There are a number of steps that you can take to attempt to speed up your system.
Most require simply tweaking the software you already have, not adding more.
But there are also steps that go beyond tweaking and right to removal.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Even before we look at the software on your machine, I do want to throw out adding RAM as one potential solution.
RAM is cheap, and if your machine has the ability to take more, then it can often be the fastest way to speed up a computer – even one that is poorly configured (which we’ll address next).
Windows loves RAM, it just does. Practically speaking, it’s very difficult to have too much.
If your machine simply meets the minimum requirements for the version of Windows you’re running, then I would say you don’t have enough. The published minimums are just that: the bare minimum for a functioning system. If you want a system that works well, you want more RAM. My rule of thumb is to start with at least twice as much as the minimum requirements state, and ideally as much as your machine can handle.
As I said, RAM is easy. But while it may well speed up your computer, it may not be addressing the underlying cause.
Too many programs running
By far the number one reason machines slow down is that there’s simply too much software running.
Note that I said running, not installed. Installed software just takes up space on your hard disk. Running software, on the other hand, uses RAM, uses your CPU, and at times can use disk and network resources as well.
It’s the software that’s running on your machine that more often than not slows it down.
In recent years the amount of software that is installed surreptitiously when you install something else has exploded. It’s not at all uncommon to encounter a machine whose browsers are loaded with unwanted toolbars, and whose task bar is loaded with icons for several unrecognized and unwanted pieces of … well, I’ll just call them “software”, though other words could be used.
Start by reviewing this article: How do I remove PUPs, foistware, drive-bys, toolbars, and other annoying things I never wanted? It’s a good first step to removing a fair amount of software that you didn’t ask for, that you don’t want, and that may be impacting your machine’s performance.
Auto-start is not always your friend
Many programs that you do want install components that start automatically when you start Windows, whether you need or want those components or not. Unfortunately that means that they’re typically always running, stealing resources like CPU and RAM away from the programs that you do want to run.
There’s no simple solution here. There’s no checklist for what you do and don’t need. There’s no canonical list of the things you can get rid of. And to be completely honest, not everything that runs automatically actually contributes to performance issues, and there’s no list of the ones that do, either.
It’s unfortunately vague, but that’s the way it is.
The problem is that everyone’s needs are different. Ultimately, it depends on the software you use and the way you use it. The only quick advice I can give is:
- Review the icons that show on the right hand side of the task bar on your Windows desktop. Each of these represent at least one running program, or a Windows status of some sort. For each program, determine if you need that service, and check the corresponding program’s options for a “Start With Windows” type of setting you can turn off.
- Review what’s getting started automatically in MSConfig’s Startup tab (Start -> Run -> MSConfig), or in Windows 8’s Task Manger’s Startup tab. Review each entry to confirm that you really need it. Do a little online research, if needed, to determine what each component provides and whether or not you need it. ( WinPatrol is another good resource, and if you’ve upgraded to WinPatrol PLUS, you’ll also have access to a database of information on common startup programs.)
Of course if you want to go even further down the rabbit hole you can run a program like autoruns, a free download from Microsoft, which will show you absolutely everything that runs as part of starting up Windows. I’ll warn you that it’s quite geeky, and it’s easy to harm your system by disabling the wrong thing.
Change bad habits
If your system is strapped for resources, it’s very possible that you might be contributing to its performance issues.
By running too much software at once, or causing the software you run to require more resources than your system actually has.
The solution? It’s actually pretty simple:
- Do one thing at a time.
- When you’re done with a program, close it. (File->Exit or ALT+F4 or whatever other options that program might include to exit.)
- Reduce the number of browser tabs you keep open simultaneously.
- Reduce the number of documents you keep open, or spreadsheets you’re working on simultaneously, or any number of things that boil down to asking the programs you run to keep track of more than they really need to.
Each of those things can contribute to system slowness by adding to the CPU load and RAM used by your machine.
Consider a solid state drive
SSDs or Solid State Drives have come down to a price level where they are within reach of most. While they don’t reach the same capacity as their traditional spinning platter brethren, they typically have more than enough space to act as a replacement drive for most machines.
SSDs improve system speed simply by being faster to read. Write speeds vary, so the gains aren’t as dramatic, but when it comes to reading data, SSDs are significantly and noticeably faster.
The process for switching to a SSD is the same as for simply replacing your hard drive with another:
- Create an image backup of your hard disk.
- Physically replace the hard disk with the SSD.
- Restore the image backup of your hard disk to the SSD.
- Make any final adjustments, such as adjusting partition sizes.
SSDs do use flash memory, and flash memory does wear out. Fortunately the quality of flash memory used in SSDs is such that it now typically outlasts the useful life of the machine, in normal use.
Nonetheless, I strongly suggest that you plan for failure anyway and backup regularly. (This holds true even with a traditional hard disk, since they, too, can fail catastrophically and without warning.)
Other items to consider
Other things you could try to increase your system’s performance include:
- Defragment your hard disk(s).
- Clear your browser cache.
- Consider using a lower resolution, or a lower color depth for your monitor.
- Consider using a plain color instead of a picture for your desktop – the picture takes up memory that could be used for other things. (This is also extra important if you connect to your machine via Remote Desktop.)
There are, naturally, many, many other tweaks of various and dubious value out on the internet, but these are the ones that I focus on as getting the most bang for the effort.
I’m sure readers will add some of their favorite tweaks to the comments on this article, so be sure and give those a read.