Software speed boosts
If upgrading your PC is out of the question, you still have plenty of options for boosting its performance. Here are some suggestions that are worth a try.
Run a virus scan. Your PC may not have a virus, but it's worth making absolutely sure. Schedule your antivirus program to run a weekly scan during late-night hours so it won't interfere with your day-to-day computer activities.
Upgrade your power settings. By default, Windows sets laptops to the 'Balanced' power plan - a nice compromise between performance and battery life. If you leave your computer plugged in all the time, however, battery life is irrelevant.
You can enhance performance by using a higher-end power plan, which Windows hides by default. To access it, click the battery icon in the System Tray and select 'More power options'. Choose 'High performance' from the 'Show additional plans' menu. This turns off any options that force your laptop into sleep mode.
Uninstall, uninstall, uninstall. There's no shame in having lots of software installed on your PC. After all, Windows was designed to run thousands of applications. The problem is that every application occupies space on your hard drive, and many take it upon themselves to open at startup, hogging system resources whether or not you use them.
Visit Control Panel, 'Programs and Features' and uninstall any application listed there that you don't use. Look for toolbars and device drivers for products such as printers, modems, cameras, keyboards and mice that you no longer use. Click Uninstall to remove each one. You'll probably have to reboot multiple times.
Clean up your hard drive. Having a lot of stuff on your hard disk isn't a problem until the disk gets full and Windows has to work overtime to find spare bits here and there to store your files on. Offload whatever you can to an external hard drive, then run Disk Cleanup to get rid of the junk. To access Disk Cleanup, type disk cleanup in the Start menu Search box and press Enter. Select the boxes for each type of file you'd like to get rid of.
Give ReadyBoost a try. If you have an older Vista or Windows 7 PC with little RAM, you can cheat your way to a modest speed increase with ReadyBoost. This lets you plug a USB flash drive into your computer and temporarily use it in lieu of more RAM. To use this strategy you'll need a USB port and a high-capacity USB drive. If the drive is a good fit for ReadyBoost, Windows will give you the option to enable it when you plug it in. When the AutoPlay window pops up, select 'Speed up my system' and follow the instructions.
Try new drivers. According to conventional wisdom, you shouldn't install new drivers if nothing is wrong with your PC - doing so may mess up something that worked fine before. This can be true, but you're far more likely to improve your PC's performance.
To minimise the risk of breaking your PC with a dodgy driver update, first create a System Restore point that you can go back to if anything goes wrong. Type Create a restore point in the Start menu Search box, and click Create in the window that opens.
Next, go to Windows Update. Click 'Check for Updates', then on the text that notes how many updates are available. Microsoft classifies driver updates as optional; even if the Windows Update text indicates that you don't need any critical updates, you should still click the link. Tick the box next to 'Any updated drivers', then click Ok to install.
Next, visit the manufacturer's website for your computer and/or peripherals. Browse to the relevant support page and download any new drivers that appear. You'll need to know the model name of each piece of hardware you want to update - this can be found in the Windows Device Manager. Download only the drivers you need, then install them as instructed; this step usually involves running a simple executable file and then rebooting.
Test your system after each driver installation. Create additional System Restore points if you're upgrading more than a few drivers. The largest performance gains result from updating your Bios, motherboard and graphics card drivers.