How can I speed up my ever-slowing PC?
December 22, 2006 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Windows PC keeps getting slower and slower--what to do?

I have a Windows XP computer with a 1.9 GHz processor, 512 megs of RAM, fully checked for spyware, viruses, and the like, that as time goes on is getting slower, and slower, and slower. It should be fully capable of handling all the programs I'm throwing at it (no resource intensive videogames), yet at times it barely seems capable of handling the OS. I know it shouldn't be behaving this way, because in the past it performed normally. What can I do to get it back up to speed? (Again, it's fully checked for spyware, malware, viruses, etc..) Thanks!
posted by markcholden to Computers & Internet (37 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Look at the task manager when it's running slow to see if there is any particular offender (eg certain firefox bugs can make it go pyscho, consuming all available resources indefinitely).

Question: How old is it? (eg Have you been using it for 3 years or 3 months?)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:26 PM on December 22, 2006

how old is it?

a tech at microsoft once told me that windows works best if it's reinstalled once a year, and I've been doing it ever since. works wonders for me, esp. if problems start coming up and such.
posted by ampersand2001 at 1:26 PM on December 22, 2006

@harlequin: There is no particular offender there, either; it runs slowly even when nothing is open. And I've cleaned the program startup list down to the bare-bones.

I've had the computer for about three years, actually. You think I should reinstall XP? Anything else I can do short of that?
posted by markcholden at 1:31 PM on December 22, 2006

It's fairly likely that this may just be the XP half-life that ampersand2001 mentioned. I end up doing a reinstall biannually just for this reason.
posted by ktrey at 1:35 PM on December 22, 2006

Are you sure that the computer is actually slower, or is it that your standards have changed, and you're no longer willing to put up with the speeds that you once thought were acceptable?

"too slow" is a very subjective judgment, and that can easily change by imperceptible steps, so that the exact same performance, which was once considered "fast", eventually seems "terrible".

It may be time for an upgrade.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:35 PM on December 22, 2006

Have you defragged it?
posted by matty at 1:37 PM on December 22, 2006

No, I'm quite sure it's not just subjective. As I said, it performed better in the past. It's things like the start menu taking 15 seconds to open when previously it took <2.
posted by markcholden at 1:38 PM on December 22, 2006

15 seconds to open the start menu? egads!

reinstall xp and you'll be golden. I know it sounds like a big pain, but you'll settle back in within a few days and it'll seem like home again.
posted by ampersand2001 at 1:40 PM on December 22, 2006

fully checked for spyware, viruses etc by WHAT?
posted by unSane at 1:45 PM on December 22, 2006

Here's a handy lifehacker link on speeding up your computer by turning off useless (for most) services...
posted by matty at 1:45 PM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

If windows has been on there for 3 years, I'm willing to bet you have a fair bit of registry bloat. It's amazing how much shit gets abandoned in the registry... and over time, that definitely affects performance.
posted by antifuse at 1:52 PM on December 22, 2006

I swear by the "system restore" option in the 'performance and maintenance' section of the control panel.

If I were l337, I would create some sort of software that did everything listed in this askme post all at once, as pretty much every PC I've ever had, and every PC anyone I've ever known has had, slows down like this over time, eventually rendering itself useless.

** shakes fist impotently **
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:58 PM on December 22, 2006

I'll bet you it's your virus or spyware checker. I've had this occur with the Trend security product and with the Microsoft anti-spyware product. Both were running in the background and taking more and more CPU time til the computer was running at a crawl.

First diagnostic step - start up in Safe Mode (press F8 while your booting up). If your machine is nice and zippy then, it's basically QED - some process is hogging the CPU. If that's so, use Process Explorer from SysInternals (now part of Microsoft). I find it's better than Task Manager, and it's free. Just look at the percent time each process is taking, and I'll bet that it's a background anti-virus or spyware process. Discontinue it, and find a better program.
posted by jasper411 at 1:58 PM on December 22, 2006 [2 favorites]

Do keep in mind that 512MB really isnt much memory for running XP. If you do reinstall and it's still slow, maybe consider an upgrade. Desktop RAM is very cheap nowadays.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:58 PM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you haven't run Spybot, AdAware, and Registry Healer (and let it compact the registry), then you should.

Regheal is $15 but it's the best 15 I've ever spent on software, I think. Ok, maybe it was $20. :-)
posted by baylink at 2:08 PM on December 22, 2006

Back up your data and format. Yes, that's an all too easy answer from a tech who doesn't want to get into the gritty details. However, there is a reason a format is referred to so often.

You get a clean slate, everything starts fresh. Reinstalling Windows is the first part. Then you reinstall the programs you want and use. Programs you never use anymore are completely removed, without any traces left that registry cleaners try so hard to find. Obscure settings mistakenly switched by yourself or a program are reset to default. Malware is completely gone in ways Ad-Aware could only dream of.

Yes, it's time-consuming and irritating. At the same time, it reminds you to make a proper backup of all important data, and it serves as a spring cleaning for your hard drive.

Before you do all that, open up your case and get to work with an air duster. Dust is bad for electronics in many ways, particularly in trapping heat.
posted by Saydur at 2:08 PM on December 22, 2006

When you all say reinstall, do you mean wipe the hard drive and install from scratch, or just put the disks in and refresh somehow without offloading and backing up all the important files and settings elsewhere?

I wonder, because when I upgraded to XP (and changed file systems, even), the system told me I had to back up, but then it ended up saving all my files, everything except the OE mailbox of all things, which of course I had faithfully backed up along with many CDs of other stuff. Just giving context here, but it's really a question of clarification of what you mean by reinstall.
posted by Listener at 2:09 PM on December 22, 2006

And I'l disagree with DrJimmy. Unless you run Photoshop a lot, or have a really unconscionable number of boot-time things loaded (or *just* Norton Systemworks :-), 512MB is pretty palatable for XP; 256MB though, is Right Out, as I was reminded last week.
posted by baylink at 2:15 PM on December 22, 2006

There are at least three things you can look at in Task Manager that can provide generally useful information in an immediate context. At least one column isn't the default setting, so go into Task Manager, select View, select Columns, and have the following checked: CPU Usage, CPU Time, and Memory Usage.

Here's a very basic drill. Open Task manager up and sort entries on CPU Time. When you run something which takes a lot longer than you think it should, look at Task Manager and see what consistently bubbles up to the top of CPU time. If System Idle isn't at the top most of the time, you're ready to assign preliminary slowdown blame to what's stealing top spot. And if you can't figure out what is chewing up your CPU just from the Image Name column, you can download the oft recommended Process Explorer to provide finer detail.

If CPU Time doesn't tell the tale, then run your computer for a while to give the speed gremlins time for subtle sabotage. Open Task Manager and sort by CPU time. Most programs don't use a lot of CPU time versus what's constantly available. If you see something that has consumed more than 1% or 2% of total uptime, be suspicious of it. The process could be a legitimate glutton, but it might be a disposable thief, stealing critical cycles and generally bogging down your system.

Third, sort by the Mem Usage column. See if you have any memory hogs in your system, 50M+ monsters that you don't need or want. Things that eat a lot of memory are always to be viewed with suspicion and leave everything else starved for memory resources, affecting performance. If you need or want the high-memory application, install extra memory as previously suggested.

As a next resolution step beyond Task Manager inspection, you might check that your hard drive isn't seriously fragmented, close to death and returning a lot of errors, suffers due to a suboptimal option setting in BIOS or Windows, et cetera. Too many possibilities to tack on here, and many web tutorials and posters on AskMe already cover that subtopic better than I could.

I don't want to challenge a popular opinion in XP-land in the confines of an AskMe question, but frankly, I don't think regular reinstalls of an operating system are necessary as a part of general maintenance on a modern system, as long as you're willing to take a bit of effort to keep things running properly and, perhaps, sleuth a bit when things don't. Reinstalls can be easier to do for some people for some environments, but typically necessary or recommended? I don't think so. If you don't want to do a reinstall, you probably don't need to. Probably.

For installed memory, 512M is ample to run XP if you aren't doing things which hammer the CPU or disk, nasty things being stuff like real-time communication (e.g. Skype), video processing, high-end games, or other goodies which involve advanced codecs or CPU cycle binge-eaters. Basic XP tasks can run fairly well even down to 256M -- though 512M is a decent minimum because it's a baseline for miscellaneous neat stuff out there. More memory is (almost) always better, but not critical if you're not operating beyond simple basics. Still, memory is cheap, so it couldn't hurt: I have 1.5G on one of my XP machines and it makes several piggy applications significantly happier than the original 512M.
posted by mdevore at 3:04 PM on December 22, 2006

As long as you're reinstalling your OS, markcholden, may I suggest an experiment? Install Ubuntu Linux and use it for a few days. You just may like it enough to give up on the reinstall cycle altogether.

Download Ubuntu.
posted by cmiller at 3:14 PM on December 22, 2006

And, of course, I messed up my description of the Task Manager columns. 'CPU' is the transient time to monitor when running applications. 'CPU Time' is overall CPU time spent servicing the application during uptime of the machine. You probably figured that out, but for others confused by my gross lack of proper proof-reading, this should hopefully clear things up.
posted by mdevore at 3:16 PM on December 22, 2006

One thing to check which has happened to some local computers and which really kills speed is the hard disk access method switching from DMA to PIO. Basically, under system -> Device Manager -> IDE Devices (or something like that), check the properties of the primary (and secondary) IDE channels. Under "advanced settings" make sure everything's DMA and not PIO. If it is, there's your problem. Switch it to PIO, save, then switch it to DMA again and see if it sticks. Worst case, uninstall that driver and let windows redetect it and reinstall it.
posted by alexei at 3:18 PM on December 22, 2006

Regarding RAM, I have a winxp installation running with no trouble on a P4 2 ghz with 256 mb of ram. Just don't ask it to do excessive stuff, and it'll be fine.
posted by alexei at 3:20 PM on December 22, 2006

Before you go reinstalling everything (which, sadly, is indeed proper Windows maintenance) I'd definitely make sure to go at the inside of the case with some canned air. My system gets extremely slow sometimes and more often than not it's due to dust clogging up my CPU's heat sink.
posted by squidlarkin at 3:36 PM on December 22, 2006

Sorry to piggyback, but will re-installing from an image refresh XP or would it have to be installed from scratch?
posted by puckupdate at 5:28 PM on December 22, 2006

Depends on how it's broken.

A repair install will fix some things, but not everything.
posted by baylink at 5:34 PM on December 22, 2006

Uninstalling Symantec (aka Norton) AntiVirus and going with freeware AVG Free sped up both of my XP laptops. Symantec is a huge process hog.
posted by wheat at 6:09 PM on December 22, 2006

I'm surprised that no one seems to have asked this yet, but how much free space do you have left on the hard disk? Not enough free space can slow down Windows considerably.

Also, you might find this previous thread helpful. It's for a Windows notebook, but the principles are the same:
Why is my computer suddenly grumpy, slow, and generally uncooperative?
posted by macguffin at 6:12 PM on December 22, 2006

Definitely check the easy part first, which has been suggested earlier: clear dust from the heat sink and CPU cooling fan. If you can, you might even want to clean off any dried up thermal grease and apply new thermal grease to it and reseat the heatsink and fan.

I've seen more than one computer slowed down to a grinding halt based on overheating due to a failing cooling fan as well as way too much dust on the motherboard and heat sink.

The space issue mentioned by mcguffin also a good place to start.

And sadly, yes, Norton's is notorious for slowing things down to a grinding halt. If it's on there, just suck it up and delete that piece of crap.
posted by smallerdemon at 7:59 PM on December 22, 2006

*heh* So, yeah, make sure it doesn't look like this.

posted by smallerdemon at 9:55 PM on December 22, 2006

For the record, not all installs get slow over time. I'm running XP Pro SP2 on an 800MHz Athlon with 768MB of RAM. I don't have too much trouble. Certainly nothing like what you've experienced with your Start menu.

It really sounds to me like you need more RAM. Long pauses of core parts like your Start menu generally mean part of your OS has been cached from memory to the swap file and have to be recalled. 1GB should be a good fit, unless you are editing movies, running Photoshop, running a large database, or running your machine as a server.
posted by kc0dxh at 10:02 AM on December 23, 2006

It's entirely possible that whatever is slowing down your system is flying under task manager's radar (not all the information task manager reports is especially meaningful or accurate). You'll want to install both Process Explorer and Autoruns from sysinternals.

Fire up process explorer, right click the columns around where it says "CPU" and click 'Select Columns'. You'll want to add the CSwitch Delta and IO Delta reads and writes. If you sort by the CSwitch Delta column, you'll see what is causing the most context switches (which is a good sign it's the busiest process on the system, regardless of what the CPU column is actually reporting)... and you should have the culprit (or at least a better idea of what is going on).

Other than that, you'll want to run Autoruns and uncheck stuff that fires up on startup that you don't use; a huge amount of apps shove things into startup that really don't need to be there.
posted by AaronRaphael at 11:58 AM on December 23, 2006

Stop it with the reformat/reinstall business, it doesn't need to be done.

TuneUp Utilities (they just released 2007)
Diskeeper (defrag)

Thats all you need. Run the 1 step cleanup (remove temp files, clean up registry, etc.) then go thru the startup manager and remove anything that you dont need. Might as well defrag the registry with tuneup, then after a restart, do a full defrag with diskeeper.
posted by mphuie at 12:11 PM on December 23, 2006

I'm with mdevore on the idea that "nuke and pave" is a pretty drastic "maintenance strategy" for Windows XP installs. I have a 4 year old Win XP Pro install, that's been moved to new disks a couple of times, and to a new motherboard/processor family, along with all my applications, settings, and multiple user accounts, and runs Norton, and various Adobe products, and on which I have search indexing and all standard Windows services running, and it's fine. Taking sensible and proactive precautions to keep your system free of viruses, spyware and cruft, is really all that is needed.

But "fixing" a broken Windows install can be frustrating for most users. Consequently, I believe, the popularity of "nuke and pave." But if you're going that far, why not set up to make sure your new installation remains usuable, indefinitely? Start by preparing to install a clean SP2 system, by creating slipstreamed SP2 installation media in advance. Obtain a hardware firewall/router, and set it up for regular use with your machine as its normal Internet gateway. Download and flash the router to the latest manufacturer firmware, and be sure the packet inspecting firewall is on, and set for normal security settings. Disable upnp, and external management options. Unless you're running servers, or need VPN tunneling to work, disable port forwarding. Enable the firewall to serve DHCP, but set some sensible number of addresses for it to give out, like 4 to 5 for a home network. Make sure the router is getting at least 2 DNS addresses from your ISP when it is connecting, or find and enter at least a primary and secondary DNS manually. Obtain or create a CD based installation copy of the anti-virus product of your choice, along with a copy of its current virus definitions. Obtain a CD based installation copy of a good disk cloning program. Obtain all current drivers for your motherboard, video card, and all other system hardware, and burn them to CD. Obtain appropriate backup media to create a disk copy of your system. With these preparations ready, you are finally ready to begin the new install.

What you're aiming to do, is to complete a Windows XP SP2 install, complete with a current anti-virus product, before connecting the machine to your router firewall protected LAN. The reason for this is that the "lifetime" of an unpatched, unprotected Windows XP system connected to the Internet is about 4 minutes, so unless you get the basics set up and running before connecting it to the Internet, you can't be sure of the initial state of your system. So, disconnect the Ethernet cable, or your router, before beginning. Do the conventional XP install, but defer registration until later. Install any needed drivers from CD, reboot as needed, and continue to defer MS registration. Install the anti-virus product, and its virus definition updates, and defer its product registration, too. Then, go into Windows for the first time, set up your Admin account, an Admin equivalent maintenance account, and a Power User account for yourself, for everyday use. Go into Security Center, and make sure the Windows firewall is turned on (yes, even though you're running behind a hardware firewall -- the Windows firewall can provide some logging of connection attempts that is useful, and it costs almost nothing in terms of machine performance). Finally, install the disk cloning utility, and make an image of your new installed system.

With the basic system up and running, connect the machine to your LAN, and do the initial Windows XP security update. This will take a while, maybe a couple of hours, even on a fast network connection. Re-boot as needed to apply all patches. Apply any new anti-virus product updates. Do an initial disk defragmentation, and set up your personality under your everyday Power User account. Now would be a good time to create a System Restore point, and a second disk image, as your base system.

Install your applications, as your Admin equvalent, making them available to your Power User account. If you're going to have many users on the system, whether real or alternate accounts for yourself, and this machine will not be part of a Windows Active Directory Domain, you might want to download and install the Shared Computer Toolkit, which has a number of nice features that augment the standard Windows XP account features, including allowing you to set up a "roll back" partition for use with "public" accounts, that automatically backs out all session downloads and modifications made to the OS at the next reboot. This is great if you have kids, or friends who occasionally use your machine, and might screw it up.

Be sensible about what you download and install as applications, keep your disk images updated regularly, and don't run always as an Adminstrator, and you'll likely never need to re-install completely again.
posted by paulsc at 12:14 PM on December 23, 2006

A third recommendation for canned air. I once spent an entire day working through the task manager to fix a slow computer, only to discover my fan was broken. Is your machine hot?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:31 PM on December 23, 2006

hijack: paulsc? Do you think that it's possible to do the slipstream bit on a Compaq Evo Laptop Quick Restore disc?

We sell a fair number of used N610c laptops that we get from a leasing company, and it's up to 4 reboots and 65 updates *after* the SP2 update installs...

Got any pointers on how to *build* slipstreams?
posted by baylink at 1:23 PM on December 26, 2006

baylink: a way faster and easier method? Your laptops are identical. Suffer through the install process once. Get things to a decently usable state. Run sysprep (which makes the OEM "you turned your computer on for the first time" setup run on the next boot) and take an image of the hard drive with ghost. Indispensable. You can put the image, along with ghost on a second partition or Bootable DVD for user rescue.
posted by blasdelf at 3:07 AM on December 27, 2006

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