DIY Performance Recovery

I am asked so often about deteriorated performance of PCs that I was moved to copy the following article here as it so eloquently explains all I would want to say on the subject. It is taken verbatim from the February 2011 issue of PC Pro Magazine.

Q My HP laptop is only two years old, but itís already running incredibly slowly. Even downloading, opening and printing a PDF causes it to freeze for five seconds. What tips do you have for speeding it up ?

A Itís a perennial question, and there are a couple of possible solutions. Many websites will tell you the cause is hard disk fragmentation or Registry corruption, before helpfully offering to sell you "tune-up" software to remedy these problems. Such software rarely makes a big difference, though: see the box opposite for the reasons why.

Tune-up Tools

lf you believe everything you read on the web, you'd expect disk fragmentation, Registry errors and junk files to have a disastrous effect on system performance. Itís true that all these problems can slow things down: if your drive is fragmented it wilt take longer for the system to find and load files; invalid entries in the Registry can cause hiccups while Windows tries to access missing resources; and junk files can fill up your disk leaving insufficient space for virtual memory.

But the scale of these effects is small. A modem hard disk can access any given data block in less than a hundredth of a second, so a file would need to be fragmented into at least a hundred pieces before youíd notice even a second's delay in accessing it. Thatís not to say it doesn't happen, but itís unlikely to be so pervasive on your system as to cause a noticeable overall slowdown. Similarly, Registry errors are unlikely to have any general effect on performance: as we discussed back in issue 194, most "errors" picked up by Registry-cleaning tools are simply references to programs that are no longer installed and have zero effect on your system. And simply having junk files stored on your hard disk makes no difference to performance, unless the disk gets so full that Windows runs low on virtual memory in which case you won't just see slower performance, you'll see error messages and programs failing to run.

So while there's no harm in defragmenting your drive and clearing out unneeded files, we doubt it will make much difference to a sluggish PC. For that reason we generally advise against paying for "tune-up" tools: if you want to give such methods a go, you might as well use Windows' built-in defragmentation tool and a free clean-up utility such as CCleaner.

Before you get your wallet out, we'd suggest you start by checking whether a rogue program is using your computerís resources. Next time your computer's running slowly, hit Ctrl-Shift-Esc to open the Task Manager and click on the Performance tab to check your CPU and memory meters. If either is up near 100%, click on the Processes tab to see exactly which processes are gobbling up RAM and CPU cycles. If there's one program that stands out as a resource hog, you might want to try reinstalling it or to replace it with a different package.

If that doesn't reveal the culprit, try checking your system for malware using your security software, then temporarily remove the security package to see if that's the cause. Even packages that perform well in our Labs can sometimes conflict with other software on your system and cause performance problems.

Next, we'd recommend uninstalling any applications you're not using. This may sound counter-intuitive: after all, we said above that having data stored on your hard disk makes no difference to performance, and clearly a program won't consume any RAM or CPU resources unless it's running. However, many applications come with "helperĒ tools, such as icons, that sit in the System Tray and give you quick access to the application, or activity monitors that launch the main program when you plug in a particular device. These tools run as startup items, which means they're launched every time Windows starts up and run in the background all the time, even if you're not using the application. Each individual tool may have only a small effect on your system, but once you have several of them watching your every move and occupying memory the effect can be noticeable. This gradual accumulation of more and more startup items is a major cause of Windows slowing down over time. Remove unwanted applications and the startup items should be removed as well, freeing up resources so the operating system can be more responsive.

Of course, most of us install applications because we want to use them, so it isn't always practical to clear things out in this way. Happily, you can normally disable the startup items while keeping the main application installed. Check the "Startup" folder of your Start menu; if there are any unnecessary looking entries in here you can stop them from loading by simply deleting or moving the shortcuts.

MSCONFIGMost startup items, though, are hidden away in the Registry, and the easiest way to find them is with the built-in MSCONFIG tool. To access it, open the Start menu (then select "Run..." if you're using Windows XP) and enter MSCONFIG. Once it opens, click on the Startup tab and youíll see a long list of startup items. From their names and the manufacturer information you can normally work out which application each one is connected to, and decide whether or not you really need it to be running all the time. (this, of course, is a decision that a piece of software can't possibly make for you, which is why tools that promise to restore your PC to peak performance normally focus on the issues we've mentioned above, rather than addressing the main cause of the problem.) Disable as many items as you like by unticking the boxes next to them, then hit "Apply": the next time Windows starts up, they won't run automatically.

The process may seem intimidating as it isn't always obvious what each item does, but don't worry. It's rare that any of these startup items are required by the main application, and if you don't recognise a program, chances are it was preinstalled by the manufacturer and isn't doing you any good anyway. If you subsequently find that a program or feature fails to work, you can come back and re-enable the relevant items.

Once you're done here, you can also click on the Services tab to see additional system services that may have been installed by your programs and might also be eating up resources. Click on "Hide all Microsoft services" to see just services that have been added by third parties. In the same way as startup items, services can be set not to run automatically, but we'd recommend a cautious approach here as applications often won't work if their services aren't available. You can always experiment though, as re-enabling disabled services is as easy as coming back and ticking the box again.

Disabling unwanted startup items and services in this way should bring your computer much closer to its original performance. If it doesn't seem to help, it's possible that you've simply started using your computer in a way that's too heavy for your hardware, in which case the only solution might be more RAM or an entire new computer.

One final thing to mention is that the effect could also be partly psychological. Your computer doubtless seemed fast when you got it two years ago; but even in that short time, technology has moved on, to make that level of performance seem comparatively slow. That's just how it goes in this market.

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