It’s inevitable: over time, you will notice that your PC is slowing down. What was once a nice, snappy user experience increasingly feels like wading through molasses.
Many users - and some computer sales people - mistakenly state that this gradual slowing down of the computer as simply due to older hardware. In their mind, your PC is like an aging tractor, getting rusty and rundown with age. That is not the case. In reality, computer hardware is incredibly reliable and does not slow down over time. When computer hardware fails, the computer simply stops working. With hardware, it is an all or nothing proposition.
So why does your computer slow down over time? In most cases it is due to software and a build up of digital detritus. Personal computers accumulate lots of "junk files" over time that impacts their ability to find information quickly. This junk includes long forgotten files scattered around the hard drive, the remains of uninstalled programs, and various bits of digital detritus. Cleaning out the junk is the first step to improving your computer’s performance.
Here are some quick and easy steps to returning your computer back to it’s original speed.
Step One: Back up!
Before you do any housekeeping on your computer, make sure that all your important data is backed up. You should be backing up on a regular basis anyway, but even so, its a wise move to backup before you do any of the following activities.
Step Two: Clear Out The Junk
Review the files on your hard drive. Do you have duplicate copies of files, or files that you no longer use? If so, delete the duplicates and unused files. If you think you may need the files in the future, be sure to copy them to an external drive or, better still, back them up to a cloud service before removing them.
There are some programs that you can download that can automatically hunt for and remove duplicate files. I’ve tended to find these more trouble than they are worth, and prefer to look for groups of duplicate files by the folders in which they are stored.
Step Three: Get Rid of ‘Bloatware”
It is amazing how many applications you do not need, or indeed want, get installed on a desktop computer. Many computers - especially laptops - from leading manufacturers come with all manner of pre-installed software you do not need. In addition, over time you (or other people) may have downloaded and installed utilities from the internet that, in turn, have installed other utilities. All of this software is known as ‘bloatware.’ It is not exactly bad… but it is just not needed and plays a significant role in slowing down your computer.
Getting rid of bloatware is usually (but not always) easy. Simply click on the Control Panel icon and find the link to ‘Remove Programs’. Clicking on that link will display a list of all the software on your computer. Find the applications you do not need in the list and, one at a time, right-click on the application name and select uninstall. You’ll need to follow the instructions for each uninstallation in turn, but in general, it’s pretty straightforward.
Unfortunately, some bloatware is very resistant to being uninstalled, especially when it is really ‘adware’ (software that splatters your computer with advertising). If the bloatware you’ve selected does not uninstall, you will need a specialised tool and perhaps a little technical skill. Since our purposes here is just to speed up your computer, I’d suggest just leaving any problematic uninstallations for the moment… that is a challenge for another day!
Step Four: Run the Windows Disk Clean-Up Utility
Windows 7 and above has a wonderful little utility called Windows Disk Clean-Up. You access it by opening up Windows Explorer (click on Computer or My Computer in the program file menu) and then right-clicking on the hard drive you wish to clean, which most commonly will be the C: drive. Select properties from the pop-up menu. There will be a button on the window that pops up that says “Disk Clean-Up.” Click on that and then follow the instructions.
This little utility finds and removes a bunch of files that Windows has created, but no longer needs. It’s like an automated vacuum cleaner for digital detritus! Depending on the configuration of your computer, the clean-up process will take anywhere from ten seconds to a few minutes.
Step Five: Optimise or “Defragment” Your Disk
The Windows operating system stores files on your computer's hard drive in such as way as to make optimum use of the available space. Whenever a file is written, the first available free space is used to write - in a physical form - a stream of binary information. When you delete a file, the computer removes a link to where that binary information physically stored. When a new file is written, the computer first fills any gaps left by deleted files and if needed, finds additional areas. Over time, this means that files become increasingly broken up and scattered around your computer's hard drive. This is known as "disk fragmentation". It is a major source of computers slowing down over time.
The good news is, Windows has another utility that can defragment (or “optimise”) your computer's hard drive. This utility’s defragmentation process sorts through your entire desk and ensures that files are ordered and made whole once more, so that access becomes quick and efficient.
Like running Disk Clean-Up (see step four, above), the easiest way to run the Windows Disk Optimisation utility is to run Windows Explorer and right-click on the drive that you wish to optimise, such as the C: drive, then click on Properties in pop up menu. Next, select the tools tab and you should see a button to “Optimise”. Click on that button. If you plan to defragement your C: drive, your computer may need to reboot. This is because it cannot defragment the drive from which you are currently running the operating system! Depending on the size of your drive, the defragmentation process can take anywhere from a few minutes to hours!
Again, it is also really important that you back up all of your important files before running the Windows optimisaiton and defragmentation utility. It is very rare for the utility to fail, but before you do any sort of computer maintenance, it is important to back up!
The above steps will go a long way to returning your computer back to it’s former glory. There are other techniques that you can use - such as cleaning the computer’s registry. However, such activities tend to require specialised software and / or are a little risky for a novice.
If you’ve found that your computer has become incredibly slow or even a little unstable, you may also wish to consider reinstalling the Windows Operating System from scratch, and then installing all your software. That’s a drastic move, but one that return your computer to it’s most pristine state.