I work in the IT field in my day job, so an admission like that is often greeted as though I am admitting to suffering from alcoholism or some terminal illness. Many of my coworkers habitually upgrade their PCs every 2 years or so.
I used to live the tech glam lifestyle too. I bought the latest and greatest hardware and software. I ran on the gaming treadmill: constantly upgrading my hardware so I could play the latest game. What happened?
I got smart.
Well, OK, I had kids and my wife left the workforce to care for the kids. Living on a single income has a way of focusing a person on what they find to be most important, and I could no longer justify spending any extra money on my tech toys. The result of all this is that I’ve become fairly adept at squeezing more longevity out of my PCs. I like to think I’m my family’s Mr. Scott, chief engineer of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek – always beating the odds to do the impossible with limited resources at hand, only less glamorous.
Here’s how I’ve managed to get 10 years each out of 2 windows PCs and how you can too.
Keep an orderly house
A computer’s hard drive is a lot like your desk. Windows can find what it’s looking for a lot more easily when the files are neat and orderly. To this end, it is essential that you defragment your hard drive at least every 3 months. You should also run defrag after you have installed or uninstalled a program, or deleted a lot of files. The windows defrag utility is OK, but if you aspire to attain power user status, you may want to check out WinContig or JKDefrag. Both programs are safe, lightweight and offer more advanced options.
Trim your guest registry
Make no mistake – most programs on your computer are guests that are only there because you invited them to come and stay. If you don’t visit with them often, or can get by on the day to day without them – toss them out on their ear. Most people notice that Windows slows down over time. It’s snappy and responsive when they first get the computer, and a year or two later, it’s a dog. One major reason for this is registry bloat.
Every piece of software you install on your Windows PC is entered into a registry file to some degree. It’s just like a registry in a hotel. The more you install, the bigger the registry gets and the more entries Windows needs to pour through to find the one it needs at any given time. This can have a major impact on performance over time. So, clean out the clutter and uninstall any programs you don’t use anymore.
Uninstall that tax program from 2006 – you don’t need it anymore. Chances are very good that you could export your tax return to a PDF file, and not even need the original program to view or print it, should the need arise. Besides, as long as you keep the original install disk or setup program, you can always get back to it again.
After you’ve trimmed some of the fat and removed the programs you no longer need or use, download a registry cleaner. One of my favorites is Free Windows Registry Repair.
What a registry cleaner does is go through the registry, and verify that the entries are still valid. Sometimes the guests forget to tell the clerk when they’ve checked out. It’s the same thing with software – sometimes the uninstall program doesn’t remove its registry entries. A registry cleaner goes through the registry and knocks on doors. If the guest is no longer staying there, it removes the name from the registry.
Once you’ve done the above, download a copy of CCleaner. It’s a disk cleaner and registry cleaner in 1. Its disk-cleaning mode will remove temporary Internet files, temporary system files and empty the recycling bin.
Keep an orderly registry
Just as your computer’s hard drive can get cluttered and disorganized, so can the registry. Once you’ve trimmed the registry – organize it. There are a number of programs available to defragment a registry. One of my favorites is Quicksys RegDefrag.
Another great program to have is PageDefrag. PageDefrag not only defragments the registry files, but the swap file as well. The swap file is also known as a page file or “virtual memory.” When Windows starts to run out of available RAM, it will swap or “page out” data that is not being used at that specific instance to the hard drive, thus creating “virtual memory”. This is one reason RAM is so important – it’s much quicker to access than the hard drive. So, keeping an orderly swap file (or page file) is essential to performance.
Stay the course
Once you’ve cleaned out the clutter, and jettisoned the old applications it’s a good idea to try and avoid cluttering the registry again. One of the best ways to do this is to use portable apps when possible. Portable applications don’t rely on the registry, which makes them portable (you can copy one install from computer A to computer B and it will work just as well). Beyond the portability of these applications, not relying on the Windows registry also means less clutter and better performance. Two really great sites for portable applications are PortableFreeware.com and PortableApps.com. You can find replacements for MS Office, web browsers, email and more. And the best part is that they’re all free. In fact, you’ll likely find that you can replace software you’ve paid for in the past with these free apps, and that alone could save you quite a bit over the years.
On to the hard stuff
So that covers some techniques to improve performance of your computer as it is, but what if it still isn’t enough? What if you need new hardware? Sometimes you just need a bigger hard drive or more RAM. The trick is often knowing which it is that you need. You really only need a bigger hard drive if you are running out of space. For the most part, a new hard drive is not going to improve the performance of your system. There are some cases where it can, but it’s more the exception than the rule.
If your system is slow to respond when you have a number of applications open at once, or after you’ve been browsing a lot of websites, you may need more RAM. If you notice performance improves when you close a lot of running applications, and only use one application, then it’s a good bet you could use more RAM.
I’ve been able to extend my PC’s useable lifespan tremendously by maxing out the RAM. The best part is – it’s dirt-cheap on an old(er) system. For about $100-$125 I was able to upgrade 2 PC’s to the maximum supported RAM, and one of them used a relatively rare and pricey form of RAM. Most upgrades for older models will set you back anywhere from $20 to close to $100. Still, when you’re comparing $125 to $600 – $1,000 for a new PC or laptop it’s a big savings. I’ve gotten some of the RAM from memory4less, pricewatch and even eBay. If you go the eBay route, just be sure you buy from a reputable seller and don’t spend more than you would at one of the other sites, or it’s not worth the risk.
The bottom line is that you may not need a new computer when you think you do, and you certainly don’t need one every 2 years. Prudent application of frugality and a little figurative elbow grease can save you a bundle. Oh, and every piece of software mentioned in this article is 100% free, so what do you have to lose? Just make sure you back up your essential data first – just in case. It’s good practice before making changes to new and old systems alike.
Image courtesy of A. Belani