We look at ways to give your PC a definitive boost of power, covering hardware upgrades, software tweaks and networking tricks.

None of us ever thinks we have a fast enough PC. However deftly that multi-core machine might serve up multiple web pages and flit between Photoshop, Word and iPlayer, we're rarely satisfied with its performance. Whether this is due to the sheer pace of development that means there's always a faster system out there, or the burdensome bloatware that saddles some PCs, we all expect more from our machines.

Uninstalling unnecessary apps and some of the files that you're unlikely to need anytime soon is a good start. But this is mere tinkering. Rather than cooling the jets of overzealous apps, you want to give your PC a definitive boost of power. Over the following pages, we'll look at ways to do exactly that, covering hardware upgrades, software tweaks and networking tricks.

We're not just speculating about what could improve your machine's performance either. We looked at the most common computer bottlenecks and found ways to fix them. We ran benchmark tests on our computers before and after we made various changes to the hardware under the hood. Our tips reflect years of experience and the latest tools to reach the market. Read on for the secrets of upgraders and performance tweakers.


Hardware speed boosts

You want a faster system? Put faster parts in it. That's the simple answer to a question that every PC owner asks from time to time. But replacement parts aren't free, and cash-strapped computer enthusiasts know that the key is to put their money where it counts most.

That's why we've been looking into which upgrades give PCs the best performance bang for the buck. We separated our benchmark tests into two components: general system tasks (including office applications, photo editing and video encoding) and gaming. Then we divided our upgrades into four categories: CPU, RAM, hard drive and graphics card.

We selected two primary test systems to represent the types of desktop PCs that users are likely to want to overhaul with hardware upgrades: a three-year-old PC with a 3.4GHz Pentium D processor, 2GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and an nVidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics card; and a one-year old Dell with a 2.8GHz Core i7-860 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a one-terabyte (1TB) hard drive and an ATI Radeon HD 5670 graphics card. We then ran tests on the systems using various combinations of the above upgrades to determine which configurations yielded the best return on investment.

The results for individual PCs will vary, but the data supports general conclusions about which upgrades make the most sense.

Hardware speed boosts

Upgrading the CPU

Bumping our three-year-old computer's processor from an Intel Pentium D to a Core 2-class chip yielded instant and obvious performance improvements across the board. Moving to a 2.67GHz Core 2 Quad prompted a 36.8 percent jump in performance when using everyday applications. Using an older 3GHz Core 2 Duo was even more effective, with a boost of 52.6 percent. This was probably due to the speedier frontside bus on the Core 2 Duo over the Core 2 Quad. Graphics performance improved even more with both upgrades.

Best of all, our CPU upgrades were affordable. The Core 2 Duo upgrade rated as one of the best-value here. It cost a mere £3.61 for each percentage point of general performance improvement.

Upgrade Advisor

Upgrading RAM

Conventional wisdom has always held that upgrading your system's RAM will give it an instant boost. The upgrade is easy to perform, and it makes sense because PC memory is cheap. But if your PC already has even a moderate amount of RAM, you won't see much of a speed increase from adding more. For example, when we bumped up our 2GB PC to 4GB, we got a paltry 1.3 percent improvement to our everyday programs and virtually no improvement to games.

Similarly, our one-year-old Dell PC's performance improved by just 3 percent when we moved from 4GB of RAM to 8GB. The limited benefit that the upgrade provided in our benchmarks made investing in more memory almost pointless.

Upgrading the hard drive

Solid-state disk (SSD) technology promises a dramatic decrease in hard-drive latency.

In our tests, moving from a 500GB, 7,200rpm hard-disk drive to a 120GB SSD resulted in an 8 percent general boost and an 18.4 percent speed jump for gaming.

SSDs aren't cheap, and you lose a large amount of your storage capacity in the bargain (nearly 75 percent, in our case). Still, presented with prices of £21.25 for each percentage point of general performance improvement and £9.24 for each percentage point of graphics improvement, power users may find the outlay worth their while.

Upgrading the graphics card

No mystery here. Upgrading to newer graphics will do wonders for your gaming. When we upgraded our older PC to an ATI Radeon HD 6870 card, gaming performance improved by 14.9 percent. With our newer Dell, an ATI Radeon HD 6850 gave us a 117.2 percent boost in gaming. But neither improved general application performance.

On the three-year-old system we needed to spend £10.06 for each percentage point of improvement, but the Dell's extremely low £1.11 for each percentage point of gain makes the graphics card upgrade on that PC the most cost-effective upgrade in our round-up.

Speed up your PC

Multiple upgrades

You're likely to fare even better if you upgrade components in combination. Performing all four of the upgrades on our list - CPU, RAM, hard drive and graphics card - on our old desktop PC improved its system speed by 67.1 percent and boosted its gaming performance by 166.3 percent.

We also spent more, but the overall improvement was far greater than the sum of the improvements from the individual upgrades. Ultimately we spent £8.48 for each percentage point of general performance improvement, making the four-component upgrade surprisingly good value.You don't have to upgrade everything to see a boost, of course; your best bet is to focus on performance bottlenecks.

To find them, go to the Windows Performance Information and Tools Control Panel. Focus on the lowest numbers listed in the panel's Windows Experience Index, and upgrade your hardware accordingly.

Forklift upgrade

Does it make sense to perform multiple upgrades when you could simply buy a new PC? Even under the best conditions upgrading is a hassle, and it gets expensive depending on the CPU: we spent about £400 to £500 to buy the components for our three-year-old PC upgrade. That's more than some new machines cost.

Effort and risks aside, it still makes sense to upgrade in some instances. Graphics are a sore spot here, as new computers with integrated graphics fared extremely poorly in our gaming benchmarks. If you want better games performance than your current system provides, focusing on a better graphics card makes more sense than buying a new rig that uses integrated graphics.

General productivity programs were a different story. We had to spend several hundred pounds on an overclocked 3.3GHz Core i5 PC with 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 10,000rpm hard drive to substantially improve on the gains we saw from our CPU upgrades alone. In that case, investing in a new computer would have made more sense; for almost everything else, selective upgrading would have been the wisest choice.


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.

Software speed boosts

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.

Upgrade Advisor

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.


If upgrading your PC is out of the question, you still have plenty of options for boosting its performance. Here are some more suggestions that are worth a try.

Kill splash screens. Splash screens don't bog down your computer per se, but they do insert a speed bump into your schedule whenever you launch an application, and that extra time can add up. You can turn off many splash screens in program settings.

Scrub startup apps. In all likelihood, an astonishing number of applications in your PC load at startup without your knowledge. Take a look at what's in your startup queue by typing msconfig in the Start menu Search box. Click the Startup tab and you'll find a list of everything that loads during bootup; it probably includes a number of programs such as QuickTime and anything made by Adobe. Clear the box next to each program you don't want your PC to load at startup.

Soluto is a free tool that performs the same operation on a crowd-source basis. If you're unsure what some of the applications in the msconfig display are, Soluto can probably tell you.

It also reports exactly how much time each one costs you during startup. The catch is that Soluto itself will slow you down by a few seconds, so install it only if you know your system has a lot of stuff loading at startup that you can safely get rid of.

Turn off search indexing. The ability to search your PC at Google-like speeds is one of Windows 7's greatest strengths. But no matter how orderly you keep your business, indexing will slow you down.

To change the indexing settings, type services in the Start menu Search bar. Scroll down to and right-click Windows Search in the window that appears, then choose Properties. Change the 'Startup type' to Disabled, then click Ok.

Turn off Aero. Windows' translucent windows and variable backgrounds look pretty, but such effects can considerably slow your system. To turn them off, open the Personalization Control Panel and scroll down to 'Basic and High Contrast Themes'. The Windows 7 Basic theme is still attractive but uses less graphics-rendering power.

Switch off Aero

If you want to make more granular tweaks, open the 'Performance Information and Tools' Control Panel and click 'Adjust visual effects' in the left-hand pane. Here you'll find specific settings that you can adjust for greater speed; turn them off by clicking the 'Adjust for best performance' button and then clicking Ok.

Delete the Peek. Aero Peek and Aero Snap consume a relatively small amount of system resources, but disabling Aero Snap will save you time by eliminating accidental snaps that you have to undo manually.

To access these features, type ease in the Start menu Search bar and choose 'Ease of Access Center'. At the bottom of the screen, click 'Make it easier to focus on tasks'. Select the option to 'Prevent windows from being automatically arranged when moved to the edge of the screen.' Also consider ticking the box next to 'Turn off all unnecessary animations (when possible)'.

To turn off Aero Peek, right-click the Taskbar and select Properties. Deselect 'Use Aero Peek to preview the desktop'.

Kill compression. If your hard drive is suitably large, you have no reason to compress folders on it that you regularly use. Decompressing files on the fly only slows your access to them.

To uncompress a compressed folder without third-party compression software installed, right-click the folder and choose 'Extract all'. Follow the prompts to choose a destination for the uncompressed files; then delete the original, compressed folder.

Go thumbnail-free. Trying to view thumbnail images in a folder that holds several hundred images usually causes Windows to choke. To disable the thumbnail option, open Windows Explorer and click Tools, Folder Options. Click the View tab and select 'Always show icons, never thumbnails'.

Consider a Registry cleaner. Registry cleaners are regarded as saviours by their supporters and snake oil by their detractors. We'll add to the argument only that Registry cleaners may be of value to some users, and that we've witnessed a thorough Registry scrubbing revitalise a very old computer, at least to some extent. (Of course, following the other tips in this feature also helps.)

Registry cleaners worth a try include CCleaner, PC Tools Registry Mechanic (£30 per year) and Iolo System Mechanic (£24), but note that impressive results are not guaranteed.


How to tell that your PC's too slow

Just because your PC feels slow, it doesn't mean that it is. Any number of things can cause your computer to slow down temporarily: a stuck print job, a badly coded web page, a hiccup at your ISP, or something else.

Most users have a gut feeling about their computer's performance. When booting up takes more than a minute, or programs start to load sluggishly, it's time to put some effort into getting your system into shape again.

But where can you look for quantitative data on which to base these decisions? The best thing you can do is to benchmark your computer to see whether it is really getting slower. We use a professional benchmarking tool to assess PC performance, but it costs around £150 from worldbench.com. For a cheaper option, try the free version of PCMark Vantage. This will let you run a limited benchmark of your PC to check for trouble spots.

The difficult part is working out what to compare your benchmark numbers with. After all, benchmarks in a vacuum are useless. With WorldBench, you can compare your system's score with those of various modern PCs, as reported in this magazine or on our website at pcadvisor.co.uk/reviews. Another option is to pay £4 for PCMark Vantage Basic Edition so you can compare your score with those of other users who've submitted their numbers online.

Finally, you can use Windows' 'Performance Information and Tools' Control Panel. The information that's provided here is rudimentary, but it's better than nothing.

If you see the numbers slip to 15 to 20 percent below what you'd expect, it's probably time to take action.


Networking speed boosts

If computer-to-computer file transfers or web page loads are bugging you, consider focusing on your wireless network configuration instead of mucking about in Windows or inside your computer case.

Here are some common ways to give your computer a boost by scrutinising the network side of the equation.

Upgrade everything to 802.11n. Upgrading to a newer router will help, but only if all the equipment on your network supports it. A new router plus an old laptop won't increase your performance much - unless you're on the outskirts of the wireless connectivity zone, in which case you may achieve better performance simply because the new router's signal is stronger. If you want to obtain the best throughput from an 802.11n router, you must use WPA2 encryption; the older WPA encryption operates at half the maximum theoretical speed that 802.11n offers.

Tinker with the antennae. By far the easiest way to alter your network's performance is by moving the antennae on your router, if it has visible ones. Try different configurations: all straight up, bent to 45 degrees, aiming to the side, or combinations of the above. Depending on your router, antenna tweaks can give you a boost of up to 20 percent on network throughput.

Move your router. Many users seem to think that once a router is installed, it needs to stay put. Not so. A cable modem can connect to any functioning cable outlet, and an ADSL modem can connect to any phone line. The rule of thumb is to position the modem (and router) as close as possible to the location where PCs will be used most frequently. If you have computers set up throughout your house, try to place your network equipment as centrally as you can.

Check for interlopers. Network performance suffers when numerous devices use the pipe simultaneously. You can monitor your own internet usage, but what if you aren't the only person using your connection? Check for interlopers freeloading on your network via the DHCP client list for your router.

Such lists identify everything connected to the network, including MAC addresses and computer host names. Wireless printers, networked home-entertainment equipment, media servers, smartphones and other wireless gadgets may appear in the list. But if you find something that shouldn't be there, consider upgrading to a higher level of Wi-Fi security, and change your password and encryption key.

Get your traffic in shape. If you're up for some advanced network tweaking, consider traffic prioritisation for your router. Traffic prioritisation (aka traffic shaping) is a technology that enables you to tell your network to let one form of traffic have precedence over another. For example, you may want to give voice and video the highest priority, so your video calls go through with no lag and stutter, while giving email and file downloads lower priority because they are less sensitive to delivery delays.

These days, more and more routers are adding Quality of Service (QoS) features. Look for router models designed for gaming use or for 'experts', such as D-Link's DIR-655, and then venture into the QoS settings in the product's configuration menus. Expert users may also consider downloading third-party firmware for popular routers to add QoS feature support to their network routers.