When you get a new laptop or PC, it always starts up and responds quickly. But as you install apps, games and fill up the hard drive with music, documents and photos it can slow down and even take minutes to start up. There are many things that can make Windows slow, but you should be able to restore most of its original speed without spending any money at all.
But if your laptop or PC has a traditional hard drive rather than a modern SSD, then it can be well worth spending some money and buying an SSD: it's still the single most effective performance upgrade for most people.
Regardless of your computer's hardware, there are various things you can do to speed up Windows, and here are our top tips.
See also: 5 ways to spring clean your computer
Get rid of start-up programs
Part of the reason why well-used PCs take so long to start is because of all the applications and utilities you've installed. Many automatically run when Windows starts up, yet most of them don't need to and should only use up resources when you actually need to use them.
At the right side of the taskbar, click the upwards-facing arrow to display the notification icons. Each is a program that loads with Windows. Some are essential - antivirus software for example - but others may not be. Right-click each one and if there is a Settings menu, select it and turn off the option to start automatically with Windows. Some programs, such as Google Drive, can be manually started when they are needed instead of running all the time.
To disable all the other programs and 'helpers' apps which start with Windows, press Windows+R and type msconfig and click Ok. Select the Services tab, tick ‘Hide all Microsoft services' and see what's left. There may be services you can live without and clearing the tick box prevents them from running. For example, Firefox works perfectly well without the Mozilla Maintenance Service.
On the Startup tab (use Task Manager - right-click on the taskbar and choose Task Manager in Windows 8 and Windows 10 to find this), are lots of programs that start with Windows. Knowing what to disable isn't easy, but you can use Google to search for items and see if they are necessary, useful or neither of those. Windows 10 helpfully tells you how much impact each program has on performance:
For programs which have a high start-up impact, you can right click and disable them.
Recent versions of Windows automatically defragment the disk, but Microsoft's tool is basic and there are better defragmenters that boost performance even more.
Programs including O&O Defrag are good, but IObit's Smart Defrag 5 is nearly as good and is free. Bear in mind that you should only use one of these if your PC has a traditional mechanical hard drive. If it has an SSD, don't use such utilities on them, but if you have both, only use a defragger on the hard disk.
Check for malware and other nasties
It’s advisable to run a system scan to ensure that there are no erroneous pieces of software causing harm and slowing down your machine. If you rely on Windows Defender for your security then you’ll need to go to the Start Menu>Settings>Update and Security>Windows Defender then in the right hand panel scroll down until you see Open Windows Defender.
Click this and then in the next window on the right hand side there are options to run a Quick, Full, or Custom scan. Make sure you won’t need your PC for a little while and opt for the Full version.
Then click on Scan now. If Windows finds anything untoward it will let you know and suggest ways to deal with the issue.
If you use another antivirus package, such as AVG, Norton, McAfee, or similar, you’ll need to launch the program and find the option to perform a system scan. They are usually very easy to discover.
Adjust the amount of Virtual Memory Windows uses
Another quick fix for a PC that’s slowing down is allowing Windows to use more Virtual Memory. Follow our How to Adjust the amount of Virtual Memory your system uses guide to address this common problem.
Tame the visual effects
Windows 10 is quite a pretty operating system, with various animations used throughout. While these visual effects afford a sense of style they can also be a source of ponderance on machines that are a little older. Thankfully they are easy to turn off.
Open the Windows Start Menu and type advanced system settings and select the top result. In the window that appears there is a section marked Performance, with a button for Settings.
Click this and a list of the various visual effects will appear. You can either untick the ones you think might be problematic, or simply select the Adjust for best performance option at the top. Remember to click OK to save the changes.
The ultimate speed-up technique is to reinstall Windows. This removes all unwanted software that slows down the PC, erases adware and other malware, clears out junk files and so on. For more details, see How to reinstall Windows.
A Windows disc is needed for old versions of Windows, but Windows 8 and 10 have a built in Refresh option that makes the job easy. In Windows 8 bring up the Charms bar on the right side of the screen and click Settings, Change PC settings.
Click Update and recovery, then Recovery. Under Refresh your PC without affecting your files, click Get started.
In Windows 10, click the cog icon on the Start menu to bring up the new Settings app. Click Update & security, then choose Recovery from the menu on the left. You'll see the 'Reset this PC' option on the right.
You can choose to keep personal files - photos, music and documents - and this method is certainly worth a try as it's automatic and easy.
A more powerful option is to completely reinstall Windows, but you must copy files you want to keep to another drive, such as removable USB drive or a NAS first.
You might also like to read How to restore a laptop or PC and keep Microsoft Office.
Update drivers and apps
Out of date drivers, programs and Windows itself can cause the computer to run slowly. Faulty drivers for example, stop Windows shutting down or cause it to start more slowly. Video card drivers are often updated to fix bugs and boost performance, and it is always a good idea to check that you have the latest version.
Even if Windows updates are automatic, go to Windows Update in the Control Panel and manually check for updates. Only essential ones are installed automatically and there may be useful optional ones available.
Drivers are programs that enable Windows to access hardware components like the video, sound, printer, scanner, webcam, and so on. Updating them is a pain and you have to identify the hardware, the drivers and version numbers, the hardware manufacturer's website and the download page.
Take a shortcut by using a free tool such as SlimDrivers Free or Driver Booster Free. These do all the work for you and they are like Windows Update for drivers. They identify the current drivers, check if there are updates, and then download and install them for you.
They solve a lot of problems. There are also paid-for options, such as the up-to-date Driver Talent utility.
Free up disk space
Your PC's hard disk slows down as it fills up and uninstalling software helps to free up space giving more room for Windows to work faster. Disk space can be freed up in various ways, and we've written a full guide to finding and deleting large and duplicate files.
You can delete files manually, or install a utility (we recommend some in that guide) to do a deeper search and make the job quicker and easier. There's a right way and a wrong way to use these programs, though.
Select just a few items and clean them, making sure the app backs up the changes. If the PC is working OK, go ahead and clean a few more items, but if it isn't, restore the backup. Do not clean everything in one go because if something goes wrong you won't know where the problem is.
Many PCs are overrun with apps, games and other software. Chances are that you no longer use many of these and they can be uninstalled to free up disk space (and improve boot times).
You can go to the Control Panel, open Programs and Features, and then uninstall software you haven't used in the last six months (or longer). See best free Windows uninstallers for more.
Some programs install lots of files into Windows and they can have a detrimental effect on performance. To keep Windows clean and fast you should avoid installing anything.
Of course, you need software, but there are many portable apps that don't need installing. A good source of software is portableapps.com. Click Get Apps and you'll find office software, graphics and photo editors, utilities, internet, music and video and more. It's not the only place to find portable software, but it's a good place to start.
Install faster software
Sometimes it's possible to improve performance by installing better software. For example, if you're still using Internet Explorer, try downloading Google Chrome or one of these other best web browsers
Smaller, lightweight programs are often faster than big, full featured applications. Do you really need Word or is WordPad sufficient for your writing tasks? For example Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 requires 3GB of disk space, but LibreOffice uses just a few hundred megabytes and is nearly as good.
You need 4GB of disk space to install Adobe Photoshop Elements, but only 40MB for Paint.NET and 150MB for GIMP (it sounds dodgy, but it's not). They could be all you need for photo editing. Use alternativeto.net to find alternatives to popular software.
The speed at which games run is highly dependent on the screen resolution and special effects used. Some games provide options to select the screen mode and to turn off some effects that tax the processor and video card. This can make a slow game more playable by increasing the frame rate. For more details see How to speed up games.
Upgrade your hardware
All of the techniques discussed so far for speeding up the PC take you only so far. They restore the original PC's performance, but this may not be sufficient. An old PC might not be capable of running the latest game or other software you want to use. A five year old model will struggle with the latest games, apps and operating system. For this reason, a hardware upgrade may be required and this will boost the PC's performance beyond its original specification and narrow the gap between your current PC and the latest ones.
Many old PCs suffer from too little memory. Consider 4GB the absolute minimum these days if not more, but note that 4GB is the maximum usable by 32-bit versions of Windows, so upgrading to 64-bit is a good idea. Adding RAM is the second thing to do after installing an SSD (which we mentioned right at the start).
Memory suppliers including Crucial have tools on their website that identify what type of RAM you need. It shows the maximum the PC or laptop can take and this is the best upgrade you can perform. Before you purchase any memory though, examine your PC or laptop because some are easy to upgrade, but others are hard. Buying RAM online and installing it yourself is the cheapest option, but if you aren't confident in your DIY skills, local computer shops can do it.
Install an SSD
A solid state disk drive (SSD) is the best way to boost performance in many older PCs and laptops. If you have a laptop, you will need to clone the old disk drive onto the new SSD before installing it. This is achieved by plugging the SSD into the PC's USB port (some come with the necessary adaptor, others don't, so buy the right version) and then running a cloning program on the PC (again, this is usually included in an 'SSD upgrade kit' but never with 'bare' drives).
Upgrading the graphics card is a great way to speed up games, but the benefits to other software is limited. Top-of-the-range video cards are big, so before ordering the latest Nvidia or AMD model, check it will fit the case. Space, the size of the PC's power supply and other factors limit your options and full height/dual slot video cards are for big PCs with lots of space, and low profile single slot cards are for compact PCs.