I left my conversation with Dr. A nearly convinced he doesn’t really need a new computer. The local store is pitching him a new $700 Dell Inspiron with a 1 TB hard drive and 6 GB of RAM and a 17-inch screen. But he could upgrade to a 1 TB hard drive for less than $125. If he doesn’t want to switch to Windows 7, his current Windows XP Professional will only use 4 GB of RAM anyway. Upgrading to 4 GB of RAM will cost less than $40. And looking at the new system, I don’t know that its CPU is all that much more powerful than what he already has.
To me, the clincher was this. I asked myself the question whether, if I were offered a machine exactly like his for $200 or $300, would I buy it. And it was an easy answer. I would.
I haven’t done a thorough analysis of the machine, but I’ve seen enough to have an idea what it needs. Much of it will seem familiar, if you’ve been reading me a long time.
1. PC De-crapifier
There are some factory installed programs of very questionable benefit that are interrupting his work on a regular basis, and that’s just not acceptable. He showed me, as he ran a heart monitoring program, how a Dell-branded optimization program seized control of the computer to search for orphan shortcut files and schedule a registry defragmentation. There is no reason for that. Some pundits call those programs completely worthless, and I won’t go quite that far, but there’s no reason at all for them to run every day, let alone multiple times each day. That’s nagware, not utility. You can get by with running those programs literally once during a PC’s lifetime.
So I would run PC De-crapifier to get rid of those things. Chances are, that alone would make his system run much more smoothly.
2. Antivirus and antispyware
Either first or next, I would scan his system with an antivirus live CD, just to make sure the system is otherwise clean. It didn’t show any obvious signs of infection, but this is a good thing to do regardless.
3. Upgrade antivirus/antispyware software
I’m not exactly enamored with either Symantec or McAfee antivirus. They’re expensive and they really bog down the system. So I would recommend uninstalling whichever of those he’s running–odds are his system came with one or the other from the factory and he just bought a subscription to it once his trial period ran out–and replace it with one of two replacements. If you like free, Microsoft Security Essentials is free and good enough for most people. If you believe that you get what you pay for, ESET NOD32 is effective and a lot more efficient than other commercial offerings.
Since space is at a premium, CCleaner can locate and delete abandoned temporary files that are just taking up space now. What it finds varies, and some people do run this program far more often than is really necessary, but there’s no harm in running it once a year or when disk space starts getting a little low. And it may very well free up some space for the next step to work with.
5. A thorough defragmentation with file reordering
He has about 28% of his disk space available, which is getting close to the limits of what Windows’ built-in defragmenter can handle. But Mydefrag is happy having that to work with. And more importantly, Mydefrag will move important programs up to the front of the disk, where access is faster, and move the stuff you’ll rarely if ever touch, like system restore points, to the back of the disk where access is slower, and leave as much contiguous free space as it can for future use, so the files you create next week won’t be fragmented. In addition to all of that, it groups the files used by a particular program nearby, which makes them launch more quickly. In my experience, running a program like this as infrequently as once a year makes a jaw-dropping difference in performance.
This may not be necessary, but the question is whether the Dell utility that’s been interrupting him actually does anything. After removing a lot of programs, there’ll be some empty space in the registry. Running this will compact that down. On clean installs, this program rarely makes a difference, but on factory installs, it can.
Once there’s some free space on the disk to do it, running Pagedefrag wouldn’t hurt. It’s possible his page file is already contiguous, but it could just as easily be in several thousand pieces. I’ve seen both on factory installs. This is one of those things that won’t do any harm and usually isn’t necessary, but when you need it, you need it very badly.
8. Tweak the BIOS
Many Dell laptops have an option in the BIOS to switch between quieter operation or higher performance. Usually higher performance isn’t that much louder, so it’s a change worth making.
9. And finally, let’s talk hardware upgrades
It should be possible, with an hour or two of labor, to run those previous steps. I have a very high degree of confidence they will help, but they may not completely take care of the problem. If not, adding memory (I believe his system tops out at 4 GB) and a bigger, faster hard drive will help tremendously. It’s a Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz system, so it’s not like it’s lacking in the CPU department. I would be inclined to use a Western Digital Scorpio Black drive. You can’t get a full 1 GB, but it’s the fastest performing platter drive available, and a 500 GB model costs 70 bucks.
So why not just buy a new machine?
There’s a very good chance the new machine will be loaded down with junk software too. It will probably be a bit faster, but not considerably so. And re-loading all of his existing software and data will take several hours to do. Once he invests $700 and several more hours in the project, he’ll be better off than he is now, but I think $100-$200 of technician time and $100 worth of hardware would yield most of the benefit, and without him having to re-learn anything because it will still be his existing computer, just faster.
What about an SSD?
I don’t think he could squeeze everything he needs onto a 160 GB SSD–he has a 160 GB HDD right now and things are a little tight–so he’d really need to step up to a 250 GB drive, which would cost about $560. With some work 160 GB might be doable, and really fast, but a difficult sell.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.