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8 Jul 2020

A quarter of laptop owners complain of poor performance: five slow computer myths

Slow start-ups and glacial program opening speeds just two common complaints

A quarter of laptop owners have described their laptop as 'slow', with 35% of those blaming sluggish startup speeds and 22% 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 45% of owners of laptops aged five years reporting their device to be 'slow' or 'fairly slow'*.

One solution for slow computer problems is, of course, buying a new one. Four fifths of respondents who had bought a laptop in the past year reported their machine as being '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, along with some top tips to keep your computer running as nippily as possible, so you don't fall into some common traps that could result in you wasting your money.

If you think you're going to need a new computer soon, have a look at our guide to the best cheap laptops under £500.

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 may 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 to clean up your hard drive, although if you have Windows 8 or 10 you needn't worry as both of them do this automatically. See our guide on how to free up disk space to get your computer decluttered.

Myth: too many files slows down a computer

In and of themselves, large numbers of files won't 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.

However, having oodles of files open at the same time may slow things down, especially if the file sizes are large - the simple solution here is to close down any files you're not actively using.

What may be the problem: It's 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 uninstalling those that you don't use.

Myth: processors wear out with time and slow down

Processors (CPUs) don't slow down of their own accord. Theoretically, a CPU should perform as well on day 1,000 as it did on day one.

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.

In practice, your computer may start to seem slower simply because the programs and webpages it opens become more challenging over time. The HTTP archive, for example, reports the median size of a webpage has quintupled since 2010, which is a lot of extra work for any laptop to have to deal with.

What may be the problem? 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 carefully running a vacuum cleaner attachment over them (on a low setting).

You may also have seen a computer-cleaning tip that involves using compressed air, but in practice this can be a risky undertaking and may have the effect of blowing more dust into the workings of your computer. It's not something we'd recommend unless you really know what you're doing.

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 also at play. Keep in mind that software updates primarily add important security updates and new features to your computer.

What may be the problem: A side-effect of an update may be that your computer gets slower, but this is usually because it's an older model and the shiny new updates make its lack of power apparent.

Security features - such as the update rolled out by Intel for its processors after the Spectre and Meltdown security vulnerabilities were revealed - are examples of this. If you've tried all the other tips here and those in our computer maintenance guides, which we link to at the end of the 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. Restarting ensures all programs are shut down thoroughly and gives your computer a relatively clean slate to work on. Leaving your device on for ages can leave lingering traces of programs you thought you'd closed and will gradually slow down its performance.

What may 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. But it's still worth restarting it regularly, 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. On Windows 10, search for 'startup apps' in the Start menu to see what programs are trying to run as soon as your computer boots, and disable the ones you don't always need.

woman frustrated with computer

When to give up on an old computer

If your computer was cheap when you bought it, and you bought it a decade ago, it's unlikely that any kind of maintenance will help get it up to speed. Software and websites have moved on to such an extent that some older computers simply can't handle them any more.

In addition, if you have a computer that began its life on Windows 7 but is now on Windows 10, it's probably getting towards the point where future versions of Windows 10 may not run smoothly any more. In fact, it may already be at that point and an upgrade should be on the cards.

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.

Our guides on how to speed up a slow computer and freeing up hard drive space have more useful tips and advice.

* In June 2020, we asked 1,239 Which? members about how they felt about their laptop's speed.