Is Your PC Running Slow…?

March 2, 2014 at 4:07 pm by

9,562 Total Views

Version control – v2.0 – dated November 2010
Version control – v2.1 – dated April 2012 – updated SysInternals link
Version control – v2.2 – dated March 2014 – general updates, links and additions for Windows 8

Introduction
This article is intended to provide you with some hints and tips when your system is running slower than normal and you are not sure what might be the problem. When this happens, users often think that malware is the cause. In some cases that will be correct but there are other possible causes as well and we shall explore some of these in this article and try and provide some ideas that may help.

Article Layout
This article is laid out in sections, with each section containing causes and solutions. The sections are as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Cleaning your system inside and outside
  • Temporary Files
  • Removing old programmes
  • Unnecessary programmes
  • Start up programmes
  • System memory
  • Hard disk de-fragging
  • System swap files
  • Hard disk errors
  • System file errors
  • Running services
  • Device driver conflicts
  • Internet Explorer
  • Anti Virus programmes
  • Conclusion

Colour coding has been used throughout this article in the following way:

  • Section Headings are coloured Purple with bold formatting.
  • Article and Tutorial links are coloured Sienna with bold formatting.
  • Links to articles or threads at TSF are coloured Blue with bold formatting.

All links have been tested and reviewed and are safe and correct at the time of writing. Links are regularly reviewed to ensure they remain accurate.

Please note that TSF does not promote, or is associated with any software or websites mentioned in this article. Where software or other websites are mentioned, or links provided, they are done, as far as practically possible while maintaining the readability of the article, on a purely alphabetical basis.

IMPORTANT – before making any system tweaks or changes, it is highly advisable to create a new System Restore point. This allows you to revert back in the event that the changes cause a problem. Detailed System Restore guide links can be found at the end of this article.

Cleaning your system inside and outside

Dust and dirt builds up inside a computer case and this can affect your cooling fans, reducing the amount of airflow. Reduced airflow can cause your processor to overheat resulting in slow operation or even unexpected shutdowns. Heat is the major cause of component failure inside a computer. While many of today’s processors have the ability to “throttle back” (slow down) if the core temperature reaches a certain threshold, prevention is the best defence. Cleaning the inside of your system is relatively easy – you just need to take some sensible precautions. Two useful guides to PC cleaning can be found here and here.

Temporary Files

Temporary or temp files can build up over time and eat into your precious disk space. When you install programmes, the installer uses temp files as part of the set up process. Some programmes also use temp files when in use. These temp files should be removed when the installer or programme is finished, but this does not always happen. And, of course, your browser will collect temp files as well. A build up of temp files could leave Windows struggling to find room for its swap file (see below) – so everything slows down.

How do you clean out temp files? There are two easy ways – by using Windows built-in Disk Cleanup utility or by using a proprietary cleaning programme. For the majority of users the Windows utility will be the easiest and simplest method. Note that the cleaning programmes will often offer the option to clear out Temporary files created by your browser.

Using Disk Cleanup in Windows XP
Using Disk Cleanup in Windows Vista
Using Disk Cleanup in Windows 7
Using Disk Cleanup in Windows 8

Cleaning Programmes – there are various such programmes available for free. Among the best (and safest) are

TFC
CCleaner
CleanUp!

Please do not use the Registry Cleaning function within CCleaner. See below for more information.

Note: TSF does not recommend the use of Registry Cleaners. In the vast majority of cases, the Registry will not require ‘cleaning’ and, even if it did, you would be unlikely to notice any performance improvement. Please see these excellent articles

By our Security colleague and MS MVP miekiemoes.
By MS MVP Bill Castner.
By technology author and MS MVP Ed Bott.

Removing old programmes

Do you still have some old programmes installed? When did you last use them? Remember that ‘trial’ software you installed? Has the trial period expired? Could you perhaps uninstall it (assuming you have the original installation disks)? Uninstalling such programmes will help free vital disk space. Remember to re-boot after uninstalling – this helps to clear memory and the final remnants of an uninstalled programme.

Further information can be found here.

Unnecessary programmes

By this I mean some of the numerous “enhancement” programmes available, that, while they may make your desktop look terribly exciting, are actually eating up precious resources. Things like third party screensavers and fancy wallpapers, Windows Taskbar replacements, WindowBlinds, Actual Transparent Window, XP Visual Styles, Stardock Theme Manager and so on. Nothing wrong with using them – they are all respected legitimate applications – but they may be contributing towards the slowdown of your system.

Startup programmes

Many applications insist on starting either the complete programme or a component of the programme whenever Windows starts. Many of these start ups are unnecessary and can be stopped. A good way to review the number of start up programmes is by using a start up manager utility, such as StartUpLite or Autoruns.

StartUpLite is very easy – just download the small file and double click StartUpLite.exe. A box appears showing programmes that don’t need to startup at boot. Choose whichever options you prefer and click Continue.

Autoruns gives you similar information, although presented in a slightly different way, and with more detail. Again, you simply uncheck a box beside the entry you wish to disable.

Remember to research a start up if you are not sure what it is – some of the entries that may appear and which can safely be disabled are things like Update Schedule entries for Adobe Acrobat, Sun Java, QuickTime and so on. If in doubt, post in our Forums, choosing the Forum that’s relevant to your Operating System. Alternatively, you can check Startup items here.

Note: You should NOT use MSConfig to permanently disable programmes from automatically starting at boot up. This utility is meant as a trouble-shooter – not a long term solution. If you uninstall a programme that has already been disabled using MSConfig, then it’s likely there will be orphaned Registry entries left behind. These could cause potential problems when trying to start your system. Use one of the start up managers mentioned above.

System memory

Lack of memory can be a real issue, especially with today’s high performance machines and Operating Systems (OS). If you’re using Windows (and let’s face it, most of us are) then you need to ensure you have the appropriate amount of RAM for your system. Microsoft list “minimum requirements” with each OS – but they are in the business of selling software. That’s why their “minimum requirements” are always at the lower end of the scale. There are numerous sites around that will advise you need “x” amount for XP and “y” amount for Vista and so on. As a general rule, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 work well with 2GB and XP with 1GB. You can use more, of course, but as a minimum these figures are accurate. 64-bit systems do not really have memory limits (there are theoretical limits of 16 exabytes (1 Exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes)) but you’ll find that such systems will be able to handle large amounts of memory.

If you don’t have very much RAM, what happens? Well, Windows loads programmes into memory to allow fast access. When it has no more memory left, it will start using your hard disk. This is much slower than using RAM, so your programmes will appear to run more slowly. The part of the hard disk used by Windows is called a swap file. So, a lack of RAM can also eat into your hard disk space as well.

RAM is not terribly expensive at the moment, so it makes sense to upgrade. You can find out what type of RAM you need by downloading PCWizard – a free system analyser or going to one of the manufacturer’s sites such as Crucial and using their memory advisor tool. Once you know the type of RAM you need, there are plenty of online stores to choose from. It is a good idea to match memory brand and model, especially when buying more than one memory module.

See here for a guide to installing your RAM.

Hard disk de-fragging

Over a period of time, data written to your hard disk becomes fragmented or scattered all over the disk. This makes it harder for the system to find the data it needs. By defragging your disk, or putting the data in a more logical sequence, your system performance will improve. NOTE: Windows will not let you defrag a drive if there is less than 15% free space available. Keep an eye on your free space!
Note: For Solid State Drives (SSD) the general wisdom is that you should not defrag. Data placement on the SSD is handled by the drive controller and not Windows. So Windows really has no idea where the data is located. See here for more information.

You could use a defragging utility such as Sysinternals PageDefrag – this is free and easy to use.

For a guide to defragging see
here for XP
here for Vista
here for Windows 7
here for Windows 8

System swap files

Note: In general most users should not need to make any adjustments to the swap/page file settings.

You can change the settings on your swap file to allow Windows to have more disk space to play with. This disk space is also known as Virtual Memory. For a 32 bit Operating System (which most users will have) set any amount up to a maximum of 4Gb. Try and at least match the amount of RAM in your system. Of course, you will need to have enough free disk space for this swap file.

Useful step-by-step guides can be found
here for Win98 and XP
here for Vista
here for Windows 7
here for Windows 8

Something else to consider is that the swap file should not be fragmented in order to obtain the best results. This can be done by selecting ‘No swap file’, rebooting (you have to do this, to apply the changes), defragging the drive and then resetting the swap file to a size of your choosing. The swap file will now be an area of the maximum contiguous (uninterrupted) free space – and therefore optimum performance.

Note: When choosing a value it is often suggested to set a static size swap file – set the Initial and Maximum amounts to the same value. This saves Windows from using resources to manage a dynamic swap file.

Hard disk errors

A hard disk will not last forever. Even a new hard disk can have problems. However, many problems can be fixed, simply by running a Windows utility called ChkDsk. This will scan your hard disk and repair any file system errors while verifying the integrity of the drive. Guides from Microsoft on using ChkDsk can be found

here for XP
here for Vista
here for Windows 7.
here for Windows 8.

For the more technically minded users, a slowdown in hard disk performance can sometimes be caused by Windows using an older data transfer method called Programmed Input-Output (PIO), rather than Ultra Direct Memory Access (UDMA). This can result in a high processor load, slow data transfers and a choppy video display. For an explanation of the causes of this problem, and solutions, please refer to this article.

System file errors

Sometimes critical system files may become damaged or corrupt. This will obviously affect your computer’s performance. However, Windows has the ability to replace any damaged files on its own – this facility is called Windows File Protection. It can be started manually by typing a simple command into the Run box – sfc /scannow. This command immediately starts the Windows File Protection utility and it then checks and scans all system files to ensure their integrity.

A detailed guide to using Windows File Protection with XP can be found here by MS MVP Daniel Petri.

For users with a pre-installed version of XP, sfc may ask you for your Windows CD in order to copy the relevant files. If you don’t have a Windows CD or if sfc cannot find the files it needs, please refer to this article by MS MVP Marc Liron.

For users who installed Service Pack 2 for XP by downloading from the internet, sfc may ask you for an XP SP2 CD – which you won’t have. You may need to create a slipstreamed CD to ensure sfc works correctly. Slipstreaming is simply a way of incorporating SP2 into your Windows installation – you create a new disk with Windows and SP2 all in one. Guides to slipstreaming can be found here and here, and a useful programme called Autostreamer, which does most of the work for you, can be downloaded here.

Note that Windows File Protection in Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 is called Windows Resource Protection which, as well as protecting critical files, also protects the Registry. However, the basic principles are the same. To run the sfc command in Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 8, you must be logged in as an Administrator.

A brief guide to WRP can be found here and more technical details can be found here

Running services

Windows generally comes with a raft of running services, many of which are not really required. You can safely stop some of these services and improve the boot time and speed of your system. Many installed programmes make themselves start up as soon as you boot the PC. They just run in the background, even although you don’t actually use them. Usually these programmes can be stopped from automatically loading – if you need to start them, you can do this manually.

One service that often causes a system to slow down is the Indexing Service on Windows XP – this can be turned off – see here for a guide.

For services guides see

here for Windows 2000
here for XP SP2
here for Vista
here for Windows 7
here for Windows 8
here for Windows 8.1

Device Driver Conflicts

Are all your hardware drivers up to date? Using an out of date driver could cause hardware conflicts and crash your system. A word of warning here – using Windows Updates to update drivers is not always the best option – you should visit the manufacturer’s own website directly to find out if updated drivers are available.

Have a look at Microsoft’s suggestions on troubleshooting driver/device conflicts here.

Internet Explorer

IE 7 includes a phishing filter – very useful indeed. But it can slow down your browsing as the filter checks each web page. Have a look at Microsoft’s suggestions on this here.
Microsoft changed this when they introduced IE 8 – for help with IE 8 SmartScreen Filter see here.

Anti Virus Programmes

Never use more than one Anti Virus. Although it might sound like a great idea to run two or more, in reality it’s not. AVs usually have a ‘real time’ monitor that helps protect your system. This monitor will want to have a look at any file that changes or has been added to the system. If you have 2 AVs then every time one looks at a file, the other AV will think that file has changed so it will want to take a look as well. Now the second AV thinks that file has changed so it wants another look. So, of course, the first AV thinks that file has changed….you get the idea. You could end up with an unstable system, a really slow system or unexplained crashes.

Conclusion

Having done all your tweaks and clean ups, create a new System Restore point – this gives you a ‘fall back’ position with all your new changes.

A guide to using System Restore in XP can be found here
A guide to using System Restore in Vista can be found here
A guide to using System Restore in Windows 7 can be found here
A guide to using System Restore in Windows 8 can be found here

No more problems? Excellent – be sure to revisit this article to help keep your system running smoothly.

Still having problems? Well, it could indeed be malware – please start here and follow the instructions to receive assistance.

© 2014 Glaswegian

Filed under Security, Tips & Tricks
Tagged , , , , , , , , , .