My computer takes entirely too long to start up. I am sick of it.
September 6, 2012 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Why does my computer take such a ridiculously long time to boot up, and what can I do about it?

I'm sitting at my desk right now, 10 am, having turned on my laptop at 8:30. No lie, an hour and a half later, the hard drive is still chugging along, apps slow to load, Firefox timing out. Click on the "new tab" button and two minutes later, a new tab appears. I clicked on Control Panel just now to get the specific details about the machine, and get a solid minute of the "flashlight looking at folders" animation.

The specific details of the machine: Dell Latitude D830, Intel Core 2 Duo 2.00ghz, 2 gb of RAM. Windows XP Professional. 75GB hard drive, 9 GB free.

The only apps I use are the basic office stuff: Outlook, Word, Firefox, Chrome (I run the instant messenger app on it). Photoshop Elements, but only rarely.

I've run CCleaner and emptied as much out of Outlook as I possibly can and done all the obvious stuff. My IT guy's typical response is, "umm ... clear your cache and get your music off of there?" So I'm looking to you smart folks for help. What could the culprit be, how do I go about finding out what it is, and how can I fix? A complete Windows re-install is not out of the question but highly undesirable.
posted by jbickers to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
When's the last time you defragmented the disk?
posted by griphus at 7:05 AM on September 6, 2012

This is how I would troubleshoot the issue on my own computer:

Boot into safe mode and see if the behavior is the same.

How many sticks of memory? If multiple, try removing one at a time and rebooting in between.

When you boot up go into BIOS, check the temp your CPU is running at.

You say the hard drive is 'chugging', can you hear it? It could be that the hard drive is dying. Back up all files. Check connections between hard disk and motherboard.

Make an Ultimate Boot CD and run some more diagnostics.

If nothing obvious is popping up, reinstall windows. If still slow, replace hard drive. If still issues, from the specs of the computer I would probably opt for replacement as opposed to getting a new motherboard/etc.
posted by effigy at 7:09 AM on September 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

How full is your harddrive?
posted by Grither at 7:13 AM on September 6, 2012

D'oh, I can't read, apparently. 9GB should be fine, as in not small enough to cause these issues.

If it was me, I'd probably nuke it from orbit and reinstall Windows to see if that helped. And if it didn't, I'd probably be thinking about buying a new one, depending on how old it is...
posted by Grither at 7:14 AM on September 6, 2012

Well, a hard drive needs 10% free space for page filing and other behind-the-scenes stuff. You only have 12% free, so that could be a big part of your problem, especially if the hard drive is being used for virtual memory.

Use an application like WinDirStat to see chunks of stuff you can delete to get more space.

And then run msconfig.exe, click on the start up tab, and uncheck everything that isn't completely unessential.

Even though you only do "basic" things on your laptop, I kind of doubt these suggestions will work all that much. It may simply be time for an upgrade, or at the very least re-install Windows and start over.
posted by TinWhistle at 7:15 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

More an FYI, once it boots up, back it up if it isn't already. My computer started to do this, and then the HD crashed. YMMV.
posted by smirkette at 7:22 AM on September 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I just replaced almost the exact same machine (Dell Latitude D820, 2GHz Intel Core Duo, half the RAM, same OS, larger hard drive). Lots more installed programs, too. It was getting quite sluggish, enough to make using it much more of a hassle than a tablet, but not quite as bad as what you describe.

I'd Ctrl+Alt+Del and check out the Processes tab (sorted by the memory usage column) to see which routines are using the most RAM and CPU horsepower. Also consider pruning any Firefox/Chrome add-ons you don't need, since some extensions can cause memory leaks that really sap the strength of otherwise snappy browsers.

Seconding TinWhistle's suggestion of WinDirStat (to identify disc space hogs) and msconfig (to eliminate unneeded start-up programs).
posted by Rhaomi at 7:22 AM on September 6, 2012

90 minute bootup time is atypical. My guess is that you're dealing with failing hardware (disk drive most likely), not software. I'd immediately do a backup of everything valuable. Once you have everything nice and safe, get your install media and do a fresh install of windows.

>A complete Windows re-install is not out of the question but highly undesirable.

You might get lucky with a defrag and/or virus scan.

> My IT guy's typical response is, "umm ... clear your cache and get your music off of there?"

Sounds like he's just trying to get out of doing the work. 90 minute boot up time should be him sitting down and fixing this thing, not asking you to delete stuff. You can fill the disk and still have the same bootup time. 90 minutes is a sign of a serious problem. Put your foot down with him.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:27 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Defrag, but back it up first, because it's probably the hard disk and you'll be wanting to replace that soonish.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:34 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd start by looking in the task manager to see what processes are running and using up the CPU. I'd also use autoruns to find out what is being run at startup. I would also try to free up a little more disk space if possible. I would look in the device manager to see if some part of the hardware wasn't happy. Another thing to check is your antivirus software, be sure there isn't some kind of conflict between more than 1 antivirus program. Also, is this a corporate machine? Do they have some software they are requiring you to run?
posted by DarkForest at 7:36 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good info above, just wanted to chime in that windirstat can take a good long while to run, so do what you need to and can before running that.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:42 AM on September 6, 2012

Oh, another question, actually - when did this start? Was it gradual or did it start taking ninety minutes to start up all at once?
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:44 AM on September 6, 2012

Don't defrag until you know the disk hardware is OK.

The usual cause I see on customer computers for a slowdown as dramatic as that is bad disk blocks; typically the system event log will report lots of disk errors. Those reports are quite useless for identifying the actual drive concerned (the device name is truncated, meaningless and misleading) but most computers have only the one so that doesn't matter.

My usual procedure for fixing this issue involves booting the Trinity Rescue Kit and use smartctl to verify that the drive has sectors pending reallocation. If as is the usual case there are less than a handful of these, I then use GNU ddrescue to make a backup image of the drive onto a large external drive. That imaging process creates a log file listing all the unreadable disk blocks. I then ddrescue the zero device /dev/zero back onto the original drive using the same log file, the effect of which is to overwrite only the unreadable blocks; this forces the drive to reallocate them, effectively hiding all those bad spots.

If smartctl shows a lot of failed blocks I treat the original drive as being about to fail, source a replacement drive the same size, ddrescue straight onto that instead of to an image file on my big backup drive, then swap the imaged drive into the computer.

The net result of both of these procedures is the same: a computer with a working drive but with some filesystem damage. Before booting back into Windows I'll run ntfsfix against the Windows partition to trigger a Windows filesystem check on next boot.

If these look like tools you'd be comfortable using, post back and I'll give you detailed instructions.

After letting Windows run its chkdsk it usually comes good. If there are missing or corrupted system files, sfc /scannow will usually put them back.

The last step is to re-enable DMA for the affected disk device. When Windows encounters disk errors, one of its attempted recovery strategies is to drop the affected IDE channel back to a slower kind of DMA, and repeated errors will eventually reduce it to avoiding DMA altogether and using programmed I/O. It never restores DMA operation on its own, as far as I can tell. Programmed I/O is incredibly slow by comparison with DMA, and it also hogs the processor enough to make Windows very unresponsive.

I actually see this DMA degradation issue reasonably often, and I suspect that it's probably responsible for about half of the problems that make it common wisdom that Windows installations rot over time and benefit from a regular nuke and pave.

Easiest way I know of to fix it is to use the Device Manager to delete the IDE channels (not the disk controller proper, just its subsidiary IDE channels) and reboot. Windows will re-detect the hardware and reinstall the same drivers it was using before, and these newly installed drivers will be configured afresh with maximum DMA speed.
posted by flabdablet at 7:53 AM on September 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

Forgot to mention the "bush doctor" test for a drive with bad blocks: stick your ear on the laptop casing and listen carefully. If a hard disk has bad blocks it will generally perform a lot of resets and reseeks in an attempt to read them, and you'll hear this as a "heartbeat" of clicks at about one per second.

It's the fact that the hard drive is busy tying itself up for a second at a time for disk reads that should only take a few milliseconds that makes Windows so grindingly slow; Windows, like most operating systems, expects disk access to be reasonably quick and doesn't cope well when it isn't.
posted by flabdablet at 7:59 AM on September 6, 2012

Nthing the Backup-Reformat-Restore (or Backup-Replace Drive-Restore) route. The only reason boot should take 90 minutes is if it takes the drive an exponentially longer time to read the same amount of data, i.e. bad sectors or a hardware failure.

Seriously. Even if this isn't the reason, backup your data ASAP.

Relatedly, if it still takes a long time after all this happens, check out a program called Soluto, which will analyze your startup stuff for what takes the most time and give you several options of handling it.
posted by softlord at 8:12 AM on September 6, 2012

Also forgot to mention that speaking as a school IT technician/netadmin, your IT guy sounds like an arsehole. And you can tell him I said so.
posted by flabdablet at 8:12 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a good time to try out a Linux desktop. The Ubuntu or Mint distribution should play well with your current hardware.

You can create LiveCDs to get used to the OS before you actually install it. Installing Ubuntu side by side with XP has gotten easier over time, from what I understand. Installing it on a machine that runs Vista was a snap.

I have never had a Windows desktop NOT slow down horribly on me over time. Right now, I have a dual boot on my sadly underpowered desktop with Ubuntu 12.04 and Vista. Guess which one I almost never use, except when I have to VPN into work (and I'm trying to figure out how to do that from Ubuntu right now).

I find that with each Ubuntu update, the desktop slows down (I also have more running), but the slowdown does not begin to approach the horror that is Vista. I've pretty much resolved not to give another nickel to Ballmer & co. ever again.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:15 AM on September 6, 2012

A vote for this sounding like an asshole/lazy/incompetent/underfunded IT guy and a failing hard disk.
posted by Good Brain at 9:19 AM on September 6, 2012

Do you save things to your desktop? I've known people who save everything to their desktop, rather than to a folder in My Documents. This can cause your computer to run extremely slowly.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:16 PM on September 6, 2012

In my experience with customer computers, desktop and recycle-bin related slowdowns don't become noticeable until either or both of those contains thousands of files (including those nested in folders) and even then the slowdown is restricted to items managed by Windows Explorer such as the desktop, taskbar and bin; application launch speed isn't really affected.

Saving things to the desktop can make logon and logoff very slow if the computer is part of an Active Directory domain and roaming profiles are in use, as it takes a while for Windows to check the synchronization of all those files between the local workstation's desktop folder and its counterpart on the profiles share. Application programs that insist on keeping stuff in the roaming branch of the profile that they ought to put in the local branch (Java, I'm looking at you!) make this much worse.

But even with the world's laziest netadmin, the world's slowest LAN, the world's most congested roaming profile, the world's most broken Windows Update and a corporate version of Norton Antivirus installed, no healthy Windows PC takes an hour and a half to get going.
posted by flabdablet at 12:25 AM on September 7, 2012

You could give CCleaner a try. It clears out all kinds of cruft from your windows registry, among other things. It's worked wonders for me on occasion.
posted by specialnobodie at 12:05 PM on September 7, 2012

Don't use any "cleanup" or "optimization" tool until you've tested for and ruled out faulty disk hardware. Just don't.
posted by flabdablet at 5:15 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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