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Sunday, November 13, 2005

What's Slowing Down Your PC?

A new computer right out of the box is an engineering marvel. Programs and files load with lightning speed. Unfortunately, computers do not remain in this pristine condition very long. You do not notice it at first, but usually sooner rather than later that peppy performance is gone.

Why do computers slow down? There is no single answer; a combination of factors contributes to the gradual degradation of a computer's performance. The causes fall into three categories. The first is hardware design. The second is virus and spyware infiltration.

The third is caused by some of the remedies applied to cure the first two causes.

We looked at some of the key ways Windows PCs get bogged down. We will tell you about disk fragmentation, conflicting DLLs, registry issues, viruses and spyware, and other things that can cause the processor to sputter. Once the causes are exposed, we will explore the most popular cures.

Hardware Issues

Over time, files on the hard disk get spread out. Known as fragmentation, this scattering is caused by adding programs, deleting programs, and modifying files. All contribute to the clutter on the hard drive that develops with continued use of the computer.

Hard disks are designed to store data in predetermined clusters of storage space. Smaller files leave unusable "free space" within these areas, and oversize files are split into numerous clusters. These stored file segments become more fragmented as the hard drive absorbs data.

The more fragmented stored files become on the hard drive, the longer it takes the reading apparatus to pull together all of the data and assemble them in their original order. Similarly, when more data is written to a fragmented hard drive, it takes longer to find enough unused clusters to store the data segments.

This problem often is compounded by physical defects on the hard drive's surface. Hard drives can develop bad sectors that slow down performance and make file saving difficult or impossible.

Drained Resources

Almost as deadly to a computer's performance as a cluttered hard drive is a lengthy list of start-up programs. This problem often starts at the factory, where the manufacturer bundles numerous programs as part of a marketing campaign or licensing agreement with software makers.

Many of the installed programs are configured to start when the computer boots, even if the consumer does not want these programs to run. Often, special utilities that enhance features in software or hardware components run in the background. Most consumers, however, have no idea that these programs are running because the software does not show up on the screen. But they might show an icon in the system tray, where they sit idly waiting to be discovered.

These programs take a large bite out of system resources. The more programs that run at one time, the greater the drain on system resources. Typically, a computer should have 85 percent to 90 percent of its total memory available for use after the computer starts. Too many programs running at start-up, however, can drain those memory resources to as little as 50 percent before the user opens any real programs like a word processor or a Web browser.

Software and Malware Galore

Some of the biggest causes of sluggish computer performance are spyware programs running in the background and adware that causes Web browsers to slow to a crawl. The term "spyware" refers to any software that runs meddlesome tasks such as displaying ads, collecting personal information, or reconfiguring the computer, usually without the user's consent or knowledge.

The term "adware" refers to programs that are specifically advertiser-supported, and "malware" is software that interferes with the functions of other applications, like viruses, worms, or Trojans.

To defend against these onslaughts, computers also are burdened by antivirus and antispyware programs, in addition to other intrusion-protection software such as firewalls and e-mail spam filters.

These defensive measures can slow down computer performance by as much as 15 percent, according to some analysts.

"Computer slowdown is caused by many factors, including malicious software running in the background and 'heavy' securityRelevant Products/Services from Messagelabs solutions that drain system performance," said Leon Rishniw, vice president of engineering for computer security firm CloudMark.

He said the two largest causes of PC slowdown are forgotten third-party utilities and spyware. "Many of the popular third-party applications floating around, such as the peer-to-peer programs of dubious quality, not only install with spyware but also consist of multiple components that are difficult to remove," said Rishniw.

Clearing the Clutter

One of the easiest cures for sluggish PCs caused by an aging hard drive is included in the Windows operating system. Microsoft'sRelevant Products/Services from Microsoft own Disk Defragmenter and Disk Cleanup utilities are located in the Start menu under Accessories/System Tools.

Disk Cleanup checks the hard drive for unnecessary programs and other clutter, such as temporary Internet files. Running this clean-up program at least once a month will keep free space on the hard drive available to speed up file access.

Disk Defragmenter is a very reliable program. It analyzes the condition of the hard drive and optimizes folders and files. When the file shuffling is completed, the hard drive is reorganized so that files are stored in contiguous clusters, speeding up computer performance tremendously.

Monitor the hard drive fragmentation ratio weekly. When Disk Defragmenter shows the drive is fragmented more than 10 percent, click the Defrag button. Plan on doing this at the end of the work day. Given the size of today's hard drives, the fixing process can take several hours.

Other Strategies

Other cures are available as third-party software applications. Symantec's Latest News about Symantec Norton SystemWorks 2006 ($69.99) is a suite of computer maintenance tools that picks up where Microsoft's built-in utilities leave off. It includes programs that defrag the hard drive, remove outdated Windows Registry entries and fix DLL files that can cause system conflicts that slow down performance.

Raxco Software's PerfectDisk 7.0 ($39.95) defrags hard drives and goes one step further. It also consolidates the free space that defragging creates on the hard drive. This helps to keep the hard drive running uncluttered for longer periods of time.

One of the most useful self-maintenance tasks is to clear out unused programs before defragging the hard drive. Go to your Control Panel and select the Add/Remove function. Scroll down the list and highlight programs that are never used. Click the Remove button.

Just as important as ridding the hard drive of unneeded applications is stopping programs from running at start-up that you don't use. To do this, click on the Run link in the Start menu and type: msconfig. Then click the OK button.

This command launches the built-in system configuration tool. Click on the Start Up tab and scroll down the list of programs, clicking the check box to remove the undesired programs. When finished, click the OK box.

When the computer reboots, only the programs still marked with a check will load. If you discover that you need or want a disabled program to load each time the computer starts, just repeat the process and click the check box for the desired program.

There are a few items that you absolutely need, including ScanRegistry, TaskMonitor, SystemTray, and LoadPowerProfile. Of course, you do not want to disable the antivirus program or the Internet security or firewall program, either.

Fighting Malware

Virus and spyware programs are almost impossible to avoid without protective software tools. Antivirus programs are very successful in catching viruses and eradicating them. Only run one program of this kind because two or more will drain resources and will interfere with the other programs.

But spyware is a much more complex process. Spyware is more difficult to spot and remove. Many software products take different approaches, and it is very common for one antispyware program to miss one or more infections while another product finds the spyware. To be safe, you should run more than one of these applications.

"As more and more average users utilize their home PC as a gateway to their bank account and other financial management tools, spyware creators will be presented with an increasingly juicer target from which they can harvest data," said CloudMark's Rishniw. "Clean-up tools are important, but by the time users need them, their personal data has already been compromised."

To minimize that risk and to speed up sluggish computers bogged down from spyware, scan for infections at least once daily.

Spyware Treatment

Two of the more well-known and well-regarded free programs are SpyBot Search and Destroy and Lavasoft's Ad-Aware. Both of these gems are regularly updated with the latest spyware definitions.

Both programs run when you launch them so they do not consume system resources continuously. Spybot, however, can be configured to hook in to system components to block spyware intrusions even when the scan engine is not actively searching for spyware.

SpySweeper by Webroot ($29.95) runs in the background and hooks in to system components for real-time protection against spyware attacks.

Microsoft AntiSpyware Beta 1 is currently free. It provides real-time protection and is based on a very popular product acquired by Microsoft from Giant Software.

Tenebril's SpyCatcher ($29.95) provides real-time spyware protection and claims to stop next-generation, mutating spyware. It also blocks reinstallation of aggressive spyware.

One of the newest product trends is an all-in-one suite that protects against virus and spyware infections and provides firewall protection forbroadband Latest News about Broadband Internet access. The advantage to this software approach is that all the updates are performed at the same time and there is just one product to use.

ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 6.0 ($69.95) and Panda Platinum Internet Security 2005 ($79.95) are two of the newest products that provide these all-in-one protections.

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