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The Need for Speed: Get More Done, Faster

English: Image of a Viking Modular SATA SSD in...
English: Image of a Viking Modular SATA SSD in an MO-297 form factor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
May 5, 2014 Deadline
June 2014 Issue

The Need for Speed: Get More Done, Faster

Spinning beach balls, hourglasses, hula hoops and progress bars signify lost time and frustration. Watching icons bounce in a dock or slowly populate a taskbar as software loads only adds to the annoyance of using a slow computer.

As a tech consultant, “My computer is slow” might be the most common issue I hear. Often, the complaint is followed by a revealing explanation: the client has used a newer computer and realized how soon today’s cheetah is tomorrow’s snail. Systems start to “feel slow” compared to new computers after three to four years, and that assumes you buy mid-range to high-end hardware. If you buy an inexpensive computer, it feels “slow” much sooner.

Do you need the fastest, latest and greatest computer? Or, do you need “fast enough” to get your work done? I use my computers until they cannot run the software I need for work. We use computers for four years or longer. My wife’s iMac, an early 2008 model, does what she needs. It’s no speed demon, but it works well.

Still, we do all we can to keep our computers the snappiest they can be.

Speeding up an old system begins with adding more memory. When a system lacks sufficient RAM, software has to move data to and from the hard drive constantly. This “paging” or “swapping” of memory contents to disk causes perceptible delays.

If your system has less than 8 gigabytes of RAM and is running newer applications, upgrade to at least 8 GB and consider 16 GB or more. I install the maximum RAM supported by our computers. For example, Adobe Creative Suite applications run much better with extra memory. The difference is most notable in Photoshop, since high-resolution photos are huge data files. When I upgraded my 4 GB MacBook Pro to 16 GB, it felt like a new computer.

The next component to upgrade for speed is your hard drive. If possible, replace any mechanical hard drive with a solid-state drive (SSD). A typical SSD in a 3.5-inch case loads data three times faster than a mechanical drive, including both the time it takes to locate data and the file transfer speed. SSDs access data in 0.05 milliseconds versus 15 ms for traditional HDs, and even the slowest SSDs transfer data at 230 megabits/second versus 100 MB/s for an HD.

An SSD costs $0.50 per gigabyte, compared to $0.10 per gigabyte for some mechanical drives. The price difference reflects the cost of memory chips used in solid-state storage.

If you cannot afford a large SSD, upgrading from a slow mechanical HD to the top-tier HD makes a slight difference. Hard drives with high rotational velocities and lots of cache memory can breathe new life into a slow computer. I upgraded an old laptop from a 5400 RPM drive with 8 MB of cache memory to a 7200 RPM drive with 32 MB of cache and the boot time was cut in half. Seagate and Western Digital sell “hybrid” drives that combine small SSDs with traditional drives. Apple calls this same approach a “fusion” drive. However, current hybrids offer marginal improvement over traditional drives.

Traditional tower computers offer other potential upgrades. Notably, you can upgrade graphics cards to the fastest a motherboard supports. If you edit video or play games, a new graphics card can be a huge change. But, for most of us the memory and hard drive are bottlenecks.

A system with the maximum RAM and a good HD (or SSD) that remains unusually sluggish might have viruses, spyware or similarly undesirable code running in the background.

I like Bitdefender, and encourage my Windows-using clients to subscribe to the annual update plan. I also use Spybot Search & Destroy from Safer Networking to check for malware on Windows systems. Among Apple users, I haven’t encountered a serious infection in a decade. Still, I check for infections with ClamXav, a free antivirus application. If nothing else, ClamXav prevents the spreading of infections from Windows data files to other Windows systems.

Unfortunately, effective virus software slows a computer because the security software must scan email, watch websites and guard against infected storage media.

If a virus scan finds no unwanted visitors, but the system remains slow, then its time to reconsider what software you need to have in memory at all times. Over time, even a high-end system gets bogged-down with applications and extensions.

Windows and OS X load some applications and extensions during the start-up cycle or login for a user. In OS X, check your “Login Items” in System Preferences, within the Users and Groups settings. For Windows systems, check the “Startup Items” folder. My slow laptop was loading a dozen applications and extensions. I removed all but three applications from the list.

The worst offenders on my systems have proved to be cloud storage services. Loading synchronization drivers for Google Drive, Dropbox, Box and similar services slowed my laptop significantly. Disabling those services cut my boot time in half.

While adjusting your system settings, also consider turning off any features that are purely cosmetic. I disable animations, sounds, and other features of the operating system that provide no benefit. Do I need bouncing icons or zooming “genie” windows? No. And without the “eye candy” that Microsoft and Apple assume we want, computers feel a tiny bit faster.

Every few months, you should also sweep away the debris that gathers on your system. I use Onyx on OS X systems, and I like Fix-It Utilities Pro from Avanquest on Windows systems. These applications aren’t without risk: you should always back-up data before optimizing your computer. I’ve never had a problem with these tools, but because they alter system and application settings, bad things could happen.

Extra RAM, a solid-state drive, removing unused applications, disabling start-up items and running maintenance tools all keep a system performing at its best.

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