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Slow computer driving you nuts?

20 October 2012

During my 20 years working in IT, I must have repaired hundreds (possibly more) computers belonging to friends, family and private clients. When people say ‘my computers broken’, this conjures up the image of a broken screen or the complete inability to turn the machine on. Indeed there were a few times where this was the case, amongst other issues such as virus removal and hard drive failure.

However, there was one problem that I got called out for much more frequently than any other. Slow computers. In fact, I’d wager that some of the more frustrated customers ended up with broken screens and smashed keyboards as a result of the fault in the first place! After all, having to put the kettle on while you wait for Windows to even load up can lead to wasted electricity and excessive caffeine consumption.

With this in mind, here are the top 4 reasons a computer ‘slows down’ for no apparent reason and how you can often resolve these issue cheaply, or even for free. So put away the purse before you end up buying a new computer that you don’t even need:

1. A full hard drive
Your hard drive is a small metal box a few inches wide that holds a spinning metal disc which stores all of your data such as photos, music and illegally downloaded movies.
Typically, new computers come built with colossal hard discs these days that the average consumer is never going to fill during the lifetime of the system. However, just 5 years ago, production costs were a lot higher than they are now, so manufacturers had to be more stringent with what they included in the box.

Checking how much how much space you have remaining is fairly simple:

1. Open Windows Explorer – you know, where you view all your files. Any folder is fine.
2. On the left side there should be a panel showing other folders, favourites etc. Locate ‘Computer’ or ‘My Computer’ and click the small arrow next to it to expand it downwards.
3. Here you should see all the drives that your computer has. Right click on the one called ‘C:\’ and select ‘Properties’.

You will see some information appear including a pie chart displaying how much of the disc has been used and how much is still available. Ideally you will want to have a minimum of 5gb (gigabytes) of spare space remaining, otherwise you may be about to run out soon.

I used to advise people to try removing files they didn’t need any more or uninstalling programmes. However adding more space is as simple as buying a new hard disc that will attach via one of  USB ports. These can simply be plugged in and then you can move over your photo’s, music and movies (as these tend to take up the most space). This will leave your existing drive with space to breath and complete the various operations needed at startup and shutdown time.

I have listed my current favourite (for price, speed and reliability) just underneath. I like Amazon’s delivery speed and use them for most things which I collect from my PO Box over in the south (30 euros per year and well worth having if you ask me).

Toshiba 500GB USB 2.0 External Hard Drive

2. Low memory
Unlike your hard drive, memory is used to store the contents of programs that you have open. Now you many think that you dont have many programs open at once, but that’s not quite true. Simply browsing the web can mean as many as 30 (small) programs running at once on your computer! Add to that the programs you’ve probably got running the background (anti virus, iTunes, Skype etc) and it soon mounts up. This is especially so as software has become more memory hungry since the prices of memory has come down in price.

Essentially you’ve got two choices here. You either disable programs from running that you’re not using (look in the bottom right hand corner of the screen and close all those little icons) or you upgrade your memory. Given the price of memory upgrades, I’d advise buying one rather than having to close programs that you may actually want to have running all the time.
As opposed to buying from the manufacturer of your computer, there are various brands of after-market memory that are just as good (and in many cases better) than the original stuff you had. In fact, Crucial make memory that is often installed by computer manufacturers including Dell! I also like these guys because they can automatically detect which specific type of memory your computer needs and their prices are very competitive, quality is also top notch.

3. Corrupt Windows files

Every time Windows loads, a bunc of its files are opened for access by the system. When you shut down your computer, these files are updated and closed. Sounds simple right? Well it is simple unless something goes wrong and your computer can’t close down normally, for example during a power cut or if it freezes and requires you to pull the plug. The biggest problem here is that this issue can actually become the reason for the computer to crash again – thus making the problem even more likely to occur!

The simplest way to resolve this is to refresh your Windows system files, which will repair anything that’s been knackered by your over eagerness to pull the plug out. When your computer is booting up, start tapping F8 repeatedly and you’ll be presented with a menu and some options. Select ‘repair windows’ and follow the on-screen instructions. Tia won’t delete any of your files, it’ll just refresh any system files it thinks are damaged and you should ‘while crossing your fingers’ be left with a more stable system. I would recommend this option only if your computer is really suffering and crashing a lot as well as being slow to respond.

4. A slow computer
There are times of course where a slow computer can be just because it is! If your computer is much older than about 2006, it could be time for an upgrade. This doesn’t have to mean you should spend big on an all singing, all dancing supercomputer that can beat Kasparov at chess, even a second hand machine such as those advertised in our forums could do the trick. If you’re going to upgrade, here’s my minimum suggested spec:

Browsing the web, checking email, Facebook, listening to music and watching the odd movie.

Really basic needs means really basic hardware. A computer with an Intel Core 2 Duo (any speed), 2gb of main memory and a 240Gb  will suffice. Graphics card will make almost zero difference to the experience so don’t worry about it, just be sure it has a DVD drive if that’s how you like to watch movies. Windows 7 would make a good installation choice – avoid or upgrade Vista if you have it. You may also want to consider a tablet device as they are a quick, neat and efficient solution if you don’t mind giving up your dusty old keyboard and mouse.

If you want to play games, then a better graphics card would help. Look for an ATI Radeon 5770 or higher. The latest games will probably need something beefier, maybe an ATI Radeon 5850 or higher. You’ll also want better spec across the board such as a (minimum) Intel Core 2 Duo or Core i5 and 3 to 8Gb of memory. Look for a 500mb hard drive if you will install lots of games.

So that wraps it up. There are various other reasons that your computer could be slow, sometimes simply re-installing windows can make a huge difference. But backing up all your documents and re-installing all your software and hardware is a pain and best avoided if possible. The hardware I mentioned above are the most common cuplrits I see…even more so in North Cyprus where powercuts and surges can damage sensitive electronics.

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