If you're hearing the Jeopardy! theme play in your head as you wait -- and wait -- for your computer to boot up, you've probably already started thinking replacement.
Poor and slow performance often leads consumers to conclude they need to junk their old PC or Mac and buy a new machine. According to research firm gap intelligence, here's what it costs to upgrade to new a computer, based on manufacturers' recommended configurations:
- Average selling price of a new PC desktop tower, 4GB RAM: $462
- Average selling price of a new 15.6" display, 4GB RAM laptop: $510
Hundreds of dollars may seem like a reasonable price to pay for peace of mind and convenience. But doesn't $50 to $100 sound like a better bargain?
That's the price range for some quick and easy fix-it steps that could get your existing computer humming along like new again.
Sadly, millions of computer users junk their systems prematurely, when all they needed were small hardware upgrades or software maintenance. In 2007, for example, more than 40 million computers were dumped, at an average age of just 2½ years, and often, the only thing wrong with them was that they need larger hard drives, according to a facts and figures list from iolo technologies.
Taking simple steps like installing a larger hard drive or more RAM, as well as software maintenance on the system, could extend the life of a computer by a year or two, says Chris Cope, CEO of SlimWare Utilities.
Common Signs of Trouble
Frustration often tends to peak when it takes five minutes to boot up a computer, launch programs, or process data, Cope says. And Web surfing that is anything less than lickity-split or results in a browser crashing is considered intolerable.
The root causes of these problems often can be found back on that too-small hard drive, which can be suffering from memory fragmentation or simply being chock full of useless files and outdated software.
Other common impediments include programs that automatically launch when a computer starts or runs in the background, sucking up the available RAM, Cope says.
Simple DIY Fixes
Delving into a computer with the intention of becoming a fix-it guy or gal is not as daunting as it may seem. For four of these five performance-enhancing fixes, no screwdrivers, grease, or wrenches are required (and for the last one, don't let the tiny little screwdriver involved intimidate you -- it's worth the effort).
Cope offers a few easy steps consumers can take to improve the speed and efficiency of their computer:
- Clean out your browser history, cache, and unnecessary plug-ins or programs. How-to instructions for each browser -- Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, etc. -- are easily found online. Also, do a search on each plug-in and program to determine whether it's a keeper or a throwaway.
- Weed down the list of programs that launch when the computer is fired up, or run in the background. To change these programs back to software that only runs when you ask it to: Right-click on the Windows Start button at the bottom left of the screen; in the search box, type "msconfig"; click on the "Startup" tab; and remove programs you no longer need to automatically ignite when starting up the computer. Useless programs not only take up hard drive space, but may also update automatically and consume more of your computer's resources.
- Defragment your hard drive. Imagine your hard drive is a bookshelf, with all the pages of all the books scattered haphazardly along it. Try to read a chapter, and you're jumping back and forth every time you turn the page. Defragmenting puts the pages in order, thus speeding up the computer's ability to read them. To do this: From the Windows Start button, type "defrag" in the search box; click on "defragment now"; and set the defragment process to run on a schedule of at least once a week.
- Replace your out-of-date drivers: If printers, monitors, or devices attached to the computer suddenly stop working, try updating their drivers and that of your computer. Drivers for a particular device are usually found in the support section of the manufacturer's website.
- Consider doubling your RAM. This hardware upgrade -- replacing a few chips -- usually costs less than $100 and can greatly improve the speed and efficiency of the system.
When You Need a Hand
Of course, there are other remedies besides the total DIY route. A number of software utilities are on the market, designed to enhance the performance of computers by deleting files no longer in use or repairing fragmented hard drives.
PC Magazine lists a few noteworthy utilities, including a couple winners of its Editors' Choice Award:
Iolo System Mechanic 10 ($49.95, 4.5 stars) scored high marks for its top-notch tune-up capabilities, but also for its Program Accelerator (which smartly realigns all of a program's dependent files on the hard drive so that the PC finds them faster), useful desktop widget (which delivers at-a-glance system information), and Whole Home Licensing (which does away with install limitations). SlimWare Utilities' SlimCleaner also scored an Editors' Choice Award for its unique approach. Not only is it free and license-free, but it uses aggregated data from its user base to recommend the optimal settings for your PC; it even rewards you with badges for contributing accurate information. AVG PC Tuneup 2011's ($29.99, 4 stars) overall performance and real-time system monitoring makes it another to turn to when it's time to clean up a PC.
When It's Really Time to Let Go
Despite all these moves that can bring a computer system back up to snuff for a while, eventually advances in technology will make it worthwhile to buy a new computer.
A low score on the performance meter in Windows 7 justifies buying a new system after attempts to extend the life of a computer have failed, says Cope.
"But in this economy, everyone is trying to extend the life of their computer," he says.