Why is My Computer Slowing Down Over Time?

As your computer gets older it seems to get slower.  Is it your imagination or is it really slowing down and why?

It’s generally not your imagination.  As time goes on computers do generally slow down.  There are a handful of somewhat obvious reasons and one less known that can be the most detrimental.

Let’s start with the somewhat obvious reasons:

Software bloating and OS clutter and fragmented: Install/uninstall, rinse and repeat. Install a printer, a scanner, a digital camera an mp3 player and then get a different printer, a different scanner, etc, etc. Install the new devices while leaving the old device instances installed.  Over the 3-5 year life-cycle of an average computer it’s not uncommon to go through a handful of connected peripherals (especially printers). You purchase a printer and install all of HP’s provided software, drivers and firmware and then one day two years later while trying to clear a paper jam you strip a gear.  In the current generation of throw-away electronics you probably aren’t paying to get that printer fixed.  Instead, you get a replacement and while shopping you notice that Canon is having a sale on that all-in-one you always wanted.  So, now you install Canon’s software, drivers and firmware and away you go, leaving HP’s software installed.  Over time the hardware and software instances installed on a machine can add up and add clutter and burden to the registry.  Also, is that still an HP icon down by the system clock?  If you didn’t manually uninstall the HP software it probably is and every time you boot your computer it loads that software for a device no longer in use and then runs in the background checking for updates, trying to poll the printer for ink levels and doing all of its intended tasks, adding load to the CPU and RAM for a device that no longer exists.  So, should you uninstall it?  Sure, that might help. But, now there are some gaps (fragmentation) where that installed software used to be.  The newer operating systems do a better job of filling in those gaps over time and you can clean up some of the fragmentation by running disk defragment utilities, but, as you can envision as time goes on the operating system image can become cluttered.

Newer software tends to use more resources (especially RAM and CPU cycles): Now that computers are faster software there is room to more graphically pleasing.  As software evolves more features tend to get added as well (wait, Google Chrome has a hidden game “Dinosaur Runner” you can play?).   Combine features and fancy graphics with less focus on the hyper-efficiency of early software development (a nod here to the magical team of devs that squeezed the entire game “The Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past” down to below 1 Megabit in size), as time goes on, your spreadsheet and other programs tend to take more resources with each new version.  That translates into more load on your computer while running the same programs you have been running.

More programs want to run on Startup: Take a look at your System Tray.  If you’re unsure what that is, look for the little icons down by your clock.  Unless you have changed your Tray settings, you will likely see a small arrow on the left-hand side of those icons.  If you click on that arrow, you will see …drum roll please… more icons.  These icons are pointing to applications and services that are running in the background.  You probably didn’t manually open/run those applications, so, why are they there?  They are part of other installed applications and they are set to open and run along with the Windows startup processes.  Some of them, like antivirus or cloud backup services need to be running in order to protect your system or actively backup new files. Some may serve to provide alerts for connected devices.  Some of them are there so that when you want to open their parent applications they seem to open faster.  More and more developers are having their applications (or at least parts of them) load with Windows and run in the background all the time.  So, while you may think you only have one program open, there are bunches that are running behind the scenes.  Sometimes you can change the settings for these applications to stop them from loading with Windows, but, be sure you know why they are there and what the implications of them not running with startup are before disabling them.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the more obvious reasons, let’s look at one that is often overlooked or of which you are unaware, your hard drive.  As mentioned in previous articles, hard disk drives have some weaknesses.  One of the most notable weaknesses is that the data is written to the platters using magnetism.  Over time the magnetism can fade and parts of the platters (the subsection of which are referred to as “sectors” and “clusters”) starts to fade.  It’s bad enough that the system has to parse the whole disk to look for the fragmented pieces of files and programs you want to run, now add that it might need to re-read a sector several times due to the weakened sectors that accumulate over time.  An hour-glass that once took a few seconds to disappear starts to take longer and longer as it shuffles through all the data that has been added and is fragmented, with reduced resources that are taken up by all the added background processes with parts that it is having trouble reading.

So, if your computer is slowing down, give us a call or bring it by the shop and the techs can help to speed it up by reducing fragmentation and cluttered registries, removing unnecessary startup applications and if it’s time, maybe replacing your old hard drive.  In most cases we can image your drive to a new drive and you won’t even know anything has changed… except that it runs much faster. – Jayson