Nuke Your Slow Computer!

Sometimes trying to fix a problem takes longer than starting from scratch.

Stever Robbins,
April 1, 2008
Episode #023


Today's topic is when starting over may be a better choice than trying to fix something. Specifically, a slow Windows machine. If you're a Mac user, all the tips in this episode apply to you except the Windows-specific stuff. So listen and gloat. But I assure you, your turn will come someday. The quick and dirty tip is to skip trying to find out why Windows is so slow, and instead, just reinstall from scratch.

Ron writes in:

What can I do to speed up my computer? It seems like I waste hours every week waiting for my computer to start up, open a Web page, open a program, etc. Do you have any tips to get it done quicker? 

Furthermore, yesterday, Grammar Girl was contemplating losing her laptop for several days while a repair service tries to speed it up. I couldn't let her do that. Let's discuss.

It's a well-kept secret that I started long ago learning to program computers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, down the street from where a teenager named Bill Gates was founding Microsoft. The difference? I went to a big name engineering school, learned good software engineering principles, and got really good as a programmer. He dropped out of school, skipped programming classes, became the richest man on the planet, and established an initial policy of hiring only untrained programmers who weren't "polluted" by knowing, say, how to program. Bitter? Me? Not at all... OK. Very bitter. But my therapist says I'm getting better. Every day in every way, I am a worthwhile person.

I'm a worthwhile person with a 3-year old Windows XP laptop. I literally don't use it. I installed XP and it sits in my office as a file server. Last month, I used it to travel for the first time in over a year. It was so slow it took minutes to open a window. "Why?" Ron asks. So do I. Who knows? It could be viruses, disk fragmentation, registry fragmentation. spyware, adware, malware, men's wear... People will tell you all those things, mainly so you'll buy their special program or pay for their repair solution to your agonizing problem.

As an ex-geek, I tried to find the real problem. My system was just slow. I firewalled. I de-malwared, de-spywared, de-adwared and de-fragged (which sounds like something that should be illegal in 23 states). Nothing there but  Windows, and it was slow as a politician searching for something that sounds like an honest answer. So what to do?

Well, being my compulsively organized self, I kept track of the time I spent diagnosing the problem. In fact, my little log book tells me how long I've spent diagnosing and fixing every Windows problem that's ever happened in my life. The results are surprising. Are you ready? Sit down and hold on tight.

For the 15 years I've been using Windows, as a rule, if something took more than three hours to fix, it always ended up taking longer than it would have taken to wipe my hard disk clean and reinstall Windows and all my applications from scratch. My log says that problems either surface quickly or they take so long to fix that a reinstall is faster. Sometimes it's the worst of all worlds, and you spend hours with tech support and then need a reinstall anyway. For me, reinstalling Windows takes about three hours, and reinstalling all my other applications takes another three to six.

So, Ron and Grammar Girl, don't waste even more hours trying to fix your computer. It seems Windows XP just gets slower with age. That's good news for repair shops, for Microsoft selling later versions of Windows, and for Intel selling you faster processors. But don't be fooled, your problem may be solved by just a complete reinstall.

Isn't this a big waste of time, I hear you cry? Actually, no. If your computer is 10% slower than it could be, in just 10 days, you've wasted as much time as if you'd spent one full day doing the reinstall. Windows' plugged-up-slowness is a huge but hidden drain on your productivity.

If you plan to take the plunge, listen up!

First, make sure you have your distribution disks for Windows and for all your applications. If you bought applications over the Internet, copy them to CD or DVD so you can reinstall them. Also make sure you have all your license numbers. If you don't keep a spreadsheet or database of all your software and the installation codes, I recommend it. It's saved my butt more than once.

Do you have any strange hardware? Like that combination webcam, telescope, washing machine you're trying out? Make sure you still have the driver disks in case Windows needs it later. While you're at it, make sure you still have any driver disks that came with your computer.

Next, back up all your files. Back up. Back up. Back up. (And if you're not backing up regularly, you should be. I use the Mac "Time Machine" backup system, plus an online Internet backup service. Both back up nightly.) Make sure you have all your files on your backup and can access them.

Now, reinstall Windows as a fresh installation. The quickest and easiest way to do the reinstall is likely to hire a computer geek to do it for you. If you're not a techie, this is definitely the way to go. There are gazillions of geeks out there, just waiting to charge you a hundred dollars to pop a DVD in your drive and read comic books while Windows mostly installs itself.

Then, restore your files and applications from your backups.

If you're feeling brave and are willing to risk needing to hire someone to undo the mess you've made, keep listening.

WARNING: What follows is for entertainment purposes only. There's a chance you'll get through these instructions safely. You might also win the lottery. It could happen. Just remember I'm the Get-it-Done Guy, not the Work-Miracles Guy. Ready?

When reinstalling Windows XP from scratch, choose the option to do a clean install and overwrite the partition where your old installation lived. Exactly how you do the reinstall varies from computer to computer. My Sony laptop lets me press F10 while booting and offers to restore my computer to factory-fresh state. Your laptop may have rescue discs or a similar option. If you have a Windows install CD, that may work. Check your manuals and the manufacturer's web site for details. Above all, pray to your favorite deity and don't try to bill MIcrosoft for your wasted time. You knew what you were buying; you fix it.

Whew! That hurt. But remember the important takeaways from this episode: 1. Back up often, like daily. 2. Save your distribution discs and serial numbers. If you download software, burn it to CD and write the serial number on the CD. 3. If a problem is taking too long to find, a complete reinstall may be the quickest way to get up and running. 4. Hire a professional to do the reinstall.

With no intent to start a religious war (so put your light sabers down, please), as the Get-it-Done Guy, I feel obliged to mention that after 15 years of regular Windows reinstalls, I finally tried a Mac. According to my computer log, I haven't needed to reinstall a single program, much less the whole system, since the switch, 16 months ago. It's paid for itself several times over in saved time and hassle. Of course, only my PC runs Grand Theft Auto, FrameMaker, and several of my other important programs. Life, my friends, is sometimes more subtle than it appears.

This is Stever Robbins. If you have a question about how to Work Less and Do More, e-mail getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


  • http://www.Mozy.com, the cross-platform internet backup solution I use. I have the unlimited storage plan that's very reasonably priced. Their support is so-so and the Mac version is still in beta. It shows.
  • http://www.Apple.com, a computer that doesn't require you to erase your hard drive and reinstall your applications every six months.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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