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Ten Tricks for Speeding Up an Old Computer

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Is your computer slowing down? If so, check out these 10 tricks from Michael Miller, author of Speed It Up: A Non-Technical Guide for Speeding Up Slow Computers. These are easy tricks that will help speed up any older PC!
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If your computer is more than a year or so old, it's not your imagination, your PC is really running slower than it used to. There are many possible reasons for this, from too many unnecessary programs clogging system memory to nasty spyware and viruses mucking with the works. But the end result is the same—your once-fast PC is becoming pokey.

Fortunately, there are several relatively non-technical things you can do to speed up a slow computer. Work through these tricks in order, from easiest to hardest, and see whether they can speed up your PC.

Trick #1: Reboot Often

Here's the easiest way to speed up your PC when it starts slowing down. You see, when you open and close programs on your PC, it sometimes results in little bits of system memory not being freed up for future use. The less memory available, the slower your system runs.

The only way to free up these bits of lost memory is to shut down and then restart your computer—which is something you should do at least once a day. Leave your PC running for weeks at a time and you'll notice a definite slowdown!

Now, this trick is especially useful if you're running Windows XP, which is well known for this type of constant memory loss. The holes appear to be mainly plugged in Windows Vista, but it's still a good idea to reboot your PC on a periodic basis—just in case.

Trick #2: Remove Spyware and Viruses

When someone tells me their computer has suddenly (not gradually) slowed down, the first thing I look for is a virus or spyware program—especially if there's a teenager in the house. That's because spyware and viruses can wreak all manner of havoc on your system, slowing things down to a crawl if not freezing them completely.

And one of the best places to unintentionally become infected is at a file-sharing site, the kind frequented by teenagers downloading music, movies, and (unfortunately) malware. I'm not talking iTunes or the Amazon MP3 Download store; the dangerous sites are the ones that let you download files illegally.

Of these two different types of malware, viruses are perhaps the most harmful, but spyware is the most common. That is, you're more likely to be infected with one or more spyware programs than you are with a single virus. And while spyware doesn't technically damage your system as a virus does, it can and often does eat up system resources and slow your computer to a crawl.

To clean out your system from a virus attack, you need to run an anti-virus program. Likewise, you'll need an anti-spyware program to weed out the spyware from your system.

But an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure, which means avoiding those file-sharing sites, not opening any unexpected email attachments, and otherwise practicing general safe computing practices.

Avoid malware and you'll maintain a speedy computer.

Trick #3: Remove Autoloading Programs

The more programs you have running (and the more documents you have open), the slower your computer will run. That's because all these programs and documents (and other system operating instructions) are stored in your system's memory.

Too many programs in not enough memory equals tepid performance.

For this reason, you need to weed out any programs that load automatically that you don't really use. This will free up your system's memory for those programs that you are running. And, in almost all instances, a leaner and meaner machine is a faster machine.

The problem is that there are lots of programs running on your computer that you're not aware of (and have little control over). These programs load automatically, without your explicit approval, whenever you turn on your computer and launch Windows. Once loaded, these programs stay in system memory—taking up valuable memory space and helping to slow down your system performance.

Most of these startup programs and processes think they need to be running all the time, just in case you ever decide to use them. On any given system you're apt to find utilities of all shapes and sizes preloaded into system memory—utilities that check for program updates, help detect and download photos from attached drives and devices, preload bits of larger programs (to help those programs launch faster if you decide to run them), run sidebars and toolbars and widgets, you name it. You'll also find instant messaging programs preloaded into memory, along with utilities that manage various system operations.

Do you need all of these programs and utilities running the background every time you turn on your PC? Of course not. The more of this junk that's in memory—sitting there totally unused, in most instances—the less memory is available for running the programs you do use.

It's an inefficient use of system resources and one of the most common causes for sluggish PC performance.

Because there are a number of places on your computer that these program launch from, there are many ways to keep these unnecessary programs from autoloading. The most effective approach is to use Windows' System Configuration utility, otherwise known as Msconfig. This utility leads you through a series of steps that, one-by-one, disable various components of your system on startup until you can isolate the item that's causing your specific problem; it can also be used to stop any number of programs and processes from loading at system startup.

To open the System Configuration utility, select Start, Accessories, Run; when the Run dialog box appears, enter msconfig and click OK. When the System Configuration utility window appears, select the Startup tab, which lists all those programs and processes that load when Windows launches, along with their location (Registry key or Startup folder).

To stop a program or process from loading on startup, simply uncheck that item in the list. When you click OK, your changes will be applied the next time you restart Windows.

Trick #4: Delete Old Files from Your Hard Disk

It's not just a lack of memory that can slow down a computer. If you don't have enough free space on your hard disk, your computer can also run slowly. This is because your computer uses extra space on your hard disk as "virtual" memory that augments your system's normal random access memory. If you don't have enough free space on your hard drive, there isn't enough virtual memory for your programs to run properly.

For this reason, you should periodically go through and delete all unnecessary files to free up hard disk space. You can do this automatically with Windows' Disk Cleanup utility; just click the Start menu and select All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Cleanup.

The more files you delete, the more disk space you free up—and the faster your computer will run.

Trick #5: Uninstall Unused Programs

Along the same lines, removing unused programs from your system will free up lots of hard disk space. You can use Windows' Add/Remove Programs utility (found in the Control Panel) to uninstall old programs.

This utility will remove all traces of the old program—and even remove it from the Windows Start menu. If you haven't used a program in the past six months or so, it should be a prime candidate for deletion.

Trick #6: Defragment Your Hard Disk

Here's another way your hard drive can slow down your system—by being overly fragmented.

File fragmentation is like taking the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and storing them in different boxes, along with pieces from other puzzles; the more dispersed the pieces are, the longer it takes to put the puzzle together. You fix the problem when you put all the pieces of the puzzle back in the right boxes.

A fragmented hard disk is like a mixed-up jigsaw puzzle. The individual pieces of the puzzle are parts of your program and document files, scattered across your hard disk. The more spread apart the pieces are, the longer it takes for them to be read from your disk.

Unfortunately, your computer's hard drive can get fragmented every time you run a program or open or close a file, and cause your system to slow down over time. For that reason, you should defragment your hard disk at least once a month.

This is accomplished with Windows' Disk Defragmenter utility; just click the Start menu and select All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter. Alternately, you can use a third-party disk defragmenter, such as Diskeeper, which is even more powerful than the tool built into Windows.

A defragmented hard drive will run noticeably faster than a fragmented one.

Trick #7: Add More Memory with ReadyBoost

Many computer slowdowns are caused by insufficient system memory. Now, normally you solve this problem by physically adding more memory, in the form or new or additional memory chips, which can be a little daunted for the less technically inclined among us.

But if your computer is running Windows Vista, you can add more memory without opening up the case. All you have to do is insert a low-cost USB memory drive or flash memory card.

You see, Windows Vista includes an instant memory-enhancing technology dubbed ReadyBoost. With ReadyBoost, you can use a USB flash memory device to temporarily increase the amount of RAM on your personal computer. Insert one of these devices into the appropriate slot on your PC, and your system's memory is automatically increased—and your system's performance is automatically improved.

When you insert an external memory device into your Vista computer, you are prompted as to how you want to use that device. Select Speed Up My System, and your PC will automatically access available memory on the device.

The result? An instant speed boost, just when you need it!

Trick #8: Clean Up Your Web Browser

Sometimes it's not your computer that's slowing down; it's your web browsing. Now, the fastest way to speed up web browsing is to upgrade to a faster broadband connection because even broadband connections can slow down over time.

That's because your web browser stores a temporary copy of each web page you visit. This is called a cache, and it takes up space on your hard disk. While the cache is designed to speed up browsing (your browser simply accesses the local cache when you want to revisit a recent page), too big of a cache can slow your browser to a crawl.

You see, over time your browser keeps adding web pages to the cache file—and these pages aren't deleted automatically. So the more web pages you visit, the bigger the cache on your hard disk.

And too large a cache file puts a drain on your web browser because as your browser has to sort through the cache every time you load a web page, looking for a cached version of that page. A bigger cache takes longer to reference.

The obvious solution to cache-based sluggishness is to clean out the cache. In essence, what you do is delete the cache file; this "empties" the cache, frees up valuable hard disk space, and makes it much easier for your browser to search for previously cached pages.

Fortunately, this is easy to do—even if it must be done manually. In Internet Explorer, for example, you do this by clicking the Tools button and selecting Delete Browsing History; when the Delete Browsing History dialog box appears, click the Delete Files button.

This deletes the temporary cache file on your computer and should speed up browser performance. Note, however, that you'll need to perform this operation on a regular basis; there's no way to configure Internet Explorer to automatically delete the cache.

Trick #9: Use an Alternate DNS Server for Web Browsing

Even the fastest broadband connection can feel slow if it takes a long time to pull up each website you want to visit. This problem is due to something called the Domain Name System (DNS), and slowness in your ISP's DNS server—and can be corrected.

You see, every website on the Internet is hosted on a web server. To identify the millions of such servers, each server has its own unique address, called an IP address, which looks something like this:

Of course, you don't type this address into your web browser when you want to visit a website. What you type is the URL or website address; it looks something like this: www.websiteaddress.com. The URL, then, is an alias for the site's true address.

What a DNS server does is link the site's easy-to-remember URL with its hard-to-remember IP address. When you connect to the Internet via your Internet service provider (ISP), your URL requests are sent to that ISP's DNS server, which looks up the real address from the URL you provide.

That's a simple enough process until your ISP's DNS server starts to get bogged down. (And many ISP DNS servers are notoriously slow to begin with[el]) When that happens, it takes longer for the DNS server to look up the IP addresses for the URLs you enter—which makes for slower web browsing.

You can work around this issue by directing your URL requests to a different DNS server. To that end, several sites, such as BrowseSafe and OpenDNS offer alternative DNS services, promising faster lookups and thus faster web browsing. You'll need to follow the directions on these sites to reconfigure Windows' Network Connections to use the alternative DNS server—and speed up your browsing.

Trick #10: Clean Up the Windows Registry

The Windows Registry is a giant database that holds configuration information for Windows and just about every program you have installed on your hard drive. Over time, all the different programs you install and settings you configure create lots and lots and lots of entries in the Registry—which makes for a larger Registry.

Unfortunately, deleting a program from your hard drive doesn't always delete that program's settings from the Registry. That contributes to Registry "bloat" with lots of unnecessary or orphaned entries. And the larger the Registry is, in terms of both file size and number of entries, the longer it takes for Windows to load it on startup—which slows down your system.

The fix for this problem is deceptively simple—delete all the orphaned and unnecessary Registry entries. That's easier to say than to do, however. How do you know which entries are necessary and which aren't? Plus, do you really want to do all that work by hand using the Registry Editor?

Fortunately, various third parties have recognized this issue and come up with their own solutions, in the form of Registry cleaner utilities. These programs automatically scour your Registry for redundant, invalid, or orphaned entries, and delete them. The most popular of these Registry cleaners include CCleaner, RegSeeker, and WinCleaner.

What kind of impact does a Registry cleaner actually have? It depends, to some degree, on how "clean" your Registry was to begin with. If a cleaner finds only a dozen or so entries to delete (out of thousands of valid entries), the performance impact is minimal.

But if you have a greater number of useless entries (or a smaller number of total entries), then a Registry cleaner will have a larger percentage impact on your system's performance. So you might notice a very small change in speed or a very large one, depending.

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