The 5 Biggest Myths About Slow PCs

Computers are supposed to make our lives easier, yet sometimes it feels like they exist only to cause us endless amounts of frustration. Popular advice for fixing slow computers includes checking for malware, upgrading your RAM, or even reinstalling Windows from scratch. However, many of these ideas are more myth than reality. We're busting some of the more pervasive myths, and explained how to actually get your PC running fast again.

Myth #1: Malware That's Slowing Everything Down

When a computer starts to feel a little sluggish, many people conclude that they must have a virus or other malware. Usually, this means buying antivirus software, sometimes even a second piece of antivirus software to make sure you're "doubly protected". However, you probably don't have a virus, and expensive antivirus software is rarely a good idea.

The Reason This Isn't True: While malware can cause performance problems, it's a less common issue than you might think. Let's start by saying that in this day and age, viruses aren't as common as you might think. Even if you tend to browse shady sites on the internet (seeking out porn, illegal MP3 downloads or cracked versions of software), you're just as likely to send out a fake Facebook post than you are to actually get infected with a virus. Start by learning more about viruses and what they do — we recommend reading our guides to malware, virus myths and false positives in antivirus apps.

You should be running some form of security software on your machine. If you suspect malware, the solution is simple: run a scan and find out. This doesn't necessarily mea spending money. We frequently recommend using Microsoft Security Essentials. It's free, lightweight, and it will let you know if you download anything suspicious. (Note that Windows 8 users already have Windows Defender built-in, so they don't even need to install anything). Commercial security software offers extra benefits (such as protecting mobile devices and automating backups). The important thing is to have something in place.

Exceptions: While security software will protect you from malware, it won't protect you from the much more common crapware, which is another beast entirely. We'll talk a bit more about this in the last section, but checking in Control Panel under Add/Remove Programs is always a good idea — if you see programs you don't recognise or use, chances are it's something you don't want on your machine.

Myth #2: Upgrading Your RAM Or Hard Drive Will Speed Things Up

Another common "fix" that people turn to is hardware upgrades, especially straightforward ones like RAM and hard drives. However, unless you have a particularly old computer, these aren't likely to give your computer the boost it needs.

The Reason This Isn't True: Installing more RAM gives your computer greater multitasking abilities, particularly when running resource-intensive applications. However, unless you're using particularly memory-hungry programs — Photoshop is a common example — you probably only need 4GB of RAM, which most modern computers should offer. Similarly, hard drive space is only a problem if your hard drive is filled up to the brim. If you still have 10 per cent of your space free, you don't need to upgrade.

Exceptions: Upgrading your RAM can help if you only have 1GB or 2GB in your system, but you should checkthe resource monitor(or Activity Monitor on OS X)" to see how much you use on a regular basis and if an upgrade is justified.

Extra memory can be helpful for resource-intensive activities such as image and video editing. If you do want to go beyond 4GB, ensure that you're using a 64-bit operating system so you can actually make use of the extra memory.

Myth #3: Computer Hardware "Wears Out" Over Time

The claim that computer hardware slows down over time is one of the more ridiculous myths out there. While your computer won't last forever, the hardware should maintain the same speed until it actually stops working. It won't gradually get slower due to wear and tear.

The Reason This Isn't True: The reason your computer appears to slow down over time — even if you don't have a lot of apps installed — is that your software updates regularly, becomes more feature-filled, and needs more power to function. In theory, if you did a clean install and never updated any of your software, everything would run as fast in year four as it did on day one. But that's not a feasible or secure way to use your computer. Your hardware will wear out, but you won't notice a gradual slowdown — it will just stop working altogether. (That's yet another reason to back up regularly.)

Exceptions: There are very few exceptions to this rule. Some old SSDs can slow down over time; if you let dust accumulate inside your machine, the fans will have to work harder. The vast majority of parts, however, will not experience this phenomenon of gradual slowdown. Photo by Axonite.

Myth #4: You Need To Regularly Reinstall Your OS

While a clean installation of Windows or OS X can speed up your machine (not to mention help clear your mind), it isn't something you have to do. If you find that a clean install speeds things up, however, it's far more likely to be due t installing bad programs than because of the operating system itself.

The Reason This Isn't True: A clean installation runs faster because it no longer has all the apps, plugins and other tweaks you've installed that can slow down your machine. When you do a clean install, those apps go away — until, of course, you build them back up again and start the vicious cycle once again. Instead of regularly reinstalling your OS, pay attention to what programs you use and try and keep them to a minimum.

Exceptions: If you get a new computer that comes packaged with lots of crapware, performing a clean install can help (though so can uninstalling those programs). In addition, it's also worth mentioning that if you like doing clean installs, we're not saying you shouldn't — it just isn't something you have to do.

Myth #5: You Need To Defrag/Clean the Registry/Tweak Prefetching

There are many tweaks disguised as "maintenance" that claim to speed up your machine. In practice, these rarely help. Commonly-suggested but usually unhelpful tweaks include:

  • Defragmenting: Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 (and Mac OS X) automatically defrag your hard drives, so you shouldn't have to do it manually. (If you're still on XP, you will still have to defrag regularly.)
  • Cleaning Your Registry: When you uninstall programs, they may leave entries in the Registry. That's annoying, but it isn't going to slow down your computer. Registry cleaners are unnecessary and a tad risky, so you're better off leaving the Registry alone.
  • Cleaning Windows Prefetching: Prefetch is a Windows feature that keeps track of what apps you run in order to start them faster. We don't know where people got the idea that cleaning it out would somehow help, but it doesn't. Messing with prefetch is more likely to slow your computer and cause problems than to help.
  • Disable System Restore (or other Windows services): Windows may run some services you don't need, but stopping them isn't going to create a performance improvement, and can impact other software.

So How Can You Fix a Slow Computer?

So we've spent a lot of time telling you what not to do, but your computer's still slow and you want a solution. You can start by running diagnostics, but the odds are good that you just have too many apps running at once. Here's what we recommend you do:

Stop Running So Many Apps At Once: Take a look at your system tray (or menu bar). If you have more than a few icons there, you have too many. If something is running that you didn't start, http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2008/11/the_complete_guide_to_speeding_up_your_pcs_startup-2/take it out of your startup queue. If you don't know what something is, find out if it's something you really need. If it's something you know you don't want, then uninstall it completely.

Stop Installing Crappy Programs: Sometimes, a single app can bring your entire computer to a screeching halt. This includes programs that run unnecessary services in the background, hook themselves into the Windows shell (like Windows Explorer plugins), or are just plain slow.

If you're sceptical about an app, ask yourself: Does your computer run faster when you close that program? If so, then you should ditch it. "Crappy" software can come from major providers. We consider iTunes a pretty crappy app since it injects itself into every corner of your computer and slows everything dwn, especially on Windows. Consider using a different player for listening and only open iTunes when you have to sync.

Stop Bloating The Programs You Have: The more work you heap onto an app, the slower it will run. Your music player will be slower if you have a huge library, so clean out that music you don't need. Your browser will struggle as you add more plug-insso clean it out to speed it up. The less work you make your apps do, the faster they will run.

Perform Regular Maintenance: While there are a lot of maintenance myths out there, you do need to perform a little regular maintenance once in a while. Most of it involves keeping your software updated, your programs list trim, and your temporary files emptied. Check out our guides to Windows and Mac maintenance for more info.

This all assumes you have a relatively new computer that can handle the work you need to do. If you're trying to run the newest version of Photoshop on a 10-year-old machine, no amount of maintenance will make it run fast — you'll need a new computer (and you can repurpose that old one). But barring really old hardware or other special circumstances, you should be able to take any computer and get it running fast again with a bit of care and common sense.


Comments

    Not one of your better articles.
    Let's clarify with " XXX may not increase the performance of your system".

    For example, if you go from a SATA to SSD, bootup times are significantly reduced. Read just about any benchmark. Does this speed up your system? YES - RESOUNDINGLY. Myth #1 busted.

    For example, when computers become crap ladened over time, uninstalling the application will NOT restore the performance. Windows gets bogged down with a lot of baggage. A clean install of your essential apps can greatly improve your performance, particularly if you have broken dependencies that are choking windows with errors. Re-installing speeds up your system? YES - REASONABLY. Myth #2 busted.

    For example, hard drives do wear out over time. At the moment, I have a hard drive which is "squeaking" on bootup. It slows my bootup time by about 1 minute. This is not a common occurrence, but hardware can wear out and slow your computer down (note: the only thing I can think of is a hard drive though). Replacing your hardware CAN speed up your system. YES - IT IS POSSIBLE. Myth #3 busted.

    If you're going to say these things won't work, at least make sure you're tech savvy first. I'm a grey beard - i've been building, developing and tweaking systems since the old Commodore Pet days (the 70s for those of you too young to remember or know). This is not one of your better articles.

      Add one more to that list... Hardware can also wear out as a fan. If the fan fails, the system may become hot. A hot system may throttle the CPU to avoid overheating.

      I stand by my comment that this article says that these things CAN'T happen, which in many cases, is just plain false.

        Agree with everything you've said Dan - people think they build a couple of PC's and instantly know everything there is to know - maybe the author should run his theories past a tech board or a techie friend before posting.

        The author mentions fans.

        "if you let dust accumulate inside your machine, the fans will have to work harder."

        Yep. While it shouldn't, gear certainly does wear out. Capacitors are a great example. Older boards without sealed capacitors often died over time because of this. The caps in PSUs can wear out, as well. This means lower max power available from the PSU and lower efficiency (which can also translate to excess heat).

        High-end (read: hot) graphics cards also have a tendency to cook themselves over time.

        Of course, these aren't certainties or even overly likely, but they are far too common, in my experience, to ignore or denounce.

        Last edited 10/11/12 1:47 am

      I agree with you Dan Zammell. As I was reading through this article, all I could think of was how many times I have fixed computers based on these 'myths'.

      In reference to Myth 3: Computer hardware does wear out. Any drives, RAM, fans, power supplies and I have even seen system boards and processors go flaky. To say that hardware does not were out is pretty naive.

      Saying that malware does not slow down you computer is also false. What about all the malware application that put entries into startup folder/programs. I regularly see computers grind to a halt and not even finish booting because people have computers loaded with malware.

      I will agree that it is not necessary to reinstall Windows regularly, but with some computers it is the easiest way to give them a refresh. Trying to track down a problematic program is not always simple especially when there are more than one.

      Finally, the disclaimer at the end kind of negates the entire article. Most 'new' computers are not going to be slow and the problems/symptoms described in the 'myths' are fairly commonplace for computer 3+ years old. Not you of your best Giz.

        I just noticed this article was on LH not Giz. My apologies.

        Agrred RE: #myth2
        As a noob running Linux one of the easiest things to speed up a computer is a reinstall, on account that I'm always breaking packages through customizations -mactel:p

      Have you intentionally changed the order of the myths there Dan? I was confused at first.

      You are right, replacing a HDD with an SSD can make a big improvement to the speed of a PC, but I think the author is referring to replacing an HDD with another HDD.

      Also, SSD's speed up the startup time of your programs, including the operating system, but they do not actually make your programs run faster. So even if you did replace an HDD with an SSD, technically, you aren't speeding up the computer, you are only speeding up some of the tasks it might do. In reality due to the relative small sizes of SSD's at the moment, you're probably likely to have most of your programs installed on a larger HDD anyway, which means no improvement at all.

      Windows 7 (and I assume Windows 8 though haven't verified it myself) actually does a pretty good job of keeping track of dependencies of uninstalled applications.

      HDD's would be about the only piece of computer hardware I can think of - besides optical drives - that could possibly slow down as they wear out, because they have moving parts. But even if they can that doesn't mean they will. My experience with them is that they just tend to die, or cough and splutter before dying. They don't slow down before kicking the bucket.

      grr...

      Just about all Solid State Drives run through Serial Advanced Technology Attachment, as do just about all modern Hard Disk Drives. Changing from HDD to SSD will almost always improve performance and boot times; changing from SATA to something else is beyond the scope of most average users!

      I agree with the content of your post of course, especially re: HDDs dying - I have lost lots of data by ignoring the early warning signs - but if you're going to write on the topic, at least make sure you're tech savvy first :P.

        Was going to say the same thing. SATA is an interface (which SSD's use!), not a type of drive.

        Replace your shitty 5400RPM disk drive for a nice solid state drive and you're gravy. *The* best performance:price upgrade available, ever.

      Yeah I agree, I think there is a lot left unsaid in regards to this article, Myth #2 I understand what the author is saying regarding RAM as a lot of people of have spoken to seem to think the volume is directly related to speed. i.e. if I upgrade from 8 to 16GB I will double my speed. As for Myth #1 I have on numerous occasions installed virus protection on friends machines that didnt have any and detected in the hundreds and it has improved speeds considerably. In these cases I usually recommend a fresh install of Windows and then set it up properly from the start and save them buying a new PC.

    I work with elderly people quite a bit and the single greatest computer myth I see with them is the dogged belief that clearing your Internet Explorer cache/temp files will magically speed up a slow computer.

      May not speed up a slow computer per se, but if they extremely slow browsing speeds it could be because their temp folder storage allocation has hit its limit and needs cleaning out. I've seen it happen on rare occasions.

    As someone who regularly makes house calls to fix up people's slow computers I thought this was a reasonable article. Although, probably the #1 myth I encounter is actually 'the computer is filling up (hard drive is 70% full) so that must be slowing the computer down', which is obviously not true (not directly at least). I'm glad they mentioned the exception about RAM - going from 1GB to 2GB makes a world of difference on an old XP SP3 computer. Uninstalling unused programs (like Google desktop, Skype), and removing others from startup usually makes a massive difference like the article says. The other big change I often make is to remove a crappy overbearing antivirus and replace it with something faster like MS Security Essentials.

      Exactly my thoughts. It's not just old people with th hard drive fulle belief

        ^ Committing via phone, th = the & fulle = full.

    I agree with Dan.

    More ram leads to more cached files thus reducing the time needed for the access of those files. DDR3 ram is 15GB/s to 31GB/s where a hdd is 30MB/s to 150MB/s and a ssd is 100MB/s to 550MB/s/. Ram access time time is 30-60ns and a hdd is 10-20ms. Your ram never sits empty, a few minutes after boot all your "free" ram is full of cached data.

    Upgrading your hdd to a much faster version or an ssd makes a massive impact, as the cpu is hardly ever the bottleneck the hdd is the common bottleneck. So a faster hdd will increase speeds for most people as it will lead to all programs opening faster, files saving faster...

    Reinstalling the the OS is the best way to get rid of old programs crap, as programs hardly ever get completely removed when you uninstall them, they leave lots of crap behind...

      1m 5 seconds with my old sata drive...

      7.5 seconds with my new beautiful SSD

      Yeah I'd say that's one HELL of a difference :D

        for sure, bought my first SSD a few months ago, within a fortnight both my other PCs had SSDs as well, would never build a computer without one now. Running apps from mechanical drives is like saving all your data on floppy drives now in my opinion.

          Best part? The windows chime doesnt even get enough time to finish now lol. It plays the first third, the last third and skips the middle bit... so wierd. lol

    Just a quick Q on W8, there is an option to "remove everything and reinstall windows" does anyone know if that gives you a new 'registry' or does it simply reuse the old one? I know logic dictates that it should be a clean registry but I've heard of Windows doing stranger things.

      I think it's been there since 7 - I have a feeling it's pretty close to being clean, but not quite there. I'm not certain on it though.

        Your talking about a restore point, but is that what W8 does or is it a full and complete clean out of everything including the registry? This is something that has not been touched on yet. I simply would like to know if it is a restore point or full refresh including registry.

          hmm. Guess I was thinking about that one. I was sure I remembered something about that, but it may have been from early days hearing about W8 beta.

          If it does *properly* do it... damn that'd be nice. I guess there are some OEMs that kind of do that, right? Dell often has the windows installer on another partition. But it's not the same.

      It's definitely a clean registry. But if your not sure you can always format and then install...

        Thanks, that's all I needed to know, now I can just use the "remove everything and reinstall windows" function. :)

    msconfig/start up/untick almost everything/restart

      +1. msconfig and pc decrapifier will happily solve 90% of slow-computer problems.

      funny you say this, the gerneral manager at my work decided to do this and unticked a lot of essential microsoft services from starting up.... he then came to me and i had to go through and enable all those services again and tell him dont make changes again.

    I disagree with part of Myth #2, installing an SSD in an old computer will definitely speed things up.

    This article is so full of holes. Not one of the myths are true. Check your facts first or at least get an IT guy to proof read your articles before posting.

    Myth 1: Malware will smash your CPU and internet connection to send as many spam emails from your infected machine as possible
    Myth 2: Increasing RAM in a lot of circumstances will definately speed up your PC. Installing a fresh hard drive will also make a big difference, either SSD or Caviar Black.
    Myth 3: Total rubbish, hard drives and fans (on power, motherboard, GPU etc) all fail or slow down
    Myth 4: An OS re-install has one of the most significant speedups. Very annoying but the difference is huge. In the end, no reg clean / temp file clean or program uninstaller gets rid of everything.
    Myth 5: Never rely on things running automatically. Windows defrag is rubbish anyway. Try defraggler or some of the others, they are far better.

    "This doesn’t necessarily mea(n) spending money."
    "...and slows everything d(o)wn,"

    Electronic components can wear out. Eg. Many electronic cards/boards still have oil-filled capacitors on them. Over time these CAN dry out internally and then bad things start happening. I've dealt with many PCs with swollen caps on the motherboards. Symptoms have been anything from slow systems to random BSODs.

    Clean install although not necessary is often faster than trying to find culprits. Just make sure you backup your important data.

    This article is decidedly borderline. There are grains of truth in there, but it ignores the rest of the facts that exist.

    Pretty rubbish bit of journalism here, where is your references for "viruses aren't as common these days"?

    1. RAM. 4G min, 8G better. Makes a big difference to almost all tasks.
    2. SSD. Don't believe the haters - an SSD improves overall responsiveness by a huge amount.

    Another myth: Slapping the CPU repeatedly will make it go faster.

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