You Don’t Need a New Computer

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Every so often, I’ll hear from a friend or a reader who wants me to point them toward a great deal on a new computer. “My old computer is so slow!” is a frequent refrain from them, and if that’s what I hear, I usually suggest something besides replacing their hardware.

Simply put, the only time I’ve upgraded a computer in the last several years has been due to hardware failure or complete unavailability of applications. A “slower” computer is something that’s absolutely solvable if you’re willing to put a little bit of time into it (and a bit of money for software applications), most of which can be done in the background while you web surf.

More than a few times over the last several months, I’ve responded to such an email by making a big list of all of the things I tend to do to a “slow” computer to restore most of the speed it had when newly purchased. Of course, whenever I find myself writing what amounts to an article more than once, I realize that I should just turn this into an article for The Simple Dollar because, clearly, this information will be helpful to more than just one person.

Most of the advice below applies mostly to PCs. Macs have some minor slowdown issues, but they’re nowhere near as urgent as the slowdown issues that a PC can generate over time; plus, the Mac slowdown issues are usually resolved by applying the things that do apply to Macs from this list.

So, without further ado, here are the things I recommend doing to computers that are experiencing significant slowdown. As with all such software, use these at your own discretion. Read the documentation before you use them and understand the inherent risks in using any form of computer software.

Run a good antivirus scan
One common factor that slows down computer use is a virus or some other form of malignant program running on your computer, gobbling down resources for some nefarious reason. There are a lot of different varieties and flavors of these, so a robust antivirus program running on your computer is a must.

My preferred free antivirus program is Avast Free Antivirus. I’ve been using it for a long time and have had great success with it identifying viruses, particularly after installing it on the computers of friends and family.

Run a good spyware scan
Spyware is the not-quite-as-nefarious-but-still-annoying cousin of the stuff above. These packages usually just cause unwanted advertisements to regularly pop up on your computer, doing things like redirecting your web browser to ad sites or other websites when you don’t want to go there or simply showing you ads out of nowhere.

My preferred free spyware protection program is Microsoft Security Essentials. It does a very good job of identifying and removing spyware and adware from my computer; I’ve not had trouble with either in quite a while. This package also includes an antivirus component, but I prefer the above antivirus package as it seems to catch a thing here or there that Security Essentials misses.

Uninstall unwanted programs
It’s worthwhile to occasionally check your installed programs and remove any that you no longer use. This saves hard drive space, can sometimes remove programs that are staying in memory, and will remove some unneeded registry entries that are just causing a slight bit of slowdown on your computer.

Go to Start > Control Panel > Install/Uninstall Programs (this varies a bit depending on your specific flavor of Windows). You should have a list of programs available to you. Choose to uninstall anything that you don’t actively use.

Run a good registry cleaner
Another element of your computer that can cause slowdown is the registry. In simple terms, the registry is a place where pieces of information that need to be shared between programs is stored. The more programs you install on your computer, the more registry entries your computer has. The more registry entries your computer has, the longer registry lookups take (imagine a dictionary with more and more words in it). Since your computer does quite a lot of registry lookups, an overweight registry can certainly contribute to slowdowns.

My preferred free registry cleaner is CCleaner. It goes into your registry, seeks out registry entries for programs that you no longer use, and removes them. This is a great follow-up to malware and virus scans, both of which can put a lot of false registry entries onto your computer.

Use OpenDNS
OpenDNS is simply wonderful. It provides very simple internet protection and filtering, keeping you from visiting unwanted websites or downloading unwanted software in the first place. I consider it essential in any home where non-”power users” are actively using the internet (in other words, any homes with children in them).

You can find out much more about OpenDNS here, including links to download.

If you do all of this stuff, I’m almost sure your computer will be running faster and it’ll stay that way for much longer. These actions will save you from investing hundreds of dollars unnecessarily in new hardware and allow you to keep using them until they legitimately break down instead of just replacing a computer because of minor software issues.

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35 thoughts on “You Don’t Need a New Computer

  1. Also run the disk defragmenter & disk cleanup utilities that are on your computer. And I’ve found that issues with internet downloads are sometimes fixed by updating Java, Adobe Reader, etc.

  2. I agree — there is a lot you can do with an “old” computer to make it last. I kept my last laptop running for five and a half years, and it was hardware failures and a lack of room (the hard disk was smaller than your average music player) that finally did me in. I even stored all my data externally, but I ran out of room for the software and updates I needed!

    However, my parents have much older computers they’re quite happy with. The big difference is that I work on a computer for a living, so having something that can handle current software and run at a reasonable speed is a must. If, like my parents, you only check email, browse the internet and play games, then an old computer can last indefinitely.

  3. Be careful removing programs if you don’t know what they do! I accidentally removed my DVD player last summer because I didn’t recognize the name. I should have looked up the program online or something first.

  4. This is absolutely great advice. I just got rid of a computer that I had used for 5 years, but only because important components on the motherboard started to fail.

    Here are some other tips that might help:

    1. Resinstall the OS – This may be scary or impossible for some people, but it makes a huge difference.
    2. Buy more RAM – Maxing out your RAM can be a relatively cheap way improve performance by a lot
    3. Use Linux :) – My old computer had a 10 year-old video card and 512 MB of RAM, and it was still able to run the latest version of Ubuntu at very respectable speeds. Linux has excellent support for old hardware, so you’re rarely forced to buy new stuff just because you want to update your OS.

  5. One other tip to keep in mind is to keep your data files on a disk separate from your operating system. Don’t store pictures from your digital camera, movies downloaded from the internet, or music files from iTunes on the same disk as your Windows, Office, and other files. It leads to fragmentation of the drive and makes the operating system have to compete with files, both bad things. Invest in an external drive to store your data files. This also makes it much easier for re-installing the OS or recovering from a hard drive crash.

  6. I play tech support for most of my extended family. I’ve built up a little toolkit of regular maintenance to do on the computers to clean them out. This includes hijackthis, malwarebytes, and adaware. Now I’ll add CCleaner to my toolbox after all the good reviews!

  7. @ Kew — Good advice! I uninstalled my sound card, and accidentally uninstalled all of MS Office when I tried to uninstall only one program. (The version I had couldn’t be separated — oops!)

    In the years my computer was dying, I stripped off as much software as I could, but it became a liability. I need to keep up with current software and learn new skills to boost my resume, so buying a new computer after five and a half years was a need, not a want.

  8. Oops, I meant to say I accidentally uninstalled those programs! Luckily, I was able to restore them.

  9. My early computers usually ran out of hard drive before they ever died – in fact I still have a 1997 gateway laptop that still runs great – it just can’t run anything current LOL! It has a 32 MB hardrive!!

    My last computer (that I put to rest in 2006) it was the processing speed that finally did it in. It was just too darn slow to load up web pages – so what was the point of high speed internet without a decent processor?

    Now I’ve reached the point in my life that I am good with both. With cloud computing (and the cheapness of external hard drives) I’ll never worry about memory. Processing speed seems to have caught up with the mainstream internet as well – at least for my purposes. I don’t play games and I don’t stream video to the PC (that’s what smart TVs are for!)

    So now I can nurse a computer along for a while. I’m currently on a 2006 model that runs great. I can see it running for a few more years assuming some major technological changes don’t mix things up. Besides I’m doing most of my browsing on my iphone anyway and I plan to buy a tablet in the coming year (hello ipad2!). It may get to the point where the PC is only used for documents. I’m using it less and less for the web. IF that becomes the case I could have this PC for a decade or more.

  10. For old computers, Windows itself is a huge resource hog that should be uninstalled. Consider using Ubuntu (or some other Linux variant) instead.
    The performance will be much better and the price (free!) can’t be beat!

  11. Some other tips too:

    -run the disk defragmenter and disk cleanup programs on Windows OS computers.
    -Keep multimedia (photos, music, videos, etc.) on external hard drives, and back up often. You can store things on Mozy up to 2GB for free. More than that and it costs a certain amount a month.
    -keep your router secure. I found this out last night – someone jumped onto our internet to surf, and whatever they were doing slowed our internet down a ton. Urgh.
    -

  12. MalwareBytes Anti-Malware is another very useful tool. I’ve found that spyware and other malware can really bring your computer to a screeching halt. I run their free program regularly along with AVG’s free antivirus. Those two seem to really be able to clean up infested systems for me (I often work on other people’s PCs).

    OpenDNS is great for their filtering capabilities! +1 for them. I’ve used it at home and work for years.

    I’ve also had decent success w/ Linux on older equipment, but I don’t think that route is quite ready for the masses. (Linux Mint 10 is a great start if you want to test it out though!)

  13. I’ve started doing video processing, and my 8-year-old computer can’t even view some of the videos I make… so if it’s going to be a work machine, it needs a major upgrade. Another place where people overspend is buying a laptop when a desktop will do fine. You can buy a much better desktop for much less money than a laptop, and if your old monitor still works, don’t buy a new one.

  14. Also – people often simply don’t need the latest and greatest. I am a freelance web programmer, and my notebook is my livelihood. My previous one was Windows, maybe 5 or 6 years old, and long-term loaned from a friend who had upgraded. I finally gave it up partly because the battery was busted, partly because the friend wanted it back for occasional use, and partly because an opportunity came up that solved both those – another friend was selling a 2-3 year old MacBook. It does everything I need and then some.

    And remember – I’m a programmer, and the notebook is my tool of trade. At any one time I might be running a web server (or 2), a resource-intensive editor, and up to 3 or 4 browsers. Or a ‘virtual machine’ – whole extra ‘computer’ with a whole different OS, as well as the actual OS running the editor and a browser or 2!

    Most people hugely overestimate the power they need. (perhaps not storage, but that’s cheap and easily extendable with the mighty USB cable)

  15. It is always a bad idea from the point of view of performance to run two different security products simultaneously. Thus, I would counsel against having both AVG and Security Essentials active (even in “background”) at the same time.

  16. Any tips for Macs? Ours has not been “waking up” after sleeping, meaning we have to do a hard restart if we let it fall asleep.

  17. RE: Mel #15

    +1

    My mother-in-law got an inheritance and bought a brand new $1,000 computer with it. All she EVER does is draw pictures in Paint (!) and occasionally email. We tried to tell her she didn’t need something that powerful, but she was flush with cash and too excited.

  18. I came to say what David said – don’t run both AVG and MSE at the same time. MSE is an anti-virus (and a great, free one at that) so I’d recommend running that alone and doing a spyware scan with MalwareBytes periodically. AVG used to be the best free option until Security Essentials came along. And if you’re running Vista, spring for the Windows 7 upgrade if you can…it will most likely give your PC a speed boost.

  19. I routinely use PC’s for 5+ years and have no issues with performance despite some very heavy usage. I’ve found some of the best ways to keep a PC going are to partion your hardrive as soon as possible – keep the OS and software on the C drive and everythting else on at least 1 separate drive (big plus if you ever have to reinstall OS).
    USE A FIREWALL – I have never had a virus, ever!!
    Disable all the Windows processes you don’t use e.g. network printing! With everything Trent said this will keep a computer running until hardware failure.

    As a bonus – to keep (any) rechargable batteries going discharge them as often as you can. The motherboard of my 6 year old laptop failed and I was able to sell the battery as it was in as new condition. Batteries do have a memory. Fully discharge as often as you can.

  20. I’ve moved away from external hard drives and started using Jungle Disk. As long as you’re connected to the internet, it’ll appear on your computer just like a hard drive. A good way to add very cheap reliable storage to an old computer. It also can handle all of your backing up automatically. Spybot is a good alternative for spyware removal. And I love Avast antivirus too.

  21. My husband is such a gadget guy! He works on computers for a living, so he knows how to make the most of what we have, but there is something really attractive to him in having the latest cool thing. I let him buy an Xbox recently with the caveat that he is not allowed to pester me about something new for at least 6 months…which is going to be tricky since the Windows Phone 7 is coming out and I know he wants that too…

  22. @ #23 Ouch!

    I’d suggest a small version of linux e.g. Dam Small Linux. But outside of that and running small open source apps that cover your needs – rather than larger programs, you’re going to struggle.

    Good work keeping it running this long! Mine died 2 years ago.

  23. Thanks for this. I’m about to revamp the old computer and move it into the common area for the kids. They don’t need to play the high end video games. Perhaps by using this list, I can speed it up a bit. I might even splurge for a newer keyboard.

  24. This whole discussion has me laughing! My husband is the Stubbornest Person in the World when it comes to upgrading anything, especially computers. The oldest PC in the house is 11 years old and runs XP just fine after adding more RAM. Ditto what everyone has said about antivirus, antispyware, etc. But adding some inexpensive RAM (memory) is also a big performance booster. Also, don’t install any “bloatware” that comes with new hardware you add.

  25. Here’s a question for you: how do you disable Norton Antivirus?

    I bought a netbook (total cost €300) last summer after my iBook died–I think the motherboard is fine, but it’s not connected to the power supply anymore…Anyway: the netbook works just fine for everything, and I’ve gotten a decent kit of freeware to replace the licensed software on it. Thing is, things like Norton Antivirus, which have been effectively replaced by AVG, keep popping up to “remind” me to subscribe. It’s driving me nuts.

  26. #27 I have the answer!
    You have to go to the Norton website and download the uninstaller program, then I’d also run through with CCleaner just to make sure it’s totally uninstalled and so on. Good luck.

    I bought myself a MacBook Air last Christmas as I’m a student and a traveller, my plan is to make it last at least 5 years so I’m making sure I don’t install stuff that I don’t need (I’ll forget I installed it and then think it came with the system knowing me).

    The other thing to note with a computer of any kind is to clean it physically too. You will kill computer if you don’t clean the fans etc off as they won’t run properly and your machine will overheat and eventually die. My old laptop (4 years old) I recently cleaned physically, gave it a full system restore and installed Office 2007 and Skype for my grandparents. They think that it’s amazing and quick but it works great for them.

  27. I WISH I could convince my mother of this! To her credit, she can well afford to get a new computer almost every year – which is exactly what she does! (Okay, slight exageration – but certainly every 2 years.) And of COURSE she has to get one with the largest hard drive possible and the newest OS. Right now she has two laptops and two desktops, and she and my youngest brother are the only ones that use them! But then she won’t run the anti-virus or anti-spyware software! And then she calls me or one of my brothers to “fix it” when it’s slow. And the only things she does are play basic games, surf the internet, and write papers for school. It drives me bonkers.

  28. Two other good tips instead of upgrading: add more RAM if you’re not already near the recommended maximum, and swap in a faster hard drive. I’ve done both, for less than $100, and it lets me keep my computer at least three years before current-generation software starts to run slowly.

    Combining a new hard drive with reinstallation of your operating system and application software (perhaps using a disk-cloning utility) makes a huge difference in system performance.

  29. The best thing I ever did several years ago was go from a pay antivirus program (Norton/McAfee) to Avast! It immediately picked up several things that the others missed and it doesn’t drag down the system so badly.
    Yesterday, after I read this, I scanned my system with Avast and then ran Malwarebytes and then did the CCleaner. My computer is flying!

  30. Trent,

    Great post. This is an unfortunate result of mass consumption culture. Our kids are learning (from us) that things aren’t to be fixed, but replaced. Caring for our things the way you’ve outlined can also totally enhance the quality of use.

    But how can we teach this in our children? It will require a deep and consistent interaction not practiced by many parents today.

    I hope caring isn’t lost in technology.

    Good post,
    Jane

  31. Can someone tell me how to migrate itunes to my back up drive and then back to my pc? I would like reinstall my Windows OS but my biggest concern is itunes. Everything else I can handle.

  32. @sheila – copy the my music > itunes folder and all your music. when you reformat make sure you put your music back in the same folder and then copy and paste the itunes folder over as well.

  33. I don’t need a new computer – what I need right now is a new graphics card, and because of changing standards, therefore a new motherboard, CPU, and RAM. If I can pick them up secondhand, I will. And I only need a new graphics card because the new (reasonably cheap) monitor I bought to replace the one that broke is too big for the graphics card to handle in most games newer than 2007. I buy one or two new games a year; this year it’s going to be 3 games, because Diablo 3, Portal 2, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, are released later this year. I know from past experience I will get around 600 hours of entertainment out of those three games alone. Unfortunately, my machine is *just* a tiny bit too slow for these games, and I really do need to upgrade my OS to Windows 7 from XP.

    I think most of this machine is about … hm. 5 years old? Certainly I have harddrives in there circa 2000, and I think my dvd drive is from 2004. I replaced the power supply recently (the old one blew up on Christmas Eve), and bought a new terabyte harddrive (doubling the harddrive capacity of my household, whee!). I’d like to cycle out the old harddrives, simply because they are taking up space in the case and don’t have much space on them. The new power supply set me back a fair chunk of cash – it was by no means the cheapest available. On the other hand, it is probably going to last me a decade or more, is known to be operational at a wide range of voltages, and has excellent buffering capabilities, protecting the rest of my machine.

    Don’t treat your computer as a unit; it really isn’t. Don’t be afraid to undo the screws and poke around. So long as you plug everything back in, it should be fine (although disconnect it from electrical outlets and ground it first for safety).

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