Geek me up, Scotty.
March 13, 2010 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Talk nerdy to me: Help me learn about computers in order to revive my laptop.

I have a Dell D360 laptop that's about 2 1/2 years old. It doesn't run very well, but I don't know how to make it better or even where to start, because I don't know what is wrong with it.

It runs Windows Vista and has Avast! antivirus. It also has a (refurbished?) hard drive that Dell sent after the first one wiped out after I installed exam taking software at the direction of my school. I've reinstalled Windows once or twice. All I know that's wrong with is that it's kind of a slow piece of crap, but I'd like to get it back to running as well as it can as cheaply as possible -- and by myself if I can.

Can you direct me to websites that easily explain how computers work, what might be wrong, and how to diagnose then fix them? I need to learn this myself because my computer has taken a hit from a string of men in my life who claimed to "know about computers" but made it worse.

I'd be happy with either your personal advice or direction to web or print resources. Thanks!
posted by motsque to Technology (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can you better describe how it is a slow piece of crap?
Is it crap immediately after a fresh Windows install?
Was it ever not crap?

In general, this kind of slowness can be caused by (a) running low on memory, (b) a failing hard drive, (c) Windows cruft.

(a) Is easy to address. Memory is cheap and easy to install. Recommend doing this anyway.
(b) Is more expensive. Maybe others here can recommend some disk diagnostic tools you can run to see if your hard drive is working well.
(c) Is probably not the issue if you've reinstalled Windows and the problem persists.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:37 AM on March 13, 2010

my computer has taken a hit from a string of men in my life who claimed to "know about computers" but made it worse.

You mean they thought they knew everything and didn't need instructions??? ;)

In my experience Dell hardware just degrades over time; I don't think I've had a Dell laptop that worked fast after two years no matter what I did to it. Dell is cheap for a reason.

That being said, maybe you could try the PC Decrapifier as a start and add some memory to follow that up. See what you have for memory sticks inside your laptop before purchasing more, just to make sure you do the best purchase for your purse.
posted by zombieApoc at 8:47 AM on March 13, 2010

2nding adding memory. But, to be honest, Dell computers tend to suffer a string of obnoxious failing parts after 3+ years. I'd advise you to sell the laptop on craigslist for parts/etc and use that money plus a few hundred to buy a nice netbook. It might be worth it just to have a fresh start.
posted by elephantsvanish at 8:51 AM on March 13, 2010

Hmm... for learning about computers in general, I learnt a lot a few years ago by building my own desktop from parts, based on instructions in a book. It might be worth just picking up a "Building A PC For Dummies"-type book that will explain what all the little bits of hardware do and how it all fits together (that is to say, you don't have to actually build one, just read the book). Once you know what's really inside it's easier to figure out what's wrong - it's no longer just this black box sitting on your desk.
posted by Xany at 8:51 AM on March 13, 2010

What applications are you running on it? That'll help in determining the issue.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 9:22 AM on March 13, 2010

Like others have said, check how much memory you have. Vista is a memory hog and I would recommend bumping up to 2 gigs if you don't have that much already.

Also, I do computer repairs for a living and Vista just seems slow a lot of the time, no matter how fast your system is. I would recommend upgrading to Windows 7, which seems to be a whole lot faster most of the time. The upgrade is easy, just follow the prompts on the cd.

I would do some spyware scans first. Spyware can easily slow machines down to a crawl. Malwarebytes is my spyware scanning software of choice.
posted by meta87 at 10:07 AM on March 13, 2010

Honestly.. I think you're going to get much better results if you do some local research (since your profile doesnt say where you live) and have a sit-down-session with a local geek. Think of it like shopping for a mental therapist -- in other words, find/pick someone you feel comfortable with and seems trustworthy. Any geek/nerd with his salt will slow down and explain things to you (teach you) so that you can do it yourself from then on. If the geek/nerd you hire just wants to take the laptop and return it to you later..I would avoid that person.

The city I work for standardizes on DELL (we still have a lot of D620's and D630's)..and I've been doing IT Support for about 20 years now. I'd be happy to write up some detailed instructions (specific to Vista)....either here in this thread or respond if you Mefi-mail me directly.

For brevity sake... here are my "quick tips":

1.) Windows System Restore is a resource hog... while it may be useful in some circumstances,..I find turning it off helps tremendously. Having it turned OFF obviously means you lose the ability to "roll-back" to previous save points... but honestly, if your system is THAT f'ed up... System Restore isn't going to help much anyways.

2.) A build up of Temporary files can slow down Windows.. I generally hunt these down and remove them by hand... but you might be better served with a utility like CCleaner. ZombieAPOC (comment above) recommended PC Decrapafier ..but their webpage seems to imply that it only removes old programs and NOT Temporary files.. for that reason I would recommend CCleaner instead.

3.) After doing the above... give your system a good Defrag.

If the above steps doesnt seem to make much difference.. then you'll need to start digging deeper:

4.) Are you up-to-date on all your Windows patches & Service Packs ?

5.) How much memory does your system have?.. I recommend buying additional memory from ..they have a handy wizard/tool that will show you exactly what memory is compatible with your system. On the D630, there is 1 memory slot on the bottom of the unit (easy to get to).. however the 2nd memory slot is under the keyboard (requires folding the keyboard out..a little harder but not difficult)

6.) Start looking at what programs you have installed..and either uninstall what you don't need.. or upgrade (newer versions might have improved code that will help your system run better)
posted by jmnugent at 10:20 AM on March 13, 2010

I would recommend the easiest and cheapest thing to do which you have done before which is to reinstall windows. Dell's have a built in partition for doing a restore. Boot up while holding cntrl and f11 to save time. has a lot of tutorials and recommendations for free software to troubleshoot your system.
posted by bravowhiskey at 10:25 AM on March 13, 2010

First of all, I think you could probably profit by doing some basic testing and troubleshooting, starting with your hard drive. No reason to try to work with failing hardware, but equally, no reason to toss decent hardware, for software/configuration issues. So, if you can, I'd start by downloading the Dell Diagnostics, and making a CD. Having a CD lets you run tests on the hard drive, without using the drive to read the diagnostics program. While you're on the Dell drivers site, be sure to grab and prepare a CD of the model specific drivers for your machine - a ton of problems in Windows are magically resolved when you're using the proper drivers for a particular version of Windows, and the underlying hardware and chipsets.

Start by running the Dell Diagnostics, and noting any failures/hardware issues reported. If you're running the Diagnostics from CD, you might have to start by going into BIOS, and making the CD drive the first boot device. Keep a pad and pen handy, and write down errors, and test results, if you can't print them out directly.

If your hard drive tests good, and you don't have other failing hardware that would make refurbishing the machine unprofitable, you have a basis for proceeding. If not, getting a good hard drive in the machine is Job #1, if you want to continue working with it. Hard Drives are pretty cheap, and of much bigger capacity than that which you probably have (120GB) - your laptop uses a 2.5 inch, 7200 RPM SATA drive. You can get a Seagate Momentus 320GB 7200 RPM drive from for $70 + shipping - might be worth it, if you're out of Dell warranty, and are willing to invest a few bucks in a larger, fast drive. But the hard drive good/bad test result is definitely a decision point for proceeding with fix or replace.

After either verifying/replacing your hard drive, and if you have no other major hardware test result problems, I'd do a clean install of Windows, making sure that I had the appropriate drivers on CD, and that I installed them during Windows Setup. You'll need either original Windows media, or a working restore partition on your Dell supplied hard disk to do that. Personally, I'd put Windows XP or Windows 7 on a machine of that vintage, if it has at least 2 GB of RAM, but it does support, according to Dell, most flavors of Vista. It's important that you gather all the resources you'll need (Windows install media, Dell driver software, anti-virus application software, serial numbers, etc.), and possibly a second, working machine that can access the Internet for advice, if you run into problems, before starting a re-install. Nothing worse than getting into trouble during a new installation, and being unable to get the drivers, or the advice you need, to get out of the problem, when it is usually pretty easy to do, just by properly answering Windows installer prompts, for the procedure you need to run.

I'm not one to suggest re-installing Windows at the drop of a hat. In fact, I'm writing this on a 7 year old install of Windows XP Pro, that has been moved to new hard drives, twice, and had memory upgrades and a processor swap, on the same machine, as well as having gone through SP1, SP2 and SP3 upgrades, and all subsequent patches. Windows (XP and later) doesn't "degrade" over time, if you don't "willy nilly" install every kind of junk you come across, and keep your defenses up. But if you haven't been vigilant about protecting your machine, the only way to be sure you're clean of root kits and worms, is to start afresh.

Start your install by selecting NTFS as your disk file system, and follow the prompts through Windows Installer. Once you've got a clean Windows install, and before you connect it to the Internet, it would be great if you could load an appropriate anti-virus product on your machine, and enabled the Windows firewall and Security Center features. It would also be great if you could get behind even a basic firewall, like a home network router, or a business security router, when you first connect the machine to the Internet. Studies show that the "lifetime" of an unprotected Windows machine on the public Internet is measured in minutes, and it will take a lot longer than this for Windows to download and apply all the security patches you'll need from Windows Update.

Once you do get connected to the Internet, go first to Windows update, and get all the Critical Updates for your version of Windows. If you've installed Windows from an old version of Windows XP (SP1 or SP2), you'll be offered SP3, and it could take, literally, several hours for the update process to complete, as there are several hundred patches to download and apply (and, you'll have to watch it, as some restarts are needed during the process). Vista or Windows 7 installs should update in less time.

After you've got Windows installed, secured, and updated, you can go into the System Control Panel (on XP), and verify that all your hardware devices are working properly, and that you don't have any yellow ! or ? icons, indicating unidentified, or mis-identified hardware resources. Check to see if all your memory is reported properly, and that your hard drive is reporting it's size and volume(s) correctly. Make sure you have Virtual Memory enabled, and let Windows manage it for you. If everything is looking sweet at that point, I'd finish by running Disk Defragmenter a couple of times, rebooting, and then creating at least an everyday "limited user" account, to use for all your basic day to day use, as well as the Windows Administrator account. You might then install whatever application software you need, from the Administrator account, and go the vendor Web sites for any security patches that need to be applied to bring your application software up to date.

Finally, re-boot, login as your "everyday user" account, and configure your desktop and preferences to suit yourself.

Happy computing.
posted by paulsc at 10:44 AM on March 13, 2010

I think jmnugent had a pretty good answer, but just to reiterate a bit from my experience supporting several people who are not particularly geeky on Windows:

a) Do not just reinstall Windows or do any radical manipulations to system files without trying some of this other stuff first. Reinstalling Windows means (depending on how much personal stuff you have on there) you might have to spend hours or days reloading your personal data files and applications.

b) slow performance is often treated successfully by increasing RAM memory. That's because when RAM (the fast, short-term memory your computer uses for calculations) runs out, it starts using the hard disk as "virtual" RAM, and that is MUCH MUCH slower. So, definitely, check to see how much RAM you have. Since Windows Vista is a total hog, even 2GB might not be enough. You might want 3.

c) also, look into free disk space on the main hard drive. You should have at least 5GB free so that virtual memory system can work when needed.

d) Do a defrag of the main hard drive. This will make commonly used files work faster.

e) In my experience automatic antivirus and online backup services can start screwing up and really slowing the computer down. I don't have experience with Avast antivirus, but nearly all of them are total busybodies of software. (One reason I personally switched to Linux.) You have to have virus protection, but you might want to (offline, of course) completely uninstall Avast, install another brand of antivirus, do a complete scan (which will take hours), and then reconnect. AVG antivirus free edition has worked ok for me before.

f) Next time (and I know this is a ways off probably) consider getting a higher quality hardware and software. In terms of hardware, for some years Consumer Reports was reporting Apple and Lenovo as the most reliable brands in terms of repairs (haven't checked lately). In terms of software, Apple makes a safe and user-friendly and reliable OS, but it is expensive to keep up to date. Even better, Ubuntu Linux 9.10 is free and really great now if you want both better performance and a computer system that is ultimately much easier to learn about and understand. I changed a couple of years ago to linux and haven't looked back since.

Good luck!
posted by martin2000 at 2:27 PM on March 13, 2010

I had a laptop similar to yours. Vista ran like crap on it. Getting memory up to 2Gb helped, but it still ran like crap regardless of the applications and background processes. It's just the nature of the beast that it runs like crap on middling hardware. I ended up putting XP on that machine and now it flies.
posted by DarkForest at 3:24 PM on March 13, 2010

Vista requires a lot of memory, if you don't have that it will be slow. A D630 should be more than capable unless you somehow bought the worst processor available.

Also, computer hardware doesn't wear out and get slower over time. The basics of the computer are standard across brands. OLD COMPUTERS AREN'T ANY SLOWER THAN THEY WERE ON THE DAY THEY WERE MANUFACTURED.

If the computer seems slower now, then you have a software problem.
posted by gjc at 4:44 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your suggestions! I have a better idea of where to start now. First, I will clarify:

-- I did not buy the computer myself; it was included in my scholarship from school. I know from experience not to spend my hard earned money on a Dell! Rumor has it that some of the computers the school ordered did not meet the specifications of what the school ordered, and I know I'm not the only one whose computer was fried from the exam software.

-- I never turn it off, because 90% of the time it either freezes when I turn it back on or, more often, it tells me that there was a windows error and I have to select regular or safe mode. This happens even though I turn the computer off properly, and even after a fresh Windows reinstall. This started after I got the refurbished hard drive installed.

Again, thank you all. I'm going to start following some of these instructions by uninstalling most of my extra software, running Dell Diagnostics, and defragging.
posted by motsque at 8:55 AM on March 14, 2010

The most foolproof thing is to double the RAM, reformat and install XP or Ubuntu. Guaranteed to be faster.
posted by turkeyphant at 3:17 PM on March 14, 2010

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