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16 ways to speed up your laptop

Does your ageing laptop need a boost? We look at the software tweaks and hardware upgrades that will give your computer a new lease of life

A businessman working on a laptop

'Time heals all wounds' is a saying that doesn't strictly apply to the word of computing. In fact, time is usually the biggest cause of hardware slowdown on laptops. Indeed, as usage increases and more things get downloaded and installed, greater strain is placed on a laptop's limited memory and other hardware capacities.

Slow laptops are the bane of many enterprises, and we're all well acquainted with the annoyance of starting up a program and waiting ages for it to open - it can be so tempting just pack it up and buy a new laptop, but there are measures you can take to extend the machine's lifespan.

These measures are only temporary fixes. Even with consistent upkeep, it's unlikely that your laptop will ever perform as it did when it was box-fresh, but following these steps will probably keep you from smashing it in anger - even if it's just for a few more months.

Delete unused programs

The internet is full of helpful tools and utilities that can be downloaded to accomplish various tasks, from data backup to desktop customisation, but these applications have a tendency to accumulate over time. It's easy to build up a large collection of programs on your hard drive that you don't really use any more, and these can often contribute to laptops feeling slower in day-to-day use. 

Utility programs you might have installed over the lifetime of your device, such as virus scanners, disk cleaners, and backup tools, often run automatically at startup, quietly chugging along in the background where you can't see them. "Many people have no idea they're even running," Microsoft warns

A good rule of thumb is to regularly audit your installed applications (which you can do from Windows 10’s settings menu) and remove any that you no longer use on a regular basis. If you need to download tools for specific one-off jobs (such as cloning a hard drive) then you should also uninstall these once you're finished with them, to prevent similar situations in the future.

Limit startup programs

Many programs (including some of the utilities mentioned above) are designed to start automatically as soon as Windows boots. Software manufacturers often set their programs to open in the background, out of sight, so they'll open right away when you click their icons. That's helpful for programs you use a lot, but for programs you rarely or never use, this wastes precious memory and acts as a drag on overall system speed as well as making your machine slower to boot to the desktop.

Thankfully, it’s now easier than ever in Windows 10 to adjust what applications are allowed to run on startup. Simply head to the settings menu, click on ‘Apps’ followed by the ‘Startup’ tab; this will show you a list of every program or service that has the option of running at startup, a label showing the impact on system resources and performance, and a toggle switch to block or allow it from running on boot. Simply flip the switch on any services that you don’t want running all the time, and you should start to see an improvement in performance and boot times.

Get rid of 'bloatware'

It's not just old computers that can suffer from latency. New computers can too and that's often down to the bloatware manufacturers preinstall on their laptops. This sometimes takes the form of the manufacturer’s own software and services, but it can also include third-party applications which are preinstalled as part of commercial distribution deals between the manufacturer and software vendors. Whether you refer to it as bloatware, crapware or PUP (potentially unwanted programs), this unwelcome software can really slow down a computer. 

Similarly to the old programs and utilities mentioned above, these services can clog up processing power and memory, and can eat into valuable storage space. You may find that some preinstalled programs - such as the Microsoft Office suite or Dropbox desktop client - are useful additions, but there’s a good chance that at least a couple of them will be surplus to requirements, so it’s worth taking the time to go through a new laptop and identify any preinstalled apps that can be given the boot.

​Remove malware

It’s frighteningly easy to pick up malware on the modern web, whether through watering hole attacks, drive-by downloads or malicious email attachments. Malware isn’t necessarily something that instantly renders your computer unusable though; it can often lurk on your system for years, leaking data and spying on your activities. It can also slow down your machine, and unlike startup programs, it can be difficult to identify when malware is the cause of a slowdown.

Fortunately, this is a relatively easy problem to fix. A free security suite should protect your system from the majority of common threats on the web, and setting up regular recurring virus scans will help keep your system zipping along without being gummed up by malicious processes.

Delete unnecessary system resources

One of the first things you should do if your computer is not running as fast as it used to is to run a file scanner to check whether there are any old files or folders you don't need anymore or haven't used for a long time. Any of this extra data, such as caches, cookies and temporary files (which aren't really temporary at all) can make your computer run much slower.

There are various tools available to help you tidy up your files, and one of the most popular  is CCleaner. You may remember that CCleaner suffered a hack in 2019 in which attackers used CCleaner to inject malware into users’ machines, but parent company Avast says it has addressed these problems, and CCleaner is a useful enough tool that we’re still prepared to recommend it for this task.

It'll crawl your computer's hard drive, searching for any files that haven't been used for a long time, deleting them if you give it permission to. It will also look for any problems with the registry that may be slowing down your computer and a tools tab allows you to uninstall programs right from the app, switch off startup programs and identify large files on your machine that are taking up disk space.

First, download and install CCleaner. Once installed, start the application. This will open on the ‘Health Check’ tab, which runs an overall system scan for a variety of problems, but we’d recommend running a custom clean to get a little more granularity. In the ‘Custom Clean’ tab, click on ‘Analyse’ to scan the selected components, followed by ‘Run Cleaner’ to perform the actual operation. This will scan the drive looking for items such as temporary internet files, memory dumps and more advanced stuff like cleaning out Prefetch data. You can choose what items you want to scan for, such as specific applications or system components. The Registry tab can also help you clean up any unnecessary registry entries that could slow down your laptop.Image removed.

You can also use the Tools tab to explore various other features offered by CCleaner, including disk analysis and application removal. You may also want to head into CCleaner’s settings menu and disable the update notifications, as these may become irritating if you’re only planning on using the application every couple of months.

Defrag your hard disk

Old mechanical hard drives can often suffer from fragmentation. This happens when the various different bits that make up a complete file are scattered across the physical surface of the drive platter. Because the drive head has to travel further across the surface of the disk to read all the separate portions, this slows the machine down. Defragmentation - or defragging - restructures the disk so that all of the bits that make up various files are grouped in the same physical area, which hopefully increases the speed of hard drive access at the same time. Note, however, that because solid state drives (SSDs) do not use spinning-platter disks, they are immune to fragmentation.

It’s easy to check whether a physical disk is in need of defragging; simply head to the storage tab in Windows 10’s system settings menu, and click the option labelled ‘Optimise drives’. This will open the optimisation wizard, which allows you to analyse all of your machine’s drives individually and presents you with a percentage showing how fragmented each one is. From there, you can defrag the drive, which should result in more stability and faster performance.

Use ReadyBoost to increase your memory

ReadyBoost is a clever little feature that was introduced by Microsoft as part of Windows Vista. It essentially allows you to boost your system memory by using a flash drive as additional capacity.

Although it’s not as effective as swapping a traditional hard drive for a solid state one or adding more RAM, ReadyBoost will give a little uptick to the performance of your system, particularly if you’re using a low-powered laptop with only a couple of gigabytes of RAM. It puts aside a part of the flash drive memory for things such as caching, assisting often-used apps to open quicker, and increasing random read access speeds of the hard disk.

To use ReadyBoost, first insert a USB memory drive into an empty USB slot on the laptop you wish to speed up. A dialogue box will open asking you what you want to do with the flash drive. Choose ‘Speed up my system using Windows ReadyBoost'. Another window will open and here you can select how much of the drive you wish to give over for boosting. It’s generally a good idea to use as much of the drive as possible.

Once that’s done, confirm the settings and the window will close. The drive will be automatically detected and used whenever it’s plugged in.

One last note: if your machine is fast enough already, Windows will prevent you from using ReadyBoost, as your system won’t be able to see any benefit from it.

Switch off unnecessary animations

Ever since Windows Vista (and some would argue Windows XP), Microsoft’s operating system has become cluttered with fancy graphics and animated flourishes that do little to improve productivity. By default, Windows will automatically disable some of these based on how powerful your system is, but if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit more aesthetic appeal for the sake of speed, it’s easy to switch all of the graphics off and run on the bare essentials.

To do this, open that Start Menu and start typing in 'Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows'. Click on this option and from the scroll menu untick everything you don't wish to see on the desktop (such as shadows, smooth fonts, et cetera). Click OK and this will change the desktop to something more basic looking.

On systems other than Windows 10, switching everything off gives the desktop a Windows 95-style look and feel. It’s surprising to note how much of the so-called 'flat look' of Windows 10 relies on graphical flourishes once everything is switched off. 

Disable automatic updates

Ordinarily, we wouldn’t recommend disabling automatic software updates; they’re the easiest way to keep you machine protected from commonly-used cyber attacks and compatibility issues, and turning them off can easily lead to your machine becoming riddled with security holes. However, there are some cases in which it may be advisable.

For example, if you use your laptop for gaming as well as work, there’s a good chance that games distribution platforms like Steam and the Epic Games Store will frequently install multiple large updates and patches in the background. The Adobe Creative Suite is also prone to significant updates. By turning this option off and updating only when you actually want to use the software, you can ensure that these updates aren’t getting in the way when you’d rather be doing something else.

We would still advise that any critical software or frequently-used services - such as Windows or antivirus updates - are left on automatic, but if you’re really pushed for processing headroom, you can set these to download and install at a specific time when you’re unlikely to be using the device, such as late at night or at the weekend.

Remove web results from Windows 10 search

Search indexing in Windows 10 has come a long way from its origins in previous Windows versions. What this feature does is create an index of files and folders throughout your system, along with their metadata, in order to find them more efficiently when you try and look them up using the operating system’s built-in search function. In recent years, the way Windows handles search indexing has been radically improved, but it can still be worth optimising if you want to make your system more efficient. 

First, you can disable the web results that appear in Windows 10’s search menu, because let's face it, you’ll almost certainly use a web browser for searching. Simply hit the Windows key, type gpedit.msc and hit enter to bring up the Group Policy Editor. With this open, click on Local Computer Policy > Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Search.

Find the policies labelled 'Do not allow web search', 'Don't search the web or display web results in Search' and 'Don't search the web or display web results in Search over metered connections', then double-click to edit them and set preference for each one to ‘enabled’. You’ll need to restart your computer for the changes to take effect, but once they do, you should stop seeing web results and suggestions in your system search bar.

Make Windows 10 search faster

If you want to further improve the speed of your machine’s search function, you can also change the locations that Windows Search indexes to exclude stuff you know you don't need to find. This can include locations such as the App Data folder that contains web browser cache and cookies, among other things. If you don't use Internet Explorer or Edge you may not want these indexed either.

To manage these, open the Indexing Options by pressing Windows and Pause to open the System control panel, then click on 'All control panel items' in the location bar at the top, and then find and click on Indexing Options. This then opens a window that shows all the locations that are included in Windows 10's search indexer. Here you can choose which locations to include or exclude to speed up this search function.

Improve your cooling

If you’ve ever felt your laptop getting uncomfortably warm during the summer months, you’ll be aware that processors can kick out some serious heat when they’re under load. Unfortunately, this means that once they reach their maximum safe operating temperature, processors are forced to throttle performance in order to reduce their heat output. 

Many laptops include cooling systems such as inbuilt fans or heatsinks in order to allow the processor to deliver higher speeds before they reach this point, but in some cases this isn’t enough to get the full benefit of the processor’s capabilities. You can, however, invest in an external cooling pad to give your laptop an extra helping hand. These devices sit underneath your laptop, blasting cool air into the underside of the machine to help stop the internal components from getting overly toasty. They work best with laptops which have airflow vents mounted on the bottom of the chassis, and start at around £10.

Add more RAM

Many of the tweaks we’ve listed already are based on freeing up additional system memory to be used in general operation. However, if your laptop has 2GB of memory or less, adding some additional capacity is a great way of eking out extra performance. There are some caveats to this, however.

If you’re running a 32-bit version of Windows, the maximum amount of RAM you can have in one system is 3GB. With these systems, if you have 2GB and you add another 2GB, Windows will only use 3GB of RAM. This is because of the limits 32-bit operating systems have when addressing memory.

A more important point to note is that for many laptops, this simply won’t be an option. In the past, laptops featured removable RAM sticks, meaning they could be swapped out for the purposes of repairs or upgrades. However, the drive for an ever-thinner chassis has led to many manufacturers soldering their RAM directly to the motherboard, which makes an upgrade all but impossible. 

Even if your laptop does use replaceable SODIMMs for its RAM, actually opening up and tinkering with the chassis is likely to be a fiddly and involved process, and is almost certain to void the machine’s warranty. On the other hand, if your laptop is slow enough that you’re considering a RAM upgrade, chances are that it’s already old enough to be out of warranty, but it’s worth bearing in mind regardless.

Swap out your hard drive for an SSD

If your laptop has a mechanical hard drive, then swapping it for a solid state drive (SSD) could pay dividends. As there are no moving parts, an SSD has read and write speeds far quicker than any traditional drive, as well as better reliability, and can revitalise an ailing system. If your laptop already uses an SSD, it might also be worth considering an upgrade to a faster SSD.

Over the past few years, SSD prices have gone down and capacities up, so putting one in your laptop won't break the bank. However, as with RAM, many laptop hard drives won’t be replaceable, or will use specialised form-factors which prevent the use of third-party drives. 

Assuming your laptop will support an upgrade, you can use a cloning tool to copy everything from your old disk to an SSD rather than reinstalling Windows from scratch. There are numerous freeware tools that can be used for this task, such as Todo Backup Free 9.0. Many SSD manufacturers will also include a license key for disk imaging tools with the purchase of a new drive. 

Switch to Linux

When all other options have failed and Windows has no more tweaks left to offer, there’s one last hail mary that can be used to wring some more life out of an aging laptop - switching to a Linux-based OS. Linux distros are generally less resource-intensive than modern Windows versions, and in fact there are a number of them which are specifically designed to be lightweight enough to make older computers usable again.

Switching to Linux isn’t the easiest process, and users should be prepared to do a not-insubstantial amount of troubleshooting, but once you’re up and running, you’ll probably find that it’s not as intimidating to get to grips with as it first seems.

Bite the bullet and buy a new laptop

Unfortunately, however, there simply isn’t any more that can be done to preserve a laptop beyond the natural end of its life. Computers aren’t built to last forever, and eventually their performance will degrade to the point where it’s simply more efficient to buy a new machine. 

Thankfully, there is now a broader range of options than ever before, accommodating a huge array of tastes and budgets. Chromebooks provide an affordable option for those with more general needs, while mobile workstations can support all but the most demanding of professional power users. 

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