Why Is My Computer Slow?
(and how to fix it)

by Basil Irwin



Windows computing systems tend to get slower and slower as time goes along. Why is that? Based on my own experience, I've compiled the following list of major performance issues, roughly in the order of frequency:

  1. Accumulation of garbageware and poorly tuned software is the leading cause of poor performance.  Garbageware includes a constellation of programs, services, and tasks that run in the background, pointlessly and uselessly consuming memory and CPU resources. Right out of the gate, consumer-class systems come massively overloaded with garbageware, which hardware vendors are paid to install by garbageware vendors. Sony even has the audacity to offer systems without garbageware for an extra $50.00! Interestingly enough, business-class systems do not come loaded with garbageware, meaning PC vendors are quite happy to willingly cripple brand new consumer systems.

    Also, as time goes along, garbageware is concurrently installed almost every time you install other software, such as a printer driver CD, a broadband installation CD (unneeded), mouse/keyboard driver CDs (almost never needed) or free software such as itunes, Adobe Reader, Java, and many others.

    While XP certainly has way too many useless services running in the background, Vista and Windows 7 have even more  built-in garbageware services and tasks that continuously and uselessly grind your hard drive in the background. I'm sure you've noticed the hard drive light flickering almost continuously with Vista/W7, even when you're not doing anything. In fact, Vista and Windows 7  will come to be known as the great hard drive destroyers because hard drives, particularly laptop drives, more or less fail proportionately to the amount of use they get.

    The solution to garbageware is to remove or disable unnecessary software, services, and tasks.. Unfortunately, this usually takes an expert to do, as it is often difficult to determine which software is needed and which software is superfluous. Additionally, some software should be removed, whereas it's best to simply disable other software rather than to completely uninstall it, as auto updaters often detect missing components and silently reinstall and activate them.

  2. Insufficient RAM, particularly in conjunction with Item 1, will really wreck system performance. Most vendors skimp on RAM on consumer-class systems, even though this is a relatively inexpensive component, and by far the most cost effective means  for improving performance. Just out of the box, a system may perform barely acceptably, but one or two unknowing garbageware installations later, system performance can tank. Even with garbageware removed, adding RAM is a big win for RAM-starved systems.. Windows XP performs best with at least 1 GB RAM, and Windows Vista and Windows 7 need a minimum of 2 GB RAM. On new systems that use PC5300 memory, the cost of a 2 GB RAM kit is $60.00 for good name-brand memory!

  3. Bloated  all-in-one security systems like Norton and McAfee products consume tremendous amounts of memory and CPU resources. Even worse, they are ineffective against modern malware, and worst of all, they are annoying and frequently cause awful system behavior problems, like silently blocking access to some or all of the Internet. There are free, lightweight, non-annoying alternatives that are more effective than Norton and McAfee products.

  4. A failing hard drive can kill system performance. Hard drives degrade over time, causing the drive to silently retry  failing sectors repeatedly, as well as using up the limited number of spare sectors available for reassigning to bad sectors. Unfortunately, Windows makes this failure process completely opaque to the user, and by the time the first (obscure) drive failure messages begin showing up in the system events log, the hard drive is on the verge of crashing. Aside from slowed performance, the first symptom of a failing hard drive is often the crash itself or a hard drive activity light that stays  solid for extended periods of time.  Even more unfortunately, it doesn't have to be this way since hard drives maintain onboard health statistics that Windows ignores. However, third-party tools can be used to read these statistics and determine whether a hard drive should be replaced.

  5. Malware infections usually create obvious havoc with both performance and usability. However, sometimes malware infections have no other symptom except awful system performance. With the proper techniques and  tools, malware can be successfully removed about 95% of the time by a knowledgable person, though sometimes malware leaves behind residual system damage that must be manually repaired.

  6. Once a hard drive is 85% to 90% full, performance will really tank as the system struggles to find contiguous areas big enough to write new data files on. The hunt for unused areas also works the hard drive much harder than normal and can eventually cause the drive to fail prematurely. The solution is to replace the old hard drive with a new drive that has larger capacity, first cloning the old drive onto the new drive.

  7. A compressed hard drive or compressed system files will severely degrade performance, as every time a file is read or written, the system must decompress and then recompress the file, respectively. Compression occurs when the hard drive compression box is checked on purpose or accidentally, or more frequently and insiduously, people naviely select the "Compress old files"  option when performing a Disk Cleanup. Uncompressing a compressed hard drive is easy (assuming it's not too filled up), but takes a very long time and requires defragmentation afterwards, which takes another very long time. Decompressing a system after  checking "Compress old files" is more challenging but can be done by a knowledgeable person.

  8. Performance can sometimes be improved if the hard drive desperately needs to be defragmented. Defragging the hard drive once or twice a year is usually sufficient for most users. However, sometimes heavy, continuous system usage requires defragmenting more often. Defragmentation should always be performed after hard drive decompression. 

Please don't hesitate to call or email me for a free consultation regarding system performance improvements (or any other PC issue for that matter). I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at just how fast and annoyance-free I can make your system.

My fee is $40.00/hr for home users and $45.00/hr for businesses. Most tuneups/cleanups take about 3 hours, though if you have a system that is heavily infected with malicious software or other very difficult issues, it may take additional time to clean the system. I have 12 years experience with PCs and 40 years total computer experience, including bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science. 

Alternatively, be extremely wary of the big box stores "PC repair" departments. Since they have minimal knowledge, they are unable to remove most modern viruses, and thus claim that the system must have the OS freshly reinstalled, though this is completely untrue. They'll often charge an outrageous price for a retail copy of the OS for reinstallation, even though free OEM install disks are available from companies like Dell. They'll also wipe out your data by not copying it before wiping the hard drive, and they won't tell you that before hand. And finally, they won't reinstall the factory drivers after reinstalling the OS, leaving you with a crippled computer. And, believe me, this is a best-case scenario. The worst case I heard was a client who had a big box store permanently lose her laptop! They talked her into accepting a used computer in lieu of the one they lost.

Also, note that there are a lot of wannabe PC "geeks" posting right now on Craigslist who are advertising inexpensive rates; people who think that they know how to repair PCs because they use one and have tinkered a bit. Look for someone who at least has enough professional commitment to have their own web site and their own business email address, as opposed to someone using a free email address and has no web site. Look for someone with long-standing business clients and business references.

Cheap rates and/or corporate big box store, but remember that you usually get what you pay for! I'm the guy who people bring their computers to after someone else has messed them up, so why not skip that step and bring them to me first! You'll save money in the long run and save a lot of headaches as well. My work is guaranteed and I provide remote access to your computer after I work on it should any questions or issues arise afterwards. 

                                            Basil Irwin