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Top 10 ways to speed up Windows 7, 8.1, & 10

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Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Unlike fine wine and good cheese, your computer doesn’t get better with age. Sadly, no matter how sophisticated its components may be, your system is bound to get slower over time.

If you’re like most people, computer upkeep isn’t always at the top of your list, and chances are good that you’ve watched your PC’s speed steadily decline ever since you unboxed it. If you find yourself frustrated with long startup times, laggy apps, or a glitchy display, we’ve got your back.

More: Do you really need a new PC? Don’t buy one until you read our guide

To help you restore your PC to its former glory without going to the trouble of performing a complete reset, we’ve put together this simple tutorial with some easy ways to make sure your Windows machine is running at its optimum speed. It also doesn’t matter if you’re running Windows 7, 8.1, or 10 — we’ve included easy-to-follow steps for each operating system.

Optimize your storage devices

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Solid-state disks (SSDs) are gaining in popularity as their prices drop, primarily due to their superior speed. That said, old-school spinning hard disk drives (HDDs) remain important due to the sheer volume of data that they can hold. While affordable SSDs have hit the 1TB barrier, you can now buy 8TB HDDs for reasonable prices (16TB HDDs are also on the way). With so much content being stored today — 20-megapixel images, 4K video, etc. — the massive storage capacities that HDDs provide will likely keep them in PCs for years to come.

The thing about HDDs is that they store files as blocks of data that can be scattered around the platters that make up an HDD. Bigger files equate to more blocks, and as you copy, move, and rearrange files, those data blocks are sometimes organized in an inefficient way. Think of it like a messy office where you opened files from your cabinet and placed them haphazardly around the room. Your memory is awesome, and so you can find all the papers you need, but you waste time moving around looking for them.

More: The care and feeding of solid state drives

That’s exactly what your HDD does over time, and so in order to keep all your data neatly organized and your system up to speed, it’s best to clean things up on a regular basis through a process known as “defragmentation.” Defragmenting, or defragging, a drive basically moves blocks around so that each file is held in a single location and thus can be retrieved much more quickly.

SSDs don’t suffer the effects of defragmentation because there’s no spinning disk to hunt around to find data, meaning you don’t need to worry about defragging them. In fact, you don’t want to defrag SSDs — they wear out over time, and the process of defragging them would shorten their lifespans. Instead, SSDs have their own optimization technique — known as the TRIM command — which can be performed to rid an SSD of any blocks of data that are no longer needed and keep them in peak operating condition.

In older operating systems like Windows 7, SSD optimization isn’t built-in, so we won’t cover it here. That said, we suggest that you refer to your SSD’s user guide for more information. Below are instructions for optimizing storage on a HDD:

Windows 7

  1. Open Disk Defragmenter by clicking the Start button. In the search box, type Disk Defragmenter and select Disk Defragmenter from the resulting list.
  2. Under Current status, select the HDD you want to defragment. If you see your SSD listed here, do not use the utility to defragment the drive.
  3. To determine if the disk needs to be defragmented, click Analyze disk. If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation. Once Windows is finished analyzing the disk, you can check the percentage of fragmentation on the disk in the Last Run column. If the number is above 10 percent, you should defragment the disk.
  4. Click Defragment disk. If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
  5. You can also schedule defragmentation by clicking on Configure Schedule… Check the Run on a schedule (recommended) box, then set the Frequency, Day, Time, and Disks. In the Select disks… option, you can choose which drives to include and if you want automatically schedule new disks. If you see an SSD listed, make sure it’s not included.
  6. Click OK. Now, Windows 7 will defrag your HDDs according to the established schedule and keep your system plugging away.

Windows 8.1

  1. Open Optimize Drives by clicking the Start button. Then, click the Search button, type Defragment in the search bar, and select Defragment and optimize your drives from the resulting list.
  2. Under Status, tap or click the drive you want to optimize. The Media type column tells you what type of drive you’re optimizing.
  3. To determine if an HDD needs to be optimized, tap or click Analyze. You might be asked for an admin password or to confirm your choice. Note that the Analyze button will be disabled for SSDs.
  4. After Windows is finished analyzing the HDD, check the Current status column to see whether you need to optimize the drive. If an HDD is more than 10 percent fragmented, you should optimize the drive now. If an SSD hasn’t been optimized in the past 30 days, you should also consider optimizing it.
  5. Tap or click Optimize for the desired drives. You might be asked for an admin password or to confirm your choice. Note that “optimize” means to defrag HDDs and to run the TRIM command on SSDs. Optimizing a drive might take anywhere from several minutes to a few hours to finish, depending on the size of the drive and degree of optimization needed. However, you can still use your PC during the optimization process.
  6. You can also schedule defragmentation by clicking on Change settings under “Schedule optimization.” Check the “Run on a schedule (recommended)” box, then set the Frequency and whether you want to be notified if three consecutive scheduled runs are missed. Click Choose to select which drives to include, and if you want to automatically schedule new disks. If you see an SSD listed, make sure it’s not included.
  7. Click OK. Now, Windows 8 will optimize your drives according to the established schedule and keep your system plugging away.

Windows 10

  1. Place your cursor in the Cortana search box and type Defragment. Afterward, select Defragment and Optimize Drives from the resulting list to open the Optimize Drives utility.
  2. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 8.1.

Free up disk space

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Your storage devices can accumulate plenty of unnecessary junk over time, but Windows offers a Disk Cleanup tool that makes tidying up a snap. This feature can be used to remove temporary files like cookies and installation files, empty the recycle bin and browser cache, and get rid of a variety of system files and other items. Here’s how to use it:

Windows 7

  1. Open Disk Cleanup by clicking the Start button. In the search box, type Disk Cleanup and then, in the resulting list, click Disk Cleanup.
  2. If the Disk Cleanup: Drive Selection dialog box appears, select the hard disk drive that you want to clean up, and then click OK.
  3. If you want to see system files as well, then click the Clean up system files button. This will show files that the system might use — such as service pack backup files — that can save space but might have to be installed again at some point in the future. If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
  4. In the Disk Cleanup dialog box, in the Disk Cleanup tab, select the check boxes for the file types that you want to delete, and then click OK.
  5. In the caution window that appears, click Delete files.

Windows 8.1

  1. Open Disk Cleanup by clicking on the Start button. Then, click the Search button, type Disk Cleanup in the search bar, and select Free up disk space by deleting unnecessary files.
  2. If the Disk Cleanup: Drive Selection dialog box appears, select the hard disk drive that you want to clean up, and then click OK.
  3. If you want to see system files as well, then click the Clean up system files button. This will show files that the system might use — such as service pack backup files — that can save space but might have to be installed again at some point in the future. If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
  4. Click the Disk Cleanup tab, and then select the check boxes for the files you want to delete.
  5. When you finish selecting the files you want to delete, click OK, and then click Delete files to confirm your decision. Disk Cleanup will then proceed to remove all unnecessary files from your computer.

Windows 10

  1. Place your cursor in the Cortana search box, type Disk Cleanup, and then select Disk Cleanup from the resulting list to open the utility.
  2. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 8.1.
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