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The Top Reason Your Computer is Slow, and What To Do About It

Perhaps the #1 complaint among computer users is that their computer is running too slow, or just takes too long to start up, shut down, or just “do things”.

Obviously there are many possible reasons, but in my experience, one reason stands out above all others.

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One common reason a PC might be slow is that there is too much software running — much of it starting automatically when you sign in. Uninstalling software you don’t use, avoiding unnecessary installs, and possibly disabling auto-start entries are the first steps to take to regain control.

Too. Much. Software.

Hourglass In my experience, this is perhaps the single most common cause of computers running slowly.

There are simply too many programs running – so many that the program you want to use is competing with all these other programs for system resources, and as a result appears slow. Sometimes very slow.

Sometimes that program “competing” with all the software running on your machine is Windows itself.

This is a common scenario in computers that have been in use for “a while”. One of the reasons new computers often feel so much faster – even when running on identical hardware – is that they’ve not had all this additional software installed.

So where does it all come from?

There’s one major culprit: installing software.

Installing shouldn’t hurt, but…

Installing software should be benign. Most of the time, it is.

Installing software shouldn’t cause software to be run automatically – it should just place the software on your machine in such a way that you can run it when you want to.

Many software packages include components that, when installed, are run automatically when you log in or when Windows starts. Sometimes they’re legitimate components. DropBox, for example, needs its component running to provide the services for which people use it.

On the other hand, components are often instructed to auto-start that, at least in most people’s opinions, are completely unnecessary.

Microsoft Office used to install what they called its “quick launch bar”, which was run on login. Its job was to pre-load portions of Office, just in case you were going to use them. The reality, though, was that the quick launch bar slowed down startup as well as other applications. Yes, Office programs appeared to load more quickly, but at a cost.

Those are just examples. There are literally thousands of different things that could impact your computer’s speed by having been installed and running automatically without your knowledge.

What to do

  • Don’t install software you don’t need. The people whose computers have the most serious problems are often those who like to try things out. As a result, they install software package after package after package … and then end up wondering why their computer takes forever to start and runs slowly when it does.
  • Uninstall software you don’t use. The good news is, I’d say 90% of the time programs that install software that runs constantly in the background also uninstall it cleanly if you remove the package.
  • Turn off auto-start options. Many programs allow you to control whether or not they start components at Windows startup or user login. Check the Preferences or Options in those programs for settings you can control.
  • Review what’s in the notification area of your taskbar. The notification area – that area to the bottom right of the taskbar – contains icons of software running in the background on your machine. Consider whether running that software is necessary. If it’s not, uninstall it, or check in the application for an auto-start option to turn it off.
  • Examine what else is auto-starting. Using tools like autoruns or the Startup tab in the Windows Task Manager, you can examine what starts automatically on your computer. Don’t just turn things off; use what you find as a basis for further research to determine exactly what that program is and whether or not you need it.

The extreme solution

This problem isn’t new. Speed and stability declining over time have plagued computers since their invention. It’s sometimes referred to as “software rot” because the implication is that things just get worse over time.

There’s also a long-standing solution that isn’t quite as piecemeal as what I’ve discussed so far:

  • Back up.
  • Reinstall Windows from scratch, formatting or erasing the disk as part of the process.
  • Install only the applications you actually need.

The frequent result is a faster machine simply because you didn’t reinstall all that old stuff you weren’t using anyway.

It’s tempting to have lots of things on your machine “in case” you might need it some day. I do it myself. But over time, particularly if you find you’re not using what you installed some months or even years ago, it’s time to uninstall. It’s also a great time to reconsider whether “in case” is enough of a criteria to install additional tools in the future.

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13 comments on “The Top Reason Your Computer is Slow, and What To Do About It”

    • There are MANY places that there are “auto start” entries. The two mentioned in the article are the easiest to deal with: “start with Windows” settings in each of the various apps you have installed, if they have such a settings. Turn that off, and you can always turn it back on later if you need. Then Task Manager, Start Up tab — set items to “disabled”. You can enable them later if you need.

    • If you really, really want to get into it: First, there are downloadable programs online which will itemize and list all processes that are running in the background. Download these at your own risk. There is one reliable Microsoft set of tools called System Internals. This includes an application called autoruns, which will list most things loaded in memory and running. You can also look at the startup tab of “msconfig”, which is a Windows utility that allows access to some system details. Then you can look in the Windows Services to see what is started and what is set to start automatically. But that’s not the end of it. There are many places in the Windows Registry that are set to initiate processes. Obnoxious applications (including websites) that insist on always running on your computer will embed start-up triggers in many places so that if you delete one others will take over. In extreme cases you may have to find and delete the executable or DLL files that causes processes to run in the background. It’s a cat and mouse game and you need patience and good level of knowledge to keep junk from running on your machine. Caution: your can really break your system if you’re not careful, but investigating these is a good learning experience.

      • “Caution: your can really break your system if you’re not careful, but investigating these is a good learning experience.” Absolutely. Solution: back up before starting this process. Although, there’s no real danger in disabling a program that you end up needing. You can always enable it again. Back up anyway.

  1. Ok Ok I see now that Leo Took the time to respond back “(start with Windows” settings in each of the various apps you have installed,)” My Bad. Thanks Leo !

  2. Another place to look is Startup in Settings. Press the Windows key an start typing “Startup” without the quotes and click “Startup apps”. Also under “Apps and features” you can click on ” Optional features” and you might find some Windows apps you can uninstall.

  3. I have done the “re-install windows from scratch” option recently, and it does indeed work. I managed to get more use out of an ageing i3 this way.
    Something I’ve also done to breathe life into older machines, is simply add some memory. Win10 needs more memory than the Win7 it typically upgraded from in our office, and I found upping the memory from 4gb to 8gb worked wonders.

    • I had a useless Android phone. It would run the battery out in a couple of hours, even a brand new battery. I reset the phone to factory state and the battery now lasts a day and a half and is much faster. Works for phones and tablets as well as computers.

  4. Very good points, Leo. But still begs the question – I look at the Autoruns list, and it’s huge. Okay, some stuff I see that obviously needs to keep running in the background. A few things are clearly garbage (GI,GO ). But most of it is unclear. How does one *know* if a program really needs to autorun. Many of these are programs I do need, but maybe only get used once every five months or so. Do I *really* need MS Visual Studio Time Adaptor Add-in listed ten times under autorun? Aargh… I’m getting a headache!

  5. Well I speeded up my 2009 DELL Inspiron 545 desktop by doing a “Reset this PC” and re-installed a clean version of Windows 10. It seems a lot spritlier now.

    But, and this in the mother of all buts: When the rest was completed and W10 relaunched my mouse and keyboard were ‘dead’. I could not get in to perform any troubleshooting. I used my smartphone to view the forums and another user suggested plugging my wireless Transceiver into a USB (Belkin) adapter. Strangely that worked and my wireless mouse/kbd is working form the adapter socket.
    I now need to find out what happened to my USB slots after the W10 re-install and plug my transceiver back into the original USB socket ( at the rear).


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