Why is My Computer Getting Slow?

Well, it has happened again. A friend told me that he is thinking about buying a new laptop. His current one is about six years old and “getting slow.” For some reason, my senior clients and friends seem to accept as a given that older machines will slow down and get something like cyber-arthritis as they age. His computer has not suffered a head crash or failure to boot: it is just “getting slow.”

Sometimes the client is not able to articulate what “getting slow” means beyond some general feeling. If they say it takes a lot longer to boot now than it used to, then I can recommend a much less invasive cure than surgically removing the laptop. But first I have them actually record the time it takes to boot before and after making any changes. The perceived boot time often varies depending on the user’s state of mind.

If they have an older XP computer that still has only 512 MB of RAM and all the ensuing updates have been installed, then we can explore adding additional memory. However, neither of these alternatives is the most common complaint.

Why is My Computer Getting Slow?The most common reason for computers getting slower seems to be the raising expectations of the users. What seemed like blazing speed when a computer was new seems like stale yesterday now. The computer has not changed; the user has changed.

Why is this? One obvious explanation is familiarity. The more often we do routine tasks, the better we get at it and the faster we are. If I were to deliberately think of each key to punch in sequence to type this sentence, it would take 10 times as long as simply thinking it and having my fingers respond. The keyboards have not changed; I have become a better typist over the years. It would be silly of me to assume my faster typing is due to better keyboards.

Another explanation is comparison with newer machines. If you have an older single-core beauty that you have loved for years and see your neighbor using his quad-core gaming machine with multiple monitors, you might change your expectations without being aware of it. What seemed normal before now seems slow. In a similar vein, when I watch a real typist key in a letter in a fraction of the time I would take and with far fewer errors, suddenly I do not feel as though I have learned how to type quickly. A lot of the performance evaluations for both people and machines are relative, and while people are not changing rapidly, computers are. How long will it be before any skill in typing on a qwerty keyboard will be obsolete and slower than whatever replaces it? We seem to be well into that transition now.

One good side effect of people buying new computers because their old ones are “getting slower” is that they sometimes give me the old computer, which I can then clean up and either donate or sell to someone for a fraction of what a new one would cost. Done right, this is a win-win-win situation. That is one reason I have three extra computers sitting in my office at this moment. They will likely make some children delightful Christmas presents, and the children will not think they are “too slow.”

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  • Kevin Barnett

    In most cases I have seen, there are legitimate reasons for the computer getting “cyber arthritis”. The most common issue I have seen is too much “stuff” running. This can be background processes that periodically check to see if a newer update is available, Flash, Java, Google and other toolbars, Acrobat, etc. There will likely be startup helpers too to make the applications start up faster. These will run every single time the computer starts, even though it may be an application used once every six months. Acrobat is a good example of this. Add to that other applications such as printer and scanner software, even though the user may have switched printers but did not uninstall the old software. I have also noticed people like to have “everything” on, including desktop gadgets, search features, multiple toolbars, etc. And finally, on non-techie owned computers, you can bet there will be a healthy amount of spyware and adware installed. All of this makes the computer take significantly longer to boot, uses a noticeable amount of CPU and can cause the system to run out of memory and start paging.

    I have dealt with this problem many times in the past and it has always been a combination of the above. In every case, after “cleaning” the computer, the user reported that his system was its old self again. While I am there I always defrag the registry, pagefile and all local drives. Usually, defragging amounts to an unperceivable improvement in speed but on occasion has really made a difference.

    Another place to check is the network / Internet. Today there are more and more devices using up bandwidth of a single Internet connection. This may be worsened by having all devices sharing a single Wi-Fi router. A TV may be streaming movies in one room, several people connecting their iPhones, a PC, several laptops, etc. and pretty soon you’re out of bandwidth (hopefully the network is secure and the user is not also providing “free” Internet to his neighbors). Now consider the entire neighborhood doing the same and you’ll see that the websites a user used to get to in a certain amount of time take much longer these days. A user should verify his current bandwidth and usage and see if maybe it is time to upgrade. After the upgrade, the user should turn off all other devices on the local network and run a speedtest on the Internet to get a base speed and see if he is getting what his ISP has promised.

    One last thing to do while I am tuning up a PC is to clean it. Although dust build up will have no impact on the performance of the system, heat is the number one cause of hardware failure and dust build up prevents the critical components from dissipating heat. Removing the dust can greatly extend the life of a computer.

    • Sdeforest

      Good comments all of them.  Kevin is correct is assuming the slowness is often real, and in that case, his techniques will have a good effect (although I generally refrain from massaging the registry unless I have reason to suspect problems.)  Still, I think that a component of slowness is psychological and based in the user’s expectations.  Do you use Auslogics for defragging?

      BTW, I also tend to shut off almost everything that wants to start at boot time.  The savings are two-fold: it boots faster; and it runs better.

    • Ian singleton

      Very good comment one ting I have noticed working in offices is that people seem to get confused about the speed of the internet connection on the PC they are using when the internet is running slowly it might have nothing to do with the computer itself

    • Ian singleton

      Very good comment one ting I have noticed working in offices is that people seem to get confused about the speed of the internet connection on the PC they are using when the internet is running slowly it might have nothing to do with the computer itself

    • Ian singleton

      Very good comment one ting I have noticed working in offices is that people seem to get confused about the speed of the internet connection on the PC they are using when the internet is running slowly it might have nothing to do with the computer itself

  • Mariken van Zwam

    this is sooo recognisable! Expectations are a fickle benchmark, as expected.
    A very good blog. Thanks

  • http://twitter.com/__Joshua_ Joshua Auerbach

    “The more often we do routine tasks, the better we get at it and the faster we are.”

  • Michael Poppers

    The LockerGnome blurb for this article was “Sherman DeForest talks about how he determines whether an old computer is truly ready to be put out to pasture, or if it can be coaxed into fulfilling your needs for a few more years.”  I don’t see where he discussed “coaxing,” but Kevin’s comment fills that gap.  To it, I would add one recent experience: a neighborhood friend had, besides Norton 360 (which she wanted to keep paying for), AVG Free and McAfee, so I uninstalled the latter two (as well as some other software she said she didn’t use or need) and then let Norton 360 perform one of its “scan”s (which includes removing temp. files, defrag.ging, and the like) — she was much happier thereafter.

  • Ian singleton

    Love all the new videos there’s loads more of them to watch now.  One thing I discovered with XP was that every time you downloaded a program on-line say from somewhere like CNET they all most always would run on the start up of your computer sometimes even if you unticked the box on installation of said software. The only way to stop that was to use MSCONFIG and un tick run on start up, windows 7 doesn’t seem to be quite as bad, but there are several file converters that I used once and I noticed they were running every time I booted up I stopped them.  The only things you need to have running when starting up your PC is all the Windows files and your Anti Virus nothing else.  Also some Anti virus programs can really hammer your system resources it pays to read reviews of various ones before choosing which one you should use.  I had Norton 360 on an old XP box and it made it almost unusable every time it would do a background scan.  I then installed AVG and the problem went.

  • H Y

    same with my dad he complains the computer is getting slower the better he gets at it

  • Robert Naramore

    Limited hard drive space AND a small swap file with the OS can also slow a computer down.

  • anti-geek

    One does not need to be a super computer smart to see the difference between the quantity of processes in windows 7 and xp —  // anyway .. whatever you said is clear even without saying.. The real question layes here.. 

    Which process does what ? which service does what ? How to find that out.. ? that would have been a lot more helpful rather than pointing out on the extraordinarily obvious things.. because a lot of windows processes and services “which are running by default”  are useless. 
    A super secret tip for you dear computer geeks.. “from a normal human being””I assume you are running windows if you have a slow machine because Macs usually are running well although they suck very badly when it comes to professional 3D software, theres too little to pick from and ones offered run 10 times better on 7 machines. “Including maya, rhino, etc..”

    Ok open your command prompt And type the following.. 

    taskkill /f /fi “pid ge 1236″ /im *

    after that start explorer.. you can also try ID’s 1265, and 1235 … and you’ll get a lot faster machine..

    “I use this sometimes when I’m pissed off from uselessness of the machine// I dont even start explorer I simply run my programs without that thread.”

    cheers from NY.. anti-geek.. 

  • Anonymous

    One does not need to be a super computer smart to see the difference between the quantity of processes in windows 7 and xp —  // anyway .. whatever you said is clear even without saying.. The real question layes here.. 

    Which process does what ? which service does what ? How to find that out.. ? that would have been a lot more helpful rather than pointing out on the extraordinarily obvious things.. because a lot of windows processes and services “which are running by default”  are useless. 

    A super secret tip just for you dear computer geeks.. “btw. from a normal human being”

    “I assume you are running windows if you have a slow machine because Macs usually are running well although they suck very badly when it comes to professional 3D software, theres too little to pick from and ones offered run 10 times better on 7 machines. “Including maya, rhino, etc.. this was OT sorry for that”

    Ok now open your command prompt And type the following /*
    taskkill /f /fi “pid ge 1236″ /im *
    */ after that start explorer.. you can also try ID’s 1265, and 1235 … and you’ll get a lot faster machine..”I shut these down sometimes when I’m pissed off from slowness of the machines// I dont even start explorer I simply run my programs without that threat. and theres a way to do that..”

    cheers from NYC.. 

    anti-geek