I’m going to start this blog with the really big questions. What is the meaning of life? Why is there evil in the world? Why is my computer crawling like a slug in a concrete cowboy hat? You know, the real puzzlers.
You probably know the basics. A computer is just a silicon idiot that does simple things so quickly that it looks smart. It’s mostly built from off-the-shelf parts and it’s full of bits of software that handle every part of its job. Those bits of software can do simple stuff like move your mouse arrow around the screen, or complicated stuff like calculating your budget or screening a Netflix video. The key point is that all the bits have to work together in the same lump of hardware, sharing its resources.
There are four particularly scarce resources that the software bits all fight over. Deny it one resource — it doesn’t matter which one — and the software stalls while it waits its turn. Multiply that effect by a million and your computer feels like it’s crawling. But take a closer look: your video might be skipping and lagging, but that old mouse arrow still moves around. That tells you your silicion idiot isn’t really going slow, it’s just failing to keep up with some parts of its complicated job. Often it can be racing at full speed and still feel slow. That’s a useful clue: it means we can fix it.
What’s the trouble?
The four resources are disk space, memory, processor power and internet connection speed. Let’s look at those.
Disk space is all about long-term storage: the computer’s disk drive is a lump of metal that holds all the bits and bytes of every program, file, video and photo when you’re not using them, even when the computer is switched off.
Its capacity is usually pretty good: it’s rare for anyone to use up all their disk space unless something strange is going on, and it’s relatively cheap to buy extra disks. If you’re looking at the specs for a computer and you see a number measured in hundreds of gigabytes or terabytes, that’s the size of the disk. As a rule of thumb, you’ll typically pay around $100 for a thousand gigabytes, or more if it’s the newer, high speed type.
When disk space runs short, you get warnings from your computer: “You are running out of disk space on Local Disk (C:)” is a typical message in Windows 10. At that point, you can try moving your music and videos off to a backup disk, but if that doesn’t fix it then it may be time to rearrange things a little, perhaps add an internal disk drive and shuffle around your files. That can be dangerous, so call me for help!
Memory is the short-term storage. When the computer is off, memory is blank. When you switch it on, the first thing the computer does is read a portion of data off the disk into memory. That portion contains the necessary instructions for reading more and more until the computer is fully loaded again and ready to talk to you. In a sense the computer is pulling itself up by its own bootstraps every time you switch it on — that’s where the expressing “booting” comes from, if you’ve ever wondered.
Memory is volatile, which means it gets total amnesia if you switch the power off, but it’s many times faster than disk, so of course it’s pricier. In the computer specs, a number in the range of 2-16 gigabytes will almost always refer to memory. You’ll mostly see that referred to by the old acronym RAM (“random access memory”). Most computer nowadays won’t even get out of bed for less than 4 gigabytes of RAM. Prices vary according to type and speed, but 4 gigabytes for about $100 is about normal.
When memory runs short, the computer tries to swap unused portions of its programs back to disk, so the first thing you notice is that the disk drive starts chugging as if you were saving a big file over and over again. That’s a clue that your computer is just not coping. You can try closing any programs that aren’t important to you at that moment, but like the TV ads say: if symptoms persist, see your doctor (ie me). The likely solution will be more memory. This is 80% of the reason for slow computers in my experience.
Processor power is easy. It’s simply how fast the computer’s central brain can operate. Oddly, though, it’s not that much of a big deal. Slow processors aren’t that much different from fast ones, when you take into account all the other factors. And that’s probably a good thing, because if your computer has a slow processor there’s not much you can do, other than replacing the computer.
Processor speeds are measured in gigahertz (GHz). Slow ones are around 1.2GHz, and the fastest I’ve seen is over 4. If you’re buying a new computer anyway, it’s worth considering a faster processor, but only after you’ve maximised all the other factors like memory and disk space, as well as brand reputation, support guarantees, extra software and hardware, the colour of the case, and so on. I’m happy to advise you there; as you can probably tell, I have some strong opinions!
Internet connection speed is exactly what it says on the tin: how fast is your internet? It’s probably the biggest factor when you’re looking at your whole experience of computer speed. If your internet is slow, web sites will crawl, videos will stutter, and some apps and games will just refuse to work at all. If you’re trying to use your computer to connect to the outside world and it won’t let you do it, you can probably blame your connection speed.
If you’re on the NBN, either Fibre or Fixed Wireless, you probably have faster speed than when you were on landline internet, but lately the NBN Fixed Wireless speeds have been pitiful in the Valley. If you’re on Mobile Broadband you can get wildly different results depending on where you are. And some people are still stuck on Satellite or Dial-Up, which are the slowest of all.
Connection speed varies with the type of internet, and also with the time of day. Take a look at the speed test website to see what you’re getting. As an indication: on Mobile Broadband in Geeveston, I usually get around 1 or 2 on a good day. On NBN Fixed Wireless I get up to 20 in the morning, but it drops down to 2 or 3 at best once everyone in the Valley gets home from school and work around 4pm. Oddly, Mobile Broadband is much faster in Huonville, where I think they probably have some better-placed mobile towers, so I often get 60-80 there on my phone! And down past Dover, all of this is still a pipe dream for most people and the only option is Satellite, when 1.5 is the best you can hope for if you can even get a connection at all.
If you’re already on NBN and experiencing slow speeds, there’s not much anyone can do until NBNco gets around to doing the job we’re paying them for. If you’re on other kinds of internet, there may still be hope for some improvement, so call me and I’ll run the gauntlet of technical jargon and call centre staff for you.
Where to now?
Although the speed of your processor and connection speeds are mostly out of your hands once you’ve bought your computer and paid for your internet contract, the memory and disk space can still be fixed. Every situation is different, so your best plan is to ask for a little help. There’s always a little more speed to be wrung out of any computer. The trick is knowing where to look.