Troubleshooting Old Laptops

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Q: My 4-year-old laptop has become very slow, especially when I use Microsoft Word, Excel or IE 7.0. It runs Windows XP on 256 MB of RAM and a 40 gig hard drive, and has a DVD-RW. What can I do to make it faster?

A: The first step is to try to get your laptop optimized in its current state — without reinstalling the operating system. Speed can be affected by software-related issues, such as misbehaving applications that consume resources and don’t really help the user. There are also potential hardware-related maintenance activities that can assist.

The first question to ask is: What’s causing the slowness? Windows has an application that can assist called the Task Manager (start > run > taskmgr.exe). This tool can show you CPU (processor) and memory utilization. It can also show you which processes are consuming your resources. To do that, look at the “process” tab of Task Manager, click on the “CPU” tab, and your running processes will be sorted based on their CPU cycles consumption. Identify the top consumers and make sure you’re familiar with them; use Google or a simple file search to do that. Some processes are responsible for others; anything Java will be shown as the Java runtime executable (usually javaw.exe). Another hard-to-identify application will be shown as svchost.exe; in fact, you’re probably going to see many of this one because its role is to run other applications.

If your top resource consumer is svchost.exe, get ahold of Microsoft’s Process Explorer (free download from TechNet); it can tell you what services are behind it. Just recently, I ran into a high utilization problem that was caused by svchost.exe. It turned out that specific svchost.exe was responsible for running a multifunction printer driver and was consuming 40 percent CPU of a high-performance laptop. Uninstalling and reinstalling it solved the problem.

With hardware-related speed issues, hard disk maintenance is always good. If you haven’t done this in the last month, have your disk checked (chkdsk) and defragmented. Next, it’s time to take a close look at some of your applications — specifically those that run when you start your computer. Anti-virus and anti-spyware are resource intensive, especially if enabled to scan every file that is accessed and do full disk scans four times a day. Try to disable them — or uninstall, if it’s not possible — and see if anything changes. If it does, look for a less resource-intensive anti-virus or try the product’s support for ways to reduce resource utilization. If that doesn’t do anything, look at instant messaging applications; some computers might not be suitable to run the latest version of Windows Live or Skype.

If that didn’t change anything significant, try reinstalling the laptop from scratch. This will usually get rid of old or partially installed applications and should be the ultimate test for your hardware ability to improve.

Another alternative to Office can be Google’s software as a service (SaaS) documents. Google docs are free to use and require only a Web browser. Everything is done online, so a broadband Internet connection is needed for that.

In some cases, nothing you do will make the old hardware work fast enough. If this is the case here, then my suggestion is to look at Linux. This operating system is usually free and has most of the applications that are available to Windows users. Some of the newer and popular builds may not be as good with slow computers, but many are. One Linux flavor I can recommend from personal experience is Puppy Linux. Just download the live CD — a Puppy version that can run without any hard disk installation — burn it to a CD media and boot from it. Puppy comes with a word-processing application, but you can also use Sun’s Open Office. It’s a free-to-use application suite that has the equivalent of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access in it. A short learning curve is to be expected, but besides that it should be suitable for most of your MS Office-related tasks.

Avner Izhar, CCIE, CCVP, CCSI, is a consulting system engineer at World Wide Technology Inc., a leading systems integrator providing technology and supply chain solutions. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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