Speed up a slow computer with an SSD

Spoiler alert! How do you speed up a slow computer? For most of you, the answer is: Buy a new computer.

Realistically, there isn’t a better choice for most people. It’s a numbers game. If you have to pay someone for help with technical jobs, then the economics tip over quickly to a new computer.

Now let me add the frustrating part. There is one thing that can speed up an older computer. It works so well that you’ll feel like the computer has been strapped to a rocket.

Installing a solid state hard drive (SSD) in place of a conventional hard drive will make more of a difference to your day-to-day experience than the processor or the amount of memory or any other component.

Why is this coming up now?

In the last six months, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people complaining to me about four-year-old computers that have started moving slowly. When I check, sure enough, everything is in slow motion, but there is nothing new to account for it – no adware or virus, no unnecessary startup programs or processes or services.

It’s affecting everyone. I talk to people about it every day.

We went through this process with Windows XP and Vista. The accumulation of updates and changes to Windows 7 and your programs is overpowering the hardware that was good enough four years ago.

It doesn’t make any difference if you add memory. It doesn’t make any difference if you delete files or clean up the hard drive with Disk Cleanup. It doesn’t help to defrag the hard drive. (That’s not really a thing any more.) Hey, do the cleanup, by all means! It can’t hurt. But it probably won’t help much.

Open up Control Panel / System and look at the processor on your computer. If it’s a Core 2 Duo, it’s old. The computer will never run quickly. If it’s a Core i3, then you bought a cheap computer. The computer will never run quickly. But I’m hearing the same complaint from people with Core i5 and Core i7 processors.

It’s always worth it for me to do housekeeping and reduce the number of startup programs, just in case, but you still might feel like the computer is lumbering along instead of speeding.

Why does an SSD speed things up so much?

Your desktop computer almost certainly uses a conventional hard drive with spinning disks inside it. An SSD has no moving parts. It can read and write data at a rate that eclipses the fastest conventional hard drive.

The speed and responsiveness of a system built with an SSD is apparent in every program. It transforms the experience of starting Windows and running programs. With an SSD, Windows starts almost instantly and programs snap into place. Windows 7 and 8 are optimized for SSDs. Intel chipsets are designed with SSDs in mind and complement their natural speed. An SSD makes more of a difference in performance than any other hardware upgrade we have ever had for any computer.

SSDs are more expensive than conventional hard drives and typically store less data. Manufacturers know that we are always shopping for the lowest possible price and the biggest numbers in the specs, so they’ve continued to use conventional hard drives for far too long. It’s still uncommon to find them in desktop PCs, and typically they’re only included with premium laptops in the $1000+ price range.

SSDs have been widely available for more than four years but almost no one has experienced them unless they’ve had a premium laptop. Once you’ve used a laptop with an SSD, it’s really hard to sit down at a desktop with a conventional drive! It seems so slow. There’s more information about the performance improvements from SSDs here and here.

The conclusion is obvious: if you replace the spinning hard drive in your computer with an SSD, it’s more than a shot in the arm. It takes the computer to a whole new level.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is, it’s hard to get from here to there. There are many technical pitfalls when a hard drive is replaced. It’s not a self-help project for most people

If you have the technical skills, then don’t hesitate. You’ll love your fast new system.

But if you have to pay someone to do the work, you will likely wind up several hundred dollars out of pocket. The decision you have to make is: does it make more sense to put several hundred dollars into extending the life of an old computer, or should you put that money towards a new computer?

Prices have dropped quickly on SSDs. A 250Gb drive is around $100, and a 500Gb drive is around $200. Here are some typical examples from Amazon. Add a couple of hundred dollars to get the upgrade done. If the budget doesn’t allow you to buy a new computer, look into upgrading to an SSD. You’ll be amazed.

If you buy a new computer with an SSD, you’ll spend more, but you’ll also get other hardware improvements developed since your four-year-old computer was built – new ports, improved motherboard and other components, better video, and more. You can configure a Dell Optiplex 7020 with an SSD, for example – an extra $150 adds a 128Gb SSD for Windows and programs, matched with a 500Gb conventional hard drive to hold files and photos, where the speed of the hard drive is less important. It’s a better use of your money.

The short answer, then, is that there is likely not to be any good way to speed up your slow computer short of replacing it. You definitely should consider upgrading the hard drive on your old computer to an SSD, because that would do the job, but the money is probably better spent on the next computer.

The important takeaway is: make sure your next computer has an SSD in it. I’m going to start urging them strongly on everyone who asks for shopping advice.

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