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In Pictures: 10 cheap or free ways to make your old PC run faster

If your old workhorse of a PC is starting to slow down in its old age, these low (or no-) cost tricks can help put some pep in its processing step.

  • Teach an old dog new tricks There’s a reason that unboxing videos and the phrase “new car smell” are firmly ensconced in the public groupmind. New stuff is exciting! New stuff is (theoretically) better! New stuff is just plain cool. But new stuff also costs an arm and a leg—at least if you’re talking about a new PC. Fortunately, there are a slew of ways to breathe new life into an older PC that’s starting to feel a little pokey. Even better: Most are outright free, a couple of (still low-cost) hardware upgrades aside. Sure, these tweaks and tips aren’t as thrilling as booting up a brand new PC for the first time—but they’ll let you continue to get the job done with the gear you already have.

  • Streamline your startup Let’s start with the simpler things first. If your computer is chugging, too much software booting at system start may just be to blame. Before you take more drastic measures, clean up your startup by opening the Startup tab of Windows 8’s Task Manager, or typing “msconfig”—minus the quotation marks—in Windows 7 and opening its Startup tab. While you don’t want to disable Windows processes or processes related to your hardware, ruthlessly eliminate anything else that you can identify if at all possible. You wouldn’t want to prevent your antivirus from launching at startup, but there’s no reason for Steam or Adobe Reader to hog your system resources except for when you explicitly need them.

  • Spring cleaning, part 1 If cutting back your boot programs doesn’t do the trick, it’s time to try some deeper cleaning. Eradicate any programs you don’t actually use—PC makers stuff computers full of bloatware. These free tools can help. Run a security sweep while you’re at it, in case malware is slowing down your system. PCWorld’s guide to assembling the ultimate free security suite can help there. If you’re still rocking Windows XP and a traditional hard drive, try defragging it. (More modern operating systems perform the task automatically.) Just search for “Defragment,” and the baked-in Windows tool should pop right up.

  • Spring cleaning, part 2 Scrub your hardware while you’re busy scrubbing all that unwanted software, too. Ideally, you want to clean out the interior of your PC once per year, but let’s be honest—most people never pry open their case and blow out the dust bunny horde. Over time, the accumulated gunk can wreak havoc with temperatures inside your PC, which in turn makes your PC components either throttle back performance to compensate for the increased temperatures, or just plain struggle. No joke: Once a family member called me over because his PC was sluggish and unresponsive. Merely cleaning out the inches of dust inside his machine made the system run like new. Check out PCWorld’s guide to PC cleaning before cracking open your case.

  • Nuke and reinstall Windows Still running slow? We’re running out of pure software optimization tricks now. Windows is notorious for slowing down over time. If you’ve never refreshed your PC with a fresh Windows install, now’s the time to do it. Back up all your critical system data , make sure you have your Windows product key in hand—Belarc Advisor can help if need be—and follow this guide to slap a fresh, factory-new copy of Windows on your computer. Be warned: If you’re using a manufacturer-supplied recovery disk, you’ll need to clean all the preinstalled bloatware off your machine after reinstalling Windows.

  • Install an SSD If your computer’s still feeling crippled after all the software tricks, you have a couple of different options: Change out some hardware, or completely alter how you use your PC. Let’s dig into the former first. When it comes to pure performance, upgrading from a traditional hard drive to a solid-state drive is like trading in your Volkswagon Beetle for a Ferrari. Seriously: Upgrading to an SSD will utterly blow you away, supercharging everything from boot times to application launches to file transfers. This is the single most noticeable PC upgrade most people can make. An SSD can make even a clunky old laptop feel comparatively snappy, and you can find 128GB SSDs for around $100 all over the place. Here’s how to prepare for the switch.

  • Swap out your graphics card If your gaming rig has more ugh than oomph, tossing out your old graphics card and replacing it with a newer model may be all you need—not a full PC upgrade. Sure, games are requiring more firepower now that the new consoles are out, but plenty of gamers are still doing just fine pairing a high-end graphics card with an old Core 2 Duo chip. Upgrading to a new graphics card can pay dividends if your old one is three or four generations old. If you think your processor is still up to gaming snuff, check out PCWorld’s graphics card slug-fest for a comparison of AMD and Nvidia’s top cards, then this guide on how to swap out the hardware.

  • Overclock! Don’t have money for new gear? Overclocking—using software to manually speed up the clock speeds of your hardware—lets you get more out of what you already have. Assuming your PC has proper cooling and a CPU that’s capable of overclocking (Intel limits it to chips with a “K” designator at the end), boosting your processor and graphics card’s clock speeds can have a noticeable effect on your PC’s performance. Overclocking will void your warranty and has some inherent risk, but don’t let that dissuade you—especially if you’re working with older hardware. PCWorld’s overclocking for newbies and guide to overclocking your GPU, CPU, and RAM can help you rev your PC’s engines.

  • Transform your laptop into a portable gaming client Sometimes it’s just not worth putting new hardware into an old PC. But that doesn’t make it useless! Let’s look at some ways you can make obsolete computers purposeful once again. If you’re a gamer, the easiest option for an old laptop is simply to use it to game while you’re away from your gaming rig. “But Brad!” I hear you wailing. “You can’t game on an old PC!” Ah, but you can, with a decent router and Steam in-home streaming—which is essentially Netflix for gaming, using your primary PC as a server. PCWorld has a guide to setting up Steam in-home streaming, and you should. It’s magical!

  • Slinging files That’s not the only way you can repurpose a computer. Rather than using a pokey PC as a traditional do-it-all machine, consider giving your system a singular role if you have another PC you can use as your primary rig. Two common uses are to transform an old PC into a dedicated home theater PC or a file server. It’s not even that hard to do, though obviously it means the PC's email and Office days are over. Some awesome free software available for each use: Snag MediaPortal, OpenELEC, or Kodi (the new name for the uber-popular OS formerly known as XBMC) for a would-be HTPC or FreeNAS to build out a server.

  • Install Linux But maybe you still need to use your computer as an day-to-day actual computer. If that’s the case, installing an operating system with a lighter footprint than Windows can help you eke more life out of an aging PC. Linux tends to run better than Windows on less potent hardware. In fact, several Linux variants are specifically designed with ultra-minimalist requirements so they’re able to run on old PCs—Puppy Linux, LXLE, and Lubuntu come to mind immediately. The transition from Windows to Linux isn’t as rough as it used to be, but you’ll still want to check out our starter’s guide to Linux, including the software recommendations on the last page.

  • Further reading Sometimes, though, you just need to say goodbye. When it’s time to put your PC out to pasture, PCWorld’s guide to reusing your aging computer has even more recycling and repurposing ideas. And if none of those sound appealing, you can always rip out your internal storage and convert it to external drives for about $10 a pop. But why stop with PCs? Rather than stuffing your old phones and tablets into a junk drawer, check out PCWorld’s guide to turning misfit mobile devices into surprisingly capable PC companions.

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