So, you want to speed up your slow computer? While you can upgrade your machine with a SSD (solid state drive) or add more memory, there are easier — and cheaper — methods for speeding up a computer without having to spend big bucks. Often times, installing necessary software updates and performing a deep clean on your hard drive will allow your computer to operate more efficiently. Your computer’s internal hardware may not be under-powered by any means, but simply cluttered with a melange of unnecessary software that hinders your machine’s performance.
This guide will help your PC run closer to the way it did when you booted that baby up for the first time.
Related: Our guide to buying solid state drives, hard drives, and disks in-between and our favorite graphic cards.
Step 1: Update your computer software
Ensuring your computer’s software is up to date is the one of the easiest ways to possibly speed up your computer. That said, much of your computer’s software could be at the mercy of third-party developers who are less religious than big-name developers like Microsoft and Apple when it comes to issuing updates. However, to check for software updates while using Windows, navigate to the Control Panel and choose the System and Security pane. Afterward, click the blue Check for updates option located beneath the Windows Update section and follow the on-screen instructions to install the recommended updates.
Step 2: Delete unnecessary files
Like it or not, computers have a habit of becoming flooded with unnecessary files that take up space and slow down your computer. Take a minute to delete any extraneous content on your computer, whether it be dated documents or entire application suites you no longer utilize. Deleting software you no longer use will likely free up memory on your hard drive and speed up your computer to some degree — typically even more so than, say, defragmenting your hard drive. Additionally, consider deleting temporary Internet files, trial applications, and heavyweight trial software.
To delete unwanted applications in Windows, navigate to the Control Panel and click the blue Uninstall a program option beneath the Programs section. Then, right-click the program or software you wish to uninstall and select Uninstall from the resulting drop-down menu. To do delete a document or file, simply select the Delete option after right-clicking the file you wish to delete, or drag the selected document to the Recycle Bin before you empty its contents. Now also might be a good time to start backing up your documents, folders, and music using one of the many available cloud storage services on the Web.
Step 3: Clean your vents
Nearly every computer on the market comes equipped vents designed to prevent overheating and increase ventilation. However, computers are a little like laundry dryers, meaning their vents will built up an unwanted excess of dust and lint over time. Clogged vents can lead to overheating of the central processing unit, which in turn can cause poor performance, unexpected crashes, and random reboots. The simple solution is to clean your vents periodically reduce the risk . You can use a compressed air canister, an item easily obtainable online or at your local office supply store, to flush dirt out of your vents. You could also take your computer apart to do so, but we personally don’t recommend going down that path unless you have previous computer experience doing so.
Nonetheless, if you choose to be daring, you’ll probably have an easier time with a PC than a Mac seeing as it’s unlikely you’ll be able to take your Mac apart by yourself..= Also, keep in mind opening your computer case will likely void your warranty, so check your manufacturer’s policy before proceeding. Still want to go ahead with it? Here’s what you’ll need to do.
- Shut off your computer and unplug everything.
- Grab a standard or Phillips screwdriver; this should be enough for you to open your computer.
- If using a desktop, flip your case so you’re facing the back panel. Afterward, check for either small knobs that you can turn by hand or for buttons you can press to release the side panel or the entire enclosure. If you see neither of the aforementioned components, you may need to remove at least two screws.
- If using a desktop, find a clean and stable surface before covering it with a towel to prevent scratches. Next, place your computer upside down and remove the internal battery. Use your screwdriver to remove the screws holding down the back panel where the vents are located, remembering where each screw came from in the process so you can later replace them.
- Whether working on a desktop or laptop, touch your computer’s innards as little as possible. Grab a compressed air canister and, while holding it upright a couple inches from the target, issue short burst of air at the various internal components (i.e. the power supply, fan, optical drive, ports). While blowing air on your fan, consider placing a toothpick or cotton swab between blades to keep it from overspinning. If there’s any dirt left at this point, use tweezers or cotton swabs to delicately remove, avoiding a vacuum cleaner at all costs. You are now ready to put the machine back together.
- To clean the keyboard, flip it upside down and lightly shake the device to encourage dust and crumbs to dislodge from between the keys. Then, use the compressed air canister to take care of any stubborn leftovers. If you want to really get in there, gather some cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol and wipe the outsides of each key with a moistened (not wet) swab. Run a moistened cotton swab along the touchpad as well, if you have one. This kind of cleaning can be done on a monthly basis.
Step 4: Defragment your hard drive
Saving and deleting files causes your data to be strewn across your hard drive in bits rather than whole pieces. So, when your hard drive wants to find something, it may have to search in multiple locations instead of one, thereby slowing your entire system down. Defragmenting takes care of the mess by organizing your data so your hard drive can spend less time searching for it.
Now that you’re sold on the genius of defragmenting, you’ll be extra happy to learn how easy it is: if you’re running Windows Vista or later (or Mac OS X), your computer is already defragmenting itself automatically. On Windows, you can access your Control Panel, click on System and Security, and head to Administrative Tools where you’ll find the option to manually defrag your hard drive. You’ll also be able to check when defragmenting is already taking place and change when it’s scheduled to do so.
If you’re using Windows XP, though, your machine is not defragging itself automatically. In this case, make sure you can leave your computer on overnight to allow for the astoundingly time-consuming process. Auslogics Disk Defrag is a free piece of software you can use to streamline your defragmenting and can save you several hours. Plus, it lets you schedule automatic defragging. To save time, if you are not using Auslogics Disk Defrag, first download and run CCleaner (see below) to get rid of files that don’t need to be defragmented and will only add time to the process.
Note: if you have a solid-state drive (SSD), you may want to defragment everything except this drive. Defragmentation is negligible for SSDs and often destructive: it can cause excessive wear as it makes added writes. If you are using Auslogics Disk Defrag, you’ll be able to set it to not show your SSD drive in the list of defragmentable drives.
Step 5: Maintain and optimize your computer with native and third-party software
While third-party software can often do a terrific job at making your computer more efficient, it’s not always necessary. For example, you don’t necessarily need Autoruns to manage specific start-up applications — MSConfig can do the same job sans extra software. Remember, for just about every scenario, operating systems will have their own innate features for adjusting system components.
That said, you might look into downloading and running the following programs to help eliminate potential viruses and malware. The programs can also help remove unnecessary files and browser histories, which will then speed up your computer’s start-up time and unburden your system of time and energy-sucking paraphernalia lurking within your machine. Listed below are two solid options for eradicating malware and removing other unwanted software components.
- Antivirus software — Viruses are often to blame when your system loses its mojo. Fortunately, you don’t need to shell out any money to get a quality antivirus software. AVG Antivirus Free 2014 (Windows/ Mac OS X/ Linux/Mobile) offers a fast, comprehensive virus scan with free updates and anti-spyware protection. Once you download the antivirus program, the software provides step-by-step instructions for scanning and cleaning your system. BitDefender, another cloud-based piece of software designed for Windows, performs even deeper scans to identify and eliminate malicious software and red flags.
- Remove redundancies — Registry cleaners are practical because, as you install and uninstall software over time, your registry gets muddled with outdated and corrupted entries that can provoke system errors and crashes. The solution? Use the easy-to-use Auslogics Registry Cleaner to clean out junk and fix errors. The program selects a default list of drives and items on your computer, swiftly scanning and repairing issues before they become more troublesome whenever you’d like. In case it deletes something you later decide you’d rather keep, you can even go to the Rescue Center under File to restore your files from a backup.
Related: The best free antivirus software.
Step 6: Start from scratch
With proper upkeep, it’s likely you’ll never have to do this. Even so, if your computer is dated and none of the aforementioned techniques seem to bring enough speed, the best solution may be to start anew. If you decide to go this route, here’s what you’ll need to do.
Start by backing up all your data. You may opt for an external hard drive, a solid-state drive (SSD), or a cloud service to do this most comfortably. Also, be especially careful to back up your emails if you use a non-Web-based program like Outlook or Thunderbird.
You may also wish to keep the bookmarks or favorites on your browsers, as well as your passwords and even cookies. For Firefox, use Mozilla’s Firefox Sync in the Tools menu to set up an account, or try MozBackup. If you’re a Google Chrome fan, you can use its sync function to save your settings to your Google account. Once you log onto it with Chrome on any computer, you’ll have all your settings with you (including bookmarks, extensions, apps, and themes). If you use more than one browser, try the free software Xmarks to sync the data from all your browsers (it works with Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari).
If you own a big brand computer, it may have come with a recovery CD that will make restoring your operating system super easy. If not, you’ll need to locate a product key unique to your copy of Windows or OS X, which you may find on a label on the computer or in the computer’s packaging. Alternatively, you can use a free product key finder program to locate your key code prior to reinstalling your operating system.
Related: Our favorite product key finders
Step 7: Upgrade
You’ve tried all our tricks and even reinstalled your operating system, but you’re still not satisfied? It seems like your computer’s hit its limits. It may be time to upgrade. Check out our guide to which storage option is best for your computer.
If you run heavy programs like Photoshop, or just tend to run a lot of programs at once and notice that your system slows down when you switch from one to the other, installing more random access memory (RAM) could make your life easier. To find out how much RAM you already have, visit your Control Panel and check under System (on a Mac, click on the Apple icon on the top left corner of the screen and then on About This Mac). Next, you must find out how much more RAM your computer can handle and what kind you can install. Crucial and Kingston Technology are good resources to figure out what kind of RAM will work for you at this point.
Solid-state drives (SSDs)
Switching from a regular hard disk to a solid-state drive (SSD, sometimes called a solid-state disk) can make a huge difference in speed and in reliability because an SSD has memory instead of moving parts, making reading data off it much faster than reading it off a hard disk, which uses quickly rotating discs. When you have an SSD, it doesn’t matter whether your file fragments are located in adjacent spots or scattered loosely all over: they’re just as quick to read. SSDs can even purposefully store pieces of files in different places to even out wear. In addition to making it lighter and less energy-dependent, the lack of moving parts also makes SSDs shockproof and more durable, further extending the life of your machine.
If you’re going for an SSD, you’ll need to find out what kind is compatible with your computer. The Sandisk Extreme Pro is a good Solid State Drive because it offers a competitive price, the longest warranty on the market, and a good reputation among gamers. Once you’ve chosen your new SSD, you’ll be able to add them to your system yourself using an upgrade kit — with no experience necessary.
If you play 3D games on your computer and have noticed sluggishness, you’ll want to consider upgrading your video card as well. Inexpensive machines tend to come with integrated graphics built into the motherboard, instead of a separate graphics processing unit (GPU), which boasts much more impressive graphics capabilities. Even if you have a GPU, you might want a faster one, depending on the game titles you’d like to play. Just like with RAM and SSDs, you must first figure out which card will work with the computer you already have, as not all cards will jive with your motherboard. Do you have an accelerated graphics port (AGP)? Most likely PCI Express (PCIe)? Is it integrated into the motherboard or is it a separate card? Investigate before you buy, especially because some video card upgrades also necessitate an upgrade in your power supply.
Related: Our guide to buying graphics cards.
In most cases, buying more storage space only prolongs the problem. A slow computer will benefit from a storage deep clean (as long as you keep track of all the screws). Always begin by deploying your operating software’s native software. If you feel the need to branch out, there’s always a huge selection of third-party software that we at Digital Trends can help guide you through. We’ve developed guides to the best of third-party software in just about every category. All you need to do is search for them.
Update: This guide was originally published November 30, 2012, and updated on September 16, 2014, by Joe Donovan. Natalia Real contributed to this article.