Slow Computer Issues

Last time we talked about routine operation and maintenance.  Today, we’ll get into some “real meat” with a discussion of slow computer issues.

Often, a Windows computer will seem fine when it’s new, but after a few months, you begin to notice it doesn’t seem to be operating as quickly as before.  What’s happening is your hard drive is filling up, and is getting fragmented.  And perhaps you’re installing programs that take a lot of computing “horsepower.”  What can be done to get back the “zip”?

Well, assuming you’ve already emptied the recycling bin, the next thing is to take advantage of three built-in Windows tools:  disc clean up, check disk, and defrag.  In Windows XP, these are accessed via start/my computer and right-clicking on your boot drive, typically drive C.  Disk Cleanup will be on the “general” tab.  It’s function is pretty clear—it will scan the drive and identify files it feels can be erased.  You can review these selections and check or uncheck them as you wish, and then commit by clicking OK.  This can free up a lot of valuable disc space.  (You may want to review this list carefully.  Delete any tempory files, browsing history, etc.  But if you don’t know what a file does, it may be best to keep it.)

Figure 1: Disc Cleanup screen (click image to enlarge)

Next is Check Disc.  This is on the Tools tab.  Check Disk is a complex and powerful tool whose name perfectly describes it’s function—it will check the disc and operating system for errors, and it will automatically repair any errors it finds, if possible, if you check “Automatically fix file system errors.”  Check Disc is so powerful that in order to run it, the computer must re-boot to a special mode where Check Disc has exclusive access to the system.  It will run immediately after a reboot.  (Checkdisc can also be run from the Windows Recovery Console or from the Command Prompt, but this is for advanced users.) 

Figure 2: Defrag and Check Disc screen (click image to enlarge)

Defragment is next. (Also on the Tools tab)  Hard drives do not record files contiguously on the disc.  To maximize disc utilization, files are recorded in tracks and sectors.  A single file might be “scattered” throughout a disc.  Over time, this “fragments” the drive and slows it down.  Defrag will “re-save” all the files on your computer so they are contiguous, reducing “seek time” and therefore speeding up your computer.   To run Defrag from the Tools menu, click on Deframent Now.  Then select the drive you want to defrag, and click Analyze.  Windows will check the disc and let you know if it needs to be defrag’d.  If so, it will advise you to do it.  Click defrag, and it will go to work, giving you a nice graphic display of progress as it goes.   This can take a couple hours, so be sure to allow extra time.  You can continue to use your computer if you wish while the system works, but I always try to leave my computer alone when defragging the drive.

Whew!  So now your hard drive is in good shape and you’ve freed up some space on it.  What’s next?   Memory.  Adding more memory is typically the biggest performance increase you can make in a computer.  Check your computer’s manual (or check online at one of the memory vendors) for the specific type you need.  Put in as much as you can afford—up to the maximum your computer will support.  (Computer memory keeps dropping in price, so this might not be as painful to do this as it was a few years ago.)  To find out how much memory you have, go to Start/control panel/system and Windows will let you know.  Be aware that—especially with laptops—sometimes you won’t have an empty RAM memory slot in your computer.  You may need to remove a smaller memory chip and replace it with a larger capacity memory chip.  This might be frustrating because the old memory is wasted.  For example, suppose you have only one slot available and you buy a 1 GB chip to replace a 512 MB chip.  Your total memory will be 1 GB and your net gain is only 512 MB.  Sounds logical, but it seems wasteful.  What do you do with the old chip?  Probably nothing.  I keep mine in a desk drawer in case the new memory fails some day.

Next is a tip many people don’t know about.  Virtually no matter how much computer memory you have, it won’t be enough.  Fortunately, Windows has the ability to use the hard drive as “overflow memory”—called Virtual Memory or the Paging File.  While this may be set to the proper value originally, you should check it, especially if you’ve added memory.  To access the Virtual Memory control panel, go to start/control panel/system/advanced/performance settings/advanced/change virtual memory.  Whew! (No wonder you didn’t find this by yourself!) You’re probably fine clicking “system managed size,” but you can also manually set the amount of virtual memory you want.  The recommend amount is 1.5 times your system RAM.  So if you have 1 GB or RAM, set the Virtual Memory for 1.5 GB.

Figure 3: Virtual Memory screens (click image to enlarge)

One other thing might be slowing down your computer—some kind of virus.  Today there are so many types (worms, Trojan Horses, spyware, adware, root kits, back doors, spam, etc., etc., that we even have an “all-inclusive” term for them—malware. The best defense against these pests is anti-virus software.  There are many offerings, both paid and free, but they all operate on similar principles—they run in the background continuously monitoring your system for problems.  And they’re all updated periodically by new virus definition files.  Offerings come from companies such as Vipre, McAfee, AVG, Symantec, and even Microsoft.  Some companies even offer both free and paid products.  Read the reviews and use the one(s) you decide on.  You can use more than one anti-spyware program if you want, but you can only use one anti-virus program.  This is a case where one is great and two is a bad idea, because anti-virus programs are virtually always incompatible with each other.

Well, we covered a lot of ground with this installment.  Next up is Installment #4 : When problems happen.  Stay tuned!

73, Mark WA9IVH

Mark Klocksin is the Net Director of the NSRC.  He recently took some computer courses and later qualified for the A+ computer industry certification.  He is sharing some of his recently-acquired knowledge with his fellow radio amateurs.

© 2011 Klocksin Consulting

Mark Klocksin, WA9IVH