Q&A: Why do computers slow down over time?

dell-inspiron-mini-1010Question from Michael S.:  I’ve noticed that every computer I’ve ever owned starts out running lighting fast when you first take it out of the box, but before long it starts getting slower and slower.

Why is that? Do the parts just wear out or what? And is there anything that can be done to prevent it?

Rick’s answer:  Michael, the gradual decrease in apparent speed of a computer has nothing at all to do with the hardware inside the case. Well, if a hard drive is in the process of failing it can cause delays while the read/write heads are trying to access the data on the drive, but that isn’t usually the case in the context of your question.

PC’s slow down over time for a number of reasons, virtually all of which are software related. Here are the two biggest culprits:

1 – The hard drive gets clogged up with tons of digital “clutter”, much of which is spread all over the drive in fragments instead of in nice, contiguous blocks. This make the drive have to work overtime to find the data that it’s looking for.

2 – The Windows Registry (a massive database containing the details and settings for all of your programs and Windows services) gets cluttered up as programs and settings are added, deleted and changed.

Minimizing the effects of the first reason mentioned above is relatively easy. All you need to do is uninstall all the programs that you never use, periodically clean out the areas where Windows stores temporary files (I use CCleaner to do this) and defragment your hard drive about twice a year (for this I use Defraggler).

There really isn’t a lot you can do about reason number two. Some folks recommend running a Registry optimizer utility (CCleaner has that capability built in), but I don’t. I’ve seen too many Windows installations trashed by monkeying around with the Registry.

One thing that I do recommend is backing up your hard drive and then reinstalling Windows fresh about once a year. A fresh Windows installation will get your PC back into peak running condition, and once you restore your files you’ll be back up and running as smooth as ever.

One final recommendation: Make frequent backups of your hard drive just in case it does decide to go belly up on you. And trust me, at some point it will if you use your computer long enough. Failing hard drives often give subtle hints about their impending failure, but not always. Always having a recent backup on hand ensures that your precious files won’t kick the bucket right along with the drive.


Do you have a tech question of your own for Rick? Click here and send it in!