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My computer is too slow. How do I fix it?

computer too slow
PC running like a dog? Read our advice (Image by Martine Auvray from Pixabay)

If we had a quid for every time we’d been asked why a computer is too slow, we’d be sipping cocktails on a beach in Bermuda. Like all of us, computers tend to slow with age, but problems can also come on suddenly which turn a once nimble computer into a lumbering sloth.

Here we are going to run through some – but by no means an exhaustive list – of the problems that can cause a computer to operate on a go-slow, and tell you how to fix them.

This article is an extract from Help! My Computer Is Broken. Click here to find out more and order a copy.

Too many programs loading at start up

One common cause of Windows seemingly taking an age to get ready after you’ve pressed the power button is that you’ve got too much software loading in the background every time the computer starts. This is categorically not your fault, but the fault of thoughtless software developers, who program their apps to run at start-up, often without any just cause.

Fortunately, it’s much easier to eject software from the start-up routine than it used to be. Type the word “start” into the Windows 10 search menu and click on the Startup Apps setting. You should now be presented with a list of all the apps that are activated to fire up when you first switch on your PC. Switch off any that have no right to be there or apps that you barely ever use.

There are apps you definitely shouldn’t prevent running at start-up, including antivirus software, online storage systems such as Dropbox, and utilities that control your wireless mouse and keyboard.

Running out of storage space

A computer that is running close to its storage limit is likely to run very slowly indeed, particularly if that storage is a conventional hard disk. Windows uses spare storage space as a temporary replacement for memory (RAM), but if there’s no spare storage it cannot do that, slowing the PC down. A close-to-capacity hard disk also has to work much harder, meaning the computer will be slower to load software or access files.

It’s important, therefore, not to let your PC get clogged with files. If your main disk is more than 90% full, it’s time for a clear out.

Windows has a few tools that can help you clear space. If you type “apps” into the Windows search bar and click on Add or Remove Programs, you’ll get a list of all the software stored on your PC. Use the drop-down menu to sort that list by size and then get rid of any space-hungry software that you no longer use.

If you type “storage” into the search menu, you should also find Windows’ storage settings. Here you can turn on an option called Storage Sense, which keeps an eye on folders that tend to gather unnecessary clutter, such as the temporary files and recycle bin. It can also delete previous versions of Windows that remain on the system, although this does prevent you turning the clock back if a Windows Update borks your PC.

The Downloads folder – where Windows stores all the stuff you download off the internet – is another prime culprit for collecting files that you no longer need. You should find a link to the Downloads folder in the Quick Access section on the left of the window, when you open Windows Explorer.

Your system is riddled with malware

Computer user frustrated
Malware can cause computers to grind (Image by Tim Gouw from Pixabay)

PC pestilence is a common cause of computer go-slows. You’ve been clicking on everything you see on the internet again, haven’t you?

Even in 2021, it’s still woefully easy to download one delicious-looking free utility and get three or four more sneakily bundled into the same package. Ironically, this often happens with free apps that claim to boost the performance of your PC.

These applications often install adware, which sits in the background, frequently blotting your screen with pop-up ads. They install browser toolbars that similarly plague you with ads or redirect your search engine to some awful alternative. Or these apps sit invisibly in the background, either hoovering up your personal data to sell to the highest bidder or running programs that generate bitcoins (a virtual currency) for their masters.

This stuff can sometimes be tricky to spot and even harder to remove. The developers don’t tend to call this stuff BIG NASTY MALWARE that you can easily remove from Add/Remove Programs. Make sure your security software is regularly set to fully scan your system, not just perform a quick scan every now and then.

If you see a piece of software installed on your system and you’re not sure what it is, bang its name into Google. Sites such as www.shouldiremoveit.com are also very handy at separating the wheat from the chaff and identifying rogue files that have slipped on to your system.

Golden rule: if you’re not sure what something is, don’t install it in the first place. And don’t just blithely click Next or OK when installing new software. Take your time, read the screens carefully, and make sure you’re not getting more than you bargained for.

Too many or rogue browser tabs

If you check the Task Manager (press Ctrl-Alt-Delete simultaneously on Windows systems) chances are you’ll find it’s the web browser that’s hogging most of your computer’s memory – especially if you’ve got loads of browser tabs open.

Some browsers are better than others at managing memory. Some shove unused tabs into the background, others don’t, meaning those 20 tabs you’ve got open while researching that weekend break to Paris are breaking your computer. It’s generally best to close any tabs you’re not using to prevent them gobbling up spare memory that could be better used for the stuff you’re actually viewing.

Rogue tabs are another problem. This normally occurs on sites where you’re not just looking at a static web page, but doing something such as word processing, playing video or even running a game in the web browser. These web apps can swallow memory, bringing the rest of the computer down with them. A key sign this is happening are browser warnings that a “site is not responding”. Sometimes you can wait for these temporary glitches to resolve, other times you have to shut down the tab.

Browsers now have their own task managers to help you root out the rogue tabs. In Chrome, you’ll find it by pressing the Shift and Esc keys simultaneously, in Firefox you can access the task manager by typing “about:performance” into the address bar. These let you kill tabs that are taking way more than their fair share of memory.

You’re in the wrong power mode

Windows has different power modes for different scenarios. If you’re running a laptop on battery power, for instance, Windows will put the device in a battery-saving mode that throttles the processor and reduces background activity so that the computer doesn’t get so hot, fire up the fans and canter through the battery.

It is possible that this setting has been accidentally activated even when the laptop is plugged in and can cope with running at full throttle. To check, plug the laptop in and then click on the tiny power socket/battery icon that’s in the row of icons next to the clock. You should be presented with a slider, ranging from Best Battery Life to Best Performance. Drag it to Best Performance if it’s not already there.

You’ve just installed a major Windows update

Every six months or so, Windows 10 is given a major new update. These are the ones that tend to take an age to download/install and change the appearance of Windows ever so slightly.

After installing one of these, you may notice that Windows is particularly sluggish for a day or so. This is normally down to Windows rebuilding its search index in the background, and there’s not much you can do about it, except let it runs its course. (It can be wise to leave the computer on overnight to let it complete the job while you’re not actively using it – assuming you’re not an insomniac or a security guard.)

What’s the Windows search index? Every file stored on your computer has to be scanned and indexed so that when (in theory) you search for a keyword in one of your documents, Windows returns the correct file in its search results. Every time Windows installs a major new version, that index has to be recreated from scratch, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. It’s one of those pain points that we just have to deal with.

Your computer is getting on a bit

Just as when you get to 40, your Park Run times tend to slope towards a Park Walk, so too your computer’s performance is going to suffer with age.

There are several contributory factors here. Windows/macOS tends to get a bit heavier with every update, so too do all the applications stored on your computer, making it harder for your once sprightly computer to keep up. There’s also an accumulation of digital cruft over time that can lead even high-performance PCs to struggle after three or four years.

Windows 10 has an excellent option to “reset” your PC that can counter this problem. This will effectively wipe the PC clean and start afresh, but leaves all your documents, photos and other files intact. Despite this promise, make sure you have a backup of all that personal data in case anything  goes wrong during the process. You will need to reinstall all the software on your PC, so make sure you’ve either got the disks handy or know which website to download the software from.

Type “reset” into Windows search to find this option.

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About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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