Let’s face it: that shiny new computer you “just bought” doesn’t have the pep it used to have when you first bought it. Professionally-managed computers can usually forestall this degradation by several years, but all Windows computers, no matter how expensive or powerful or well-maintained (one does not necessarily equate to the other) will see a gradual performance decline with regular use. There are some obvious ways to put some zing back into the device – replace it with a newer one (a simple, if expensive option), or wiping out the operating system and starting over (not for technically disinclined) can restore it to a “fresh out of the box” level of performance. A more reasonable (and lower-cost) approach would be to do some clean-up and maintenance, both physical and digital on your computer.
Blow out the dust.
Most desktops and laptops keep their electrical components cool by blowing air across metallic heat-sinks. Over time, those components can become caked with dust, severely impairing their cooling capabilities. When your CPU runs too hot, your computer is smart enough to slow itself down to prevent the CPU from overheating and frying itself. As you can imagine, if your heat-sink can’t keep your CPU cool because it’s covered in a fuzzy sweater, your computer will be forced to run slower (or even shut itself off, in extreme cases). Desktops can usually be opened up and blasted with canned air for a thorough cleaning, but laptops aren’t as easy. While the laptop is on, use your hand to find out where the hot air is coming from, then turn off the device, and give that opening a puff or two from some canned air. Make sure you do it outside or somewhere with good ventilation, as a large cloud of dust will probably be blasted out. If you happen to have a model that is sealed or uses passive cooling (no moving air or parts), dust is not likely to be a problem.
Clean up that hard drive.
Just like your physical space, clutter and junk can ruin your computer’s efficiency. This particular maintenance task is multi-faceted, so make sure you check each of these areas:
- Scan for malware. Even though you might already have an anti-virus program installed, you should check at least once a quarter for viruses and other unwanted software (pop-up generators, coupon offers, etc.) using a program like MalwareBytes or RogueKiller (or both). You might be surprised by what they find. Many viruses are actually designed to run “under the radar” to remain undetected for as long as possible, and may have circumvented your antivirus to do so. Infections are a primary source of performance slow-downs.
- Remove “bloatware”. Even brand new out of the box, most name-brand computers come installed with what IT professionals call “bloatware” – software added by the manufacturer that is really there to sell you additional products or services. If your computer was procured by an internal IT department you usually don’t have to worry about factory-installed bloatware, but over time your computer can still accumulate it’s own set of software “barnacles”. Take a look at the “Programs & Features” control panel (Windows 7) and carefully remove any unnecessary programs. HP and Canon printers are notorious for adding a several arguably useful programs that will slow you down. Write down what you removed, just in case something you do need stops functioning properly.
- Ignore “PC Optimizer” software. Remove them if you installed them (see #1). Defragmenting your hard drive used to be an important facet of computer maintenance, but modern hardware and operating systems essentially obviate any degradation caused by fragmentation. The same goes for “registry cleaners”. At best, most of the “PC Optimizer” products out there are just scams, and a small number are actually malware in disguise. There are legitimate cleaning products out there that will help you maintain your computer (CCleaner is one of them), but the performance gains you will see are merely from clearing out the “digital gunk” that accumulates over time.
- Make sure you have enough free space on your hard drive. Steps 1, 2, and 3 may help you out quite a bit here, but if you are working with less than 15% free hard drive space on your primary drive, you can run into trouble and performance issues. Remove any unused or old programs, and archive old data to external storage. Windows is infamous for eating up drive space with temporary files as well. I recommend using a program like CCleaner to clean them up rather than doing it manually, as it can be tricky to find all the various locations Windows (and other programs like Internet Explorer) stash these files.
Free up RAM.
You may gain some RAM from getting rid of malware, fake optimizers and bloatware, but it also can come from closing out of applications that you aren’t using. Many folks either forget to close seldom-used applications, on top of keeping memory-hungry ones open all the time. Microsoft Outlook and Google Chrome are both memory hogs, and can soak up quite a bit of performance, even if minimized in the background. If you don’t need to keep an application open, “Quit” the app and check your RAM usage via Task Manager. If you’ve “trimmed the fat”, but you still have less than 20% of your total RAM free, you are going to see performance issues. Even though Windows 7 can run on less than 2GB of RAM, if you are multi-tasking power-user, you are going to need more RAM, and should consider some form of hardware upgrade.
Consider a faster hard drive, and/or install more RAM.
If you’ve performed all the above and still haven’t achieved the performance boost you were hoping for, but aren’t quite ready to spring for an entirely new computer, you may be in a position to upgrade your hard drive with a faster drive. In many cases, solid-state drives (SSD) can provide a significant boost in speed, especially in laptops, which might have started with a slower hard drive out of the box (usually for cost and/or battery-life considerations). This is definitely not an upgrade that can be handled by the average computer user, but even after factoring in the cost of the drive and the installation, may make more sense than a completely new computer.
Depending on the hardware and installed operating system, installing more RAM may be another low-cost way to breathe new life into your computer. In order for your computer to use more than 3GB of RAM, you must have an 64-bit OS installed, which isn’t always guaranteed, so make sure you can use it before you buy it. In many cases RAM can be purchased inexpensively, and installed quickly. Windows 7 and later really shines when you can give it more than 4GB of RAM, especially if you run RAM-hungry programs like Quickbooks, MS Office or any graphic-intensive application like the Adobe Creative Suite.
Do the math.
Before spending money (and don’t forget, time is money as well), it may be worth the effort to do some back of the napkin calculations on whether your time and money is better spent on trying to revive an aging computer, or biting the bullet and getting a brand new one. Though it has slowed somewhat, technology advancement is still accelerating, and each successive generation of computers are seeing shorter usable life-spans. Where 6-7 years before it may have seemed reasonable to get 4-6 years from a well-built computer, today you should expect a maximum of 3 years of optimal performance from the average laptop or desktop, and a sharp drop off in utility past that age. These numbers are considerably compressed if you work in an industry where change is constant (software development, content creation, customer service/retail) and maybe less constrained in industries that are a bit more conservative (finance, health, manufacturing). As a civilization, we are all becoming increasingly technically savvy and heavily reliant on the internet, which is advancing at a blistering pace. To stay viable in the market our tools need to keep that pace, and until there is a revolution in how computers are built, they will need constant upgrading and replacing for the foreseeable future.