Five cheap or free ways to make a PC faster

It's 2016 and tech users have a plethora of different devices to choose from, ranging from tablets to smartwatches, yet the most commonly asked question to land in my mailbox hasn't changed in over two decades.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

(Image: file photo)

"How can I make my PC go faster?"

This is a question that I've been fielding for over two decades. New devices and form factors have come -- and gone -- and new tech is faster and cheaper than every, and yet people still seem to want to squeeze more life out of their existing systems. In fact, now that PC sales have slumped, people are squeezing more life than ever from their existing desktop and laptop PCs.

What follows are five cheap or free ways to speed up a PC. In all my years of building, repairing, and performance-tuning PCs, these stand out as the best bang-for-the-buck tune-up methods.

I've also addressed the half a dozen or so common follow-up questions that I get.

Finally, I've also decided to include a list of things that don't work. Sometimes knowing what doesn't work is just as important as knowing what works. There's a lot of snake oil out there, and I've come across PCs that have been wrecked by people fiddling with things that shouldn't be fiddled with.

OK, on to the list:

#1: Install an SSD

The best way to improve your PC's performance is to upgrade your hard drives to SSDs. And now that SSDs have fallen in price to a point where you don't need three mortgages to buy one, it's the best bang-for-the-buck upgrade you can do.

Even if you can't afford to have all your storage upgraded to SSD, moving your operating system and applications to an SSD can result in huge performance boosts.

Cheap 1TB SSDs (April 2016)

#2: Fit more RAM

RAM used to be at the top of the list, but nowadays I've relegated this to second place. Why? Because most PCs come with about 2GB of RAM, and upgrading from 2GB to 4GB or above is nowhere near as impressive as upgrading from, say, 1GB to 2GB. The more RAM you have, the less of a performance boost it offers.

Here's my rough-and-ready answer to the "how much RAM do I need?" question:

  • Standard desktop PC: 1 to 2GB
  • Gaming PC: 4 to 8GB
  • Performance PC/workstation: 16GB+

A couple of notes about RAM:

For anything above 4GB of total system RAM, a 64-bit operating system is required.

If you're thinking of upgrading beyond 3 to 4GB then bear in mind that what you get out of the endeavor will depend a lot on the quality of the rest of the hardware. There's no point maxing out the RAM on a cheap system because you'll just encounter a bottleneck somewhere else.

#3: Reinstall Windows

This is a free way to boost performance by getting rid of all the detritus that's accumulated on a system. Just make sure that you have backups of your data and copies of all the applications you use.

And there's even better news for those of you running Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 -- Microsoft have made this easy for you by including settings that will refresh your system. Here are links to instructions giving you step-by-step details on how to do this:

Best productivity accessories for your Windows 10 PC

#4: Remove bloatware

It's staggering just how much bloatware can be on a PC, even a new PC direct from the manufacturer. The junk ranges from trial software to toolbars to OEM software.

Rather than try to remove this manually -- we've all got better things to do with our time, right? -- I turn to some trusty tools that I've been using for years:

For systems that have adware on them, I usually turn to the following

#5: Manage Power Plans

Ever noticed how your laptop is faster when it's connected to the charger than it is when it's running off the battery? That's because Windows managed the performance to give you better battery life. However, if you'd rather have the extra performance and are not worried about how long your battery will last, then you can tweak them.

You can manage your systems power plan settings by using Power Options in Control Panel. There you will normally find three options:

  • Balanced
  • Power saver
  • High performance

Pick the one that best suits your needs.

What about ...?

Time to address some commonly asked follow-on questions.

... updating drivers?

Sure, a graphics card driver or storage controller driver update might improve performance, especially if there was some bug in the driver you're using, but remember that what drivers can give, they can also take away.

... defragging hard drives?

Windows has been automatically defragging hard drives for years, so unless you've been fiddling with the settings, this is already happening.

... clearing temp files and caches?

Mostly just a feel-good measure unless the system is running really tight on space. Even then, modern operating systems do a pretty good job of handling this stuff.

... clearing browser data?

That'll speed up your browser for sure. As for your PC as a whole, no.

... turning off animations?

The system feels faster, but I've never seen this translate into a benchmark score improvement.

... freeing up disk space?

This can improve write speeds on a hard disk, but as long as you have about 10 percent or so free, you should be OK.

... tweaking the pagefile?

Leave it alone. Windows knows how to handle this better than you do.

... disabling startup items?

This can certainly speed up boot up times, and also increase the amount of available system resources. But, unless you know what you're doing, you can cause problems for yourself. This is why I think it's better to uninstall unwanted software as opposed to fiddling with installed software that you will want to use.

Same goes for fiddling with system services. Yes, you can squeeze out a few extra drops of performance -- never a huge amount -- but the potential for inflicting harm on your system is very real.

Things that don't work

Just don't waste your time -- or money -- on any of the following.

  • "Optimizing" or "cleaning" the Windows registry (this is a great way of wrecking a system)
  • PC tune-up software (most just leverage the tools already built into Windows)
  • "Secret" Windows registry hacks (yeah, just don't bother)
  • RAM "optimizers" (RAM is there to be used, and unused RAM is wasted RAM)

See also:

Google Chrome extensions to boost your privacy and productivity

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