I don't know about processors, but I know what I want?
August 9, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I will need a new laptop soon, and the one thing I can't stand is lagging programs. So I know what to look for, explain processors to me like I'm a small child. I know enough to know that I don't know what I'm doing. For example, I know that the ability to not jitter, lag, and occasionally freeze isn't down to one factor, but is (I think?) a combination of RAM, processor speed, and some other things. Cores, maybe? Info on my current problems and what I need inside...

I currently have Toshiba Satellite Pro, running 64-bit Windows 7, with an Intel i3 processor at 2.13 GHz and 4 GB of RAM, 3.73 of which is usable.

I need to be able to run Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Word and Excel 2007, and some browser (I use Chrome), sometimes several instances at a time, without freezing and stuttering. With my current setup, there is freezing and stuttering, as well as problems with accessing my files (sometimes I can't open Acrobat by double clicking, sometimes when I try to open files from Explorer it "can't find them", and Explorer crashes, a lot).

So, should my current system be more than capable (suggesting there is something wrong on my end rather than with my laptop's inherent capabilities) or do I need to upgrade to more speed/RAM/something?
posted by sarahkeebs to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A computer will lag or stutter whenever the display (since this is the part of computer that you actually interact with) is waiting on data from some other part of the computer. There's a whole chain of inter-related parts here, which varies depending on exactly the task that you're doing, but it roughly looks like this:

hard drive -> ram -> processor -> graphics chip -> display.

If any one of those first four items is overloaded, then you're going to get delays of one type or another. Different tasks are more demanding of different parts. Games tend to stress the graphics chip the most. Video transcoding is almost entirely about CPU. If files are opening slowly, the most likely culprit is the hard drive. If you're trying to do a lot of things at once, you'll want more RAM.

If you want an all-around fast computer, you want a solid-state disk, a lot of ram, and a reasonably fast graphics chip and CPU.

A core i3 with 4gb of ram is not that old or slow, and none of the things you list are that graphics-intensive. I'd first think about getting that solid-state disk, which will be a big difference, and then an extra 4gb of ram, which will be noticeable. A faster processor or graphics chip can't hurt, but will probably make a less noticeable difference.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:45 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing you'll definitely want to look for is a Solid State Harddrive (SSD).

Getting data off of spinning disks is slow, and can be a terrible bottleneck. The problems that you describe with file access also seem to point to harddrive issues with your current setup.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:51 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've resuscitated several older systems by simply adding an SSD. Right now, that's a huge bang for your buck in terms of quick-loading programs and snappy response, for the suite of programs you're considering.

Your current system looks a lot like ones I've done this to. Doing an SSD transplant is somewhat involved, but entirely possible if you're used to computer maintenance: clone your old hard disk onto a new SSD, pull the old hard disk, install the new solid state one, reboot, fingers crossed.

However, if that description makes your palms itchy, I'd recommend that you get a store to do it. There are a number of things which you need to be careful of when doing this, and the consequences could be bad.

You have a decent amount of Ram for what you want to do. Your processor is getting elderly, but should still be usable. With an SSD upgrade, you should get at least a few more years use out of the laptop. Toshiba's are generally pretty reliable machines.
posted by bonehead at 10:11 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a system where the processor, ram, disk, graphics, OS have all been tuned == ChromeBook. Oh, you also need Word and Excel; Microsoft makes the MS-Office suite for OS/X.

Failing that, there are probably tons of little processes running that decide to wake up and inopportune times. To check this, open your task manager and see how many processes are running. If it's like my system, there may be over 100 processes running (177 as I check right now. The second tab, not applications, but processes.)

You can disable/re-enable some of these with SysInternals' Autoruns (a Microsoft utility).
posted by at at 10:42 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any laptop you buy these days is going to have either an Intel i3, i5, or i7 processor with 2 to 4 cores. More cores means more heat and more power used, and i7 is, processing power-wise, overkill for the vast majority of laptop owners.

I agree that CPU's not your bottleneck here. If you're running windows 7, load up the Resource Manager. It runs 4 graphs that show which items are working hard and which ones are taking it easy at any given time, and when you start to experience your fits and starts, that's when to switch over to it and see what seems maxed out and what's steady.

I think your file access is just Windows experiencing some dementia after running for too long, and that a reinstall would make go away-- that may not be worth the effort at this stage, but I don't think it's a problem with your hardware.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:10 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Get a Mac laptop with an SSD, not a hard drive. Also more cores & more hardware threads are good, so get an i7 CPU not an i5 if possible.
posted by w0mbat at 11:12 AM on August 9, 2013

Nthing the suggestion to switch the HD for a solid-state drive. The rest of the listed specs are decent enough, which means the biggest bottleneck is most likely file I/O. You might also want to try running something like CCleaner to get rid of some of the cruft Windows can accumulate, but this isn't as effective as it used to be. (That's because Windows is getting better about cruft accumulation, so it's not entirely a bad thing.)

That said, with Intel's release of their 4th-generation CPUs, there are good deals on laptops using the older 3rd-gen hardware. The most noticeable difference, as far as laptops are concerned, is battery life, which is significantly better on the newer hardware.
posted by chaosys at 11:43 AM on August 9, 2013

One factor is processor temperature and power-saving modes. The way many processors work is that they have several speeds at which they can run. The higher the speed, the more heat they generate. When the heat gets too high, the system is usually configured to automatically power the processors down to a slower speed so they create less heat. This can sometimes cause a noticeable slowdown if the heat is from you running them in high speed and giving them a lot of work in the first place.

The good news is that you can track this with a suitable monitoring program. I don't know whta's a good one for Windows, but others here should be able to tell you. You want a program that will display the temperatures of your processor cores, their workloads and the speed at which they run. You should use it for a while to get a sense at what temperature your computer typically runs at. Then you can find out if these are normal temperatures or if your computer is prone to overheat easily. (I could maybe say that getting above 70 Celsius is a problem, and more so if the temp rises quickly above it. It depends on how much work you make it do.)

Various reasons that may cause a computer to heat up too quickly are blocked vents (for example, when using it on soft and uneven surfaces) or dust inside the cooling system. You can also use a cooling pad for laptops when doing heavy work and it should keep your computer a bit cooler.

It is also an obvious sign that something is going wrong if the displayed speed keeps dropping after a while. This would most likely be because they are automatically being switched down due to heat. Note that this is something you can measure with the kind of program I mentioned above. You don't have to guess.
posted by tykky at 12:00 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am opinionated and mostly fall in line with what everyone has told you so far. I would say 3 things:

1. With computers you generally get what you pay for..
2. Except if it's a mac, which are over-hyped and over-priced.
3. Get a laptop with an SSD.

My girlfriend upgraded less than a year ago to a Toshiba model like this (if not the same one it's just an updated one)


If you had a mac fetish it would ameliorate it somewhat. They are super light and thin, solidly built and have a long battery life, and (without referring to Apple's site) probably half the price of equivalent specs to whatever Apple is offering these days. I'm pretty sure it's Toshiba's main 'answer' to macbooks just by using it and looking at it. I haven't been abreast of end-user systems for years now but traditionally Toshiba had good quality (if you weren't buying bottom of barrel) and good warranties.
posted by BurnMage at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2013

If any kind of recent laptop is freezing, stuttering, and having problems with doing routine day to day tasks, there IS a problem.

Problems often include faulty hardware, faulty programs, and things installed that shouldn't be. This means things like the 'Ask toolbar' and various items of malware. Or a windows install that's been corrupted (be it by a powercut or a failing hard drive.)

On the other hand, a perfectly functional but old/low spec laptop may not do everything instantly. But things won't crash, or totally freeze up.

Plan of attack A: reinstall windows on your laptop. Do so without using any 'recovery' partitions that came with it - use a standard windows install CD.

Note that your laptop is far newer and more capable than one I've been using that does not crash, or freeze. Should you choose the 'new laptop' route, go for one with an SSD and an i5.
posted by Ashlyth at 10:05 PM on August 9, 2013

Sunburnt has it. The problems you're experiencing are a combination of Windows dementia and running low on RAM.

When you're running a bunch of programs, they're all using some RAM. The operating system will happily assign all of these programs more RAM than you actually have; when this happens, the OS starts to juggle. It's called swapping: Data stored in RAM by programs that haven't been used in a while gets "swapped" to the hard drive in order to use the RAM for something else. When you try to use the program again, it first needs to wait for its stuff to be read back into RAM. Hard drives are orders of magnitude slower than RAM, so this takes a long time, and any part of the program that needs that data is going to freeze up while it waits.

Swapping happens all the time, and usually we don't notice it. But when you're running a critical mass of programs, your OS is doing so much swapping that it's pushing the limits of the hard drive; this is called "thrashing", and it's the point when annoying becomes unusable.

So an SSD would help you a little bit (faster swapping), but really the answer is to get enough RAM that thrashing never happens.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:30 AM on August 10, 2013

Once you go Mac you never go back. You do get what you pay for. And what you won't need to pay it is antivirus software as constant updates to same. My 6-year old Mac runs very well to this date. My 2-year old Air with SSD drive is quiet and stays cool.
posted by terrapin at 4:45 AM on August 11, 2013

For the record, "i3" could mean any of 4 different generations of Intel's products.

That aside, the single biggest / best upgrade you could do is get yourself a SSD instead of your hard disk. You don't have to worry about compatibility issues, since they are the same size as your laptop hard disks.

That said, you could try to go beyond 4GB of RAM. I would say for Windows today with all its updates and what not, 4GB is entry level.

You might even see battery life improvements with a SSD / increased RAM.

You can't really upgrade the processor itself with laptops.

(By the way, qxntpqbbbqxl mentioned that "Swapping happens all the time". This is only true if you don't have sufficient RAM. Once you have around 8GB or more of RAM, you shouldn't have to swap unless you are multi tasking between a couple of games and a couple hundred Office instances)

If you are not ending up the MAC route, an i3 is fine for you. i7 is an overkill, i5 is an excellent choice for gamers.

But again, your CPU itself is fine. Upgrade your hard disk and RAM, you should immediately see some differences.

Also, it is Windows after all, so some kind of a registry cleaner would be worth looking into as well.
posted by harisund at 6:58 PM on August 11, 2013

The answers here have been solid, but just to respond to BurnMage, and counter that standard FUD, the nearest equivalent to the Toshiba would be the base 13" MacBook Air, which is only $300 more than the baseline Toshiba listed, and not only has an i5 instead of an i3, but it's a Haswell, vs Ivy Bridge in the Toshiba, so it will give you much improved battery life (especially with the battery use improvements coming up in the next OS X)

If you're looking for something on Windows to watch your processor state, I suggest CPU-Z. It doesn't do graphing, but if you watch it over time it will tell you both your CPU speed and temperature (along with other stuff you don't care about), and it's free.
posted by jammer at 5:42 AM on August 12, 2013

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