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Why Does My PC Run So Slowly?

Does Windows seem generally more sluggish than usual? A computer's age isn't the only factor affecting its speed: Your system is probably running more background junk than you're aware of. These stealth programs, or processes--including printer utilities and hard-disk indexers--gobble up CPU cycles and main memory. They can also cause the PC to boot up or shut down much more slowly. Windows' mediocre MSConfig utility (select Start, Run and type msconfig in the Run dialog box) lists some applications that load at startup, but its list is far from complete. Instead, run Merijn's free StartupList, which inventories every autostarting program on your PC. And Sysinternals' Autoruns not only identifies startup apps, it can disable them, too.

To recover your system resources, shut down, delete, or hide system tray applets that you don't need. (Read "Keep It Simple," and Steve Bass's Tips and Tweaks article "Remove Unwanted Icons From Your System Tray" for advice. With some applets, for instance, you just right-click the system tray icon and select Options or Properties. Then you uncheck a box that reads Place icon in the taskbar, or something similar. To see a list of all your currently running programs, click Task Manager's Processes tab. A real eye-opener is the amount of memory each process uses. To terminate a program in Task Manager, click its name and then the End Process box. Not sure what each program does? Download the free Quick Access InfoBar utility--it puts an icon next to every running program in the Task Manager; click the icon to find out what the program is, and whether it's safe to terminate it.

Do you experience graphics problems with games or videos? First make sure you have the latest driver for your graphics card. This step alone can correct a lot of video weirdness. You can find the newest driver at either ATI's or nVidia's site, as appropriate--the driver you'll get from these sites is often fresher than the one your graphics board vendor offers. Laptop drivers are the lone exception to this rule: You're stuck with the driver the notebook manufacturer provides.

You can also run some basic graphics hardware tests using the DirectX diagnostics utility (click Start, Run, type dxdiag in the dialog box, and click OK). Click the Display tab, and then run both the DirectDraw and the Direct3D tests to determine if you have a driver problem, or if something is installed incorrectly. Let all the tests complete, and then check the results at the bottom of the page.

If the problem persists, use Task Manager (press <Ctrl>-<Alt>-<Delete>) to close all other applications and background tasks before playing a game or watching a movie. If that solves the problem, think about adding more RAM to your PC. Also, you should reorganize fragmented files--an essential step for smoother playback of huge video clips--by defragging your hard drive. You'll find Windows' Disk Defragmenter at Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter. See the "Displays and Graphics Cards" section of "PC Problems? Fix 'Em Yourself" for more tests you can try.

Are right-click menus too slow? The likely culprit isn't malware, but a badly written shell extension, a bit of code that extends Windows' capabilities. (A context-sensitive menu is one type of shell extension.) To root out right-click-menu lag, try NirSoft ShellExView, a free utility that lets you disable shell extensions (see "Clean and Speed Up Context Menus"). Once you disable the bad one, your right-click menus should return to their former, snappy selves.

Do your CD and DVD disc burn slow, or do they stop before finishing? Your CPU may be overworked. Before starting a burn, load Task Manager and then click the Performance tab. Watch the graph to see whether CPU use hits 100 percent during a burn. Try closing some open applications, including antivirus programs and desktop-search indexers from Google, Yahoo, and others. (Make sure you reenable your antivirus software when you're done, though.) An excellent resource for disc-burning tips is VideoHelp.com, which offers detailed advice on numerous disc and video formats.

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