Whether your computer is old or new, there will come a time when it starts to slow down and become sluggish when trying to do simple tasks like start a program or explore the contents of your folders. Don’t worry though as there are usually a few simple reasons why this happens and sometimes a few simple things can restore a bit of that lost performance. You don’t need to be technically minded and you don’t need any special skills to perform any of the tasks I mention in this article.
In this blog post I will tell you five simple things to try and why you should give it a go by explaining in brief detail the reasons why it can help to bring back some performance of your Windows based computer, but before you start, make sure you have backed up your computer using whatever method you normally use and at the very least “create a restore point” in the “System Restore” tool although this won’t protect your user files such as photos, videos and documents.
Remove unnecessary software from your computer
Firstly, remove any unused or unnecessary software/programs that may be on your computer. Your computer will probably have been pre-loaded with software from the manufacturer or by third party sponsors etc. This software is often referred to as “bloat-ware”, software that your computer manufacturer believes may be of use to you but is more often a nuisance as it not only takes up valuable storage space on your internal storage device whether it’s a Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or Solid State Drive (SSD) but it can sometimes be triggered when Windows starts-up or when you log-in to Windows which will cause your computer to take longer to become ready when starting up or restarting.
Software is complex because not only do you have the immediate User Interface (UI) that you see when you start a program, but occasionally programs have processes or services that are triggered upon Windows start-up and then run in the background all the time, even though you haven’t started the program itself. This is sometimes done for a number of different reasons. One reason is simply to maintain default actions for opening certain types of files and another could be just to make starting the UI of the program a little quicker.
You, or another user, may have installed software on your computer that is no longer required which again not only takes up storage space, but could also be one such program that has services or processes that are triggered on Windows start-up or log-in. Check with any other users of your computer before removing programs that you no longer require as you may find they still use it, and make sure you have a means of re-installing anything that you might need again in the future before removing it.
Just using your computer clogs it up
Secondly, clear the cache. When you create documents or media in any program on your computer, the program will create temporary versions of the file(s) you create and stores them on the hard disk. When you browse the internet or watch videos, TV programs or films on your computer, what you are seeing on the screen has already been downloaded and stored on your hard disk (known as internet cache) before you get to see it on your screen or display. Clearing the cache (see the “What I recommend” section under the “Repair the Windows Registry” section further down) will free up space on your storage device but not affect the performance unless you follow up the task with a defragment (See “Untidy storage space makes it hard to find things quickly” below). Clearing the internet cache can be done through your web browser’s settings, and clearing all other cache can be done using the “Disk Cleanup” tool supplied with Windows.
Untidy storage space makes it hard to find things quickly
Thirdly, if your computer uses a conventional Hard Disk Drive (HDD) rather than the more cutting edge Solid State Drive (SSD), then you can try a “defrag”. Don’t defragment SSDs as they are not bound by the same dependence on moving parts and more importantly it reduces the overall life unnecessarily. Conventional Hard Disk Drives have moving parts within them and these parts need time to move to the different areas of the storage medium which is a combination of high speed spinning discs (called Platters) on a spindle. “Disk Defragmenter” or “Defrag” is a useful tool that comes with Windows that organises the data on your hard disk into a more contiguous structure and as a result can improve the performance of Windows by making data quicker to access. The reason for this is quite simple which I’ll explain next.
What makes your storage untidy
As time goes on you may add more programs to your computer and browse the internet or even use your computer to store photos, videos or documents. All of that software and digital media is being stored on your hard disk, even the media you see on the internet, and it’s being stored without any kind of organisational method.
To understand why this is happening, imagine yourself sat at a desk and several hundred people are coming to you with different coloured pieces of paper in no particular order, now imagine that your job is to store the pieces of paper as quickly as possible in the drawers of your desk, but you don’t control the opening and closing of the drawers as they open and close automatically in turn for an unspecified amount of time. You are going to be piling them up in the drawers as and when the sheets come and in the drawer that happens to be open at that time. This is exactly the same principle as what happens when you surf the internet or save files to your computer or even add programs to it, the data is stored on the drive in no particular order and in the immediate available space at that precise time. This means that the pieces of paper will not only be in no particular order, but they will also be in an untidy pile with sheets partially stacked and others overlapping and hanging out of the pile. When you come to access these pieces of paper, it’s a nightmare to find and retrieve 10 sheets of blue or white and so on, much like when your computer needs to read data from the hard disk drive when starting-up or just running a program, it has to find the appropriate pieces of data that were just “stuffed on the drive” in no particular order and if pieces of the required data are scattered around on different areas of the spinning discs it has to wait for that part of the disc to rotate and become accessible.
Tidying up your storage space
Defragmenting your hard drive sorts these files into contiguous groups which in turn makes it quicker to access, much like if you were to go through those uncollated piles of paper you now have in the desk drawers and sort them into coloured groups and then up-end the piles and gently tap the edges to create a neat stack of paper. It is then much quicker for you to access these different coloured sheets and pull out say 10 of one colour and 20 of another etc. You should refrain from using the computer until the defragmenting process has completed, it can take a long time to finish depending on the size of your hard disk and the extent of the file fragmentation and using the computer will just cause the process to take longer as-well-as reduce the computer’s performance while the task is happening.
Repair the Windows Registry
Fourthly, repair the Windows Registry using a specialised tool that will analyse the registry for any problems (see the “What I recommend” section below). The Windows Registry is a hierarchical database of everything from the location of important operating system files to the configuration of how to display your documents folder and what to populate the “Recent Files” list within the “File” menu of some programs and so on. It is the most important piece of your Windows Operating System that you may or may not know about, and learning how to manipulate and manage the registry is like trying to learn quantum physics by reading the tourist information in a foreign country, and in their native language. If that hasn’t deterred you from opening up the “Registry Editor” and taking a peak at it, maybe you should backup your computer before you attempt to fiddle with anything.
From time to time, programs will make changes to the registry and while some of these changes are important, others are just helpful to certain programs and tasks while not actually being required. If you remove or update a program, it may not remove or update the additional strings it added or any changes that it previously made to the registry, this in turn can cause hangs and delays when running a program or performing simple tasks like browsing your files and folders on your hard disk.
What I recommend
There are many programs out there that offer to repair and maintain the Windows registry, most are paid but some are free. I personally use a free tool developed by Piriform called “CCleaner” which is available to download on their website. It not only has a tab that is specifically for the detection of registry problems that can lead to the slow behaviour of your computer, but it also has tools for removing the build up of data, often referred to as cache, that occurs over time just by browsing the internet and using programs. Just running this tool and clearing up problems in the registry can improve the performance of your Windows based computer immensely, but clearing the cache and going through the list of software in the Control Panel to remove any unused or redundant software should always be followed up by a defrag so that the storage space is used more efficiently.
Physically clean the computer and use any laptops on a flat surface
Finally, shut down the computer then clean any air vents and wipe down the screen with a damp cloth. Making sure the computer is shut down and not just in sleep mode, if it’s a laptop remove the battery and disconnect the power cable, but if it’s a desktop computer leave the power cable connected and just turn the mains socket off at the wall, this is to protect the computer from any static energy that can build up during cleaning.
Whether it’s old or new, a laptop or a desktop, there are always cooling fans involved and these fans draw cool air in through various vents on your computer and expel the hot air through an exhaust vent. Even if you clean the surrounding environment regularly there will be a build up of dust and fibres at the various air vents and on the heat spreaders inside the computer. This can have an impact on the performance of your computer because of certain technologies that chip makers use to protect the chip from damage through overheating. If the heat is not being carried away from the central processing unit (CPU) quickly enough the temperature rises and a result of this can be that the processor will throttle back in an effort to allow things to cool down to a certain level before throttling back up again. If the extent of the dust build up is so bad that it never cools down to that required level, the processor will not throttle back up at all, leaving you with less processing power than normal.
Using a vacuum cleaner you can usually clear away most of the build up from easily accessible vents but the heat spreaders inside may be a little difficult to get to. If it’s a laptop, unless you are proficient in laptop or notebook disassembly, take it to your local computer shop or call an engineer to do the maintenance on it for you. If it’s a desktop computer, open up the case and vacuum only the various fans and aluminium heat-sinks being careful not to allow the brush or nozzle to come close to any other components, do not attempt to suck any build up from any of the other components, printed circuit boards (PCBs) or memory in the computer as you could destroy the various chips and semiconductors on those circuit boards with the static electricity generated by the flow of air into your vacuum cleaner and the brushing action of the nozzle or brush.
Clean the screen or display
Clean the screen either with a damp cloth or a plain ordinary window cleaning product but do not spray any products directly onto the screen, instead spray the cleaning product onto the cloth and then wipe down the screen with it because if you spray onto the screen it will run down and possibly get into the electronics underneath rendering it useless. Cleaning the screen can bring back sharpness and colour vibrancy because over time a thin layer of dust and grime builds up on the surface, which the light has to come through before it reaches your eyes, causing the screen to look dull and blurry.
Laptops aren’t laptops at all
A laptop computer has a deceiving name, you should not use a laptop by sitting it directly on your lap. Apart from the possible burns you could sustain from an overheating laptop or a critically failing battery, the reason is simply because it needs to be on a flat surface to allow air to flow through the vents in order to cool the internal components properly. Your legs are soft and with the added cushioning of your clothes the laptop’s feet can quickly sink into the surface allowing your clothes or skin to block these vents which in turn can bring on overheating. Not to mention the fact that using a laptop directly on your lap adds to the possible fibrous build up in the heat spreaders inside because it will be trying to suck air through your clothes and any loose fibres will get sucked in. Use a large hard backed book or a tray, if you want something very comfortable, buy one of those trays that has a cushion or beanbag attached to the bottom and sit the laptop atop that on your lap.
All of these tools I’ve mentioned, apart from the third party tool “CCleaner” from Piriform, come with Microsoft Windows and are accessible through the Start menu. To access them within Windows Vista or later, just press the “Start” button and without clicking or navigating anywhere else just type the name of the tool you want (See “Figure1: The Start menu Search Tool”), or what you want to do, and the Start menu’s contents will change to show you relevant items (See “Figure2: Start menu search string entered alters the menu’s contents”) according to what you have typed. If you download and install CCleaner this will also be available through the same method.
Although Windows comes with it’s own tool for cleaning up the internal storage, I recommend using the free CCleaner tool because it outperforms the Disk Cleanup tool when searching for and removing cached files and it gives you more control over what you wish to remove or keep. The standard Disk Defragmenter tool is very basic and does what is essentially a very simple task well, but you can find other tools that can arrange the most frequently accessed data, for instance your system start-up files, into areas of the disk that perform better than others, which will in turn affect the system start-up time. For now if you are unfamiliar with any of these tools, I suggest sticking to what you have until such time as you decide you could use something that may be a little more technically oriented.
Good luck with your computer maintenance, feel free to comment below.