Why is my computer so slow? Part 2

slow-laptop

In the first part of this post we looked at why some computers are slow right out of the box. But what about ones that were fast, but aren’t any longer?

It’s a Mad World

The most common cause of a suddenly sluggish computer we encounter is what I term ‘crazy process’. A process is a piece of software running on a computer, often performing some useful task in the background without any visible signs that it is working. A typical computer running Windows will have dozens of background processes, even when it’s just sitting at the desktop with no applications loaded.

If one of these processes goes wrong it can slow the computer to a crawl in two ways. First, by overwhelming the hard drive with requests for information, causing any applications you load to have to wait. Or it can consume all of the computer’s memory, which forces Windows start temporarily using the hard drive to store information that should be in memory. Either way the result is computer that seems crippled.

Nine out of ten times we see this problem it can be traced back to just two culprits; the anti-virus, or Windows Update.

Anti-virus software is incredibly invasive. It hooks into almost every part of Windows and every application you use. Every file access is monitored and checked. Almost everything an application does has to pass through the anti-virus program to be scanned.

So when AV goes wrong it can seriously degrade the computer’s performance and often make the system behave in odd and unpredictable ways.

The other main cause of slow performance is, surprisingly, Windows Update. Downloading and installing updates for Windows doesn’t sound like a hard task, but Windows Update is a complex piece of software that far too often trips over itself and falls in a heap. We regularly see machines where WU does little but sit in the background thrashing the hard drive, eating up all available memory, and achieving nothing productive at all.

Unfortunately this sort of issue is often very difficult to fix. WU can go wrong in so many ways that restoring it to correct operation is frequently a process of laboriously trying varying fixes, hoping one of them will work.

Salt, Meet Wound

Confronted with a chronically slow computer, we find people too often resort to downloading one of the legion of ‘speed-up’ or ‘PC-fix’ programs that are widely advertised on the internet.

These do not work, and can make the problem worse. The best of these programs do a few basic maintenance tasks that make little or no difference to how the computer performs. The worst throw up a false list of scary sounding ‘errors’ that require repairing, and then demand money to do the fixes. These are a scam, pure and simple.

Unfortunately, with performance problems there is no substitute for an experienced technician or engineer who knows their way around the internals of Windows.

It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum!

Another cause of slow performance, almost exclusively seen on laptops, is overheating. In the bad old days when a processor chip got too hot it would usually die, often with a small cloud of nasty-smelling magic smoke.

Modern processors have power management systems that detect overheating and cause the processor to slow down, preventing release of magic smoke. So heat is not longer fatal for the processor, just the user’s patience as their laptop crawls along.

If your laptop is sluggish, hot and the cooling fan sounds like a hair dryer, then it probably needs the cooling system cleaned out. On 99% of laptops this requires disassembling the machine and is best left to an expert. We’ve seen too many laptops damaged, often beyond repair, by enthusiastic amateurs wielding an over-large screwdriver…

Some posts on the internet and Youtube videos will advise squirting compressed air into the fan vents to fix overheating. But this isn’t an effective solution. All it does it blow the crud blocking the internal metal heat grille back into the cooling fan. Next time you turn on the laptop the debris will just get stuck on the grille again.

Also, compressed air is cold. Cold enough to cause frost to form on anything it hits. Never, ever spray compressed air into a laptop that is switched on or still warm. The frost can cause a short circuit or physically break warm components inside the laptop due to thermal stress. A clogged cooling system needs to be hand-cleaned by a technician to be sure of a positive result.

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Why is my computer so slow?

slow-laptop

We’ve all been there. Sitting waiting for the computer to start up, the little circle whirling round on the screen while not much of anything happens. Minutes passing as you wait for a program to load up.

Customers often expect us to look at their computer and instantly be able to tell why it’s so slow. But things are rarely than simple; this is a complex area as there are a whole variety of possible causes for a sluggish machine, and not all of them are easy to diagnose. For that reason I’ll be splitting this post into two parts so keep it from being stupidly long.

Defective by Design

One problem that’s easy to spot, but often hard to fix, is the computer that has never been anything but slow despite being relatively new (sometimes brand new). Modern computers typically have enough memory and an adequately powerful processor, so the villain of the piece is usually the hard drive.

This issue is rife in modern laptops. Even new models with plenty of RAM and a fast i5 or i7 processor are almost always fitted with a cheap, low-performance hard drive. Laptop manufacturers work on the principle that capacity sells, not speed. Being able to boast “Super huge 2TB hard drive!!” works well in an ad. They will fit their laptops with the biggest possible drive, even if it is slow as a wet week in Saltcoats.

Warp Speed Mr Scott!

So, what’s to be done about it? The hard drive has to be replaced, and there are two main options. The cheapest is a ‘hybrid’ hard drive, or SSHD as they’re sometimes known. This is similar to a standard hard drive but includes a small amount of flash memory – the same stuff that’s used on USB flash drives and mobile phone memory cards. The flash memory acts as a ‘cache’, keeping copies of data the computer needs to access most. Fetching data from flash memory is much faster than waiting for the hard drive to retrieve it.

The flash memory cache is not magic, however. It can only hold a small amount of data, normally 0.5% of the hard drive’s capacity. The SSHD’s big advantage is that it’s really just a turbo-charged hard drive, so there are large capacity models available quite cheaply.

The second option is a Solid State Drive (SSD). Hard drives store data on spinning magnetic disks, which is inherently slow. SSDs use multiple banks of flash memory instead. This makes them very, very fast.

How fast, you ask? We recently upgraded a customer’s laptop to a SSD. It was a high end gaming laptop costing over £1200 new, with 16GB of RAM and a fast i7 processor. But the manufacturer had fitted it with a cheap, slow 2TB hard drive, and it took almost one and a half minutes to boot to the desktop and be usable.

We replaced the hard drive with a SSD and from pressing the power button to reaching the desktop took just 12 seconds.

Yes, that’s right. 12 seconds.

And there’s another big advantage to SSDs. They’re almost immune to physical damage. Hard drives are delicate devices that are packed with spinning metal discs and do not respond well to shocks, as anyone who’s dropped a laptop and lost all their data will know.

A SSD is just a box full of flash memory chips, which don’t care about bumps and knocks. One SSD manufacturer once posted a video to YouTube where they hit one of their drives with a baseball bat, throwing it clear across a field and bending the drive like a banana. It still worked perfectly afterward.

So, if SSDs are amazing, what’s the catch? Cost. SSDs are far more expensive per MB of storage than a hard drive. A 250GB capacity SSD will cost around the same price as a 2TB (2000GB) hard drive. Because of this, upgrading to a SSD tends to mean learning to squeeze your applications and most used files onto the SSD while storing everything else on a standard hard drive.

Are they worth the cost and hassle? For most people, yes, absolutely. Here at A2U we’re big SSD enthusiasts. We relentlessly sing their praises to customers, because an SSD is the single best upgrade for most computers.

In the next blog post I’ll talk about the other reasons for a computer to be running slowly, and why something you trust to keep your computer in good shape may be doing just the opposite.

The Anti-Virus Conundrum

The Anti-Virus Conundrum

One of the most common questions we get asked by customers is “What anti-virus should I be using?”. They’re invariably surprised when we advise using Microsoft Defender, which is built into Windows 8, 8.1 and 10, and is a free download for Windows 7.

There’s three reasons why we’re so fond of MS Defender; cost, performance and something termed attack surface.

Cost is the obvious advantage to start with. Defender is completely free to use and comes with free updates, and unlike the ‘free’ editions of paid anti-virus products there’s no constant nagging to upgrade to a paid version. At least one big name AV package also torments users with ads for ‘speed up’ and ‘PC Optimizer’ packages that are of highly dubious effectiveness.

Performance is probably the biggest asset of Defender. We’ve found that it generally works nicely with even old, underpowered machines. Paid-for AV packages often try to justify their cost by piling on masses of ‘features’ which nobody ever uses, and this bloats them up, eating memory, thrashing the hard drive and generally slowing even good PCs by a significant degree.

Finally, Defender is smaller and less complex than most commercial AV packages. In security nomenclature it is known as having a small ‘attack surface’. This means there’s less chance of a virus or piece of malware being able to exploit a weakness in the AV’s design to crack open the computer’s security and do nefarious things.

Defender is not infallible. Microsoft recently had to issue an emergency patch for a very serious flaw. But overall it works well and we think it’s the best AV for most users.