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Maintaining Your Computer

When you buy a car, it comes with a manual.  That manual tells you everything you need to know about maintaining your car.  Whether or not we follow the instructions is up to us.  Those who do, tend to keep a car forever, most who do not,...well we buy a lot of cars.  Computers are much like cars, they need maintaining.  The problem is that most users have no idea of the things you need to do to keep your computer running smoothly over time.  We have been conditioned to just buy another one.  This page will tell you why your system slows down and more importantly, what you can do to avoid that and to keep it optimized and running as best as you can.

Why Windows Slows down

There are many reasons why your computer will slow down over time.  However there are three main reasons that most people will encounter.  Getting a handle of these three will go far towards keeping your computer running smoothly.

Windows Registry

The Windows Registry is essentially the table of contents that Windows uses to inform itself of what is and is not on the system.  Over time through installations of programs, the registry gets bigger and bigger.  Files listed in the registry get duplicated because of poorly written software.  The problem comes in that simply uninstalling programs will not clear up the problem.  Most programs do not delete themselves from the registry.  An analogy to better explain this follows.  Imagine a hotel, you sign in, stay awhile, then you leave, but when you leave, you do not sign out.  Since the hotel does not know you left, they keep putting people in new rooms instead of cleaning the old ones and putting people logically in there.  You can see over time how this may cause problems.  Eventually you run out of rooms, or waste time passing up rooms you could use.  This analogy leads us to the second reason why your computer slows down.


Fragmentation is relatively easy to explain.  Computers write information to a hard drive in sequential order.  The first place it finds on a hard drive, it writes information there, then it goes to the next place and continues.  Pretty logical, right?   Here is where it becomes a problem.  Imagine that each spot on a hard drive is labeled 1-100.  Each spot holds a certain amount of information.  For analogy sake, lets say that Windows takes up spots 1-25 (since it was installed first).  Next you install program X, it takes spots 26-30.   You keep installing programs until you have the first 75 spots taken.  You uninstall Program X, so now spots 26-30 are free.  Now when you install the next program, program Y.  Windows naturally takes spots 26-30, but there is a problem, Program Y needs more space than spots 26-30 has.  Actually, Windows does not see this as a problem, it simply writes in spots 26-30 and then finds the next available hard drive space to write to, spots 76 and forward.  So now that program is now "Fragmented", it is not one whole file written in one spot, it is in two or more places.  The problem is that when the hard drive accesses the files, it has to work harder because it has to seek the information in multiple places on the hard drive.  That takes time, ie. your computer is slower.

Defragmenting solves this problem.  The process of defragmenting entails finding all the information that is spread out over different places on the hard drive and putting them in one place again.  Like telling your child to pick up his toys that are all over the house and putting them back in the toy box in his room.  things are neat and orderly again.  Check out this video for a simplified explanation.

Programs running in the background

Over time we can find ourselves with hundreds of programs on our system.  With today's large hard drives, it typically is not a problem.  However, when you install these programs, they typically do things that will slow down your computer. 

When you install a program, it has become common that that software will ask you to install other innocent looking software and/or ask you to let the program start when Windows starts.  Most users typically click yes through all these questions, which leads to a slower computer.  If you look at your taskbar in the lower right corner of your screen, you may see icons listed.  In general, the more icons you see listed there, the slower your computer is running.  Why?  Follow along.  Let's say you have 30 programs on your system and 20 of them start with the computer, what does that mean?  When Windows starts, it loads everything Windows needs to get going, then it looks at a folder called the "startup" folder, here is a list of all the programs you told windows to start with the computer.  So before you can do anything, Windows goes one by one opening the 20 programs.  By the time Windows is done, you have 20 programs open and running in the background (meaning you do not really see they are running or doing anything).  These programs are using memory and using it without a purpose.  So, you notice your system is slow.  It is slow because all the memory you could be using that would speed things up are being sucked up by programs in the background that are not doing anything useful for you.  The solution to this is to turn off these programs which we will discuss in the "How to fix a slow computer" page.

Windows has a simple program to stop programs running in the background.  It's called msconfig.  On XP, go to start - run, in the run box type in 'msconfig' (minus the single quote) and hit enter.  A dialog box will emerge, go to the startup tab and you will see a list of programs installed on your system.  Each one that is starting with your computer will have a check mark next to it.  Word to the wise, if you are not sure what each program you are unchecking, leave it alone.  Unchecking the wrong program can cause problems.  If you recognize a program and determine you do not need to start it with your computer, uncheck it.  Once done selecting your programs, click ok.  Your computer will ask to restart to complete changes.  Once you restart, you should notice a increase in speed at boot.  A dialog box will appear telling you that you made changes.  Make sure to check the box telling the computer to not show this box again, or you will see the dialog box everytime you boot your computer.  For a more friendly version of what I just explained, watch the following video.