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Using Your Computer > Troubleshooting Computer Problems

Computer starting or running slowly?

By Lasa Information Systems Team

When you first acquired your shiny new PC or laptop you couldn’t believe how quick it was compared to your old one. The desktop appeared as if by magic and files opened at lightning speed. Then, over time, you realised that it was starting to take rather longer than it used to before that Excel spreadsheet appeared. In fact, you could make a cup of tea, drink it and wash up the cup whilst the darn thing was booting up….

So why has this happened? Is it just inevitable – maybe like human beings as computers get old they slow down and can’t recall things so quickly? This article looks at what causes computers to start or run slowly and some of the things that can help.

In brief…

The main causes of a slow booting computer or one that is slow in performing can be:

  • Viruses or spyware
  • Old hardware (processor, memory, graphics card etc) not up to the demands of the current software
  • Too many applications running
  • Large number of services running in the background

But what to do about it? Read on…

Viruses and worms

If your PC has been infected with a virus then this may well affect performance. See the Knowledgebase article Dealing With Viruses if you suspect that your machine is infected.

Keeping your anti-virus up to date will help reduce the risk of infection – most anti-virus packages will allow scheduling of updates to take place; ironically, one of the things that can slow your PC down on boot is the automatic update of the virus definitions! Some will allow for the download to start , say, 5 or 10 minutes after the computer has booted. Or if you know that your machine is likely to be on at a certain time of day then schedule in that time. In a large organisation it’s probably best not to have everybody’s machine set to download updates at 12 o’clock as your broadband line will suddenly become very busy.

Spyware

Rogue applications such as spyware can have an adverse effect on your computer – see Removing Spyware, Viruses and Other Malware from Windows  for how to remove it.

To guard against this, ensure you are running anti-spyware software such as AdAware  or SpyBot both of which can be used freely, or have an anti-spyware component loaded as part of a security package such as McAfee or Symantec. As with anti-virus this needs to be updated and run regularly – be aware that the free version of AdAware does not run in the background like anti-virus.

 

The overloaded desktop

How many icons are you storing on your desktop? Does your desktop contain sub folders? If the answer to the former question is “a lot” and the latter “yes” then this may be affecting the boot time as the operating system tries to load all this information from the hard drive into memory. Try cleaning out stuff you don’t need and move files and folders to My Documents or the appropriate place in your organisation’s file structure.

Loading stuff in the background

When Windows starts it loads a number of processes into memory which are essential for it to operate and then others which it has been instructed to run from boot such as anti-virus, firewall, printer and graphics monitors, connections to PDAs (such as ActiveSynch), volume controls, Messenger, voice over IP applications such as Skype and Quicktime. It may also be loading programs which aren’t really necessary on a day to day basis. In some cases you’ll see an icon on the right hand side of the taskbar in what used to be called the system tray – see below.

Windows System Tray

In addition you may be loading toolbars (e.g. Google Deskbar and Desktop, Copernic Desktop Search etc) and streaming audio using RealPlayer and suchlike. Do you want all this loading up every time? In some cases if you bring up the properties or preferences by right clicking the icon and there may be a checkbox to load into the system try – uncheck it. Sometimes you can’t do anything about it – except uninstall the application.
 
Windows XP (and 98 before it) has a utility called msconfig which can “tweak” your start up. It was left out of 2000 but the XP version can be downloaded from Techadvice.com and installed on an 2000 machine. BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL about what you tweak. There are also many other third party tweaking utilities, registry cleaners and so on available. 

So what’s running?

You can see what applications and processes are running and how much memory is being used by looking (in Windows 2000 and XP) at the Task Manager – hold down the Ctrl and Alt keys then press Delete and then click on Task Manager. You’ll see something like this:

Windows Task Manager - applications tab showing running applications

The applications tab will show what applications are running – in the example above that’s Outlook (inbox, contacts and calendar), McAfee VirusScan, Firefox browser with a Wikipedia page active, ActiveSynch (PDA synchronising application) and a Word document (this article!). If there’s something showing up that you’re not familiar with, then check it out.

Clicking on the Processes tab you’ll see something like:

Windows Task Manager - Processes Tab showing running processes

Some of the processes will be obvious – McShield.exe for example is the McAfee antivirus scanning service; if you have any Office programs open then you’ll recognise excel.exe and winword.exe (Excel and Word respectively!) Try looking up the “image name” on a search engine and it should give you a clue as to whether the process is valid – some viruses and spyware such will run processes which you really don’t want – Google will probably help with providing information about removing these from your system. But BE VERY CAREFUL that you don’t stop a process which is valid and is required for your PC to run – however, normally it will start up again when you restart the PC.

You can also see from the Task Manager how much memory is being used. You can get a visual sense of this from the Performance tab – if the line indicating memory usage is over half way and you are running the machine in its usual way then more memory may be required. In the example below you can see that there is about 719Mb RAM installed on the PC and 257Mb is available

Windows Task Manager - Performance Tab

Loading programmes from the Startup folder

Some users like to have programs start automatically when Windows start such as their email or maybe a messaging program. This will obviously take time and slow the start up process. Check Start – Programs – Startup to see what’s in there – some may be there by default to start a network service so be careful what you delete.

Windows updates slowing down the operating system

Monthly updates are issued by Microsoft and (assuming you are updating your PC) will be installed as necessary. Every time the PC starts up it will need to load up the additional patches, service pack files and so on – this will inevitably lead to a slower start up time. XP is quicker than 2000 in starting as it only loads into memory the services it needs but updates will add to the baggage. There’s not much you can do about that.

Loading user profiles

If your machine has been used by a succession of staff then every time someone has logged on a profile will be set up for them. These are stored in the folder Documents and Settings and will be named after the log on.

Windows Documents and Settings Folder showing profiles

The profile contains information that is unique to them such as their desktop, stores their My Documents, favourites, cookies, start menu set up and so on (see below).

Windows Documents and Settings Folder showing user profile details

Assuming that the staff member is long gone and that the documents stored under this setting are no longer needed then you could delete the profile safely.

Not enough memory

If you are noticing that it’s taking a long time to switch between applications then it could be that you don’t have enough memory. Whilst adding more memory (RAM) won’t help the PC to boot any quicker, it will help with overall stability and enable the PC to run more programs at the same time. Programs which have been opened and closed will also load faster as the files required may still be in memory so they aren’t having to be reloaded from the hard drive. If you are running a PC running Windows 2000 or XP then a minimum of 512Mb RAM is suggested and 1Gb will ensure you never see those “out of memory” warnings again.

Shared memory for graphics

Some PCs (and more commonly laptops) use system RAM instead of having their own separate RAM for processing graphics information to send to your monitor. This means that the graphics software will reserve a chunk of memory (perhaps 64 – 128Mb) exclusively for graphic use. This means that there’s less available for the operating system and applications which could mean you have less to play with than you thought.

You can check this by running an inventory tool such as Belarc  or just by looking at the computer properties (right click on My Computer – Properties) and see how much memory it’s reporting. For example, on the PC this article is being written there is 768Mb RAM installed (a 256Mb and a 512Mb module) but My Computer is only reporting 719Mb – the graphics card is using 50Mb. Adding more memory (see above) will help considerably.

Hard drive issues

It’s an inescapable fact that the more you use your computer and the more that goes onto the hard drive, the slower it will get. There are some things that you can do to help mitigate this though – the knowledgebase article Good Housekeeping describes some steps you can take such as defragmenting, scandisk, emptying your recycle bin, deleting temporary files and using the disk clean up tool. If your drive is filling up with user-created files then it may be time to add another internal hard drive, plug in an external USB hard drive or archive off to DVD.

Slow processor

If you purchase a computer in mid-2006 it’s likely to come with a processor which will run at around 3Ghz – that’s 3,000,000,000 operations per second. If your PC is 5 years old then it’s likely to have come with something like a 1Ghz processor – therefore a new PC will be able to process information 3 times as fast. This isn’t actually true because of other constraints on the system but you would notice a decrease in boot time with a faster processor.

So, what can you do about a slow processor? You could look at upgrading it but you’d have to find a processor which will fit your motherboard. You could look at replacing the motherboard and fitting a new processor but this would need to be compatible with the PC case – and you’d then need to buy extra RAM and so on. If you have a laptop then you’re stuck with what’s inside the casing. Overclocking is a trick that some PC enthusiast advocate – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overclocking - but this has disadvantages and is generally not recommended. Perhaps it’s just that it’s time to buy a new computer.

Attached devices

Back in ye olde dayes of computing you had a keyboard and a monitor attached to the box and a printer and maybe a mouse. There was an LPT port for the printer, PS2 and serial for keyboards and mice and that was that. Then before you knew it there’s a veritable forest of bits hanging off it - cameras, scanners, hard drives, flash drives, rewriters, USB hubs for plugging more things in... Which means that when the computer boots it has to check what its got attached, load drivers where necessary and that all takes time.

To reinstall or not to reinstall?

That is the question… Some Windows users will advise reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling on a regular basis to keep the machine running at its best. Unless you are using your PC as a test machine for different applications which you are then uninstalling, (and which can leave unwanted registry entries, DLL files and suchlike behind), then you’re likely to reinstall all the programs that were there anyway so the benefits are marginal.


About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT

Glossary

antivirus, Boot, Broadband, Browser, Cookies, DVD, Firewall, Flash, Hard Drive, Hard Drives, Hardware, Line, Malware, Monitor, Motherboard, Network, Operating System, PDA, Processor, RAM, Registry, Search Engine, Service Pack, Software, Spyware, Switch, USB, Virus, Virus Definitions, Wiki

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Published: 30th August 2006

Copyright © 2006 Lasa Information Systems Team

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