How to speed up your PC

I recently visited a friend who complained that his PC was running slowly. (This happens to me quite often when I'm over at a friend's house). It was a Windows 7 machine, and indeed it was crawling. Usually the person has become the victim of some drive-by installation, a result of clicking on some button on a web page. Also, it’s often the case that when you install one program that you do want, you'll be hit with another you don't want. And very often that's a browser toolbar, notorious for slowing down browsing. Another major culprit is fake system speedup software.

But software isn't the only issue affecting PC speed. Thankfully, Windows offers tools that help you easily see how fast or slow your hardware components are. If you right click on Computer and choose Properties, you'll see a Windows Experience rating, along with information on your Windows version and hardware. Hardware experts will pooh-pooh this test's ability to precisely measure system performance, but it can at least show you if there's a particular system component that's holding back your system speed.

Windows Experience rates each component, with the maximum score being 7.9. For example, on my work laptop, I was surprised to note that while my 8GB of RAM and decent CPU got good scores of over 7, my hard drive was a less impressive 5.9. And the rating page makes it easy to find the weakest link in your hardware chain, since the overall score is simply the lowest of your components, and that score is highlighted. That way, it's easy to see which component you should upgrade to get the biggest speed improvement.

Whether or not you need to add or replace hardware to get a faster running computer, check out my suggestions below for some of the best ways to get your PC running swiftly again.

1. Uninstall unwanted software

PCs often come preloaded with software you'll never use. And what's worse, some of these programs run background processes at startup even though you're not using them. To get rid of all this rubbish, open the Control Panel’s Programs and Features page, hunt through the list of installed software, and uninstall those that are obviously not desirable, while being careful to leave stuff your system and hardware needs – elements whose Publisher is listed as the PC maker's name, a peripheral company name, or Microsoft. Unfortunately, Microsoft removed the column showing how often you use programs in this list.

Often the culprit slowing down your PC will be something actually claiming to clean or speed up your PC. The friend I was helping with his slow computer had even paid one of these software makers for a program that only continued to slow down the computer. To delegate the task of finding out which programs you probably don't want or need, you could try a third-party utility called PC Decrapifier. It's free for non-commercial use.

2. Disable startup programs

This one is for slightly braver users. Click on the Start button and type msconfig – the System Configuration dialog will pop up. Switch to its Services tab, and hunt down entries with dubious names from dubious sources. Leave anything from Microsoft, your PC maker, or well-known software sources like Apple or Google. Again, those fake speed-up utilities are good candidates for unchecking in this list.

You could also uncheck any software from reliable sources that you just don't need running all the time. For example, you don't really need to run Adobe Reader at startup – you can just run it when you actually need to view a PDF.

Then, switch to MSconfig's Startup tab and do the same. More familiar application names will likely be listed here, and the Manufacturer column makes the software's source clear. Changing anything in System Configuration will require a reboot to take effect.

3. Run Disk Cleanup

Windows includes a built-in disk de-cluttering tool: Disk Cleanup. This scans your system for unnecessary large files such as program installers, temporary Internet files, log files and more. On my system, the largest amount of data by far was taken up by Temporary File – 2.5GB – and that could mean the difference between a sluggish and a peppy PC. The folks behind the PC TuneUp utilities have posted a good case for disk space affecting performance, even calling it the #1 Performance Killer!

4. Run third-party clean-up software

There are a whole lot of third-party programs out there offering to speed up and clean up your PC. My advice: Stay as far away from those as you can, unless you've read a review of the software in a reliable source such as ITProPortal, Cnet, PC World or similar. If the review is from a source you haven't heard of, it's likely worthless promotion. Some good third-party programs designed to speed up your PC include Ashampoo WinOptimizer 10 (see our review here), SlimCleaner 4 and TuneUp Utilities. One old reliable used by system administrators for years is the free CCleaner utility. This offers several panels for cleaning out unneeded Windows and application files, registry entries, and tools. The registry is where Windows stores program and system settings. If you uninstall programs, the registry can get corrupted and contain unneeded entries, which CCleaner can remove.

5. Run Action Centre's Troubleshooter

Action Centre is represented by a flag icon in your PC's system tray – those small icons at the end of the taskbar. To fire it up, click that icon or just type Action Centre in the Start button's search box. Action Centre looks at error reports for errors you've encountered, and checks for solutions. It can identify out-of-date hardware drivers and software updates that may speed up your PC. From the Action Centre control panel, drop down the Maintenance section, and click the Check for solutions link.

6. Clean out malware

This could be the most common reason for PCs slowing down. You went to a website, clicked a dubious Install button, and it was all downhill from there. Today's malware can be very devious in using techniques to avoid being cleaned out. The best measure to stamp out malware is to run a PC anti-malware utility, like those included with Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, Norton 360, or Bitdefender Antivirus Plus (see our review of Bitdefender Total Security here). In difficult cases, you may need to run a utility that starts at boot-up.

7. Install more RAM

They say that you can never be too rich or too thin, and we might add that you can never have too much RAM. It's particularly important if you run multiple applications at the same time, do any video editing, or PC gaming. A friend's system had 2GB installed, but even 32-bit Windows can use 4GB. Since you can get a 4GB stick of DDR3 memory for as little as £30 these days, it makes a lot of sense to upgrade. For 64-bit versions of Windows, you'll want at least 4GB, while 6GB or 8GB are better options.

The computer I'm working on right now is using 4.14GB of RAM, as shown in the Task Manager's Performance tab (you can access this easily by hitting Ctrl-Shift-Esc). More memory means less time consuming accesses being made to your hard drive, and therefore better performance. The major memory module vendors such as Corsair, Crucial, and Kingston all offer web tools that help you identify the exact type of memory stick your PC requires.

8. Install a bigger, faster hard drive

Just as with RAM, your PC needs storage headroom, with Windows itself and so many applications creating so many temporary files. If you have 85 per cent of your hard drive full, you should probably upgrade. An even faster choice would be an SSD, and you can now get one with 120GB of storage for around the £60 mark. One good strategy is to use the SSD for Windows, and a conventional hard drive(s) for applications and data.

9. Upgrade to Windows 8

If startup time is your concern, I can offer no better advice than to upgrade to Windows 8. Yes, the interface takes some getting used to, but really, the tech press in general have rather overblown criticism of the usability of Microsoft's new desktop OS. In fact, I have come to much prefer using Windows 8 after I set my PC up to dual-boot between Windows 7 and 8 – everything just seems faster, and that's using a mouse and keyboard. Touchscreen users will see additional benefits. Incidentally, if you do take the Windows 8 plunge, you might want to check out our compendium of 50 top tips for Microsoft’s OS.

10. Defragment your hard drive

Your disk stores a file's data in one or more chunks of space on the physical disk, regardless of whether the space is contiguous. Defragging tidies everything up and blocks a program's bits together so that the reader heads don't have to shuttle back and forth to read a whole executable or data file. While this is less of a problem with today's huge hard drives and copious RAM, a slow system can still benefit from defragmenting the hard disk.

Windows 7 comes with a built-in defragger that runs automatically at scheduled intervals. By default, mine was set to run on Wednesdays at 1:00 am, when my PC is usually turned off; so it never got defragged. If you're in a similar boat, you can either change the scheduled defrag, or defrag on demand. Just type "defrag" in the Windows Start Menu search bar, and click on Disk Defragmenter. The version of this utility is improved in Windows 7, and shows more information about what's happening on your disk than Vista did. The Windows 7 engineering team posted a very informative article on the Engineering Windows 7 blog which is old now, but still worth a read.