You probably know that to speed up an old system, you need to fork out for new hardware: RAM, a graphics card or a faster processor. But if you’re not ready to make an investment and crack open the case, clean-up utilities can be enticing. They promise to pry off all the digital barnacles that have collected on your PC and on Windows, revealing the spry system you remember from the day you first set it up. (If you are prepared to get your hands dirty and try a hardware upgrade or two, check out 'Upgrade a PC to make it fast, stable and secure'.)
We tested four popular Windows clean-up utilities to find out whether they genuinely improve system performance or are the digital equivalent of a placebo. We installed Ashampoo WinOptimizer 7 (£29 inc VAT), Iolo System Mechanic 10 (£24 inc VAT), plus two free utilities – the popular Piriform CCleaner and 360Amigo System Speedup Free – on five well-used Windows PCs of various specifications and generations.
In most cases the clean-up utilities scarcely made a difference to overall system performance, and in a few instances they slowed down the machine. They did, however, shave off a few seconds from bootup times.
PC speed boost: The testing process
Each utility we tested promises to make Windows run faster by optimising and maintaining your system. We used our WorldBench 6 speed test to verify these claims. WorldBench 6 is based on timed scripted tasks in common programs such as Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop. If you were to see any performance benefits from running these cleaning utilities, they’d also show up in WorldBench 6. We disabled the defragmentation routines to give each utility a chance to use its own, if it had one.
We used five systems of different ages and specifications that had one thing in common: wear and tear. Each had endured months, if not years, of frequent usage without even a light dusting, much less a system scrubbing or Windows reinstall. They were exactly the kind of PCs on which most people would want to run a clean-up utility.
We created a disk image to preserve each computer’s original, cluttered state, then ran WorldBench 6 to obtain a baseline performance score.
Next, on each computer, we ran one of the clean-up utilities through its standard functions three times. We didn’t uninstall any applications, even if the utility recommended doing so. Getting rid of software that you no longer need is a good way to speed up a PC, but we wanted to see whether the other functions performed by each utility would make a difference with the same software.
We then ran WorldBench 6 again to determine whether performance had improved. Finally, we restored the system to its original, cluttered state and started the process again with another clean-up utility.
The testing process took weeks. All the clean-up utilities we evaluated have since been updated, so it’s possible that retesting with the current versions of the programs would yield slightly different results.
PC speed boost: WorldBench 6 performance results
While specific WorldBench 6 results varied between systems, a clear trend emerged: none significantly improved performance, and some even caused our PCs to slow down.
Judging by their overall WorldBench 6 scores, none of the PCs performed notably better after we ran the utilities. In fact, only two systems saw a performance increase, and then by only a single point: CCleaner, System Speedup and WinOptimizer caused a one-point increase on the Dell E1505, and WinOptimizer also improved performance on the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge. Most of the tests produced scores that were either identical to or slightly lower than that of each PC’s original configuration. This isn’t what you’d expect from performance-boosting utilities. Note that a one-point gain is small enough to be within the margin of error.
However, the test results for individual applications yielded a few more-interesting tidbits. System Speedup seemed to have a problem with Microsoft Office. For each of the test PCs, except the Dell E1505, Office performance grew noticeably worse – over twice the test time, in some cases – after we ran System Speedup. This issue with Office accounts for the dramatic drop in some of the WorldBench 6 scores. Aside from the Office test, though, System Speedup’s results weren’t that different from the others.
Some of our PCs were more heavily affected by clean-up utilities than others.
The Toshiba laptop’s performance didn’t change by more than 10 or 15 seconds in any WorldBench 6 test – not surprising, considering that it has the most powerful hardware. But the Dell E1505, which has the poorest specification, saw more dramatic differences in specific tests with each utility. Photo-editing tasks were about 10 percent faster; creating and saving a DVD image was about 20 percent faster; and video editing became about 5 percent slower. Although we didn’t find substantial differences overall, an older PC might have a particular problem that a clean-up utility can fix.
There are no one-size-fits-all PC fixes. After running each utility, the E1505 saw a big speed improvement with disk-intensive tasks such as writing DVD images. In contrast, our custom-built desktop PC did worse in that respect: an eight-minute test took about 20 seconds longer after running CCleaner, System Speedup and WinOptimizer; and it took a minute longer after running System Mechanic. The Dell D520 had slightly slower speeds in that task as well. This means that even if a utility made one PC run better, it might not necessarily help yours – and it could even make your PC’s performance slightly worse.
Although we ran each utility three times before running WorldBench 6, some still found items that needed cleaning each time. We don’t know what caused this; the utilities might have encountered problems they couldn’t fix, or the clean-up process might have created problems elsewhere.
For comparison’s sake, we also tried removing 49 applications from the Lenovo laptop using WinOptimizer’s uninstall feature, running its clean-up functions and then testing performance with WorldBench 6.
We found an improvement of three points in WorldBench 6 (from 60 to 63, or 5 percent) – more of an increase than anything we saw from the standard clean-up functions. While such a result won’t make your PC like new, it will make multitasking and disk-heavy operations less painful. To sweep away system clutter, uninstalling old programs is your best bet.
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