Upgrade Your Life: How to speed up your PC (or Mac)

Ben Patterson

Is your desktop or laptop computer starting to feel a little poky? Even after just a few months of use, your PC or Mac may start to lose steam thanks to a fragmented hard drive, too many programs running in the background, or even a rogue piece of malware.

This week on Upgrade Your Life, Yahoo! News' Becky Worley serves up some quick and easy tricks for speeding up your PC or Mac, starting with …

1. Clean out your startup items
How long do you have to wait after hitting your PC's power button before you can actually get to work? Thirty seconds? A minute? Two minutes? More?

If you find yourself routinely twiddling your thumbs while your PC or Mac painstakingly boots itself up, maybe it's because your system is trying to fire up a slew of programs at the same time (and indeed, some programs will set themselves to launch at startup by default). Here's how to ease the frantic rush of competing startup programs:

For Windows: Click the Start menu, then select Programs (or All Programs in Windows 7), open the Startup folder, and then—as Becky suggest—delete mercilessly. (Don't worry; you're not deleting the programs themselves.) Note: if you see a program sitting in the Startup folder and you don't know what it's for, search on the Web to see what it does before hitting the "delete" button.

For Mac: Open System Preferences under the Apple menu, click the Accounts icon, and then click the Login Items tab. You may find a variety of arcane programs and helper apps lurking inside (such as the mysterious iTunesHelper), but again—search before you zap an unknown program. (Disabling the iTunesHelper app, for example, will prevent iTunes from opening automatically when you connect an iPhone or iPod.)

2. Check for running apps in the Windows task bar
Got a Windows-based PC? See that little row of tiny icons in the bottom-right corner of the screen? Over the course of weeks, months, or years, the number of icons sitting in the Windows task bar has probably grown larger and larger—and many of those icons represent programs that are running in the background and consuming your PC's limited resources.

Expand the task bar by clicking the little arrow on the side, then right-click each icon in succession. If you find, for example, that programs like Skype and iTunes are whirring away even when you're not using them, right-click and select "Close"—or, better yet, open the program and uncheck any "launch at startup" settings in the Preferences or Options menu.

3. Turn off P2P applications
Programs like BitTorrent and Skype work their magic with "peer-to-peer" technology, meaning they leverage the combined computing power and bandwidth of every PC or Mac running their software for such uses as massive file transfers (in the case of BitTorrent) or high-quality, Net-based voice and video chat (for Skype).

But while sharing the P2P burden qualifies you a good Netizen, it can also put a significant dent in your system's performance. If you've got programs like BitTorrent and Skype running all day, every day in the background, Becky suggests shutting them down until you really need them.

4. Root out viruses and malware
Nothing will slow your system down like a virus, a Trojan horse, or other types of malware. Plenty of commercial antivirus applications are available for Windows PCs, but Becky recommends trying Microsoft's free Security Essentials suite, which will sweep your system for any unwanted, nefarious software and provide ongoing protection via regular updates. Just visit Microsoft's Security Essentials website, download and install the software, and follow the instructions.

Anti-virus packages from the likes of Norton and McAfee are also available for Mac users, but there's an ongoing debate about whether virus protection on the Mac is more trouble than it's worth, given that malicious hackers are far more focused on Windows than they are on Mac OS X systems.

5. Clean up your hard drive
The more junk you have cluttering up your hard drive, the longer it takes for your system to access the data it needs—and that's a great reason to regularly scan your folders and toss out files and programs you don't need, or move them somewhere else to make more room.

One easy (and relatively cheap) solution, says Becky, is to buy an external hard drive for your music, photos, and videos, which can hog a surprisingly large amount of disk space (particularly when it comes to HD-quality TV shows and movies). You can find 500GB external hard drives online for as little as $50, while plenty of 1TB drives (or 1,000 gigabytes) sell for south of $100. Most USB 2.0 external drives are plug-and-play, meaning you just plug them into your PC's USB 2.0 port and you're ready to start dragging and dropping.

Another options: online storage sites, such as Dropbox and Carbonite.

Becky also recommends dumping any old programs that you no longer use. For Windows, click the Start menu, open the Control Panel, and select Add/Remove Programs (or "Uninstall a program" in Windows 7). Mac users can look in the Applications folder, which you can open in the Mac OS X Finder by clicking the Window menu and clicking Applications. See a program you simply never use anymore? Consider tossing it in the trash—although again, never throw away an application without knowing what it does first.

6. Turn off Mac Dashboard widgets
One of the more recent features in Mac OS X is the Dashboard—a layer of handy widgets that you can call up by clicking the Dashboard icon in the Dock. But while Dashboard widgets might be great for a quick check on the weather or to track the Dow, they also eat up a decent chunk of system resources.

Do yourself a favor and deactivate the widgets you don't use all that often, Becky advises. Activate the Dashboard, then click the "plus" sign in the bottom-left corner of the screen; next, click the "X" in the upper-left corner of any widgets that you won't miss.

7. Try a new browser—or update your old one
Has your browser been slowing to a crawl lately? Maybe it's time for a new one. Both Firefox and Google's Chrome Web browsers are popular—and powerful—alternatives to Internet Explorer, and don't forget that there's a Windows version of Apple's speedy Safari browser.

Want to stick with the browser you have? Make sure you're using the latest version. For Internet Explorer, fire up the Windows Update app under the Start Menu. For Firefox, select "Check for update" under the Help menu. Got Chrome? Select "About Google Chrome" under the wrench icon in the Windows version, or under the Chrome menu in Mac OS X. For Safari, launch "Apple Software Update" under the Start menu in Windows, or select Software Update under the Apple menu on the Mac.

One more thing: make sure you have the latest version of Adobe's Flash Player installed. Visit Adobe's Flash site to download the latest and greatest version (10.2, as of this writing).

8. Defragment your hard drive
Your computer's hard drive is a lot like a closet: the more cluttered it is, the longer it takes to find stuff. One of the easiest (and most effective) ways of tidying up your hard drive is to defragment it, a process that involves consolidating scattered blocks of data into a larger chunk, resulting in bigger swaths of free disk space.

Luckily, defragmenting your hard drive in Windows is a snap. Select Computers from the Start menu, right-click on the icon that represents your hard drive, select Properties, click the Tools tab, and click the Defragment Now button.

Got a Mac? Thanks to the disk optimization features built into Mac OS X, there's "little benefit" to manually fragmenting your hard drive, Apple says. But if you're feeling the need to try it anyway, there are several third-party defragmenting utilities for the Mac, including iDefrag and Drive Genius; just make sure to back up your data before giving them a go.

— Ben Patterson is a technology blogger for Yahoo! News.

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