You probably know that to speed up an old system, you need to fork out for new hardware: RAM, a graphics card or a faster processor. But if you’re not ready to make an investment and crack open the case, clean-up utilities can be enticing. They promise to pry off all the digital barnacles that have collected on your PC and on Windows, revealing the spry system you remember from the day you first set it up. (If you are prepared to get your hands dirty and try a hardware upgrade or two, check out 'Upgrade a PC to make it fast, stable and secure'.)
We tested four popular Windows clean-up utilities to find out whether they genuinely improve system performance or are the digital equivalent of a placebo. We installed Ashampoo WinOptimizer 7 (£29 inc VAT), Iolo System Mechanic 10 (£24 inc VAT), plus two free utilities – the popular Piriform CCleaner and 360Amigo System Speedup Free – on five well-used Windows PCs of various specifications and generations.
In most cases the clean-up utilities scarcely made a difference to overall system performance, and in a few instances they slowed down the machine. They did, however, shave off a few seconds from bootup times.
PC speed boost: The testing process
Each utility we tested promises to make Windows run faster by optimising and maintaining your system. We used our WorldBench 6 speed test to verify these claims. WorldBench 6 is based on timed scripted tasks in common programs such as Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop. If you were to see any performance benefits from running these cleaning utilities, they’d also show up in WorldBench 6. We disabled the defragmentation routines to give each utility a chance to use its own, if it had one.
We used five systems of different ages and specifications that had one thing in common: wear and tear. Each had endured months, if not years, of frequent usage without even a light dusting, much less a system scrubbing or Windows reinstall. They were exactly the kind of PCs on which most people would want to run a clean-up utility.
We created a disk image to preserve each computer’s original, cluttered state, then ran WorldBench 6 to obtain a baseline performance score.
Next, on each computer, we ran one of the clean-up utilities through its standard functions three times. We didn’t uninstall any applications, even if the utility recommended doing so. Getting rid of software that you no longer need is a good way to speed up a PC, but we wanted to see whether the other functions performed by each utility would make a difference with the same software.
We then ran WorldBench 6 again to determine whether performance had improved. Finally, we restored the system to its original, cluttered state and started the process again with another clean-up utility.
The testing process took weeks. All the clean-up utilities we evaluated have since been updated, so it’s possible that retesting with the current versions of the programs would yield slightly different results.
PC speed boost: WorldBench 6 performance results
While specific WorldBench 6 results varied between systems, a clear trend emerged: none significantly improved performance, and some even caused our PCs to slow down.
Judging by their overall WorldBench 6 scores, none of the PCs performed notably better after we ran the utilities. In fact, only two systems saw a performance increase, and then by only a single point: CCleaner, System Speedup and WinOptimizer caused a one-point increase on the Dell E1505, and WinOptimizer also improved performance on the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge. Most of the tests produced scores that were either identical to or slightly lower than that of each PC’s original configuration. This isn’t what you’d expect from performance-boosting utilities. Note that a one-point gain is small enough to be within the margin of error.
However, the test results for individual applications yielded a few more-interesting tidbits. System Speedup seemed to have a problem with Microsoft Office. For each of the test PCs, except the Dell E1505, Office performance grew noticeably worse – over twice the test time, in some cases – after we ran System Speedup. This issue with Office accounts for the dramatic drop in some of the WorldBench 6 scores. Aside from the Office test, though, System Speedup’s results weren’t that different from the others.
Some of our PCs were more heavily affected by clean-up utilities than others.
The Toshiba laptop’s performance didn’t change by more than 10 or 15 seconds in any WorldBench 6 test – not surprising, considering that it has the most powerful hardware. But the Dell E1505, which has the poorest specification, saw more dramatic differences in specific tests with each utility. Photo-editing tasks were about 10 percent faster; creating and saving a DVD image was about 20 percent faster; and video editing became about 5 percent slower. Although we didn’t find substantial differences overall, an older PC might have a particular problem that a clean-up utility can fix.
There are no one-size-fits-all PC fixes. After running each utility, the E1505 saw a big speed improvement with disk-intensive tasks such as writing DVD images. In contrast, our custom-built desktop PC did worse in that respect: an eight-minute test took about 20 seconds longer after running CCleaner, System Speedup and WinOptimizer; and it took a minute longer after running System Mechanic. The Dell D520 had slightly slower speeds in that task as well. This means that even if a utility made one PC run better, it might not necessarily help yours – and it could even make your PC’s performance slightly worse.
Although we ran each utility three times before running WorldBench 6, some still found items that needed cleaning each time. We don’t know what caused this; the utilities might have encountered problems they couldn’t fix, or the clean-up process might have created problems elsewhere.
For comparison’s sake, we also tried removing 49 applications from the Lenovo laptop using WinOptimizer’s uninstall feature, running its clean-up functions and then testing performance with WorldBench 6.
We found an improvement of three points in WorldBench 6 (from 60 to 63, or 5 percent) – more of an increase than anything we saw from the standard clean-up functions. While such a result won’t make your PC like new, it will make multitasking and disk-heavy operations less painful. To sweep away system clutter, uninstalling old programs is your best bet.
NEXT PAGE: PC speed boost software bootup-time results >>
PC speed boost: Bootup-time results
Testing bootup times can be tricky, because it’s hard to know exactly when all background processes and services have loaded into memory. Even if you get to the Windows desktop quickly, your PC might still be loading tasks and not yet be fully responsive. We tested bootup times by setting each PC to open a Notepad document on startup, stopping the clock when we saw it appear onscreen. We tested each setup 10 times.
Each utility managed to speed up the process slightly, although typically by no more than a few seconds. Oddly, System Mechanic caused a negligible increase in startup time in the Dell D520 and the Toshiba, but the difference fell within the margin of error. The Lenovo, meanwhile, enjoyed faster bootup times across the board; CCleaner came in first with a 10-second improvement (19 percent faster), followed by System Mechanic (9 seconds), WinOptimizer (6 seconds) and System Speedup (4 seconds).
When we approached the utility vendors about our findings, Iolo (maker of System Mechanic) requested that we try a tool the company uses for its own bootup-time tests: Microsoft’s Windows Performance Toolkit (tinyurl.com/5uo2t3c). The tool wouldn’t work on our Windows XP and Vista PCs, but the two Windows 7 systems reported a bootup-time improvement of 14 seconds for the Lenovo (29 percent) and 17 seconds for the Toshiba (25 percent).
PC speed boost: A better web connection?
All the utilities made claims about improving overall performance, but System Mechanic also touted its NetBooster and Internet Connection Repair tools. “By adjusting the settings that affect network and internet connection speeds, NetBooster fine-tunes your configurations so that more data can be transferred,” the company claims.
There are too many fluctuations in bandwidth on the open internet to test such a claim fairly. Instead, we looked into what System Mechanic was doing in its attempt to fix network-speed issues. We compared the Windows Registry before and after installing and running System Mechanic on the Lenovo. The only Registry adjustment we found was a change in the Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU) setting. Old-school PC gurus will recognise this tweak, as it’s something of a classic – we ran an article on it 13 years ago.
No sophisticated Windows magic seems to be going on here. The optimal MTU for your PC depends on whether you’re using an always-on internet connection (such as standard DSL/cable), a PPP over ethernet (PPPoE) broadband connection (if you have DSL/cable service that requires you to log in at every boot-up, you’re probably using PPPoE), or a 56Kbps dialup connection.
System Mechanic simply asks you which type of connection you have during the setup process, and adjusts the MTU accordingly (1,500 for a standard always-on connection, 1,492 for PPPoE, or 576 for dialup). You don’t need System Mechanic to do this task, though: Dr TCP (dslreports.com/drtcp) will help you change your MTU for free.
PC speed boost: Conclusion
Clean-up utilities are a compelling sell to Windows users. We all want to believe that our PC is still the same snappy spring chicken it was when we bought it, and that it just needs the light touch of a clean-up tool to start sprinting again.
The reality is a bit different: you might feel better after running a utility but, judging from our testing, your computer’s overall performance is unlikely to change much. Instead of investing in a clean-up utility, uninstall any unused applications for a short-term speed boost, and save your cash for a hardware upgrade.