Computers slow down for any number of reasons, but most of those boil down to one thing – us using them. As you download programs, install extensions, surf the web, create files and fill your hard drive with movies and music, inevitably you'll build up virtual detritus that will impact your PC’s performance. Happily, much of that impact can be mitigated with better electronic hygiene habits.
We had a chat with Joe Silverman, CEO of repair shop New York Computer Help about the most common reasons your computer is slowing down – and the simple measures you can take to get its groove back.
1. Your browser has too many add-ons
Not all browser extensions are created for good. “People often assume a slow computer is because of a virus, but a lot of time it'll be a browser add-on or plugin bundled with a free software download,” Silverman says. These add-ons may proclaim themselves popup blockers or search protectors, but they're actually browser adware that can slow your computer down by downloading ads and popping up ads every time you open your browser.
Disable or remove browser extensions and toolbars you don't really need:
Firefox: Hit the menu button on the far right, select Add-ons / Extensions, then select disable or remove for each item on the list.
Chrome: Right-click on any extension button / Manage Extensions, then uncheck the box to disable a particular item, or click the trash can to wave it goodbye.
Safari: Hit Safari (top left) / Preferences / Security / Extensions, then select an item to uninstall. You can also turn off all Extensions here.
Internet Explorer: Tools / Manage add-ons / Show All add-ons, then select the offender(s), and click disable or remove.
2. Your hard drive is failing
“Hard drives have moving parts, so they all fail eventually,” Silverman says. “There's no way to guard against it except backing up your files.” As for solid state drives (SSDs), which don't have moving parts and are theoretically less likely to break down, “that's kind of a myth,” Silverman says. While they may not suffer mechanical breakdown, their data can still be corrupted. “When they do fail, it's much more difficult to recover the data,” Silverman says.
Run a hard drive check, says Silverman. He recommends installing a program called HDTune that runs a health check on your hard drive to diagnose it healthy or ailing. Avoid dropping, throwing or otherwise causing impact to the hard drive to extend its lifespan.
3. You're running too many programs at once
Doing a trillion things at once is exactly why we have computers but, at some point, your little bundle of artificial intelligence is going to falter. Your computer's ability to run multiple programs at the same time hinges in part on its RAM (random access memory), which allows it to switch from processing one program to another with seeming fluidity, but if the demands of the open programs are outstripping your computer's memory and processing power, you'll notice a slowdown.
“Lots of folk have to keep in mind not to have too many windows open,” Silverman says. That includes minimized windows, which continue to run in the background, sucking up processing power.
Shut 'em down. For Macs, Windows 10, Windows 7 and eariler versions of Windows, you can close the programs from the file menu. In Windows 8, programs are built so that they run in the background for a while, then automatically shut down. But if you want to manually shut one down and ensure all associated files shut down with it, drag from the top of the screen to the bottom, and hold there until the icon flips over.
4. Too many browser tabs are open
If you're in the dozens of open tabs camp (“All the better to never lose a link”, you claim), your browser is likely hogging far more than its fair share of RAM.
“Having multiple browsers open can slow down the works, just like if you had 20-plus tabs open,” Silverman says. Extra slow points if any tabs are also auto-refreshing (say, a live blog).
What's more, having a glut of browser tabs full of supposedly crucial information doesn't exactly help our efficiency or mindfuless
Bookmark those “necessary” links (for organization's sake, in a Bookmarks folder titled “To Read”) and shut those tabs down. Even better, One-Tab for Chrome and Firefox does the work for you, compiling all your open tabs into a simple list on a single tab, which can then be accessed as needed.
5. Rogue programs are hogging all the processing power
It's not always a heavy-duty video or music app that's eating up your computer's processing power.
Some programs or system processes may be stuck in a loop or have encountered an error.
Check how much processing power programs and processes are using by heading into Task Manager (Windows; Ctrl+Alt+Delete) or Activity Monitor (Mac; in Applications / Utilities). For both, click the “CPU” tab to order the programs by how much processing power they're taking up. If a program that you're not actively using is still up there in the top few programs, you can select to quit the process.
And, when it comes to browsers, Internet Explorer is especially heavy on your computer, Silverman says. “You don't have to run it but don't remove it [if you got it bundled with your Windows PC] – it could cause problems as it's very tied to the operating system,” he says. Instead, he suggests the lighter, more secure Chrome.
6. You have an overzealous antivirus program
Having an active anti-malware program is a vital part of computer hygiene – but yours may be running regular background scans at the worst possible times. “Virus scans slow down the works because they're running in the background,” Silverman says. Some antivirus programs may be set to weekly full scans, which can take a few hours and suck up a lot of processing power.
Head into your antivirus settings and configure it to scan late at night when you aren't using the computer, says Silverman. (However, that feature may not be available on some free antivirus programs – which makes a good case for upgrading.)
7. You have a virus
If it's not the antivirus, it could be the virus. Viruses, spyware and other malware can slow down your computer as they mess around with everything from hijacking your browser to pushing advertising or phishing sites, to crashing your computer.
Run a malware scan. “The best free one we like is Avast,” Silverman says. For more free and paid options, check out our Techlicious top picks for security software programs for Windows PCs and Macs.
8. You have too many startup programs
Newly downloaded programs often try to weasel their way into your Startup menu (Windows) or Login Items (Mac). If you didn't uncheck the box for that permission, you could have dozens of unnecessary programs vying to be ready and running as soon as your computer boots up (as if that's happening any time soon).
“Having too many icons on the desktop can also slow down a Mac's startup,” Silverman says.
While some programs – such as antivirus and firewall software - should be allowed to run from startup, others – such as iTunes or Microsoft Office – could quite easily stay closed until you actually need to access a file from their digital depths.
Mac: Applications / Systems Preferences / User Groups / Login Items, then uncheck unneeded programs. Delete desktop icons you don't use by trashing them or, in the case of files you've saved to desktop for convenience, reorganizing to the appropriate folder.
Windows 8 and 10: Windows key + X / Task Manager / Startup tab, then right-click on the programs you want to remove and select Disable.
Windows 7 and older: Start button, then search for System Configuration. Go to Startup tab, then uncheck each of the programs if you don't want starting when the system boots up.
9. Your hard drive is 90% full
When your hard drive gets to 90-95 percent full, that's when you see things moving at a crawl, Silverman says. “A full hard drive can also prevent a computer from starting up. It's best to optimize your space as much as possible – move stuff to the cloud, or delete the stuff you're not using,” he says.”
Hard drive space is taken up by programs, updates to programs, and downloads, as well as temporary files and associated files of deleted programs, so you may be able to clear a good amount of space just by emptying your trash. Check your hard drive situation by (Mac) clicking the apple and selecting About this Mac, or (Windows) hitting Start / Computer and right clicking the primary hard drive (usually C:), then go to Properties.
Deep clean your computer of unnecessary files from unused programs to defunct downloads and temporary files.
“It's good to remove bloatware – Toshiba, Lenovo and other PC manufacturers put their own software on computers that are supposed to run utilities or cleanup,” Silverman says. And in terms of that ancient computer cleaning ritual defragging, “that really only works on Windows XP computers and older,” says Silverman. System backups and restore points also can take up a huge amount of space, so don’t keep more backup versions than you really need.
10. Your OS is way too slick
It's the age old battle of appearance over performance: Having visual effects enabled – aka eye candy like those snazzy transitions for minimizing windows – can impact the speed of your PC (and to a lesser extent, Mac), if its hardware only just skates within the minimum requirements for your OS of choice.
“If you have a good video card – that's 1GB of RAM on the video card or better – you're OK,” says Silverman. “But less than that, [having visual effects enabled] can slow your computer down.”
Windows 7 and older: Start / Control Panel / Performance Information and Tools / Adjust Visual effects, then click adjust for best performance or manually choose which effects you'd like to keep.
Windows 8 and 10: Windows key + X / System / Advanced System Settings / Performance Settings / then select as above.
Mac: System Preferences / Dock, then for minimizing applications, change that super-swish Genie effect to a utilitarian Scale effect (basically just disappearing). Uncheck “Animate Opening Applications”.
11. Your room is too dusty
Sometimes the problem is not internal but external – is the back of your CPU casing matted over with dust? This can prevent ventilation which cools the processors as they whir away in an attempt to run Photoshop, Spotify, Outlook and Skype. And nobody wants a hot computer – heat increases the likelihood of malfunctions and crashes.
As for laptops, any time you notice your laptop heating up, you should check that its vents, usually on the sides, aren't blocked. For example, don't put your laptop on something soft like a pillow where it can sink in.
Dust off the ol', um, dust. If it's really severe, you can use a vacuum cleaner (carefully) or a canister of compressed air.
12. You don't have enough memory
If you've deep-cleaned your computer and modified your browser tab habit, but your computer is still slow (and you own a PC), you might want to consider a minor upgrade in the form of additional RAM.
Some programs take a lot of your computer's RAM to run – for example, programs that work with huge files such as photo or video editing software. “A lot of people try to run Photoshop or some graphics-heavy program on a entry- or mid-level computer that can't handle it,” Silverman says.
Silverman recommends a minimum of 2GB of RAM, or 4GB if you do graphics-heavy work on your computer. Fortunately, upgrading the RAM on your PC is inexpensive and a task most people can handle themselves. To learn what RAM upgrade options are available for your computer, try Kinston's memory options tool.
13. You need to restart your computer
The reason restarting seems to solve so many tech issues is that programs can get hung for a myriad of reasons. “A lot of stuff gets gummed up in the background. For example, if you turn off Outlook, background processes are still running,” Silverman says. “You could 'end task', but a lot of folks are not that savvy about which one to end.”
Instead of manually digging into Task Manager (Windows) or Activity Monitor (Mac) to divine the root(s) of the sluggishness, restarting flushes out the system, a panacea for those rogue, resource-hogging programs and a clean slate free of files and fragments.
Bite the bullet and shut things down. You even get the added benefit of having critical system updates applied that can only happen during a reboot.
Updated on 6/3/2016 with Windows 10 information
[Worried woman image via Shutterstock]