Nearly a quarter of laptop owners have described their laptop as ‘slow’, with 44% of those blaming sluggish startup speeds and 27% left twiddling their thumbs when opening programs, according to a study of more than 1,200 Which? members.
It was older laptops that members disproportionately reported as slowing down, with 42% of owners of laptops aged five years reporting their device to be ‘slow’ or ‘fairly slow’.
Of course, buying a new laptop is a common solution. Four-fifths of respondents who had bought a laptop in the past year reported their machine as feeling ‘fairly fast’ or ‘very fast’, which bodes well if you’re in the market for a new notebook soon.
However, don’t despair if you haven’t budgeted for a new laptop – a slow computer can often be restored to its former glory with a few simple steps. We also expose a few myths around slow computers so you don’t fall into some common traps that could result in you wasting your money.
If you do end up shelling out for a new computer, make sure it’s on our list of best laptops.
Five myths about slow computers and the truth behind them
Myth: hard drives get slower over time
This is mostly false. Hard disk drives tend to work perfectly well and then suffer significant failures that severely affect their performance, rather than descend gradually into sluggishness. That said, if you drop your laptop one too many times, you could introduce a point of failure into your hard disk. If you start to hear clicking and rattling beyond the normal soft clicks of a busy hard disk drive, a failure could be imminent.
What could be the problem: While they don’t get physically slower, hard disks may perform less efficiently if they’re full of files. The easiest solution to this is to perform a defrag, although if you have Windows 8 or 10 you needn’t worry as both of them do it automatically. If you’re running an older version of Windows, you’ll need to do it yourself.
Myth: too many files slows down a computer
Large numbers of files aren’t going to inherently slow down your computer. A folder full of photos isn’t going to interfere with how quickly Microsoft Word is able to run, although opening files that are fragmented (see above) may take more time.
What could be the problem: It is possible that files added by other programs – such as registry and ‘DLL’ files – can cause clashes and slowdowns, even if both programs aren’t open at the same time. You can avoid this by keeping on top of the programs you have installed on your computer and by uninstalling those that you don’t use.
Myth: processors wear out with time and slow down
In isolation, processors (CPUs) don’t slow down of their own accord. Theoretically, a CPU should perform as well as it did on day one as it does on day 1,000. There are exceptions, though. If a CPU is exposed to extreme heat as a result of failed cooling due to laptop damage or user error, its performance will decrease irreparably. But this is rare.
What could the problem be? If your computer’s cooling vents are obstructed or clogged up with dust, this can cause it to overheat. In order to protect itself, the processor will slow itself down to avoid creating excess heat that the clogged vents can’t deal with. This means that while it has the potential to perform better, it will go slowly until it’s safe – and cool – enough to speed up.
Solve this by making sure your computer is always well ventilated. If the vents are full of dust, unblock them by running over them carefully with a vacuum cleaner on a low setting.
You can also buy a can of compressed air, but this may have the effect of blowing more dust into the workings of your computer, so this is best done with the bottom of the laptop removed, which can often be done with the help of a screwdriver.
Alternatively, any reputable computer repair shop should offer an affordable cleaning service.
Myth: software updates always slow down a PC
This isn’t a complete myth, but it’s normally the case that something else is at play. Keep in mind that software updates primarily add important security updates and new features to your computer.
What could be the problem: A side-effect of updates may be that your computer gets slower, but this is usually because it’s an older model and its lack of power is being made apparent. Security features – such as the update rolled out by Intel for its processors after the Spectre and Meltdowns security vulnerabilities were revealed – are examples of this. If you’ve tried all the other tips here and those in our guides, linked at the end of this article, it could be time for an upgrade.
Myth: Keeping your computer turned on will help it run faster
This isn’t true. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Restarting gives your computer a relatively clean slate to work on, opening programs as and when you need them. Leaving it on for ages will leave lingering traces of programs you thought you closed and will gradually slow it down.
What could be the problem: If you have a very slow or old computer, the first few minutes after you turn it on will probably be a frustrating and slow experience. It’s still worth doing, although you might want to put some time into your daily schedule to make a round of tea before you sit down to work. Disabling start-up programs should help with this.
When to give up on an old computer
If your computer was cheap when you bought it, and you bought it a decade a go, it’s unlikely any kind of maintenance will help get it up to speed. Software and websites have moved on to such an extent that some computers simply can’t handle them any more.
In addition, if you have a computer that’s running Windows 7, be aware that Microsoft will stop providing security updates for your computer in January next year. If your computer is from the Windows 7 era, it may be time to upgrade anyway as many devices with hardware over seven years old will simply not work properly with the latest version, Windows 10.
Don’t fret, though. Our guide on how to buy a cheap laptop for under £500 is a great place to start if you need a replacement but don’t want to spend a lot of money.