What’s Making My Computer Slow?

If computers ran at peak performance all day, every day – we’d be out of business! So naturally, part of the gig is taking a look at why a computer is running slowly or improperly. If you don’t know what you’re doing, this sort of ticket can take a long time to assess and repair. So, we’ve compiled a short list of things to verify, which hopefully will lower the amount of time spent on troubleshooting computers! The list is ordered from most important to least important. Let’s get started…

“Is it just old?”: Computers running outdated operating systems are usually too busy eating the dust of their ancestors to worry about operating at peak efficiency. Also, most modern users already know what a fast computer feels like. That’s why they sometimes easily get fed up with an old computer’s speed. Go ahead and plug in a brand new Pentium III desktop and tell me how fast it is. The point is: are we fighting the good fight, or are we trying to breathe life into something long-dead? We’ve got bigger fish to fry. Before spending time on a slow computer, first verify its age.

“Does the problem go away in safe mode?”: If you were accepted into Green Team, we assume you know what safe mode is. If a certain piece of software is causing the computer to misbehave, it’s extremely important to verify its functionality in safe mode. By the way, if you’re troubleshooting by remote, Bomgar has a handy reboot to safe mode with networking feature. Obviously if you reboot into regular safe mode, you’ll be kicked out because the computer will go offline. If the problem the computer is experiencing goes away in safe mode, we’ve just identified that the problem is entirely software related. If the problem doesn’t go away in safe mode, the issue may be more severe, or even hardware related – possibly. No matter what you discover, at least you won’t be troubleshooting the wrong thing.

“Is the computer overheating?”: Identifying whether or not a computer is overheating can be particularly difficult by remote. However, it can be a huge time-saver. If a computer is randomly restarting, it could be overheating. Some Intel management software includes built-in temperature monitoring tools. There’s absolutely no reason to spend hours troubleshooting a computer’s software only to discover that the heat sink is clogged with dust; worst feeling ever! If a computer is just slow, it probably isn’t overheating. This step is really just for the severe cases where a computer is having trouble staying turned on.

“Are there errors in the event log?”: Although it is sometimes difficult to interpret, the event log can serve as a gigantic clue collection tool. If a piece of software is misbehaving, there’s a strong chance that the event log knows about it. Use the event log to evaluate changes or perceived performance challenges, to identify recurring trends, and even to resolve errors before they become larger. When a ticket gets escalated, the event log is basically the first thing they look at, so make sure you check before-hand.

“Does the computer have a virus?”: A virus can completely destroy an entire network, or just make a computer slow – it depends on the virus. Viruses are usually obvious to detect (no access to system tools, no web browser functionality, unusual icon in the tray), but some can be completely invisible. It’s important to check the task manager for unusual services and processes. Remote Administration Tools operate silently, and are only as harmful as the person controlling the computer. Be sure to run virus scans using ESET and malware scans with Malware Bytes. Unless a virus was developed underground and not commercialized, it can and will be detected.

“Are the drivers outdated?”: Even if there isn’t a problem with the computer, drivers should still always get updated periodically. But, drivers should especially be updated when a computer is experiencing an issue of some sort. Remember though, updating a NIC driver by remote may cause more trouble than it resolves.

“Are any updates available for the computer?”: Windows updates are usually automatically installed; that’s how our remote agent handles them. However, things many not always operate as intended, which is why it’s always important to verify that Windows is completely up to date. 96 missing updates can absolutely cause a computer to function poorly. Missing service packs can hugely impact a computer’s performance. Routine maintenance is mandatory for a car to stay on the road for many years. If after purchasing the car, you never change its oil, how far is it going to get? The same applies to computers. Factory settings only take them so far.

“Are any automatic services stopped?”: Services are Windows programs that operate entirely in the background. Some are configured to start when required, some are disabled completely, and some are configured to start automatically when you turn your computer on. A large majority of automatic services are responsible for a computer’s continued operation. If someone manually stopped all of the automatic services on your computer, it would most likely crash. The same is true for the computer you’re troubleshooting. Sometimes automatic services can’t start for some reason, and they need to be running. It’s a good idea to verify that all of the automatic services are running properly.

“Is the hard drive failing?”: Many times, a failing hard drive would have already been identified by using the event log. However, if you remain suspicious of the hard drive regardless of your event log findings – it’s time for the next step. Seagate makes a piece of software called SeaTools which tests a hard drive for mechanical errors (even non-Seagate drives). If the drive you’re testing fails, stop what you’re doing and focus on replacing the drive before it becomes more damaged.

“Is there a poor internet connection?”: If symptoms include slow web browser response time, slow shared folder response time, or a crashing network-based application, it’s time to verify the computer’s connection to the internet. And not just whether it’s plugged in or not – it’s time to run a speed-test. The best speed-test available is located at http://www.speedtest.net/. Run the test and verify the results match what is being paid for. Don’t spend hours troubleshooting software when the real problem is network speed. Get the vendor involved!

“Is CPU or RAM usage peaking?”: When a computer’s RAM is nearly full, or its CPU is running at 100%, there will be slowness. RAM may be close to maximum capacity because of an unusual amount of applications running in tandem, or maybe a module of memory has recently failed. High CPU usage is often caused by a single process that is running abnormally. A lot of the time, you can’t just end a process, so it’s going to need to have some investigation performed on it.

“Does the disk need a defrag or cleanup?”: These days, Windows automatically schedules disk cleanup and disk defragmentation routines – that’s why it’s so low on the list. However, a healthy hard drive is one that is void of temporary files and fragmented files. This step should always be on your radar! If an automatic schedule isn’t set up yet – then set one up! Be sure to never run a defrag operation on a solid state drive – that just decreases their life expectancy!

“Are startup items slowing it down?”: Startup items are applications that start automatically (and not always in the background) when a computer is turned on. Some of them can be extremely in-your-face annoying, like DropBox, Norton, ATI Catalyst, and almost all freeware. If too many things are started automatically, a computer may be extremely slow for a good ten minutes after you log in. To disable startup items, type “msconfig” in a run box, and select the startup tab. From here, just un-check anything that shouldn’t start automatically.

“Is the hard drive nearly full?”: It’s a pretty simple thing to check. Is the hard drive nearly at maximum capacity, or is there still plenty of room? This sort of thing takes two seconds to check, and would probably otherwise go unnoticed.

“Is anti-virus software causing the problem?”: Remember the last time you installed Adobe Reader? Did it ask if you wanted to install a trial version of McAfee anti-virus? Free anti-virus programs are always sneaking their way into freeware installation queues (just like Chrome and the Ask toolbar). This can be a real problem if you already have paid anti-virus software on your computer. The two anti-virus suites will consider each other to be a virus and really slow the computer down. Remove all free anti-virus software from the computer; it’s nothing but trouble.

The rest is up to you! The things listed above are just common things that should be checked during the troubleshooting process. Some other, smaller things that can be checked include:

  • Repair a corrupted Office software suite if the problem is with an Office program
  • Remove untrusted / non-reputable freeware
  • Check the size of the Windows page-file
  • Run a chkdsk /F /R command (but be prepared for hours of down-time)
  • Re-establish a Windows Experience score
  • Run a sfc /scannow command (but be prepared for hours of down-time)