How to keep your computer from slowing down

Our tips can help keep your PC or Mac running as fast as it should

Published: November 2013

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If you've recently unboxed a new computer (and you didn't opt for the lowest-priced model available), it probably feels pretty zippy. A model with speedy solid-state storage probably feels really fast, especially if your last system was more than a few years old. But with the passage of time, once-peppy PCs have a tendency to become sluggish—sometimes maddeningly so.

Some performance slowdown is inevitable. Software and websites are always getting more complex and demanding higher-end hardware. But much of what leads to multiminute boot-ups and agonizingly slow load times can be prevented with some smart computing practices and a bit of preventive maintenance.

We'll walk you through simple steps to help your nimble new PC maintain its speed for the long haul. And if you have a system that's already grown sluggish, these steps should help you get some of its speed back.  

Install OS updates and reboot regularly

Whether you're a Mac or Windows user, it's important to promptly install all operating-system updates. Many updates patch newly discovered security holes that can let viruses or other malware into your system.

Most modern computers should be set to install OS updates automatically, or to prompt you to install them when they become available. To be sure this is happening in Mac OS, check your update settings by heading to Apple menu>Software Update. Windows users will find update options under Control Panel>System & Security>Windows Update.

Modern PCs have also gotten so good at sipping power when they're asleep that you may go days or even weeks without shutting them down or rebooting. But it's a good idea to reboot your computer at least every few days. It gives the system a chance to install more complex updates. It also frees up RAM, which can be gobbled up over time by poorly coded programs.

Make sure your antivirus software is set to scan and update regularly

Most users really don't need a big, expensive antivirus suite to avoid viruses. In fact, complex security suites can often slow your system down unnecessarily.

If you're running Windows 7 or 8, you already have a built-in antivirus program called Windows Defender that should be sufficient for most users. Just make sure it's running and updating regularly by searching for it in the Start menu or via the Start Screen.

While it's true that there are far fewer viruses aimed at Macs than at Windows machines, Mac users should still be running antivirus programs. There are a few good free options available for home users, including our top-Rated free choice, Avast! Free Antivirus.

Avoid installing unnecessary software

Any program you aren't using regularly can clutter your hard drive and add to your boot time. So think twice before installing things you don't really need—and periodically peruse your apps to uninstall those you haven't used in a while.

Perhaps more important, pay close attention when you're installing programs and utilities you do need. These days, even well-known, reputable software makers try to make extra money by attaching toolbars and other resource-hogging programs to free programs.

Instead of quickly clicking through the install process, slow down and pay attention to preselected check boxes: That's often where the extra apps get tagged on to your install. Uncheck these before proceeding, and you can usually grab that free PDF reader or other app without winding up with something else you don't want.

Avoid surfing the shady side of the Internet or clicking on links from people you don't know or sites you don't recognize

This one should be self-explanatory, but we've all been guilty of clicking where we shouldn't at some point. Searching for free content that you really should be paying for or blindly clicking on links from people you don't know (or people you do know who have an infected PC) is the quickest way to get a virus. And few things slow down a PC more dramatically than a virus (or three).

Find more tips on protecting your privacy and staying safe online in our guide to Internet security.

Avoid letting your boot drive fill up

Your computer needs free space on its main drive (where the OS is stored) to work well. If your C: drive is nearly full, your system will slow down as it struggles to shuffle data in cramped confines. Try to keep at least a few gigabytes free on your boot drive at all times. If you're running out of space, uninstall some infrequently used software, or delete some media files you've stored elsewhere. The next tip should also help you clean up some storage space.

Run CCleaner monthly on Windows machines to clean up temporary files

Mac OS does a pretty good job of self-maintenance. Windows has certainly gotten better at this over time, but it can still hold on to unnecessary data clutter from updates, tracking cookies, and years of browser history.

CCleaner is a free app that makes getting rid of these files easy, and will often let you recover gigabytes of storage space on an old system. It can also scan and trim untidy registry code (often left over from uninstalled programs) and tell you which programs are set to run on startup, so you can uninstall what isn't necessary and get to your desktop faster.

You can use the Windows Task scheduler to make sure CCleaner runs regularly (once a month is probably plenty), so you won't have to remember to run it yourself.

Most don't have to worry about defragging anymore

This used to be a much bigger problem than it is today. Traditional spinning hard drives have a tendency to get fragmented over time, leading to slower performance as the drive head searches for one part of a file in one place, and other parts elsewhere on the drive.

Windows 7 and 8 and Mac OS now defragment hard drives automatically. And modern solid-state drives don't have this problem at all, because they have no moving parts to delay data retrieval. If you're still running Windows XP on a spinning hard drive, you can defragment your drive by right-clicking on the drive letter, clicking Properties>Tools>Defragment Now. Just know defragging can take hours if the drive is heavily fragmented. Make sure to repeat this process with all your hard drives.

Is your system still slow?

If you've done all these things and your system is still slow, scan your drives for hardware errors using Disk Utility in Mac OS or CHDSK in Windows. Your drive may be faulty and about to fail.

If that turns up no errors, but things are still slow, you may want to try booting your system from a Kaspersky Rescue Disk, which can find and eliminate some of the stealthier viruses that circumvent Windows- or Mac OS-based antivirus software. Short of that, run Malwarebytes Antimalware, a free program. Just know that if malware is deeply rooted in your OS, your computer may no longer boot once it's been eliminated. So you may have to break out a rescue disk or system backup.

If all that turns up nothing, you may just be overdue for a new or more powerful computer. Modern operating systems, or even older operating systems loading modern websites and software, will struggle with anything less than 2GB of RAM (4GB is a good baseline for a new computer). If your hard drive's access light is on constantly, your hard drive's speed might not be able to match the demands of newer software and OS updates. And if you're opening up lots of browser tabs on an older computer (or a new one with budget specs), you could be maxing out your processor as well.

—Matt Safford

In the market for a new computer? Do your research first, with the help of our computer buying guide and Ratings.

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