Personal Computer Performance Troubleshooting
Updated: 27 July 2020 12:55 PM
One of the most common issues that people have with computers is that they are too slow at completing a given task.
Sometimes this is a matter of perception or something that cannot be changed; other times the problem can be solved by a bit of personal computer housekeeping. In some cases, the computer may getting too old and is not up to the task of running more modern software. A very noticeable or drastic drop in performance could be evidence of an underlying hardware problem.
If you are attempting to diagnose a performance problem, it helps to be familiar with the tools available that are used to monitor performance:
On a Mac, Activity Monitor is the program that can show you statistics about your computer. You can find it by searching for it with Spotlight(Command+Space) or by navigating to Applications/Utilities/Activity Monitor and running it from there. There are separate tabs in Activity Monitor for CPU, Memory(RAM), Energy(overall energy usage), Disk, and Network.
On Windows, Task Manager fulfills this role. You can bring up Task Manager by searching for it in the Start Menu, or by hitting the Ctrl+Alt+Del keys at the same time and selecting Task Manager from the screen that comes up. Using the Performance Tab of this application, you can see the activity of your CPU, Memory(RAM), Disk, Network connection and GPU.
The main point of using a performance monitor utility is to determine which part of your computer is having the most trouble. Below we'll go over different aspects of the computer and how they affect overall system performance. You will notice that a common theme is running too many programs, or trying to do too many things at once. While computers are capable of multi-tasking, they can only handle so much. If you are experiencing performance problems and you have a lot of programs or browser tabs open, it's recommended that you close some.
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The CPU is the part of your computer that performs a lot of the work to execute programs. It's a high performance component and plays a large part in how quickly work can be done. You could say that it does the majority of the "thinking" that a computer is responsible for.
If CPU usage is very high constantly, then it may be trying to do too many things at once, or there are background processes that are consuming CPU resources. Close as many nonessential applications as you can to see if the percentage of CPU usage decreases.
Memory - Random Access Memory (RAM)
RAM usage is typically not measured in percent, but in space, measured in Gigabytes(GB).
Your computer has a fixed amount of memory modules that equal a certain number of GB. This is *not* the same as the storage space on your disk. Memory is a temporary space that your computer loads programs and files into when the computer is on, because it is faster than the main storage device. The technology that memory uses is faster but it is not perfect: when the machine is shut down, the contents of the memory are cleared. The next time your computer starts, it has to load the Operating System and any programs and files you want to use into memory again from the disk—everything you do on a computer typically is loaded into memory at one point. This means that there is only so much your computer can “think” about at one time effectively, and the amount of that information is limited by how many GB of RAM you have.
If Memory(RAM) usage is high(all of or close to the total number of GB RAM), the answer is similar: close applications you are not currently using. Each application and file currently loaded consumes a certain amount of RAM. Closing these will release the RAM back into the pool of free memory. If you run out of free memory, your system will slow dramatically and have difficulty performing regular tasks: it is because of this that it’s important to not keep too many programs open at once and close unnecessary background services that you don’t use.
Disk - Storage, Solid State Disk (SSD) or Hard Drive Disk (HDD)
The disk or storage device, SSD or HDD is the permanent place where all files and programs are saved. It is also used as a place to put temporary information when that data is too large to fit in RAM.
When it comes to measuring the performance of a disk, there are two things to keep track of: disk activity, and disk space usage.
Disk activity is the measurement of how busy the disk is reading or writing data to permanent storage. If there are large amounts of files being copied, antivirus scans, operations that deal with large amounts of data(video editing is an example) happening then your disk be very active. To minimize the frequency of disk activity, a faster type of storage device is preferred(Solid State Drive/SSD, as opposed to spinning Hard Disk Drive/HDD) and close non-essential programs or background services.
Disk Space usage is different--it's the total amount of your whole disk in GB that's full or in use. It’s important to maintain a certain amount of free space on your disk (at least 10-20 GB is good) to account for space for temporary files. If you run out of free space it can really slow things down. Programs and services running on your computer depend on having some room to store things temporarily. These requirements expand when working with larger files in graphics and video software.
If you are running out of room on your computer's main storage device, consider moving less frequently used files to an external disk, uninstalling programs you don't use and deleting unnecessary data.
Network (Wi-Fi or Ethernet)
Network usage is typically not going to be a problem for most people, and the speed of your own computer’s network adapter/device is often a lot faster than your router’s connection to the internet—if you’re experiencing speed issues with your internet, it may be a Wi-Fi signal issue(your computer’s distance from your wireless router could be causing poor connectivity) or it could be an issue with your router’s connection to your ISP. If you believe it to be a problem with the router, it is worth restarting your router, or trying a wired ethernet connection to see if that resolves your issue.
Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
The GPU is a device which does a very graphics-specific kind of processing: it takes these tasks away from the CPU as it's faster and better suited to rendering 3D and 2D images. Some computers have what is known as a "discrete" GPU and some have an "integrated" GPU. Discrete GPUs are separate from the rest of the computer and have their own pool of resources to draw from. Integrated GPUs are less powerful and share more with the rest of the computer, limiting the type of work an integrated system is suitable for.
GPU performance issues present themselves either when rendering 3D content in real time, or in some cases when powering multiple high resolution(4K+) displays. GPU performance is something that is a little trickier to tune—in some applications and games you can reduce the quality or resolution settings to decrease the amount of graphics processing power required, which will makes things more fluid/less choppy.
If you're on a Mac, the drivers are actually built into the operating system--to ensure you've got the latest driver support, update your macOS version to the newest version available to you.
If you're on a Windows system, drivers are provided by the GPU manufacturer. You should update your graphics driver by obtaining the newest version from your GPU vendor’s website. This will likely be either Nvidia or AMD or Intel. You’ll need to know what model of GPU you have to search for it effectively. To find your GPU model, open Task Manager, select the Performance tab, and then select "GPU 0" in the side bar. You should see the model name of your GPU displayed in the top right of the window. If you have multiple GPUs, you should update drivers for both.