things you can check.

Viruses, Spyware, and malware are big time thieves of CPU seconds. Just say "No" to toolbars. Free handy toolbars, even Google's are free handy infections as far as I am concerned. They are not called "portal" tools for naught. In as much as a portal window in a boat or submarine narrows your view of the outside world, so will a toolbar. They will redirect your computer to places they want to send you. Some will intermittently pop up advertisements. A severely infected machine with spyware and malware from "free" downloaded toolbars can become completely inoperable. I can't tell you all the days of my life I have wasted cleaning spyware off of computers of teenagers. Don't download toolbars. If you have, uninstall them. If you have infections now, two great tools are Lavasofts Adaware and Spybot Search and Destroy. If those don't fix your problem, take the computer to a professional and ask them to clean it off. When you get it back, stay away from toolbars.

A fragmented disk drive (or very full disk drive) can also cause your computer to slow down. If it's full (over 80%), first clean off temporary files with the Disk Cleanup button on the Properties menu of the drive ( Open My Computer, Right click, Left click Properties) follow the directions. If that doesn't get you below 80%, then try some of these options

  1. Delete programs that you don't use.
  2. Delete trial-ware that might have been provided with the computer, but you have never used it.
  3. Some people never empty their deleted items folder.

If that doesn't get you below 80% or you don't want to clean out that mail, you might get an external drive on which to offload pictures and things you don't use very often. Whatever you have to do, you need at least 20% of your disk open. 30-40% is ideal.

Once the drive is clean and you have enough space cleared, then you just need to run the defragment utility that comes with windows. Open My Computer, Right click on the C: drive, Left click Properties, Click the Tools Tab, and the Defrag Now button and follow the directions.

These are some of the easy things to do to get an old machine working better with newer software. But these are not ALL of the possibilities. Beyond these, we recommend a professional cleaning and tuning. Call for a quote or if you prefer to work with your local geek, check with your friends and family for a reputable referral. All geeks are not created equal. Just like in the non-geek world, some of us are more honest than others and some of us are more experienced than other.

Need more memory? I use:

Crucial Memory Selector
KBM Relationship

For most computer upgrades, I shop at

Once You Know, You Newegg
KBM Relationship


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