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Originally published Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Q&A

Tools can help you pinpoint why computer runs so slowly

Q: I have a Dell Dimension 2400 PC, about four years old, that is getting slower and slower. By slow, I mean that it takes about a half-hour...

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Q: I have a Dell Dimension 2400 PC, about four years old, that is getting slower and slower. By slow, I mean that it takes about a half-hour after you turn it on to settle down so that it is usable. Once it does get "warmed up" the response is very slow, and it frequently hangs up for a minute or more. If you try to do two things at once, that generally causes a five-minute freeze, accompanied by furious clicking but no action. I have done the obvious things like defrag and disk cleanup and there isn't an excessive number of files (large or otherwise) stored in memory.

The operating system is XP Home and security is McAfee with firewall. I scan the computer regularly with McAfee and with a program that detects adware, so I don't think I have been hacked.

Not that my friends are really all that tech-savvy, but one suggested that the hard drive is about to pack it in. What do you think? If you agree, do you think it is worth fixing, or should I get a new box?

Jim King

A: You've raised two of the most frequently asked questions I get: Why is my computer slowing down? Should I upgrade or buy a new computer?

The most common causes of sudden slowdowns in performance are (1) insufficient memory for the applications you're running, (2) an overfull or fragmentated hard drive, (3) a misbehaving application or (4) a virus or hacker.

If you have too little system memory for the applications you're running, Windows will save data to your hard drive. That takes time. As a result, you'll experience slow performance and long pauses.

If your hard drive is too full and fragmented — which means that files are saved in scattered fashion across the drive — it can take longer for Windows to save data and load applications.

If applications aren't properly written, they can occupy so much processor time that other operations are delayed.

Finally, of course, a virus or a hacker can bollix everything up. A hacker or a virus can take control of your computer and use up its resources, leaving you not enough memory or disk space to go about your business.

So how do you figure out which malady you're suffering from? Windows provides a number of tools to help diagnose the problem. First, you'll want to call up the Task Manager. Right-click in your system bar along the bottom of the screen and select Task Manager. Next, click on the Performance tab in the utility that pops up. You'll get a display of how much memory is being used and how much your CPU is in use. If your memory usage is above 80 percent, you'll want to explore what is eating up your memory. You can do this by clicking on the Processes tab. If you find that all the memory is being used by legitimate applications, you may want to consider adding memory.

It's true that it can be very difficult to track down memory "leaks" to their source, since many of the processes are obtusely named, but at least the Task Manager will tip you off if a major leak is happening.

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As for the condition of your hard drive, you can go to the Disk Defragmenter tool to find out. Click on the Start button and then go to \Programs\Accessories\System Tools and select Disk Defragmenter. As for whether your hard drive needs to be replaced, chances are it doesn't. Grinding sounds or complete failure are more common indicators of drive deterioration.

Finally, while you mentioned that you're running a firewall to deter hackers, it's also important to have up-to-date anti-virus software installed.

Since you're having performance issues at initial startup, I'd lean toward the problem being either a misbehaving program or a virus. Before replacing hardware, I'd suggest a reinstallation of your operating system and application software after reformatting the drive.

With the low prices on new computers these days, I certainly wouldn't recommend spending much replacing hardware in your old computer when you're not sure about the problem. And if you do replace the computer, consider donating your old computer to a worthy cause.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by e-mail to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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