Wednesday, November 20, 2013

When your computer slows down

One of the most common complaints people have about their computers is slowness and/or freezing up. Sometimes this comes on suddenly or it can be something that happens gradually over time. I would like to share my experiences with you on why that happens and what you can do about it.

I'll start with naturally occurring slowness. The fact is, as you use your computer over time, it's going to slow down. The only way to avoid this is not to use the computer at all. The reason this happens is many-fold.

a) Fragmentation. The files on your hard drive get fragmented. This is a normal situation that results from programs being installed and uninstalled, files being created and deleted and even more so, browsing the web. The only way to cure this situation is to run the defragmantation utility that comes with Windows. Regularly. If you've never run it before, it's going to take some time. Possibly hours. Once run and continued on a regular basis, it should only take a few minutes.

b) Bloat. The more software you install on your computer, the more Windows has to keep track of. You'd think that this wouldn't affect your computer much, but over time it does. The Windows registry is a database that tracks everything you have on your computer. The software and the hardware and everything about them. The more you load up, the bigger and messier the registry gets. One of the tune-up tasks I perform is to uninstall anything that hasn't been used on the computer in the last 3 months. You would be amazed at how much this improves performance. Especially in light of the next topic.

c) Start-up routines. Many programs you install on your computer not only copy files to the hard drive and add shortcuts to the desktop and start menu (or start screen in Windows 8), they add many registry entries which have to be read every time Windows starts. Even more, a lot of programs install little portions of themselves into the Windows start-up routine. You'll know this is happening if you investigate the processes tab of the Windows task manager. If your list is more than 40 entries long, there's a good chance you are running a lot of 'helper' apps. Helper apps are a case of smoke and mirrors. For example, if you have a helper app named acrotray.exe running in the background, its purpose is to help load Adobe Acrobat Reader whenever you open a PDF file. The helper app can mean the difference between a PDF opening in 2 seconds versus 5 seconds. It's how a lot of software makes itself look like it runs fast. At one time, I used to offer instruction on how to disable many of these helper apps, but now that computers tend to have more RAM (memory), the gains would be subtle, unless your goal is to get to a functioning desktop faster. If that is your goal, I recommend the free utility 'autoruns'. Use the 'logon' tab to do your maintenance of the start-up routines, but be sure not to disable necessary programs like your anti-virus. How are you supposed to know what those programs you see listed do? Research. Hello Google.

d) Multi-tasking. Your computer only has so much RAM (Memory). Think of your RAM as the equivalent of your desk. The desk is only so big. You can only have so many things on the desk before it gets full. If you need to open another book or look at another paper, something's gotta go. The same type of thing happens in RAM. When you've got 16GB or 32GB of RAM on your computer, it's like having a huge desk. You'll likely be able to have many running programs open at once without seeing any slowness. But if your system only has 4GB or RAM, it can only handle so much at a time. There are two logical solutions to this. Buy and install more RAM. Or close some of your programs. Your task manager will show you when you're getting close to 'filling up your desk'. You just have to know where to look.

Let's talk for a moment about naturally occurring freeze-ups. We live in an instant gratification culture. As a result, when we click on something, we expect instant results. If we don't get them, we click again. And again. This solves nothing. If your computer has become unresponsive, it's because it's busy. There are signs to look for. Look at the hard drive indicator LED on the front of the computer case. Is it on solid? You know - instead of just a light flicker? If it is, that means it's busy. Open the task manager. Go to the 'performance' tab. Is the CPU usage pegged at 100% or indicating that it is very busy? Then it's busy. So what's the solution? Well, assuming that the business isn't the result of malicious software (Infection), the solution is patience. Wait! Let the computer finish what it's doing. That might take a few seconds. Maybe a few minutes, depending on what it's doing. Does the 'process' tab in the task manager indicate that a program is using up a lot of CPU usage? Then that's why it's unresponsive. There are a number of things that can cause your computer to seem sluggish. Be patient.

There are other things that can cause the computer to slow down. I will list the common ones in no particular order.

a) The computer is infected with malware. The only way to be sure is to run an up-to-date anti-virus software and investigate the processes listed in task manager.

b) Windows update is in the middle of updating the operating system.

c) Your anti-virus software is in the middle of a file scan.

d) Windows is indexing your files.

e) You are browsing the web and the content being loaded is hogging system resources.

f) The hard drive is failing and critical files needed to run the system are corrupt. The only way to confirm is to run the error checking utility in Windows for your hard drive (right-click the hard drive letter (usually C:) and choose 'properties', then 'tools' tab, then 'error checking'. Make sure the option to 'automatically fix file system errors' is NOT checked and 'scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors' IS checked, for a full diagnosis.

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