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My computer is running slow – what can I do?

It happens to everyone – the dreaded “My computer is soooooo slow!”  Not to worry, it happens, and your computer doesnt have to be that slow forever. When I examine a PC for the complaint of a slow computer there are three main places I look to increase performance:

  • ram
  • “extra programs” that do not really need to be installed
  • and lastly  a fragmented hard drive.

Ram (or Random Access Memory) is often times confused with data storage such as a hard drive when in fact the hard drive is a completely separate device altogether. Ram is used to hold information that the computer will need immediate quick access to, like a program running or a picture that you are looking at for instance. It is capable of quickly moving large amounts of data from temporary storage to the processor. But it has limits and it can quickly be consumed if your computer doesnt physically have enough memory. A hard drive by contrast can hold exponentially more data than what your computers ram can – it is the device that holds all of your “stuff” – even when the computer is turned off. Hard drives have made dramatic increases in regards to how fast data can enter and exit the drive over the last few years, but it still pales in comparison to how fast ram can move data. To help understand ram and a hard drive, I use the analogy of water as data. Consider that a swimming pool is a hard drive – it holds a lot of data, but it takes a long time for it to drain, and it takes even longer to fill it with a garden hose. Ram is more similar to a 5 gallon bucket – you can scoop water up and dump it out very quickly, but it certainly doesn’t hold as much water as a swimming pool.

Image of computer statistics from the windows task manager
Task Manager from Windows 7

 Here is the catch that ram has when it runs low. When your computer uses the entire amount of ram physically available, it is forced to use a portion of the hard drive as “temporary ram” sometimes called swap or cache. The limitations of hard drive access speeds are which dramatically slows the entire computer. So what is the solution – well it is easier than you think. First, make sure you have enough ram. To do this check we need to look at how much ram you have and compare it to how much you are using by pressing ctrl+alt+delete (2000, xp, vista, and windows 7 are all similar) and click task manager. From there click the performance tab. Note in the graphic that my computer has ‘about’ 8 gig of ram, and about 5.4 gig of ram is still available – this shows that there is still plenty available and that ram isn’t an issue slowing down my computer. Should the available ram be a much smaller number, then something needs to be addressed – possibly reducing the ram load by closing programs or adding more ram if the computer can support it. What if all your programs are already closed? – Take a look at the processes tab and you will see how many applications are really running behind the scenes. Likely you will find that there are many programs that have been installed where by themselves they do not use much ram, but cumulatively they use a considerable amount.

Take some time and look under add/remove programs in XP or programs and features in Vista/win7 – some housekeeping in here by uninstalling unnecessary programs may be  a great help – but a word of caution is in order. While uninstalling programs that run behind the scenes will help reduce ram usage and free up processor power, you may inadvertently uninstall something that you really wanted, so take care and review closely what you are removing. If you do not know what programs you can safely remove, try to do some research on the item before removing it. A good rule of thumb is if you recognize the program, it comes from Microsoft or other known vendor and doesn’t have the words ‘coupon’, ‘tool bar’ or “shop” in the names then it is likely something that you want to keep.

Do you remember earlier in this article, we discussed how a hard drive is used when the computer runs out of ram (swap/cached)? Every computer uses a certain amount of hard disk space as ram. We can at times experience slowness when the computer needs to access the hard drive – that slowness can be compounded when the disk drive is “fragmented”. A fragmented drive is when data is written and the file system arbitrarily places the data wherever it is most convenient so it can write the data as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this means that pieces of the same file or files may be stored in several different places on the hard drive….the files are fragmented. Not unlike an old record player, a hard drive stores data in tracks in a similar way and if the heads of the hard drive need to move to a different place on the drive to read the data there is a fraction of a second where it isn’t reading data. These fractions of a second can add up quickly and seriously affect performance. The solution is to run a program that will sort out the files and rearrange them in a way that the hard drive heads do not need to keep moving to read the entire file.

In Windows Vista and Windows 7, defragmenting is something that is scheduled by windows to occur automatically. The default time for the automatic defragmentation for Windows 7 and Vista is 1:00am every Wednesday morning. If you are like many others, you shut your computer down overnight or let it hibernate after a certain amount of time. You can manually defragment the drive at your leisure by opening “My Computer”, right click the C: drive, clicking the tools tab, and lastly click “defragment disk”. You may note on this same page a place where you can configure the schedule of the defragment process to a time when your computer is more likely to be on.

There are many other places where a computer can be slowed down, but likely after a quick checkup like this you will find your computer is quicker than it has been in recent “memory”.

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