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.