Increase any PC’s performance with these 10 steps

There’s so much information out there about PC performance (especially on Windows machines), it’s difficult to be sure what’s right and what’s not so helpful. Here are 10 proven performance enhancements you can make to your computer, many of which are free.

1: Get rid of malware

New machines shouldn’t have malware on them. But one of the most common causes of the “my PC used to be fast, and now it isn’t!” complaint is actually the presence of malware. Malware can sneak onto a computer in a zillion different ways and quite often it sits in the background slowing your machine as it sends out spam emails, searches for other computers to infect, works on cracking cryptography, or performs any number of the other nefarious tasks that hackers like to use their botnet slaves for. There’s a good chance that the malware brought even more friends with it (that’s often how you see computers with thousands of viruses on them not long after the initial infection), and the infection may be bad enough to justify a wipe and reload. My first step in investigating a slow system is usually a virus scan.

2: Upgrade to a better video card

For typical business productivity tasks, a video card probably isn’t an upgrade that will have a lot of value. But for gamers and other similar uses, a video card is a slam-dunk upgrade. If your current card and motherboard support SLI or CrossFireX, adding a second card and bridging them will be a good option as well. In some scenarios, better video cards can be a huge benefit even without heavy onscreen video work, because certain applications can leverage the GPUs for calculations.

3: Get a faster drive

Many times, the real performance issue is the speed of disks. Look at numbers like the RPMs, cache size, seek speed, and transfer rate to justify buying a faster drive. Often, a good drive will seem slow because the computer’s power settings are allowing it to spin down. You may want to consider changing these settings to make sure that the disk is more likely to be ready to work when you need it to. While the SSD vs. hard disk debate is still continuing, SSDs usually seem to feel faster to users. Boot times are usually cut for sure. But something about an SSD makes a system feel more responsive or “snappy” to use, and for day-to-day work, that’s a great feeling.

4: Address hardware and driver issues

All too often, system slowness is actually a sign of hardware problems. For example, if your CPU isn’t being properly cooled, it will often have its speed reduced in an effort to keep it from overheating. Recoverable errors with disk access can kill your throughput while not showing up as a dead drive. And bad hardware drivers can often make the whole system slow, especially video drivers. Using utilities to check your CPU speed and various temperatures, scanning for hard drive errors, and updating your drivers is a good start to investigating performance problems. Often, problems caused by hardware or drivers are not just poor speeds, but system flakiness too.

5: Use a RAID

Using a RAID can dramatically lower the read and write speeds of your disks, depending on the RAID level you choose. You will want to do some research to see what RAID level fits your needs the best. Personally, I am a fan of RAID 1, 6, and 10 because I feel that they offer appropriate levels of data protection along with a good measure of speed improvements.

6: Try a different browser

It’s no secret: Different browsers perform differently, and most people spend a lot of time in their Web browser. Benchmarks really muddy the browser speed conversation. Some browsers perform well on some but do poorly on others, even when they are supposed to test the same thing. The problem with the benchmarks is that what they usually test is not real work performance! While JavaScript is an important part of the modern Web, few Web applications beat on the JavaScript engine hard enough to produce a noticeable impact on performance. That said, it’s been my experience that the Chrome browser is the fastest for actual work. If you want to have your Web browser feel more responsive and lively, consider a switch to Chrome.

7: Remove junk

It’s easy to have a computer get loaded up with junk that slows it down. The worst part is, we invite this garbage into our lives by installing “helpful” utilities, toolbars, and other add-ons. I could easily write a list of 10 kinds of computer-stalling junk. Here are some of the things you’ll want to seek out and remove for best performance:

  • Automatic update systems for various applications (but be careful: some apps, like Flash, Acrobat, QuickTime, and Web browsers are prime malware targets and you will want to keep these up-to-date)
  • Things that run on startup
  • Windows services you don’t really need
  • Crapware from the PC maker
  • Toolbars
  • Browser plug-ins (the Skype browser plug-in is an especially bad offender, I’ve found)
  • P2P applications
  • Web servers and database servers that were installed by since-removed applications, but left behind

8: Add a faster DNS lookup server

Most ISPs love to brag about how much bandwidth they are giving you. But they don’t mind letting the rest of their infrastructure slowly get overwhelmed or deteriorate. Among the biggest offenders are the DNS servers our ISPs use. If you want to know why things seem to take forever to start loading, slow DNS servers are often the cause. Consider adding a fast DNS server as your primary DNS server in your TCP/IP settings. Google’s Public DNS server is a great option.

9: Defrag

Defragging your hard drives is a great way to get some more performance. While modern Windows systems automatically defrag on a regular basis, I’ve found that the Windows defragging is fairly unaggressive. We’ve reviewed a lot of different defrag apps here at TechRepublic. I suggest that you check out your alternatives and find one that does a better job for you.

10: Check network connectivity

Time and time again, “system slowness” actually is caused by networking issues. Our computers do so much on the Internet that slowness there can affect just about everything you do on a regular basis. While there isn’t enough space to write an exhausting troubleshooting list here, some of the things you should try (or investigate) are:

  • Replacing the network cables, switches, routers, WiFi access points, etc.
  • Calling the ISP and checking the distance from the CO (for DSL) or the local segment’s current load (for cable); the ISP may need to rewire or rework its connectivity. Satellite customers will want to double-check their dish installation and ensure that it is tightly locked down and pointed in the right direction.
  • Malware scanning on all PCs to see if malware is burdening the network
  • Inspecting the wiring of the phone lines (for DSL) or coax (cable customers) to look for loose connections, corrosion, or flaky wires
  • For cable customers, finding out how many splitters are between the line from the pole and their modem. If it is more than one (and preferably only a two-way splitter), they should rewire so that they have only a single two-way splitter between the pole and the modem to ensure the cleanest signal possible.

11 ways to fix your laptop

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or you just take your notebook from room to room at home, your portable gets subjected to a lot more punishment than desktops do. With this in mind, notebook manufacturers construct their systems to stand up to everything from violent jostling to occasional spills.

Despite their relatively hearty constitutions, laptops are often quick to show signs of wear and tear — and not just on the outside. Any one of these issues can cost you time and money in not just lost productivity, but on tech support calls and shipping labels as well. Thankfully, your notebook’s ailments can often be cured with a quick fix. To pinpoint the most common problems, we picked the brains of senior technical-support officials at Alienware, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba. And we’ve provided solutions for getting your laptop back up and running with minimal effort.

1. Overheating

Symptom: Computer crashes, freezes
Solution: Clean out air vents, put filtered material over the inhalation vent, or update BIOS
Overheating can rob your laptop of performance and often cause a host of hiccups, such as system crashes and freezing. Every computer generates lots of heat, but laptops are especially susceptible to overheating due to their small size and lack of ventilation. Excessive dust can clog air vents and deprive your system of cold air to cool off the CPU. You can often solve overheating issues simply by cleaning out these air vents with a cloth or keyboard cleaner.To prevent further dust buildup, place a piece of filtered cloth, say from a Swiffer, over the inhalation vent. Don’t place one over the exhaust vent, as that’s where hot air is supposed to flow out of the system quickly. If the cloth doesn’t work, you may want to update your system’s BIOS, which controls the laptop’s hardware. Most manufacturers offer an installation file that updates BIOS files automatically, which often address heat management. Just make sure that your notebook is connected to the power supply when updating the BIOS.

MORE: Laptop Interactive Buying Guide

2. Slow Hard Drive

Symptom: Excessive program load times, slow file transfers
Solution: Disk defragmentation
Disorganized information on your hard drive can sap performance because the computer requires more time to sift through data fragments and bad sectors on the drive. This problem can be cleared up easily (but not especially quickly; defragging can sometimes take hours) using the built-in Windows tool called Disk Defragmenter. You can access this program through the Programs menu in the Accessories or System Tools folder. Simply click the Analyze button to see if your disk drive requires defragmenting, and then click Defragment to begin.
Other options include the free Power Defragmenter, and Diskeeper 2007 ($29.95 Home edition, $49.95 Pro, $99.95 Pro Premier), which offers more features like complete automation, real-time defragmenting, and InvisiTasking technology, which allows Diskeeper to run in the background without draining resources.

3. Battery Won’t Hold a Charge

Symptom: Your notebook runs only a few minutes when unplugged
Solution: Battery replacement
Over their lifespans, lithium-ion batteries can lose the ability to hold a charge. After a few years, some batteries will last only a fraction of the rated runtime. Replacing a battery is relatively simple; most pop out from the bottom or back of the laptop.
Many retailers, however, charge hundreds of dollars for a new battery. Sites like batteries.com specialize in discount laptop batteries and can save you money on a brand new battery for your laptop. For example, a Dell Latitude D620 Li-ion battery costs $139 on Dell’s Web site and $83.99 on batteries.com, as of press time. (The company even offers a two-year warranty and 45-day money-back guarantee on all laptop-battery orders.)

4. Need More Memory

Symptom: Sluggish performance when using multiple applications, hangups, excessive bootup time
Solution:Upgrade your RAM, try a ReadyBoost-enabled USB drive
If your laptop takes a long time to boot up, you may want to conduct an audit of your startup programs. To do this, place your cursor over the icons in the taskbar at the bottom right of the screen. If you rarely use any of these programs, right-click and disable them. To take more control over what programs load when you boot up, download System Suite 7 Professional ($59.95), which includes, among 60 powerful tools, a startup manager and optimizer.Should you need to purchase a new memory chip, Kingston (www.kingston.com) and Crucial (www.crucial.com) offer tools on their Web sites for determining which products are compatible with your notebook. You can also try www.4allmemory.com. Vista users can use the new Memory Diagnostics tool in Windows Vista; just type “memory” into the search bar, and the OS will scan your physical memory for problems and advise replacement, if necessary.

Vista users might also want to pick up a ReadyBoost-enabled USB drive from the likes of Corsair, Kingston, Lexar, or SanDisk. These devices can improve some programs’ startup times by using free space on the USB drive as a temporary memory cache.

5. Hard Drive Failure

Symptom: Loud clicking sounds whenever the computer accesses data from the hard drive
Solution: Online backup sites, replace hard drive
Obviously, the best defense against a hard drive crash is a good backup solution. These days, plenty of options abound, but among software solutions, we like Norton Save & Restore 2.0 ($49) for its ease of use. If you’re going to back up your data online, go with Mozy.com (free for 2GB, and $4.95 per month unlimited), which backs up your system automatically and tracks changes in the background without hogging precious system resources.Even if you go the online route, a hard drive failure will bring your notebook to its knees. Fortunately, a number of tools can test your drive for problems. Hitachi offers some in the support section of its website (www.hitachi.com). If hard drive replacement becomes necessary, be sure to back up as much data as possible and then switch out the hard drive. You can find step-by-step directions for the replacement procedure on most manufacturers’ support sites. For instance, Lenovo goes the extra mile with videos showing the replacement process; type “replacement movie” on www.lenovo.com to check it out.

If you want to preserve the data on your old drive and make switching to a new one as painless as possible, we recommend Apricorn’s EZ Upgrade Universal & Hard Drive Upgrade Bundle. Available in 40GB, 80GB, 100GB, and 120GB capacities, and ranging in price from $109 to $149, this kit enables you to upgrade your hard drive in three steps. The package includes cloning and backup software, and it lets you use your old hard drive for backup purposes–assuming it still works.

6. Bad Keyboard

Symptom: Missing or Loose Keys
Solution: Replace keyboard
Keyboards get the brunt of abuse on any laptop, either from typing or spilled coffee. As a result, keys can often become dislodged or worn out. Thankfully, laptop makers provide quick online guides for replacing keyboards on their support pages; simply type “keyboard replacement” into the search bar or check the manufacturer’s knowledge base.
For instance, Toshiba’s “Ask Iris” document database provides hardware-replacement guides. To remove the old keyboard, you’ll typically just have to remove some screws from the bottom of the laptop and unlock the keyboard with a button or snap mechanism, which secures it to the frame. Replacement keyboards are usually covered under warranty or can be purchased relatively cheaply. Dell, for example, sells them for $15 to $25. The company also offers plastic keyboard protectors for $10 to $15 on its Web site. CompuCoveroffers keyboard protectors for a variety of other laptops.

7. Can’t Connect to Wireless Network

Symptom: No Internet connection, frequent time-outs while Web browsing
Solution: Make sure wireless is turned on, smarter software tools, make sure router is broadcasting network name (SSID)
Part of taking your laptop everywhere on the go is expecting to be able to connect to any wireless network, whether in an airport, coffee shop, or hotel. But wireless networks, by their very nature, are finicky beasts. Some laptops come with an external button or switch, separate from the software settings, to enable wireless connectivity. Always make sure this wireless toggle is switched on. Also make sure that the network you’re connecting to is broadcasting its network name or SSID.If you’d rather steer clear of networking issues altogether, or want a tool to help you troubleshoot without having to learn any lingo, download an all-in-one utility like Network Magic (free, or purchase the Premium edition starting at $29.99). It helps you easily set up and secure your network, complete with a comprehensive network map, as well as repair broken wireless Internet connections. Road warriors should consider JiWire’s Hotspot Helper ($24.95 per year), which will not only show where you can log on via Wi-Fi but also will protect your privacy while you surf the Web wirelessly. In addition, this utility offers secure e-mail delivery, just like you get back in the office.

MORE: Best Windows 8.1 Browser: Chrome vs. Firefox vs. Internet Explorer

8. Stuck Pixels

Symptom: Green or red dots on your notebook’s screen

Solution: Massage away dead pixels
Nonconforming or stuck pixels can be a nuisance on an otherwise functional laptop LCD. The pixels usually remain green or red without lighting up properly with the other pixels on the display. Unfortunately, manufacturers will not replace an LCD for just one or two stuck pixels; in fact, some require as many as 10 to 18 dead pixels before they’ll take action.
There is a solution, though. Take a soft material, like a felt cloth, and gently rub in a circular motion around the stuck pixel. Performing this trick will usually get the pixel to light up properly. Once you find the right location and pressure to illuminate the pixel, hold your finger there for up to two minutes, and voila, no more stuck pixel.

9. System Crash

Symptom: Notebook won’t boot up
Solution: Remove the hard drive and place it into an external enclosure. Run Checkdisk.
Most people go into panic mode when their computers refuse to boot up. More often than not, however, the problem is as simple as a missing system file or a bad sector on the hard drive. To determine if that’s the case, you can remove your hard drive using the instructions from the manufacturer and place the drive into a USB enclosure–these are external housings for internal hardware. You can find them at most retailers like Best Buy, Staples, or Newegg, for less than $40.Next, connect the enclosure’s USB cable to an open USB port on a working PC. If the file system is still intact, the hard drive should show up as an external drive and allow you to transfer data to and from the drive. Next, try running Checkdisk on the drive by opening a DOS prompt (Start/Programs/Accessories/Command Prompt) and typing in X: where X is the letter of your external drive. Then hit Enter. Now type “chkdsk /f.” Your system may ask you to dismount the drive; this is okay, so type Y and then hit Enter.

Your notebook will now display some information about your drive (file system type and serial number) and then scan the drive, fixing any errors it encounters. An error report will print out, so you can see what changes were made to the drive. If all went well, you’ll be good to go once you plug the hard drive back into the crashed notebook and power it on.

10. Virus or Spyware Infestation

Symptom: Excessive pop ups, slow downloads
Solution: Install antispyware programs, use free virus scans
Nothing can cripple your system like malware. The first line of defense is always prevention. It’s best to have a subscription to a service like Norton 360 ($79per year). Norton impressed us with this unobtrusive security suite that offers stellar antivirus and spyware protection, file backups, and performance tuning without a complex user interface. The Norton suite also offers a firewall option that will silently block most threats while alerting the user to friendly programs requesting Web access.If you don’t want to spend any money, you can bolster your defenses with free tools like Ad-Awareand Spybot: Search and Destroy. While both are excellent tools, each has its own strengths and weaknesses–Spybot is better at tracking down malicious code like pop-ups, while Ad-Aware does a better job removing cookies (text files that advertisers copy to a user’s computer to track surfing habits). We recommend scheduling periodic scans with both of these tools, just to be safe.

If these tools fail to locate a virus, you may want to try Trend Micro’s free House Call at housecall.trendmicro.com, which is sometimes more adept at identifying viruses than other programs. Trend Micro also offers a free database of viruses and manual removal tips, if automated solutions fail.

11. Outdated Video Drivers

Symptom: Garbled or distorted video

Solution: 
Download the latest drivers
Video issues are a common complaint among notebook users. The trouble often stems from newer games and software that require the latest video card drivers to work. Even though most laptops ship with the latest driver files, some systems will be outdated by the time the machine is sold. That’s why it’s critical to update your video card’s drivers frequently–sometimes the audio and network drivers may need to be updated as well.
Many notebook manufacturers offer installation packs that will give you the latest drivers and offer automated tools to update the rest of your notebook. Lenovo, for example, hosts its driver files at lenovo.com/support. Alienware tests new drivers for all its machines and hosts them in the support area of its Web site. However, if you fail to find drivers at your notebook manufacturer’s site, you can try the video card’s manufacturer, usually ATI or Nvidia. If your system comes with an integrated graphics chip from Intel, your best bet is the laptop manufacturer’s website, although you can also try Intel’s support and downloads page.

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