In the previous sections, we’ve analyzed various things that can cause your computer to appear to slow down with age, to help you identify ways that you may be able to restore its youthful vigor. If you’ve done all you can and still aren’t satisfied with the performance, at least you’ve managed to put off the inevitable for a little longer. Anytime you can defer an upgrade helps keep cash in your wallet, so it’s still a good thing!
Maybe now it’s finally time to upgrade, but what should you upgrade? The whole system? Just some components? If time and money were no object, you’d just go buy the latest greatest system out there and hire someone else to reinstall and reconfigure all of your applications and transfer all of your data. Unfortunately, for many of us, that’s not the case. When faced with limited resources, we have to make decisions about the best ways to employ them. You’d hate to spend four-digits on a whole new computer system if all the old one needed was a memory upgrade. However, you’d also hate to waste money on RAM only to find that you’re still unsatisfied and still faced with the need to buy a whole new system. How can you tell what to do?
Windows comes with several tools to help us identify bottlenecks. Armed with that information, we can make better decisions about what to do to resolve them. Here’s a list of several of the more common bottlenecks:
- Network Connection – a low-speed network connection will make Internet access and any other network resource utilization slower.
- Main Memory – having insufficient RAM forces the PC to use a swap file on the hard drive instead, slowing down processing, task switching, and read/write operations.
- Processor – having too slow a processor or too few processors will impact the performance of virtually all operations. Less-expensive processors also lack L1 cache, which reduces their performance further.
- Hard drive – slower hard drives affect the speed of all read/write operations, including cache files and virtual memory. Space utilization is also a consideration; the recommendation is to utilize less than 50% of any hard drive’s capacity.
To diagnose thezse issues, first, try to notice patterns. If your performance complaints are predominantly pertaining to the speed at which Web pages load, it’s more likely a problem with the speed of your Internet connection. If performance gets sluggish when you have more applications running, it may be low memory or a slow processor. If the hard drive activity indicator light stays lit frequently, it may be insufficient memory or too slow or too full a hard drive. Once you have your guess as a starting point, you’ll want to find evidence for or against your thesis. A good place to start is the Windows Task Manager. Press Ctrl-Alt-Del, and you should see the task manager or a link to it, depending on which version of Windows you’re running. The Performance tab shows processor and memory utiliation and the Networking tab shows network connection utilization.
Let’s start with the performance tab; it provides lots of good information. First, the number of panes of CPU Usage History shows you how many CPU cores your system has. Utilization should normally be low unless you have a ton of stuff running. If any of the graphs are pegging the needle at the top of the chart, there is more demand being placed on your procesor than it can handle. The PF Usage charts show how much RAM is being used. Ideally you want this to be low, too. The more applications you have running, the more RAM is required. As we mentioned, once the computer runs out of actual memory, it makes more room by moving less-frequently-used data into “virtual memory,” which is actually stored on the hard drive. When it needs it back, it swaps the next-least-frequently-used data to the hard drive to make room to swap the needed data back in. All of these operations take time, so if the PF Usage is up at or near the top of your graph, you have insufficient RAM to meet your demands.
Another helpful tool to see the processor and RAM that are installed in your PC is the System Properties in the Control Panel. Press Windows-Break as a shortcut to bring that up. The Pentium-4 processor is today’s standard, and if you have an older one, I wouldn’t bother trying to upgrade – just replace the PC. Different operating systems have different memory requirements, but having at least 1 GB of RAM is pretty common nowadays.
Back to the Task Manager, on the Networking tab, don’t be surprised if your network utilization is frequently at or below one percent. A typical desktop computer has a network interface card (NIC) capable of communicating at 100 or even 1,000 million bits per second – even older NICs could communicate at 10 Mbps. A typical broadband Internet connection (such as a cable modem, high-speed DSL, or fiber optic connection), however, operates in the vicinity of 1 Mbps, and that’s only when downloading large files under perfect conditions. If you’re connected to other local network resources, such as servers or network printers, you may be able to use more of your available bandwidth, but if your sole network utilization is your Internet access, the bottleneck will always be the Internet connection rather than the computer’s network connection. Now that we’ve cleared that up, if you find the graph showing utilization at or near 100%, your network card may be too slow for your requirements, but if you’re unhappy with the speed of Web pages loading despite a low network connection utilization, you need to upgrade your Internet connection – not your PC.
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of specifically which shortcomings in your PC are causing it to operate slowly. Tune in next time when we discuss what to upgrade or replace now that you’ve identified the specific bottleneck. We’re happy that you’ve been following our articles so far, but if at anytime it starts sounding like a bigger bite than you’re prepared to chew, we’re always happy to help. In fact, for our loyal blog readers, we’re even offering a Free PC Tune-Up.
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