At some point, you have probably experienced the joy of a new computer. It zooms through start-up, the internet loads in a blink, and opening applications can be done in less time than it took to click the mouse. But now you have had the computer for a while, and it feels like a dinosaur. You may even have enough time to leave and grab a cup of coffee while waiting for it to turn on. This may seem common, but it certainly is not normal or even a result of the age of your computer. Quite the contrary, the computer itself is probably running just as quickly as it did when you bought it.
As you use your computer, the programs that you utilize will put lots of files into storage such as internet history, application settings, pictures that you import from your camera, or your music collection, just to name a few. As files are created, relocated, and destroyed, related information is no longer in close physical proximity in storage. Imagine if your assistant filed everything you handed her in the first available file, regardless of what file it should actually go with. When you needed to find something, it would take her significantly longer to find that file again, as it is not right next to other pieces of related information. The same thing happens with your computer, and your accounting files, for example, would take longer to load simply because it took the computer longer to get each piece of the information you wanted. This is known as disk fragmentation, and is not typically the leading cause of computer performance degradation, but is something to keep an eye out for.
When you first used your new computer, you didn’t have everything you needed. It is likely that you had to download some applications from the web, or install productivity software from a CD. Many of these applications aren’t just using your system resources when you can see them, but may leave behind running processes to check for updates or to reduce load time when you request the application. This bit of trickery can make the individual application appear to load quicker, but may reduce the speed of other operations on your system. Depending on the number of extra processes on your computer, this can account for a significant portion of the performance drop through processor or memory utilization.
In addition, too high of a system load will cause your computer to spend more time using your hard drive to keep things in temporary storage instead of the much faster RAM, referred to as “memory”, that it has. This is because the more programs utilizing your computer, the less memory is available for everything, and the information that would be stored there instead is put to the hard drive. Imagine if you are moving out of your house and you’ve loaded everything into an ultra-fast sports car with next to nothing for trunk space (this is memory). It will get your stuff to the new house extremely fast, but if you have too many household goods, you’ll have to have your neighbor with the slow but larger moving van assist you (the hard drive). So now you get to the new place in your sports car in ten minutes, but you spend another ten minutes waiting for the rest of your stuff to arrive.
Just like it would benefit you to sell some stuff before moving or get a faster moving van, it may be advantageous to get rid of some unnecessary applications that run in the background if possible, or upgrade the amount of memory available. Some of these applications you may not be able to remove, but many of them fall into the category of unwanted software.
Malware and bloatware: these words are thrown around a lot, and while the applications themselves may not cause harm to your computer, they are annoying at the least, and will take up those precious resources we just discussed. Malware is software that has some malicious intent, typically tricking the end user into believing there is a more serious problem and getting them to pay for something they don’t need or download additional malware, compounding the problem. Bloatware is typically harmless software that is pre-installed on your computer, a result of computer and software manufacturers agreeing to load the computer with their products as a marketing technique. The programs individually may not represent much of a problem, but if there is an excessive amount of them running in the background they can be the sole problem causing your computer to use the hard drive for temporary storage instead of memory.
So what can I do?
To fix these issues, there are a few steps you can take. To correct disk fragmentation, run the disk defragmentation utility that came with your operating system. This will also give you an idea before you start of whether or not this represents a significant portion of your problem. Most of the time, the utility will indicate a low level of fragmentation (a few percent) and defragmenting may not give you a noticeable performance increase.
As for resource usage, running the task manager under Microsoft Windows and viewing the “Performance” tab will give you at-a-glance information that indicates resource usage. This should be done with all applications closed to understand the baseline performance of your computer. The main areas to look are the “CPU Usage” graph, and the “Physical Memory (MB)” block. If your CPU Usage is constantly above a few percent, or your free physical memory is in the low hundreds, it is time to check background applications and see what is running that can be removed. If your computer is already running only the programs that it needs, then a processor or memory upgrade may be in order.
Like a car, your computer will slow down under heavier load or when in need of basic maintenance. Before you run off and purchase faster hardware, try to take care of what you have. New hardware will certainly run faster under the same load just as a stronger car will, but with time, it too will slow down if you keep putting bricks in the trunk.