2010-06-26

Is your computer slow? Fix your own computer.

I have fixed about six computers in the last two weeks, and just like 95% of the other computer help I give people these days, it came down to this one problem:

"Why is my computer so slow?"
"My computer seems to have a virus, how do I fix it?"

One thing I have noticed is that most people just live with slow computers because they don't know where to turn for help, or they don't know that things could be better.  I figured it was time to write this blog post -- slow computers are fixable, and in fact you can fix it yourself.  The following steps should fix 95% of your computer slowness issues, and your computer will probably feel 2x-5x faster when you are done.  Please spread the word, you don't need to suffer in silence anymore :-)

(Note that this blog post applies to the Windows operating system, but you should be aware that there are other alternatives that don't get slower the longer you use them, including Mac OS, Linux and soon Google Chrome OS.)


HOW TO FIX YOUR OWN SLOW WINDOWS COMPUTER, AND ELIMINATE VIRUSES:


Step 1: Fix DNS settings (if necessary)

Some viruses redirect Web traffic to malicious sites, so you can't actually download or update antivirus software, etc. to fix your computer. If antivirus sites are inaccessible, and/or you get suspicious popups or fake sites when trying to visit well-known domains, follow the advice here and/or here.


Step 2: Disable unnecessary startup processes

Explanation: One of the biggest reasons your computer is slow is probably that when you switch your computer on, it loads all sorts of programs into RAM (memory) that are not needed.  (A lot of these programs put icons down in the System Tray at the bottom left of the screen, but not all of them do.)  When you run out of RAM, your computer uses the hard drive as extra storage (it "swaps out to disk"), and the hard drive is on the order of 1000 times slower than RAM.  So the first thing you should do is stop all the unnecessary programs from starting when you boot, and you'll be less likely to run out of RAM.

How to do it: Download, install and run a startup manager.You will then be presented with a list of programs that are run when your computer starts up.  In most cases, you won't break anything really badly if you uncheck all of them -- but try to understand what they each are before you uncheck.  If you don't know, you can always uncheck it and come back and re-check it again if you notice something doesn't work right.  A few cases to get you started:
  • If you disable anything that says "Synaptics" or "SynTPE" then your touchpad might not have the full functionality, e.g. this program detects movement on the right hand side of the touchpad and causes the current window to scroll without you having to drag the scrollbar.  You probably want to leave this checked.  Also anything that talks about hotkeys handles the Fn+F4 key combinations etc., leave that checked if you need those functions.
  • If you sync an iPod with your computer, you probably want to leave the iPod stuff checked.
  • If you see something about HP printing and you have an HP printer, you can uncheck this and you will still be able to print, but you might not get notified on your computer when your ink is running low (not a big deal).
  • If you uncheck something to do with your digital camera, then your photo editing software might not pop up when you plug in your camera, but you will get the standard Windows photo import window instead, and you can still start your photo editing software manually, so again it's not a big deal if you uncheck it.
  • The programs you really want to kill is anything that says "QuickStart" or similar -- Acrobat reader, OpenOffice and other programs have quickstart options.  They may be bringing your computer to its knees by filling up your memory.
  • There are usually programs that start up that put advanced control panels for your graphics card and/or sound into the system tray.  However you can usually disable these too and your sound and graphics will continue to work fine.
  • In general, if you don't know what it is or why you need it, you probably won't miss it -- uncheck it!  Some people would think this is extreme and generally bad advice -- but honestly, your computer won't be in worse shape than it was before when it was unusably slow :-)  And again, you are not likely to break anything serious, but if something doesn't work properly after this step (e.g. your webcam doesn't work right), you can just try switching some of these programs back on again (by re-running CodeStuff Starter) and rebooting until you figure out what needed to be switched on.

Now reboot your computer and hopefully your computer will feel faster already.

Step 3: Get all Microsoft updates

Explanation: Microsoft pushes out critical and non-critical updates that fix bugs on your computer, speed your computer up, and make your computer less vulnerable to viruses and spyware.  (Viruses and spyware are another big reason why computers can slow down.)  In particular you need all Service Pack downloads, and you should update Internet Explorer to version 8, as this fixes some critical parts of Windows -- but you should get all the critical and recommended updates if you don't have them already.

How to do it: Open Internet Explorer and go to http://update.microsoft.com/ .  You may be asked if you want to update from Windows Update to Microsoft Update.  If you have the option, definitely install Microsoft Update, it is better than the older Windows Update because it keeps not just Windows but also Office up to date.  Next follow directions to check for the latest software updates, and download and install all critical and recommended updates.  You can also manually select a few optional updates here but you don't need them.  You probably have to reboot after installing updates.  Once you have rebooted, go back to http://update.microsoft.com/ and make sure there aren't new recommended updates listed that were there before.  If there are new updates, then rinse and repeat.  (Sometimes you can't install all updates at one time, some of them have to be performed in separate steps.)

Step 4: Replace your antivirus software with Microsoft Security Essentials

Explanation: Antivirus software has to wedge itself into all sorts of critical parts of your operating system to stop viruses in their tracks.  As a result it can sometimes cause more problems than it prevents.  Also you have to pay $60-100 per year for antivirus updates, otherwise your computer is still at risk from being infected by the newest viruses.  Microsoft recently realized they need to start cleaning up the messes they created by selling an operating system full of security holes, and they released a product called Microsoft Security Essentials, which seems to be one of the few products they have gotten really right -- it's solid, fast, and best of all free forever: they will keep sending you updates for free and you never need to pay the Symantec / Norton / McAfee yearly tax again.

How to do it:
  1. Go to Start -> Settings -> Control Panel, and find the Control Panel program that lets you uninstall programs.  You might have to click on "Classic View" on the left hand side of the Control Panel to find it easily.  It might be called "Add/remove programs" or "Programs" or something else, they keep changing the name of it in different Windows versions, and I can never remember what it's called on each Windows version (I'm a Linux user) -- but when you find it it will have a list of all the programs you have installed.  Uninstall anything that has "Symantec", "Norton", "McAfee", "ClamAV", "Kapersky" or similar in the name.  Also uninstall anything that contains keywords like "Antivirus", "Spyware", "Spybot", "Internet security" etc. in the name.  It's important to uninstall these before installing Microsoft Security Essentials, and don't worry, you'll only have it uninstalled briefly.  You'll probably need to reboot after installing one or each of these.
  2. After rebooting, go to http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials/ and download and install Microsoft Security Essentials.  It's pretty easy to install, and when it is done it will ask if you want to download the latest virus definitions and run a scan -- choose Yes.
Step 5: Install the Google Chrome Web browser and never use Internet Explorer to browse the Web again

Explanation: Something most people don't know is that 95% of virus infections today come from using Internet Explorer.  You should only ever use it for Microsoft Update and for nothing else.  Something a lot of people also don't know is that they have a choice when it comes to web browsers.  Internet Explorer is a terrible program, Firefox is better, safer and faster, and Google Chrome is like Fort Knox as far as security and it's faster than greased lightning.  Using Google Chrome will therefore protect you online and it will make your computer feel even faster.

How to do it: Go to http://google.com/chrome and download and install Google Chrome, and then go find any Internet Explorer icons on your desktop or in your Quick Launch tray (bottom left, by Start) and delete them so you don't accidentally use IE again.  Use Chrome for all your browsing, I promise your computer will feel much, much faster.

THAT'S IT!  Enjoy your new turbo-charged computer.

8 comments:

  1. What do you think of registry cleaning software such as Winferno? Every time I start my computer (once a week or so) it tells me I have somewhere between 30 and 50 "critical" errors in my registry. Is this true, or have I been snookered?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The registry is just a huge database that is used by programs that are installed to store their settings etc. The registry may be a source of some slowness on your computer, as it tends to accumulate cruft over time ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruft ), and supposedly that can slow down accesses to the registry, but when your computer used to be fast and now feels really, really slow, most of the time it's because you're out of RAM and your computer is swapping out to disk -- and cleaning up your registry won't fix that. So yes, if you're paying for registry cleaning software, you're probably being snookered.

    I have never really used registry cleaning software personally, mostly because I don't really believe in it. You will get at best marginal returns from cleaning up your registry. The claimed "critical" errors in your registry are almost certainly not critical, at worst (if you care about the details) they could be references to DLLs (Dynamically Linked Libraries) that have been updated or removed since they were registered, so the system can't find them anymore -- but only those programs that use those DLLs will break, and it's dubious that a registry cleaner could actually fix the problem anyway. Other registry problems could be the existence of registry keys that indicate there is spyware running on your computer -- but MS Security Essentials will find and fix those anyway.

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  3. Luke-thanks! This really worked...my computer is young and spry again. Well written, good communication. In the past I have thrown computers away because of this (maybe that was their intent...)

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  4. I always hear people saying to update drivers, but I don't see anything about that here. Does that have no impact on speed?

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  5. Good question. In general updating your drivers won't help with speed at all. Newer *video* drivers may make 3D stuff (games etc.) run faster, but if you're suffering from a slow computer, generally the biggest problem is that you're running out of RAM so Windows is having to swap stuff out to the hard drive (swapping means using the hard drive as memory, and the hard drive runs 1000x slower than RAM, so everything suddenly runs much slower when you don't have enough RAM to fit everything at once). The other thing that can slow you down is getting infected with viruses. The steps in this blog post are primarily aimed at fixing those two problems.

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  6. I recommend a 4 step process for installing MS security essentials:
    1) download security essentials
    2) *manually Disconnect from the internet (unplug, switch off etc.)
    3) uninstall current program
    4) install security essentials.

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  7. what do you think about tools such as ccleaner and glary utilities etc?

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  8. A lot of so-called "registry cleaner" apps are probably just snake oil -- they *may* help clean out some old cruft from the registry, and may speed up registry access somewhat, but the registry is only where a small part of the computer slowdown may be caused. The biggest causes are (1) running out of RAM, which forces the computer to swap memory out to disk (which is 100 or even 1000 times slower than RAM), and (2) getting one or more viruses, which is like a stream getting choked with weeds.

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