Give my older desktop some new life
July 26, 2012 6:44 AM   Subscribe

What would be the best hardware upgrade in my desktop PC to improve multitasking performance?

I have a a somewhat older PC running Windows 7. Lately, I've noticed slower and slower performance when switching between applications, running multiple tabs in my browser, and generally multitasking. This install of Windows is probably about 2 years old, and I'm running an older hard drive which is running out of space.

Here are my specs:
Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3ghz
Nvidia 9800 GT
120GB WD hard disk

I do a little gaming on this machine, but mostly use it for browsing, listening to music, watching Hulu, etc.

Would I benefit more from a RAM upgrade? A SSD drive? Also, my hard disk is older, and has been getting louder which might be affecting performance?

I have run multiple malware/adware/antivirus apps, as well as CCcleaner. I also dual boot Ubuntu when I know I have no use for Windows - and it is MUCH faster in Linux.

Any tips on how I can best spend my money on upgrading this system?

posted by pilibeen to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
RAM is usually worth it since an extra 2GB stick of RAM isn't very expensive. Also, if your hard drive is making a lot of noise I would back everything up as soon as you can as it could be about to fail - although you should be backing everything up anyway as a matter of course.

An SSD might speed things up (although I am no expert on when they are a useful upgrade or not), but at the moment the best value SSDs are around 128GB so if you wanted to get more space (with a 256GB drive or larger) you'd be paying a bit more and it might not be worth it.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:48 AM on July 26, 2012

I suspect this is software issue and not a hardware issue. Some ideas:

Check your running programs/programs that start up. Only allow things that you use all the time to start up.

Do you regularly defragment your hard drive? (my virus protection does it automatically)

Do you run antivirus software and scan for malware with programs like malwarebytes?
posted by royalsong at 6:53 AM on July 26, 2012

Yeah I run malwarebytes, spybot, CCleaner, and have defragging scheduled. I also try to manage startup apps as best as possible....still slow.
posted by pilibeen at 6:56 AM on July 26, 2012

2GB of RAM = ~$20
256GB SSD = ~$250
250GB HD = ~$70

If you're willing to upgrade to SSD, then you may as well throw in the RAM upgrade. Or you could just try a RAM upgrade to see if it helps, but if you're already worried about the HD, you might want to replace that, too.
posted by Grither at 7:09 AM on July 26, 2012

When's the last time you defragged your HD?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:12 AM on July 26, 2012

2Gb of RAM is too little for Windows 7 IMHO, for $20 another 2Gb is a worthwhile investment.

And as EndsOfInvention said a noisy disk is usually an unhappy one, I'd be looking to back it up and replace it.
posted by hardcode at 7:19 AM on July 26, 2012

I'd start with RAM-- max it if you can. Don't forget that DDR# (that is, DDR1, DDR2, 3 and 4) RAM has multiple speeds in each category (look for a RAM model number that's something like PC34600 or whatever-- each speed within the DDR category has a unique name like that); within your budget, try to get the fastest RAM that your motherboard can take (this means a little research), even, if budget permits, replacing the RAM you have with faster RAM.

Second SSD. The SSD price isn't linear to size; it's like all flash memory; you've got your "budget size," which is most affordable, currently 64GB, your "I take this seriously" size, which is 128GB, and your premium size, 256. In 12-18 months, the 512s will be premium, and the other sizes will shift down a rank. If you can't afford the 256, don't sweat it-- get a 128 and clone your HD to it, boot from that. You'll notice an exceptional, if not breathtaking reduction in boot time; you can keep your 120GB drive for storage once everything's working off the SSD. Move lesser-used programs off the SSD-- fast space is a premium-- and direct any storage needs (email attachments, "My Documents" etc.) to the HDD.

Alternately, reinstall windows and your other applications on the new SSD, and-- after youv'e moved your files, you can mount the HDD as a virtual folder on your c: (SSD).
So, you could have the HDD be c:\harddrive\, and anything installed in there, like your slow applications, will actually be written to the HDD, not SSD.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:22 AM on July 26, 2012

If the pain is specifically on switching between applications, more RAM should be the biggest help. It doesn't sounds like you run anything that is very RAM hungry though apart from the gaming.

The Windows 7 Resource Monitor should give you a clue as to what's going on, like whether you are really running into the RAM limit.
posted by philipy at 7:32 AM on July 26, 2012

PS A better article on the resource monitor
posted by philipy at 7:35 AM on July 26, 2012

Start by putting as much RAM into it as you can afford. Then get an SSD, and if that doesn't help you, get a new computer.
posted by mhoye at 7:41 AM on July 26, 2012

You may want to start from scratch on the OS, and upgrade to a SSD hard drive (or save a little and get a hybrid SS/Platter drive like the Seagate Momentus). Ram will be a good help if you're reaching the 2GB mark often (you can verify this by the commit charge in your task manager), but for most things you've mentioned, you should be comfortably below 2GB (except for games). Still....Ram is cheap, why not bump it to 4GB? (or higher if your MB can support it and you're running 64-bit Windows)

One of the most important things to have right, that is often overlooked, is having the correct chipset drivers for your motherboard installed. These can be obtained directly from the manufacturer. Starting from a clean slate will also clear out any performance hindrances that CCleaner missed (or in rare cases, caused). If you're not interested in a clean install, try a program called DeviceRemover to clear out all hidden/detached devices (be sure to change to HIDDEN/DETACHED under View Mode)

Also use a program called Process Monitor to analyse and detect processes that may be taking up a lot of your cycles (not just CPU, but heavy read/writes can cause slowness due to I/O bottlenecks). Choose your anti-virus well...Microsoft's Security Essentials does the job and is free. NOD32 is also reportedly pretty fast/reliable. Avoid security suites from McAfee and Symantec...these are resource hogs to the extreme (and are often bundled from internet providers).
posted by samsara at 7:48 AM on July 26, 2012

(edit: Commit charge was sooo Windows's just Physical Memory in Windows 7....when you start dipping into virtual memory, the HDD is being used which will slow things down significantly)
posted by samsara at 7:49 AM on July 26, 2012

First off, you don't need a new computer. A 3 Ghz Core 2 is plenty fast enough for what you're doing.

Here's what I would do, in order:
1. If the problem is specifically slow application switching, update your video card drivers. You may be falling back to an old, slow driver. I've also seen slow performance on lower powered cards in the past, especially when used with larger monitors. Your 9800 GT is pretty old, and that does make a difference with Windows 7. Price: Free
2. Upgrade your hard drive to an SSD, and buy a second drive for your files. Upgrading to an SSD is the single best upgrade you can do for a PC. A 120 GB mechanical drive is really old to begin with, and they slow down significantly when they're nearly out of space. New mechanical drives can be had for $50. SSDs are often down to less than $1 per GB. As little as $150 for both. More if you want more space. If you want to spend the money, just buy one big SSD.
3. Upgrade to 4GB of RAM or more. Multi-tab browsing tends to use a lot of memory, as does Flash for things like Hulu. This is very likely an inexpensive upgrade. Price: $30?
posted by cnc at 8:50 AM on July 26, 2012

Clarifying the above - buy an SSD and a mechanical drive, or just a bigger SSD, depending on your budget.

Do the RAM upgrade in any event. It's cheap, and if budget is really an issue, buy the RAM on eBay.
posted by cnc at 8:57 AM on July 26, 2012

More RAM will give you an incremental improvement, for pretty cheap. But honestly, you may not notice the difference at all depending on your usage patterns.

For a little more money an SSD will completely overhaul the machine's performance. It'll be like buying a whole new computer. You don't need a big one; 64GB is enough to install the OS and your core software on it. Pure data (music, movies, etc.) goes on the cheap slow disk. Games can go there too.
posted by CaseyB at 9:14 AM on July 26, 2012

I don't really think that SSDs are there for the price/performance ratio yet, unless you've already worked out all of the other flaws, but that's just me.

I would get a new mechanical hdd, probably in the 1 or 1.5 TB range (90-100$ for a simple one). One, that is the top of the cheap end that still gets good reviews, two, the smaller ones are only slightly cheaper, and three, if you get a new computer any time soon you can bring the hdd with you, whereas a smaller drive is not worth bothering about.

I would also add more RAM, or possibly just replace what you've got now, depending on how your RAM is currently installed (how many sticks at what speed and how many slots do you have total). If this is an older motherboard, like you say, there's a good chance it's running DDR2, which is not quite as dirt cheap as DDR3, but you should still be able to get an upgrade at a reasonable price. If DDR2 then match whatever you have to bring it up to 4GB, unless you don't have enough slots for some reason and then buy two 2GB sticks. If DDR3, I would probably buy a single 4GB stick to replace your current RAM (for the same reason as a large hdd, a 4GB stick will be useful a couple of years from now, and it's super cheap).
posted by anaelith at 9:59 AM on July 26, 2012

Regarding SSD's: The prices keep falling, and quickly. For example, today's special on newegg: 240GB Mushkin Chronos SSD for $179.99 (free shipping).

A RAM upgrade is the easiest and cheapest upgrade to do to this computer. This computer will definitely take 4GB of RAM, and possibly 8GB. Given the current prices of RAM, you really should do this.

The hard drive getting louder is a sign of imminent failure. Replace it immediately before you lose your data. Best bang for the buck in hard drives is between 1 and 2TB. The price per GB for hard drives over 2TB gets to be a little shaky.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:48 AM on July 26, 2012


I had the same CPU and RAM as you. I keep a tidy computer, which means no malware and no extra running processes or services. Still, apparently, Windows 7 likes more than 2 GB of ram. When I upgraded to 6 GB, it was like I had a new computer.

The dang start menu pops right up like it should. Websites don't lag up when the images pour in. Windows security dialogs pop right up instead of after 10 seconds. I can alt tab quickly out of games. Etc, etc.

Get some RAM.
posted by colinshark at 12:03 PM on July 26, 2012

Still, apparently, Windows 7 likes more than 2 GB of ram. When I upgraded to 6 GB, it was like I had a new computer.

You only get this benefit if you're running Win7/64. Win7/32 only uses about 3 GB total. Any more than that is ignored.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:28 PM on July 26, 2012

If your system is significantly slower now than when you first got it, that's almost certainly a software issue. Most likely you've installed software that is slowing your PC down. Remove any toolbars from your browser that you don't need, and any programs that sit in your system tray that you don't use frequently. "Weather forecast" apps and similar things are often huge resource hogs. Some browser toolbars can be auto-installed by other install programs (even the Java installer will try to sneakily install a toolbar), and you might have some you didn't intend to get. You mention that you try to manage startup apps, so maybe you're doing ok in this area. But I have to mention it since it's such a common problem.

The fact that you're running "multiple malware/adware/antivirus apps" is a bit of a concern. Many of these apps produce a significant strain on the system, since they "hook on" to various system processes and check them as they're running. And if you're running more than one, the combined overhead can compound exponentially, since these spyware-checking programs will be checking each other as well as the rest of the system. Maybe try knocking it down to just one anti-malware program you trust and uninstalling the others until you need them?

If you're willing to put up with the short-term disruption of doing a fresh install of your OS and then resintalling your software, that's an option that will almost guarantee you a significant speed boost. At least in the short term.

As far as hardware goes, an SSD will absolutely have the most dramatic effect on your PC's speed. As others have noted, a reasonably-sized SSD can be had for less than $200 these days. You don't need to have it as your only hard drive. Make you SSD your system drive and install Windows on it, and then keep the rest of your data on a traditional hard drive. This is what I do and me 2-3 year old system is blazing fast.

However, if you dont' want to splurge on a Solid-State Drive, you could take advantage of Windows 7's "ReadyBoost" feature to use a USB thumb drive as a cache for the OS. Here's Microsoft's page on how to use ReadyBoost. You could probably pick up an appropriate USB stick for about $20. Here's one on (I'm not recommending that particular model/brand, just an example).

Extra RAM will help. But I'm guessing lack of RAM isn't the root cause of your problem. Still, it's cheap.

If you hard drive is loud, please back up your data and replace your hard drive soon. It is probably on the verge of failure. However, is it possible the noise is from something other than your hard drive? CPU fans and power supply fans can get quite loud later in their lives, especially if they've been dirty.
posted by Vorteks at 2:01 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Vorteks is right: certain antivirus programs are legendary for ruining system performance. If you're using Norton or McAfee, get rid of them right now and switch to Microsoft Security Essentials. It's just as good at protecting you (better, even, because the brain files are updated constantly, for free) and it doesn't hammer your system performance.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:14 PM on July 26, 2012

4 Gb minimum!
posted by oceanjesse at 5:37 PM on July 26, 2012

I'd run only Microsoft Security Essentials and not any of the other malware/virus applications except maybe Malware Antibytes to scan for some crappy browser cookies. I install it out of habit but the only time I've ever gotten a warning was transferring files from an old web site on a Linux host and even then it cleaned any problems instantly. It is much less resource intensive in my experience than other software.

Second, if you're on 64-Bit Windows 7, add more RAM. 2GB is pretty low by today's standard, particular for lots of programs multitasking. Programs are more resource intensive because the resources are often there. I have 16GB and it was less than $200. But the chip you mentioned maybe only 32 bit. There are so many chip variations these days I don't bother to keep up until I need to know.

3rd, an SSD is a massive game changer. I have one 128GB SSD for Windows 7 and one 128 GB SSD for my applications, and then 8TB of conventional hard drive space for data.
posted by juiceCake at 8:23 PM on July 26, 2012

NTFS (among others) doesn't handle being low on free space very well. If your disk has recently become full, then that is likely the root of the problem.

That said, 2GB isn't much RAM these days. Even if it was fine when you first installed Win7, I've noticed that Chrome seems much more RAM hungry than it was a couple of years ago.

I'd suggest getting a new hard drive and installing the 64 bit version of the OS, then I'd upgrade your RAM too. if you have 4 Dimm slots then you probably have two still free. If so, I'd add another 4GB for a total of 6.

Not sure what kind of RAM that machine takes. If it is using DDR2 memory you'll end up paying a 2-3x premium for new memory, but you might find used/recycled RAM. Even retail though another 4GB Probably wouldn't be more than $70.

An SSD would be a nice boost too, but I'm not sure I wouldn start there.
posted by Good Brain at 9:11 PM on July 26, 2012

Thanks for all the great advice....I decided on a few of the suggested upgrades.

I bought another 4gb of RAM - it's DDR2 so it cost me about $50.
I'm waiting for a deal on a 128gb SSD. If I can find something for around $80 I'm going to bite. Until then, I'm backing up important data on an external.
Once I get the new SSD, I'll reinstall Windows 7 64bit.

It seems like I've always had this problem with Windows installs - after a couple of years of installing/uninstalling a bunch of software, it starts to bog down. Not exactly sure what the best approach is there for long-term management - I'd be interested to hear other foks' approaches.

Also, I think I am going to switch from Chrome back to Opera or Firefox for a bit and see how that goes. Chrome is always running a huge number of instances (despite me only running a couple extensions) in my processes list, and hogging memory.

Thanks again for all the advice!
posted by pilibeen at 6:05 AM on July 27, 2012

Sounds like a good plan. I'll reiterate though, if your hard disk is really low on free space, that's likely to be a big part of your problem. If you can move any data off to get to ~20GB free, that should give you a decent margin.
posted by Good Brain at 1:09 PM on July 27, 2012

I know you've already started upgrading but I wanted to throw in my 2 cents.

Significant multitasking is going to chew through RAM which people have talked about, a noisy spinning hard drive is a sign of poor performance and your dual core processor is going to limit application performance. P.S. I have a system that was originally identical specifications.

Since you already upgraded RAM, that's good. I won't go into more about it.

The E8400 benchmarks can be found here. I upgraded the CPU to a Core 2 Extreme 3Ghz X9650 (Quad core) from ebay (benchmark here) which nearly doubled performance without any additional changes in my previously working system. The new CPU was the max my mainboard would support.

Next, since your hard drive is showing signs of problems, I know a lot of people like SSD drives, I have them in all my laptops, but if you're using this PC for gaming and also trying to be budget conscious, you might try a Western Digital Black (performance grade) hard drive and purchase for space instead. In terms of price per gig you'll save a lot and the performance is excellent. I went with dual 1TB drives and mirrored them.

Finally, open up msconfig from the search box of the start menu and shut off any excess startup programs you don't need. Also note that it's good to only run 1 antivirus/anti-spyware program continuously in the background as a lot of them conflict with each other. Then supplement with manual scanners. Running one program that handles both virus and spyware scanning at once will eliminate an additional performance problem if you currently have multiple background scanning going on. Norton Internet Security (Antivirus, Anti-spyware, and network security monitor) has a "silent mode" which is supposedly similar (but not quite the same as) "gaming mode" in other antivirus products and may help improve performance. Silent mode turns on and off automatically and is discussed here.
posted by rwheindl at 10:50 PM on July 28, 2012

Correction: X9650 benchmark link.
posted by rwheindl at 10:53 PM on July 28, 2012

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