After a few years in the industry of fixing computers, I've learned that there's only so much that can be done software wise to speed up a computer. People often complain about slow and sluggish systems so we naturally do the following things on the software side:

  • Install Updates for the OS
  • Disable non-essential startup services and programs
  • Clean up the system of unnecessary files
  • Defragment the Hard Drive
  • Scan and clean the system registry (in windows-based systems only)

After all of this time, we notice that the system is still running slow. What could the issue be? We poke around more on the software side, we contemplate reinstalling the OS, or we think about doing other things that could potentially solve our issue. The truth of the matter is that software may not be the only thing holding the system back.

Hardware and its Limitations

A little known fact is that hardware has limitations. Software can always be tweaked until it's just right and works a certain way. Hardware, on the other hand, is extremely temperamental and cannot usually be tweaked too much before it actually died on you. There are several components that are critical to the machines performance:

  • Hard Drive
  • RAM
  • CPU
  • Memory Controller (North Bridge)
  • I/O Controller (South Bridge)

Hard Drive

Hard drives are the portion of your computer where the information is stored usually on a magnetic drive. Data on these drives are stored as magnetic spots where small read/write heads will collect information from the spinning drive.

Data on these drives is split up into tracks and sectors.

Tracks
are literally circles of sectors that sprial into the center of the hard drive
Sectors
are 512-byte pockets where data can be stored

In order for the r/w head to retrieve data that is being requested, the hard drive must spin and the r/w head must move the proper location where the data is. The mechanics of this operation takes time which causes the system to slow down.

Options to Consider
  • Consider purchasing a Solid State Drive (SSD)
  • Consider purchasing a hard drive with a higher rpm

Memory

Random Access Memory (RAM) is basically like the red blood cells of the computer. The RAM stores information from software in chips that are close to the CPU. The CPU can access the information in the RAM at high speeds. The more RAM you have the more information you can hold in memory which means the faster your computer will be.

One important note on memory is OS version. Please see the table below on the minimum and recommeded memory requirements for Mac OSX, Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7:

Windows XP Windows Vista Windows 7 Mac OSX 10.4 (Tiger) Mac OSX 10.5 (Leopard) Mac OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard)
Minimum Memory
128MB 1GB (512MB for Home Basic) 1GB for 32-bit and 2GB for 64-bit 256MB 512MB 1GB
Recommended Memory
1GB 2GB (1GB for Home Basic) 2GB for 32-bit and 4GB for 64-bit 1GB 2GB 4GB

Note: on Windows x86 (32-bit systems) the maximum amount of memory that can be used is 3GB. Even if you add a total of 4GB the OS will only see 3GB of memory.

Using this table as a reference, this will allow you to quickly see the recommended amount of RAM for your system. Be sure to check with your manufacture to see the maximum amount RAM that is allowed by your computer. See Upgrading RAM for additional information.

Upgrading the RAM on your computer will greatly increase the speed of your system in all cases.

CPU

The CPU is essentially the brain of the computer. The CPU does all of the logic for the computer and does calculations in a matter of nanoseconds. CPUs are a large part of the computer but cannot always necessarily be replaced. If you're using a Laptop or Mac then you should not attempt to upgrade your CPU. These systems are almost always tailored to match the other major components like GPU, Motherboard, Socket, and Chipset.

If you're using a PC Desktop then you can probably upgrade your CPU if you want. Although, much consideration has to go into the purchase of a new CPU.

  • Will the new processor be compatible with the current hardware?
  • Will the new processor fit my current socket?
  • Will the new processor take too many watts?
  • Will the new processor have the right specs that will work on my system?

The CPU isn't the most practical solution to increasing the speed of a system and is usually the absolute last option in any computer related issue. We do NOT advise anyone replacing their CPU without proper knowledge beforehand.

A final note

The most practical solution there is to keeping a computer running healthy is to do the following:

  • Keep OS up-to-date with the most current service packs, security patches, and other software updates
  • Regularly defragment your hard drive using Defraggler
  • Disable all non-essential system services and programs
  • Keep a working anti-virus program running at all times and keep definitions up to date (We strongly recommend Microsoft Security Essentials (it's free).
  • Regularly clean your system with Ccleaner (PC only)

The best way to boot your performance hardware wise is to upgrade your memory. Most memory chips are relatively cheap and just about anyone can install the chips themselves!

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