Computers slow down for any number of reasons, but most of those boil down to one thing – us using them. As you download programs, install extensions, surf the web, create files and fill your hard drive with movies and music, inevitably you’ll build up virtual detritus that will impact your PC’s performance. So if you’ve been asking yourself “Why is my computer so slow?”, these are the most common reasons your computer is slowing down – and the simple measures you can take to get it running faster.

1. You have too many startup programs

Newly downloaded programs often try to weasel their way into your Startup menu (Windows) or Login Items (Mac). If you didn’t uncheck the box for that permission, you could have dozens of unnecessary programs vying to be ready and running as soon as your computer boots up (as if that’s happening any time soon).

“The most common cause of a slow computer is too many startup programs,” says Aaron Schoeffler, computer repair doctor at LaptopMD. “90 percent of programs want that permission to start when your computer starts so that you’ll use them, and that can result in a boot time of five to ten minutes. When it finally does start, a ton of programs are already running in the background and if you’re not using a newer computer, that can slow it down.” 

While some programs – such as antivirus and firewall software – should be allowed to run from startup, others – such as iTunes or Microsoft Office – could quite easily stay closed until you actually need to access a file from their digital depths.

Fix it

Mac: Applications / Systems Preferences / User Groups / Login Items, then uncheck unneeded programs. Delete desktop icons you don’t use by trashing them or, in the case of files you’ve saved to your desktop for convenience, reorganizing to the appropriate folder.

Windows 8 and 10: Windows key + X / Task Manager / Startup tab, then right-click on the programs you want to remove and select Disable.

Windows 7 and older: Start button, then search for System Configuration. Go to Startup tab, then uncheck each of the programs if you don’t want starting when the system boots up.

2. Your hard drive is failing

“A hard drive nearing the end of its lifespan is a common issue. Hard drives are made of moving parts that spin thousands of times a day and they do wear down,” says Schoeffler “Generally, after two to three years of consistent use, there’s a high chance that a hard drive is failing.”

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In contrast, solid-state drives (SSDs) don’t experience the same type of degradation from physical hardware, and have a lifespan of eight to ten years. “Solid state drives are also ten times faster than a standard hard drive, and you’re looking at going from a boot time of three to five minutes to 15-20 seconds,” Schoeffler says. However, SSDs are more expensive per gigabyte of storage – which isn’t a problem if you’re after, say, a 2TB drive, but can get expensive if you need a drive to store large photo or video files.

Fix it

Run a hard drive check:

Windows 7, Vista: Windows Explorer / Computer / right-click on drive / Properties / Tools / Check Now. You can select “Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors” which will prevent your computer from accessing any “bad” areas of the hard drive, but can also increase the scan time to a few hours.

Mac: Head to Applications / Utilities / Disk Utility, then highlight the hard drive in question and click First Aid at the top of the screen.

In general, avoid dropping, throwing or otherwise causing impact to the hard drive to extend its lifespan. At some point, you might consider upgrading your hard drive too: “We tend to recommend upgrading to solid-state drives,” Schoeffler says. Here is our guide on how to upgrade from a hard disk drive to an SSD.

3. Your hard drive is 95% full 

When your hard drive gets to 95 percent full, computers can slow down by 50 percent, Schoeffler estimates. “At this point, there is no space to save the temporary files required for operating programs, so it’s as if the OS doesn’t know how to run properly anymore,” he says.

Hard drive space is taken up by programs, updates to programs, and downloads, as well as temporary files and associated files of deleted programs, so you may be able to clear a good amount of space just by emptying your trash. Check your hard drive situation by (Mac) clicking the apple and selecting About this Mac, or (Windows) hitting Start / Computer and right clicking the primary hard drive (usually C:), then go to Properties.

Fix it

Deep clean your computer of unnecessary files from unused programs to defunct downloads and temporary files. This might include bloatware that manufacturers preload onto computers that are supposed to run utilities or cleanup. System backups and restore points also can take up a huge amount of space, so don’t keep more backup versions than you really need. To optimize space, you might also want to move files to a cloud storage service. Schoeffler recommends the free program CCleaner (Mac/Windows) to easily delete unneeded files, including the glut of temp files created by browsers, for instance.

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Wondering about that ancient computer cleaning ritual defragging? That’s only if you’re for some reason still using Windows XP or older – newer Windows PCs and all Macs do not require manual defragging. 

4. Your browser has too many add-ons

Browser extensions can usefully enhance your web experience (like an ad-blocker or a unit converter I use) – but they might also be a culprit in slowing down your computer by eating up processing power. Nor are all extensions created equal – some add-ons may proclaim themselves popup blockers or search protectors, but they may be browser adware that can slow your computer down by downloading ads and popping up ads every time you open your browser.

Fix it

Disable or remove the extensions and toolbars you don’t really need:

Firefox: Hit the menu button on the far right, select Add-ons / Extensions, then select disable or remove for each item on the list.

Chrome: Right-click on any extension button / Manage Extensions, then uncheck the box to disable a particular item, or click the trash can to wave it goodbye. You can also check how much memory each extension is using by hitting the top-right menu button (three vertical dots) then More Tools / Task Manager / Memory where you can sort all browser processes by memory used. The extensions will be preceded by a puzzle piece icon.

Safari: Hit Safari (top left) / Preferences / Security / Extensions, then select an item to uninstall. You can also turn off all Extensions here.

Internet Explorer: Tools / Manage add-ons / Show All add-ons, then select the offender(s), and click disable or remove.

Edge: Setting and More / Extensions, then remove any you don’t need.

5. You’re running too many programs at once

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Doing a trillion things at once is exactly why we have computers but, at some point, your little bundle of artificial intelligence is going to falter. Your computer’s ability to run multiple programs at the same time hinges in part on its RAM (random access memory), which allows it to switch from processing one program to another with seeming fluidity, but if the demands of the open programs are outstripping your computer’s memory and processing power, you’ll notice a slowdown.

Fix it

Head into Task Manager (Windows; Ctrl+Alt+Del) or Activity Monitor (Mac; Cmd+Space, type into Spotlight bar), recommends Schoeffler, to see which programs are open and sucking up processing power:

Then shut down those you don’t need. For Macs, Windows 10, Windows 7 and earlier versions of Windows, you can close the programs from the file menu. In Windows 10 and 8, programs are built so that they run in the background for a while, then automatically shut down. But if you want to manually shut one down and ensure all associated files shut down with it, drag from the top of the screen to the bottom, and hold there until the icon flips over.

6. Too many browser tabs are open

If you’re in the dozens of open tabs camp (“All the better to never lose a link”, you claim), your browser is likely hogging far more than its fair share of RAM. “When you open a new browser tab, it’s saved in RAM. If you have only a little bit of RAM left free, you run out of room for processing everything that is active, so the computer slows down,” Schoeffler says

Multiple open browsers can slow down the works, too, and you get extra slow points if any tabs are also auto-refreshing (say, a live blog). What’s more, having a glut of browser tabs full of supposedly crucial information doesn’t exactly help our efficiency or mindfuless.

Fix it

Bookmark those “necessary” links (for organization’s sake, in a Bookmarks folder titled “To Read”) and shut those tabs down. Even better, One-Tab for Chrome and Firefox does the work for you, compiling all your open tabs into a simple list on a single tab, which can then be accessed as needed. 

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