Age Takes Its Toll
It’s one of those unwritten laws of modern technology that over time, your computer will get slower. Not slower in comparison to the latest and greatest new hardware; I’m talking about a PC not performing up to its own native capabilities. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as ‘Windows Rot’, has a variety of causes, but the good news is that it’s not too hard to speed up your computer – to remove the rot – using a few simple, free utilities. Following the steps below will help to optimize your PC and get it back to performing like it did when it came out of the box (or better!)
Lighten the Load
Most people accumulate ‘extra’ software on their PCs over time – games or applications they’re installed but don’t use (or don’t need), browser toolbars and add-ons, and more. In fact, many PC systems come with a lot of pre-installed software that rarely gets used; owners of PCs that came with a pre-installed bundle of applications might want to check out this article about some of the special problems associated with some of these packages.
The mere presence of some unused software on your hard drive isn’t in itself a problem unless you run low on disk space. The issue is that much of this software may be loading parts of itself every time the machine is booted up – making your startup time longer, and eating up system memory that could be better dedicated to whatever you’re actually working on. Others start up with your web browser, causing similar problems and potentially slowing down the browser itself and introducing security and privacy holes.
Take a look at the small icons on the Taskbar on the bottom right of your Windows screen. There’s a good chance you’ll find icons here for software you don’t use or don’t remember even installing. Right click on them to pop up a menu and look for ‘about’ or ‘help’ menu items to try to find out more about them. The ones you’re looking to remove are such things as auto-updaters that go out to the Internet every time you start your computer to look for new versions of specific applications (especially ones you don’t use), ‘quick starters’ that simply pop up menus for opening software you’ve already got icons for elsewhere, etc. Most of the time these startup programs can be disabled through menu selections on the icons themselves.
Another good place to look, as mentioned above, is your browser. Many software companies and web sites will try to install browser toolbars to get you to search or shop through their services. If your browser window is more toolbar than web site, you may have some work to do. The process to disable and remove these varies depending on which version of which browser you use, and that’s too much to cover in one article; a Google search on ‘ disable toolbars’ (e.g. ‘Internet explorer 8 disable toolbars’) should find you instructions for your particular setup.
Next, I recommend firing up ‘Install/remove software’ from your Control Panel – or better yet, downloading the free version of Revo Uninstaller and using that to remove unused applications – this will free up space, but more importantly will insure that software you’re not using doesn’t end up in your startup. Make sure you’re only running one firewall and one virus checker – I often come across machines that have multiple programs running to perform the same task at the same time!
If you’re an advanced user or feeling brave, there’s actually a lot more optimization you can do by changing services that load at startup and disabling other startup applications through the ‘msconfig’ or ‘msconfig32’ utility. This is a complex topic that’s beyond the scope of this article, but for those interested, there are a plethora of articles a Google search away. (Try, for instance, ‘which windows 7 services can i disable’ as a search term.)
Throughout this process of removing software and disabling startup programs, remember one simple rule: if you’re not sure what it is, Google it. If it sounds important, don’t get rid of it!
Blow the dust out
Not literally. Well, maybe literally, too – PCs accumulate a lot of it, so it might not be a bad idea. But I’m talking about cleaning up the temporary files left all over your system by commonly used applications – temp files which some programs may scan through at startup and which your virus checker might be spending time and resources to check. The free utility CCleaner will do this for you, and well as cleaning out and optimizing your Registry (the database where Windows stores configuration information about just about everything – a cluttered registry can slow a system down.)
Note that there’s a small, temporary downside to clearing out temp files: the first time you go back to sites you regularly visit, they may seem to come up a little slowly; this is because some of your browser’s temporary files are local copies of elements of those pages that can be loaded more quickly from your hard drive than across the net. This problem will resolve itself after your first visit to each site, and you will have cleared all the files related to sites you’ve only visited once before running CCleaner.
Defragment It – Maybe?
The final step is probably a familiar one: using software to ‘defragment’ your hard drive, or re-organize the way data is stored on it to maximize free space and/or minimize the number of places the drive has to look to find all the pieces of any given file. Defragmenting hard drives is probably the best known method of PC optimization, but what’s not so well known is that it’s just not as important as it used to be.
For one thing, solid state drives (SSDs) found in higher end machines don’t benefit from it at all, and in fact defragmentation can shorten the device’s life span. If you splurged for a computer with and SSD, don’t defragment that drive!
Even for traditional hard drives, there’s less gain than there used to be. Modern file systems suffer less fragmentation and most operating systems even do some on-the-fly defragmenting in the background without the user even being aware of it. Additionally, most hard drives employ some amount of built-in ‘cache’ memory that can alleviate some of the effects of fragmentation.
So when does it make sense to run a defrag? Well, for instance, right after you’ve uninstalled a bunch of old, redundant, or unwanted software and cleaned up a lot of temporary files! All recent versions of Windows have a built-in defragmenter that can usually be accessed via Accessories -> System Tools -> Disk Defragmenter on the Start menu. Fire it up, choose a drive, hit ‘Defragment’, and take a walk while it finishes!