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Take 5 simple steps for a quicker computer

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The longer you use a computer, the slower it gets. It's tempting to buy a new computer or call a professional, but I wouldn't just yet. You can get back most of the speed with a few free tricks. They're simple enough for anyone to do, and your wallet will thank you.

Before going on, I'm going to bring up one caveat. If you're using a Windows XP computer, plan to get a new one soon. XP's end of life is coming up on April 8, 2014. It's already lacking newer security features. It will only get less secure once Microsoft stops releasing security updates.

Speed up your startup.

The most annoying computer slowdown is startup. Even new computers can take a few minutes to start. After years of use, it can seem like hours.

Your computer spends much of that time starting third-party programs. Security software, printer software and driver updaters are just a few examples. The frustrating part is that many of these don't need to run at startup.

Autoruns is a freebie that can help reduce the load. It finds and disables unneeded programs. But it won't stop important startup processes, like security software.

Startup Delayer is a good program if you want more control. You can tell what programs to start when. That way, they're not fighting for system resources.

If you have a Windows 7 or 8 computer, you might invest in a solid-state hard drive (SSD). These are much faster than conventional hard drives. It can bring your startup times to well under a minute.

SSDs are still small and expensive — a 128 gigabyte SSD costs $110 to $150 — but that's less than a new computer. Before you put down any money, however, read on.

Clean the clutter.

Another thing that slows down your computer is a cluttered hard drive.

In the past, you had to worry about a full hard drive. Thanks to modern large-capacity drives, filling the space isn't easy.

Still, even coming close can slow your system. So if you have less than 5 gigabytes of free space, it's time to clean.

Use a free disk-visualizing program such as WinDirStat to see what applications and files are taking up the most space. Move space-hogging files you need to an external drive and delete the ones you don't.

Grab Revo Uninstaller to thoroughly remove any programs you don't use anymore. Zap unused trial software and other unwanted bloatware with PC Decrapifier.

Even if you have plenty of space, clutter can still slow things down. Plenty of programs create temporary files they have to sort through later. Get rid of temporary files with the free program CCleaner.

You might have duplicate music or photo files clogging up your programs. Use a program like CloneSpy or VisiPics to remove them quickly.

Pick up the pieces.

Files on a hard drive aren't like files in a filing cabinet. On a hard drive, files become fragmented. Pieces of them get scattered around the drive. This increases the time your computer takes to open them.

That's why there are defragmenting programs. These assemble the pieces so they're easier to find.

With Windows Vista, 7 and 8, this isn't such a big deal anymore. They run a built-in defragmenter automatically on a schedule.

To check when it runs, go to Start, or go to the Start Screen in Windows 8. In the search bar, type “defrag” (minus quotes). This will either bring up the defragmenter program or a list to select it.

Check when it ran last and when it's scheduled to run. Usually it's set for early morning. If your computer isn't usually on then, change the time. You can also run it manually.

In Windows XP, you'll have to run the defragmenter manually. Open My Computer and right-click on your main drive. Then choose Properties.

Go to the Tools tab and choose Defragment Now, then click Defragment. It will take a while, so sit back and relax.

One exception to defragging is if you have a solid-state hard drive. These work in a different way and don't have this problem. In fact, running a defragmenter on an SSD will shorten its life. Windows 7 and 8 will detect an SSD and turn off defragmenting automatically.

Boost your browsing.

Your computer runs fast, but loading websites leaves you twiddling your thumbs. What gives?

First, make sure you're getting the Internet speed you paid for. The free service Speedtest will give you the real scoop on your Internet connection.

If you suspect the problem is in your wireless network, you can tweak your router's settings to eliminate hang-ups and bottlenecks.

If your wireless signal is weak or your home has dead spots, try putting your router in a central location. Also, move it away from walls and metal objects.

It might turn out that it isn't your connection, but your browser. On Vista or 7, the fix for that could be as simple as upgrading Internet Explorer to version 9 or higher. Do this from Start>>Control Panel>>Windows Update.

On XP, you won't have this option. Instead, ditch IE entirely for the newer, more nimble Firefox or Chrome. Both of these are fast and secure.

Not sure what browser you're using? Visit What Browser Am I Using? to find out.

Getting rid of unneeded browser toolbars, like Babylon, will also speed things up. These often come attached to free software. You can remove these manually in the browser add-on settings, or use a program like Toolbar Cleaner.

Remove pesky viruses.

Speaking of unwanted programs, viruses can seriously slow your system. They might be busy recording everything you do, or sending out spam.

Combat malware with up-to-date security software. AVG and Avast! are two good free options. I also recommend Malwarebytes for manual scanning and removal.

The worst viruses will block you from installing security software. If so, grab a rescue CD like AVG Rescue CD. This runs outside your operating system so viruses don't have a chance.

Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. To get the podcast, watch the show or find the station nearest you, visit www.komando.com. Email her at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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