How to speed up Windows in a few easy steps

Is your PC grinding to a halt? Here's how to make Windows run faster

how to speed up windows

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.

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 10, 8.1, or 7 — we’ve included easy-to-follow steps that show how to speed up Windows regardless of the version.

Method 1: Optimize your storage devices

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
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 as 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.

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 an HDD:

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. 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 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. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 10.

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 this utility to defragment the drive. You’ll want to refer to the drive manufacturer’s documentation to see how to keep it in good shape.
  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, then 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.

Method 2: Free up disk space

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
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 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. 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 8.1

  1. Open Disk Cleanup by clicking on the Start button. Then, click the Search button (click the Start button first in Windows 8.1), type Disk Cleanup in the search bar, and select Free up disk space by deleting unnecessary files.
  2. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 10.

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.

Method 3: Make sure your computer is malware free

how to speed up windows 10 defender security system
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

If you don’t already have one installed, we suggest using one of these great free antivirus apps to rid your system of unwanted malware. If you use Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, then you can also use Microsoft’s built-in virus scanner, Windows Defenderto locate and remove malicious software.

To start Windows Defender in Windows 8.1, click the Start button, search for Windows Defender, and then select it from the resulting list. In Windows 10, search for Windows Defender in the Cortana search box and select “Windows Defender Security Center” from the list, which will give you copious information on the overall health of your Windows 10 PC. In both OSes, Windows Defender should be running automatically and you can run a quick, full, or custom scan at any time to make sure you’re in good shape.

Windows 10 also offers a number of additional options for Windows Defender. To access the features, go to the Action Center, click All Settings, then Update & Security, then Windows Defender, and then “Open Windows Defender Security Center.”  Click on “Virus & thread protection.” Here, you can run a quick scan, turn real-time protection on or off, enable cloud-based protection, allow Windows to send samples of suspicious files to help improve Windows 10’s malware detection, and configure a host of other settings.

how to speed up windows security center defender settings
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Method 4: Get rid of unused programs

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

As a general rule, a clean machine is a fast machine, and so there’s no good reason to keep any programs you don’t use. For optimal performance, delete any trial or limited-edition software, along with anything else you’re never going to use. This is the only way to ensure unneeded applications aren’t running processes in the background that take up processor time. Here’s how to uninstall programs:

Windows 8.1 and 10

  1. Right-click the Start button, then click Control Panel.
  2. Under Programs, click Uninstall a program. If you don’t see this page, change the View by option in the upper-right corner to Category.
  3. Click the program you want to delete, and then click Uninstall.
  4. Follow any instructions, which can vary by application.

Windows 7

  1. Click the Start button, and then click Control Panel.
  2. Under Programs, click Uninstall a program. If you don’t see this page, change the View by option in the upper-right corner to Category.
  3. Click the program you want to delete, and then click Uninstall.
  4. Follow any instructions, which can vary by application.

Method 5: Remove unnecessary Windows components

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Windows has a number of components that aren’t needed for all users, such as Internet Information Services for hosting web sites and Hyper-V in Windows 10 for running virtual machines. Not everyone needs all of these components installed and running, however, and so it’s not a bad idea to take a look at which are installed and uninstall any that you don’t need. This is another area where you’ll want to be careful to avoid turning something off that might be needed. That said, here’s how to turn off unneeded Windows features:

Windows 10 and 8.1

  1. Right-click the Start button, and then click Control Panel.
  2. Under Programs, click Uninstall a program. If you don’t see this page, change the View by option in the upper-right corner to Category.
  3. Select Turn Windows features on and off on the left-hand side of the window. If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
  4. Uncheck any Windows features that you don’t need, and hit OK.
  5. You will likely get a dialog asking you to reboot your PC to finish implementing the changes. To reboot your computer immediately, click Restart now. To reboot later, click Don’t restart.

Windows 7

  1. Click the Start button, and then click Control Panel.
  2. Under Programs, click Uninstall a program. If you don’t see this page, change the View by option in the upper-right corner to Category.
  3. Select Turn Windows features on and off on the left-hand side of the window.  If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
  4. Uncheck any Windows features that you don’t need, and hit OK.
  5. You will likely get a dialog asking you to reboot your PC to finish implementing the changes. To reboot your computer immediately, click Restart now. To reboot later, click Don’t restart.

Method 6: Stop programs from running automatically at startup

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Some applications will start when Windows boots up and run processes that you don’t really need. You don’t have to allow that, however — it’s easy to control which applications automatically start with Windows. Of course, you’ll want to be sure to do some research first to make sure you’re not turning off a component that you might actually need. Once you’re sure you know what you want to turn off, here’s how to get it done:

Windows 10 and 8.1

Using Task Manager, you can improve your PC’s performance by preventing unnecessary apps from running automatically when Windows starts.

  1. Right-click the Start button, and then click Task Manager.
  2. Tap or click the Startup tab. If you don’t see any tabs, tap or click More details.
  3. Tap or click the name of the app you want to disable, and then tap or click Disable.

Windows 7

  1. Click the Start button, type System Configuration in the search box, and then click System Configuration in the resulting list. If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation
  2. Click the Startup tab. The programs set to automatically run at startup are indicated with a check mark. You can clear the check boxes for any nonessential programs to disable them, but make sure you only disable programs you’re familiar with. When in doubt, don’t clear the check box.
  3. Tap or click the name of the app you want to disable, and then tap or click Disable.

Method 7: Adjust your graphics settings

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Windows uses a number of graphical enhancements to show what’s going on with the operating system. Things like animations and flyouts add some flair and visual feedback, but they also suck down processor and GPU cycles and can make tasks seem like they’re taking longer to complete. Turning them off can help speed up a system that’s running very slowly and allow you to get your work done more efficiently. Here’s how:

Windows 10

  1. Place your cursor in the Cortana search box, type Performance, and then select Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows.
  2. Make sure the Visual Effects tab is selected. Here, you can decide if you want to let Windows choose what’s best for your computer, adjust for best appearance, or adjust for best performance. If you’re desperately in need of a speed boost, we recommend checking the latter.
  3. To take control over the visual effects that Windows provides, select Custom. Then, go through the list of options and uncheck any visual effects that you want to turn off. Click OK to apply the changes.

Windows 8.1

  1. Click the Start button, click the Search button, type Performance in the search bar, and select Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows.
  2. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 10.

Windows 7

  1. Click the Start button, type Performance Information and Tools in the search box, and then click Performance Information and Tools in the resulting list.
  2. Click Adjust visual effects. If you’re prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
  3. Make sure the Visual Effects tab is selected. Here, you can decide if you want to let Windows choose what’s best for your computer, adjust for best appearance, or adjust for best performance. If you’re desperately in need of a speed boost, we recommend checking the latter.
  4. To take control over the visual effects that Windows provides, select Custom. Then, go through the list of options and uncheck any visual effects that you want to turn off. Click OK to apply the changes.

Method 8: Make sure your OS and drivers are fully updated

how to speed up windows 10 update status
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Microsoft and peripheral makers regularly provide operating system and driver updates that can improve performance. While updates might be configured to automatically run in the background, it doesn’t hurt to check to make sure that the latest and greatest software is installed. Some peripherals, such as GPUs, might be updated by using manufacturer-provided utilities like Nvidia’s GeForce Experience app. In these cases, you’ll want to refer to those utilities first.

Here are some instructions on how to check to make sure that the OS and driver updates controlled by Windows are applied:

Windows 10

  1. Place your cursor in the Cortana search box, type Performance, and then select Check for updates.
  2. Click the Check for updates button.
  3. Windows will check for updates and then download and install any that are available.
  4. Click the Restart button, if necessary, to restart your PC and install any updates that need a restart to apply. Then, follow any on-screen instructions while the updates are being installed.

Windows 8.1

  1. Click the Start button, click the Search button, type Windows update in the search bar, and select Windows update settings.
  2. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 10.

Windows 7

  1. Click the Start button, type Windows Update in the search box, and then click Windows Update in the resulting list.
  2. Click the Check for updates button.
  3. Once Windows is done checking for updates, a list of important and optional updates will be provided. Click each option and then check each update that you want to install in the resulting window. Afterward, click OK.
  4. Click the Install updates button.
  5. If new updates are identified during this process, repeat the previous two steps.
  6. Restart your machine after all updates have been installed.

Method 9: Make sure power options are set correctly

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Windows has the ability to adjust a variety of system settings to balance performance against things like battery life and how aggressively a PC’s cooling system works to keep heat under control. Thankfully, you can gain some control over your PC’s power settings to make sure that performance is being optimized, and if top performance is your primary objective, you can turn off most power-saving settings in favor of faster operations. Here’s how to adjust your power plan in each version of Windows:

Windows 10

  1. Click the Start button, click the Search button, type power plan in the search bar, and select Choose a power plan.
  2. Depending on your system and whether you’ve adjusted your power plans in the past, you’ll see a list of plans under Preferred plans. You’re looking for the High-Performance plan, and if you don’t see it, then click on Show additional plans.
  3. Select High performance. This will adjust various settings to favor performance over battery life, meaning that if you’re using a notebook, it’s going to run for less time without being plugged in.
  4. To gain more control over power settings, select Change plan settings and click Change advanced power settings. Afterward, make sure High Performance (Active) is selected in the drop-down menu. You will be presented with a number of settings that you can adjust based on your given PC.

Windows 8.1

  1. Click the Start button, click the Search button, type power plan in the search bar, and select Choose a power plan.
  2. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 10.

Windows 7

  1. Click the Start button, type power plan in the search box, and then click Choose a power plan in the resulting list.
  2. The rest of the process is the same as for Windows 8.1 and 10.

Method 10: Upgrade your system

We can’t guarantee that these tips will make your system run quickly enough to run today’s applications and operating systems. Before you go out and buy a brand-new PC, however, consider making a few hardware upgrades. Here are a few relatively easy and low-cost upgrades that can greatly extend a PC’s lifespan:

  1. RAM: If you can upgrade your computer’s RAM, then that can be one of the easiest and least expensive ways to improve performance. This is particularly true if your PC has less than 4GB of RAM. If your system already has 4GB of RAM, then you’ll benefit from an upgrade to 8GB if you keep many applications open at once, run your browser with a huge number of tabs, or work with extremely large images and video files. An upgrade to beyond 8GB will be valuable for anyone working with ultra-large video files, or doing 3D drafting or other demanding work.
  2. Storage: If your PC uses an HDD and you can swap it, then one of the most significant speed boosts you can achieve is switching to an SSD. In terms of both reading and writing data, SSDs are significantly faster than HDDs. Some retail SSD kits come with hardware and software to make it easy to clone your existing operating system configuration from your HDD to the new SSD. This saves you the trouble of having to reinstall your operating system, applications, and files, and you can repurpose the HDD as a storage-only drive.
  3. GPU: The graphics processing unit (GPU) is rarely upgradeable in notebook PCs. However, your desktop PC might be a good candidate for a newer GPU, which will be of interest mainly to gamers. However, if you do image or video editing on your PC, then a new GPU can help performance there as well. Nvidia’s newest entry-level GPUs, the GTX 1050/Ti series, are very power-efficient and can work with systems that house smaller power supplies.

While there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to clean up and reconfigure an older system and make it run sufficiently enough for today’s applications, following the steps above can at least help you make sure you’re squeezing as much life out of your PC as possible. If none of these steps make a difference, then perhaps it’s time to make the switch to a new system. If so, you have a wealth of excellent options to choose from.