Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How to save an old PC computer - don't replace it, upgrade it!

Having read a few posts lately from people wondering whether their old computers will hold up, I felt I needed to speak up. There is NO REASON to replace a computer unless there is something MECHANICALLY wrong with it. This is one arena in which I am extremely frugal because computers are just parts, and parts can be recycled and swapped. (Laptops, not so much, but they can still be saved.)

What can you do for a computer which is slow, crashes a lot, takes a long time to open programs, etc etc? Ask this first: Is it mechanical? Do you hear strange noises from inside the computer (grinding, excess heat, etc) when it is not doing anything? (If the noises are in conjunction with doing something like loading a CD, that may point to a specific mechanical problem with the CD drive.)

Most performance problems with computers are not mechanical, they are caused by the software. Here's some steps to consider to improve your Windows computer's performance if there is no mechanical problem:

1. Defrag, defrag, defrag. Defragmentation rearranges the data on your hard drive, and this can significantly speed up your computer if it has been a long time or you have never done this. If the pieces of data (such as the individual files that run Word) are all in different physical locations on the hard drive, it can take a lot longer to run Word. So run Disk Defragmenter (should be in System Tools) at least twice if you haven't done it in a long time, or ever.

2. Uninstall old programs you don't use anymore. You might have a lot of programs which open at start-up and then just sit there, using up all your memory, but you aren't using them. Uninstall them or change their settings so they don't open at start-up. The only things you really should have running all the time automatically are firewalls and virus or spyware protection programs. You can always open the programs later if you need them.

3. Check for spyware. You can download Spy Sweeper or McAfee or Norton or another program to see if there are hidden programs or viruses on your computer which are sucking power. These programs can also compromise your computer's security, so you should be doing this regularly even if the computer seems to be working fine.

4. Clear up space on a near-full hard drive. Your computer needs some space on the hard drive to swap files around - so if you're near 80% full, you'll need to delete some files. Back them up or email them to yourself, do whatever you need to do, but keep your utilization below 80%. You may also not be able to defragment the drive until you do this.

5. Reformat your hard drive and reinstall Windows. This sounds like a last resort, but it can actually be the most effective thing to save a computer from the trash. Your computer should have come with some installation disks, and you can usually use those to reinstall Windows. You may not need to reformat the hard drive; sometimes just reinstalling Windows is enough. If your computer is older, use Windows 2000 instead of Windows XP. If you don't have the installation disks, you can buy a new license for Windows for about $180. This sounds like a lot of money, but consider how much a new computer would cost! Installing Windows is actually pretty easy, the install disk will lead you through it step-by-step, and if you don't reformat the hard drive, most of your files should be safe.

Hardware things you can do:

1. Buy more RAM. RAM is pretty cheap for most computers (a healthy upgrade should cost less than $100), and if you go into your local Best Buy or Circuit City with your computer's model number, they will be able to tell you what kind to buy, and if you don't want to open up your computer, they can install it usually for about $40. You can check how much RAM you have by going to System in the Control Panel. 256mb is a minimum these days; I would say 512mb will significantly improve performance if you have 256mb. The Best Buy guys should be able to tell you how much RAM you can put in - it comes in sticks, and your computer only has room for a certain number of sticks, with a cap on the amount of memory per stick. So if your computer has 4 slots, with a cap of 128mb per stick, your computer can have in total 512mb of RAM. If you only have 2 slots, with a cap of 128mb, you can only have 256mb. If you buy too large of a stick, the computer won't be able to use it at all - but it will be able to use a stick SMALLER than the cap. So you can buy just one stick and replace only one at a time if you want to spread out the cost. If you search online, buy sticks that are in the upper half of the price range because RAM can die, and cheap ones will die much more quickly. Crucial is a good brand but somewhat expensive - ask for recommendations at a computer store for less expensive brands.

2. Buy a larger (or second) hard drive. If you totally replace the hard drive, you will have to format it and reinstall Windows. You can install a second drive, however, and get additional space without having to reinstall or move any of your files. If you have no idea how to do this, I would recommend getting a tech to do it for you. A good large hard drive should cost less than $100 - look for one with at least a 4mb buffer, a 7200 rpm speed - good brands include Western Digital and Seagate.

3. Buy a new monitor. If your monitor malfunctions frequently, it isn't the computer's fault (except in rare cases where the video card malfunctions) - generally if the color is off, it flickers, etc, you should probably replace it. (First however try to see if you can Degauss it - this is an option present on many CRT monitors (the boxy ones) which can sometimes help if the color is off. Try the options in the menu brought up by pressing the monitor buttons and see if it is there. It will make an alarming noise but there is nothing wrong with the monitor.) A cheap monitor should be about $100, you can spend more but it won't necessarily give great leaps in quality. Monitors can be gotten cheaply out of the classifieds or Craiglist, especially if you are satisfied with a smaller size, since they often last for years.

4. Buy a new CD drive. If you play games off a CD, or music, and it goes slowly, you might want to check how fast your CD-ROM drive operates. Anything less than 8x read speed is really slow. If you have a CD writer, anything less than 4x write is really slow. You can get a plain vanilla CD-ROM drive for less than $30, and it will probably be REALLY fast compared with anything bought three years ago. A CD-writer now will run less than $50, and a DVD writer less than $75.

5. For laptops - buy a new battery. Especially if your computer is less than five years old, you can probably buy a new battery off eBay for less than $100. If this is the problem most aggravating you, know that batteries only last so long - it's not indicative that there is anything else wrong with the computer.

If you're computer savvy, you know that there are many other options for upgrading your computer to make it faster - but those are pretty complicated so I won't go into it. If you do end up deciding to get a new computer, see if you can scavenge any parts from your old one to save money (for instance, if your new computer has six RAM slots, you can use a couple older sticks from your old computer and save buying six sticks for maximum performance. Check to make sure they are compatible though.) Your old computer will also fetch a better price if you decide to sell it, if it is in good condition and running fast.

There is nothing wrong with reformatting your computer - I have a 7 year old laptop which is on its 3rd install of Windows and is running just fine. Remember this: A computer is PARTS and PROGRAMS. The most important thing to figure out is which of those areas the computer is having issues - because if what you really need is a fresh install of Windows, buying a bigger hard drive probably won't significantly increase performance.


Ms. MiniDucky said...

A whole post, just for me! ;)

I'm on my first reformat and I generally don't use the lappy for more than minimal use. And yes, defrag is my friend. But I guess I always assumed that the laptop would die a complete, mechanical, death at some point. Instead, I'm going to put it on the til-the-wheels-fall-off plan just like the car is.

Thanks Kira!!

Single Ma said...

Wow, thanks Kira! I was almost ready to put the old desktop to rest. I'm about to print this post and follow it to the letter.

Padraic said...

Great suggestions! One thing to consider is the replacement of a motherboard. Generally speaking if a computer is 2 years old, or older, then along with the motherboard you'll have to replace the CPU and memory. If that's the case then it may in fact be cheaper to buy a prebuilt system from Dell, HP or some other vendor.

D said...

Great post Kira,

Although, I am feeling a little confused. I listen to a lot of talk radio - boring I know, but I find out so much. One day they had a big hitter computer guy on and he said something that has confused me since.

He said "do not defragmant your computer on a regular basis". He then claimed that it did big time damage to your computer and would eventually lead to its earlier demise.

Some times this whole business is just crazy.

Kira said...

Defragging your hard drive will NOT hurt it - I wonder if he was selling hadr drives.. ;) You shouldn't do it every day, but it doesn't need it every day. Every six months or so is fine.

mapgirl said...

Defragging is only necessary if you write a lot of stuff to your hard drive and delete at a lot of stuff too.

If you use your PC mostly for web browsing, doing it once every 6 months is fine. If you are doing lots of work on your PC, AND it's EXTREMELY slow, then try it once a month.

HOWEVER, if things are really slow, try getting more RAM first and twiddle with your virtual memory settings. There may be an issue with setting the priority of your process threads, i.e. which jobs get done first.

Right click on your My Computer icon and pick Properties. Under the Advanced tab will be a button for Performance settings. Your default should say on the Visual Effects tab, "Let Windows choose what's best for my computer." Personally that's what I would do, but if you are suffering from performance problems, click the third option, "Adjust for best performance."

Next, pick the Advanced tab and make sure that the Processor Scheduling and Memory usage are set for PROGRAMS and not for background processing. After that, pick the Virtual Memory button an dyou can have the System manage your maximum size.

That should also help. Frequently it's about memory management and not having 10,000 open windows. Try only to run a few things at a time. Something that drives me nuts at work is folks who complain about system slowness and then show me a window full of streaming audio, multiple chat windows, 10 emails they're reading, 2 spreadsheets, etc. It's a mess. Then they ask me why Notepad won't open. I don't know what to tell them.

Adam Byram said...

First - quick follow up on the defrag thing...technically, the more you use the hard drive (and by "use" I mean read and write to it), the shorter the lifespan. Your computer is always reading and writing on a regular basis, but when you defrag, it goes into a very intense form of this where it's reading and writing non-stop all across the hard drive. The net result though is that you won't notice it - by the time the hard drive gets to the point that it has a chance of going bad, it'll be time to get a bigger one anyway. So don't worry about it unless you do it every 30 minutes or so. :)

Just to confirm what Kira said - I have a friend at work that was complaining about how her computer was messed up - programs would crash, it was slow, etc. So I made her a little disk with a free virus scanner and spyware remover... she took that home and ran it only to find that she had 50+ viruses on her computer (she didn't have a firewall and had recently moved to broadband). After the new software cleaned things up, she said it ran faster than she ever knew it could.

mapgirl said...

oh. and I forgot. TURN OFF YOUR PC. Older Windows systems had a memory leak that was well known. It's largely gone from XP, but periodically shut off your machine to really clear the cache out. I always leave my pc on. Replacing a fan is nothing compared to always cold starting your motherboard and having to replace that instead.

Also, sometimes if you're computer has been taken over by a virus or hackers, your PC will run very slowly because it's doing lots of background things as an 'owned/pwned' machine. Spyware removal will help.

mapgirl said...

Sorry!!! One last thing, but I swear, it's REALLY important. REALLY IMPORTANT.

If you go and uninstall, reinstall Windows, make sure you take a back up of your hard drive.

I'm not kidding. As an IT professional, I've seen people do things without making a backup, that have literally made me and an entire dietary staff of a nursing home cry because they lost a week's worth of menu planning for people with special dietary needs.


Anonymous said...

If a user takes your recommendations of RAM + monitor + hard drive, they could easily buy a Dell or HP "deal of the week" that will have much better specs than the 7 year old laptop referenced above. You hate to make this a "throwaway society" but if a whole system can be delivered to your door for $299, upgrading just a couple parts of an existing one for the same price is silly.

That said, up until now, I've agreed with almost everything you've written thus far...your blog is good reading.

mOOm said...

I've found that with Macs most problems can be solved by adding memory.... there does come a point though where upgrades just get to higgledy piggledy and you need to start over.

Anonymous said...

if you go to crucial.com, there is a scanner you could download and scan your pc for compatible memory upgrades. the service will tell you what type of memory you need and will offer compatible products that will work with your computer.

Unknown said...

This article had many good suggestions. One thing I have to point out though - Windows updates slow your computer down ALOT - at least in XP. What I mean is, I've done a clean install a million times of XP on an older computer, and it runs nice and zippy, and then after I install the 150 or so updates that have come out since XP was released, it's noticeably much slower. Having sufficient RAM does ameliorate the problem though. The point is that an old computer will actually be SLOWER now than it was new, even when all cleaned up.

Benita Bolland said...

“There is NO REASON to replace a computer unless there is something MECHANICALLY wrong with it.” – I couldn’t agree more! And it is one way to save yourself from spending too much on buying a new PC. Aside from the tips given above, I would suggest that you continuously upgrade the memory of your PC. You will have more room for more files, and it will not slow down your PC.