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.