Three ways to speed up a slow computer

People often wonder why the computers that seemed so fast when they were fresh out of the box turn out to become such slow-moving dullards after a year or two of use. While some slowdown is inevitable, there are some things that people can do to improve computer speed and performance, several of which are just good common-sense elements of a computer maintenance program.

Let's look at the reasons why a computer might be running slowly. First, we need to break down the problems into two categories: The physical and the digital. The home computer itself is, of course, a piece of machinery, and like all machinery, it has moving parts and things that wear out. There's not a lot that can be done for most computers from a physical standpoint -- when things break, they tend to break catastrophically, like a motherboard burning out or a hard drive failing. But when it comes to the speed of a computer, there's a persistent little problem that often goes overlooked by the novice user: Dust. Dust is everywhere and cannot be eliminated unless you live in a clean room. And though it may seem innocuous, dust accumulates inside the computer and builds up around the CPU and around fans. That's a problem, because a computer that can't keep its processing system cool is a computer that works harder than it needs to (physically) to do the job of computing. Hence, tip #1 is simple: Apply a good shot of compressed air to fans and ports to the computer once every few weeks. It may seem like a silly bit of nonsense, but keeping the inside of the computer well-cleaned of dust keeps the CPU cooler, and that helps the computer perform better -- not to mention, if it's a laptop, that it keeps the machine from burning your legs.

Most ordinary computer users shouldn't do a lot more than that to address the physical needs of the computer, so we turn to the digital. The main digital culprit to what slows down most computers is programs that run when they aren't needed. We can break these down into two categories, each with an action step: Programs we deliberately install, and programs we didn't choose to install.

Among programs that we deliberately install, there are a huge number of programs that essentially declare, "Hey, I'm such an important program that you'll need to use me a lot. To make me install faster when you use me, I'm going to create a little preloading routine that makes me start up every time you start your computer." These preloading routines are common -- you'll find them built in to everything from office suites like Microsoft Office and OpenOffice to instant messaging programs and Skype. The problem is that what might make sense for one or two programs doesn't make sense when you have dozens loaded onto your computer at once. Honestly, you just don't need a lot of programs to pre-load themselves every time you use your computer. Sure, you sometimes want Skype to run, but it doesn't really need to pre-load itself every time you hit the power switch. This brings us to tip #2: Shut off the pre-loading feature in any program you don't use every single time you boot up your computer. You can usually disable the pre-loading feature by looking inside the options menus of most programs. For programs where that doesn't work, or to take care of several programs at once, you can follow some simple instructions to manage your startup programs list. One of the worst offenders on this list of self-important programs is Apple's iTunes, which defaults back into your startup menu every time you update the software. It's an obnoxious feature, and the people at Apple should knock it off. There's no reason for iTunes to pre-load every time.

Finally, we have the problem of software that you didn't deliberately install on your own computer. Broadly speaking, we call this stuff malware: It's our umbrella term for viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware -- anything bad (hence the prefix "mal-") that you don't want on your machine. This stuff can seriously hoover up more of your computer processor power than anyone should ever be willing to give away. There are two steps involved in cleaning up the malware on your computer, so we'll break up this third tip into two parts: Tip #3A is to run a complete and comprehensive anti-virus and anti-spyware scan of your computer. We are asked on the WHO Radio Wise Guys program all the time where people can get free antivirus software, and it's available from a number of sources (I think Avast is probably the best among them, at least as of this writing). But if there's one thing you should be willing to pay out-of-pocket to get on your computer, it's good antivirus software. Seriously. Pony up the $30 or $40 it takes for an annual subscription to a professional service like Norton Antivirus or Kaspersky, and get professional-quality antivirus protection. Most of the good (paid) antivirus programs also check for spyware. Yes, the free programs are better than nothing. But the paid stuff is better. Seriously, just pay for it -- just like automobile insurance and health insurance and homeowner's (or renter's) insurance, the cost of antivirus software is just the price you pay for having stuff you want to protect.

Once you've scanned the computer in full and have swept all of the bugs out, it's time to make sure that you don't let them back in again. Hence, we reach tip #3B: Use your administrator account only for installing and upgrading programs, and practice safe Internet browsing. Most people live dangerously by surfing the Internet and reading their e-mail while on an administrator-level access account on their computers. That's dangerous, because the computer assumes that the administrator is authorized to install programs whenever he or she wants. The trouble is, the computer is stupid and doesn't know the difference between you deliberately installing a program and you accidentally downloading a virus (which is, of course, a program). The computer, being stupid, allows you to do either thing without a lot of resistance when you're logged in as an administrator. The way to avoid this is by creating a second profile on your computer and giving it only limited powers -- not including the right to install programs. It's free and easy to create a limited-access account, and that account is where you should stay for 99.9% of your computer use, whether it's watching movies or surfing the Web or checking your e-mail. The limited part of "limited-access" doesn't keep you from doing these things, it just keeps you from installing programs. You can always log into your administrator account if you need to install something new, but -- honestly -- how often do you do that? Once a month? Get into the habit of doing most of your computing from behind the safety wall of a limited-access account. Remember, your computer doesn't know the difference between you and a virus pretending to be you. So if you're logged in with a limited-access account, the computer will just say "No" to installing new stuff -- whether it's you trying to do it, or (more likely) a virus trying to install itself. The limited-access account isn't a complete failsafe insurance policy, but it's probably 95% effective against allowing spyware and viruses onto your computer, all by itself. For additional safety, I recommend that you use an alternative Internet browser (by "alternative", I mean one that isn't the #1 browser, which at present and for about a decade has been Microsoft Internet Explorer). Use Firefox or Opera or Chrome or something else -- just do what you can to avoid using the same browser as the majority of other users. The IE browser itself is OK, but it's also so popular that it's a major target for crooks who write viruses. They know that most people are using IE, so they try to take advantage of its weaknesses. If you don't use it, you'll find yourself less exposed to danger.

These are three simple steps you can take towards faster computing, even on an old machine. Remember, computers don't last forever, so you should always backup your important data (like financial records and photographs), just in case something catastrophic happens to the machine itself. But these tips should generally help keep your computer running at its top available speed.

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This page contains a single entry by Brian Gongol published on February 4, 2011 12:05 PM.

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