Secure IT Foundation

My computer is very slow, why?

Posted on: September 20, 2009

Sunday’s blog entries are a little light relief from the usual serious security. We are using this day’s posting for those questions we are asked the most but may not always have a security angle. Today’s question is ‘why does my computer run so slowly?’ Philosophically the answer should what do you mean by slow? The speed of a computer has changed so much over the years that a slow computer to one person is a Ferrari to another. It is a matter of perspective!

Our consensus that a reasonable computer should go from switch on to reading a web page in about 1-2 minutes. Most programs should start within 30 seconds or less. If it takes ten seconds to type one character or ten minutes to start up then you have a problem. If your computer was built before 2003 and has always taken ten minutes to start then it will never be much faster. If your computer was fast but has slowed down considerably then you have a problem either with the hardware, you have run out of disk space, need to de-fragment your hard drive or you may have a virus / spyware infection.

The most common fix for people is to increase the memory. Changing processors will never give huge differences on the same motherboard compared to more memory. Every time your computer runs out of real memory then it pretends it has more instead of crashing. It does this by using your hard drive as ‘virtual memory’ but hard drives work 100 times slower than your memory… can you see how your fast computer can slow to a crawl as soon as it runs out of real memory.

If your problem only affect you when on the Internet then perhaps you have a damaged cable, your router or modem may need rebooting (turn off power, count to 20, plug in power), you may have a wireless problem or its just your ISP is giving you a poor service.

So what hardware do you need for reasonable fast computer and does it matter if I buy a Mac or PC?

Buying a new Mac just means it uses the same type of hardware as a PC but will have Mac OSX instead of Windows as the operating system. Most new Macs can still run Windows XP / Vista / 7 using a program called Boot Camp.

Our suggestion is:

  • Operating system
    Windows for maximum compatibility with printers, scanners etc, gaming and cheaper parts
    Mac for specialist Mac software, Apple service and the shiny factor
  • Processor
    A single 1.6ghz or faster processor will run XP for light use (email / Internet)
    A single 2.4ghz or faster processor will run XP / Vista / 7 / OSX for general use
    A dual / triple / quad 2.4ghz or faster processor will run the latest games, do video editing, and generally feel fast in use
  • Memory
    Once memory was expensive and you always got the minimum with your new computer. Now it is cheap and you should have 2GB as the minimum regardless of the computer. Any 32 bit version of Windows can have problems with more than 3GB, so unless you want to run a space program or have very specialist needs, over 3GB is usually a waste.  The latest processors will work with up to 12GB memory on a home computer but remember you will have to use Windows 64 bit which is very different to the usual 32 bit version and may have problems as a game machine. Macs don’t have any problem with size, so over 2GB, the more the merrier!
  • Hard Drive
    A minimum of 20GB will work for any operating system, but the more information / CDs / Films etc you want to store on the computer, the greater the space you will need. Ideally you should have two hard drives per computer, one for daily use, and one for backups of the other drive. RAID 1 can do this for you automatically or you can schedule hourly / daily / weekly backups from your operating system. If you want to encrypt your hard drive(s), and you should, then don’t forget that the bigger the drive the longer the initial set-up will take. A 1TB drive will take 24-48 hours to encrypt!
  • Video Card
    If you or children want to play the latest games then you will need a video card to match. It doesn’t make much difference is your processor is a bit slower than recommended, but the wrong choice of video card will limit your choice of games severely. Want to use your HD TV as a monitor then make sure you have HDMI or DVI out. Want to see TV on your computer then you will need a card that is capable or have a separate TV / Cable / Satellite decoder card fitted.
  • Sound
    Unless you want to make music or have specialist needs, then the built in sound chips, AC97 / HD Audio, will give a reasonable sound when run through a hifi or amplifier.

To give you an idea, the computer this post was written on is two years old. It has a 2.4ghz Quad Core2 processor, 2GB RAM, 3x1TB RAID hard drives, and a8800 GTS video card. It runs both Windows 7 and Ubuntu Linux 9.0.4 reasonably fast, plays most games and in conjunction with the video card, does a fast job of encoding video files. The very latest computers make it seem slow, but older computers seem very slow to us.

So if your computer feels slow, think about how old it is, when it was last cleaned inside as dust heats up the computer, and what has changed to the software recently. Odd smells or noises are clues that problems are very close and tell you to make a backup urgently while you can!



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