Free Computer Advice

Why do computers slow down over time?

All computers slow down with time - it's just a fact of life, like ageing and politicians lying to get our vote. And, like them, a slow computer can drive you to distraction. So what is going on?

If you think of your hard disk as a filing cabinet it gets easier to understand. Imagine a filing cabinet where files are added and moved hundreds or thousands of times per hour. One where many files which are only used for a few minutes are mistakenly kept forever. One where different people file things in different ways. Can you imagine what a mess it would end up like after a few days?

Your computer's hard disk is exactly the same. Even the simplest task that is carried out can involve opening and closing many files. Browsing the Internet is even worse as every time you look at a page, you download the information which is going to be displayed to your hard disk. Theoretically, when you finish surfing for the day, all the temporary files which you've looked at should be automatically deleted. But many browsers don't do this.

The end result is that your hard disk just gets more and more clogged up with files and more files. Also, as computers are extremely complicated with many programs running at the same time, errors inevitably creep in. Even a minor error on, for example, the location of the file which you are trying to open can greatly slow things down while the computer has to start digging around to find what it needs.

To try and make order out of the chaos, computers use some human-style short cuts. They have directories to tell them where to find files on disk, to save searching through the whole thing every time. And they have a database called a Registry, which keeps details of the settings and preferences for all the programs which are loaded on the PC. That is how the programs know that you prefer the pink and green colour scheme instead of the black and red one, and so on.

When you think of the number of programs on a PC (hundreds or thousands), and the number of settings or preferences that each can have (hundreds or thousands) you can begin to imagine how enormous the Registry is. Being so huge, and so important, it only takes a few mistakes to creep and it leaves the PC to try and find out what the correct answer is. This can really slow things down.

So, apart from putting a brick through the screen, is there a solution? Fortunately there is, and it's not so different from the way that you'd sort out your old fashioned filing cabinet.

Firstly getting rid of all the junk that was useful once, but is not useful any more can really speed things up. Deleting temporary files can make a huge difference.

Secondly, you can speed up file-access by keeping files whole. If you had a single document of 8 pages in your filing cabinet, it would be quicker to find if you kept all 8 pages together, rather than in 8 different locations, wouldn't it? Because of the way that data is stored on a disk it often uses less total disk space to store parts of a file in different locations. For a while this is OK. Eventually, when this happens to every single file, it starts to slow things down again. The solution is to defragment your files, or keep them in one piece. Your PC has a utility on it (File Defragmenter or Defrag) which can go through the whole disk and put the files back together. It takes a while, but it's well worth running it occasionally - maybe once a month.

Finally, the Registry can be sorted out. After a while it end up in a mess with errors slowing down many of the programs. These errors can be fixed manually, but there are two problems. Firstly the Registry is HUGE, so it really is a super-human task. The second is that, if you don't know what you are doing, you can make things a million times worse. Do you remember the 'blue screen hell' that used to happen in the old days? If you mess up the registry you can relive the experience now!

The solution is to use a registry cleaner program, which will take a backup of the registry before it does anything just in case. Then it knows where to look for problems and how to fix them without causing further problems. This can really speed things up again.

Just be aware that sometimes you will get strange effects. One which I've noticed is that, after running a registry cleaner, synchronising my old PDA doesn't work. It's not a major problem - I just have to run the setup program for the PDA again and it's fine. It may sound like a hassle, but it's worth it for the huge improvement in computer speed that I've gained.

It's easy to think that your computer can't have generated any registry errors, so what's the point of running a registry cleaner program. All I can suggest is try running a scan and see how many errors you get. You can usually run a scan for nothing, and if you have less than 100 errors I'll be amazed!

You can get a free registry scan with Max Utilities.

I was being driven mad by my PC slowing down to a snails pace. When I was on the verge of pulling all my hair out I finally found out how to make things run a lot faster. It's cheaper than buying a new PC and helps feed my need for speed!

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