ATLANTA — There's a sure cure for a slow computer. Just fork over hundreds of dollars to the guy with a nice smile at the store and you can carry home a faster machine.
Truth is, there are times when that's the best solution. If your machine is several years old and you have the money, why not? And even if you can't afford a new computer, there are times it makes no sense to throw dollars at an outdated one.
But if you live on a budget — who doesn't these days? — and have a PC that's three or four years old, there are affordable ways to speed it up enough to extend its life for a year or two.
Let's start by setting some ground rules. First, since satisfactory new computers can be had for $500 to $800, it doesn't make sense to spend more than $150 or so on an old computer. Second, we'll assume you aren't an electrical engineer and stick with tips that should be comfortable for any home user.
The leading cause of a slow computer is malware, the term for an infestation of adware and spyware. It can attack a brand new speed demon as easily as your old machine.
Malware includes tiny programs that constantly run and periodically monitor your browsing. At best, marketers use that information to target you with e-mailed ads. At worst, with spyware, your personal information can be exposed to a crook.
Even if this stuff didn't slow down your machine it is a good idea to guard against it. And getting rid of these constantly running programs can do a lot to speed up your computer.
Commercial anti-virus, antimalware programs such as Norton 360 do a good job of blocking and removing malware. The free version of Malwarebytes (www.malwarebytes.org/mbam.php) also does a fi ne job. Or you may choose to pay $25 for the full version of Malwarebytes. Other programs do a good job, too, including Microsoft's Security Essentials and Ad-Aware (http://tinyurl.com/2updk5t).
A little housekeeping can also speed up any computer.
Defragmenting a hard disk at regular intervals fixes an inherent problem in the way computers store information. To get the most from available space, data and programs are stored in little chunks scattered all over the hard disk. When you need that program or data, the computer has to find all those bits and bytes and then put them together again. Windows comes with an adequate defragmenting program.
Simply enter the word defragment in the search box with the Help menu. I use a commercial defragmenting program called Perfect-Disk 11 that does an even better job. The version I use costs $30. It's worth it if you can spare the money; if not the Windows version works fine.
You can also free up hard disk space by deleting unneeded programs and data. When you use 80 percent or more of your hard disk space, there's a possibility your PC will slow down.
Then take a look at programs that are automatically starting each time you turn on your computer. Removing some may let your computer run faster. To check, enter the words “startup programs” in the search box for Windows Help. You can also use that search term with Google to find out more.
So far, we've focused on ways to speed up your computer without spending money. If you try these fixes and are satisfied, stop right there. It would be better to save your money toward a new computer next year. But if you need even more speed, stick with me.
Check the amount of RAM installed in your computer. If it's less than one gigabyte, installing more probably will speed things up. But don't go crazy. It's probably smart to stop at 2 gigabytes on an older machine.
Another speed bump can come from the way video is handled. Some PCs use what is called an integrated video card. That means memory for video processing is borrowed from the RAM in your PC. A separate video card takes over the task of processing video, and that can speed up a computer. Since we're trying to save money, weigh the possible benefits of video cards and RAM against your budget.
Stay within the $150 spending limit — if you can't, you'd be better off replacing the old machine by spending $500 or so on a new one.
Following these tips may let you delay the purchase of a replacement PC by a year or two.
Don't expect a speed demon when you fi nish but, in times like these, a fat wallet can be more satisfying than a fast PC.