Speeding up your computer

This is the flip side of my previous article: “10 things that can slow down your computer”. Nobody likes to work on a computer that feels slow … so, if you find yourself frequently waiting for things to happen on your computer …

  • first make sure it’s your computer that is slow, and not your Internet
  • then decide what might be slowing your computer down
  • then decide if you should upgrade your computer, or replace it

If most of your computer work is online, it’s sometimes hard to know where the slowness is coming from. If things seem slow, the first thing to do is check your Internet speed by going to speedtest.net … it’s an independent speed test that will give you 3 numbers: your ping time, download speed, and upload speed. If your numbers are <40ms, >4Mbps, and >0.4Mbps, respectively, then you’re probably OK. (Those numbers are a bit arbitrary … you might want to check the download/upload numbers against what you are paying for from your Internet Service Provider.) If you are online via wifi, you should also do a speed test with a wired connection to compare and see if you are losing speed due to your home wireless.

If you decide your Internet is OK, it’s time to check your computer. On Windows 10, you can do that via the Task Manager on the Process/Performance tabs … on OS X, via Activity Monitor (under Applications | Utilities). This will show how taxed your CPU, memory, disk, wifi/Ethernet, and GPU are. If your CPU or GPU utilization is frequently high, you either need to reduce what they are doing, or increase their capability (difficult to do without replacing your whole computer). If your memory use is high, it’s not hard to either reduce the demands for memory (shut down programs), or increase your RAM. If your disk is always busy, you can either reduce the demands for disk access, or replace your hard drive with a faster one. If network throughput is always busy, either reduce the demands for network access or create a faster connection.

If your computer is relatively healthy, you have at least 4GB of RAM, and your CPU’s benchmark (cpubenchmark.net) is well over 2000, then your most likely cause of slowness is your hard drive. Even if it shows no signs of dying, you should consider upgrading to a Solid State Drive (SSD) to get about ten times (!) the disk access performance. It’s possible to clone your hard drive to an SSD, so everything (operating system, programs, settings, data) stays the same … it’s just faster! This is the most common upgrade today.

10 things that can slow down your computer

If you find yourself wondering why your computer is slow, refer to this list of common causes:

  1. Useless-ware/Malware – Programs may be running in the background that don’t have to be
  2. Too much anti-malware – (Windows only) You should have only one real-time malware scanner, with no “extra features”
  3. Slow hard drive – Caused by type (e.g. 5400 RPM), age (>4 years old), or errors
  4. Insufficient RAM – 4GB is enough in most cases, 8GB is common, more for heavy programs
  5. Updates – These may be running in the background without your knowledge
  6. Cloud backups – These may be running in the background without your knowledge
  7. Processor – Look for CPUs with a benchmark >> 1800 (cpubenchmark.net)
  8. Internet connection – Use speedtest.net to make sure you are <40ms / >4Mbps / >0.4Mbps
  9. Browser plug-ins – Browsers aren’t slow or flakey … browser plug-ins can make them that way
  10. Drivers/BIOS – May be incompatible, out of date, or just broken … fix as necessary

There are other possible reasons for a slow computer, but those are the most common ones. Here are some things you can do to speed up your computer:

  1. Remove programs you don’t use, or that have questionable value … especially ones that are running all the time; scan regularly for malware with a program like Malwarebytes
  2. Use only one real-time anti-malware scanner, and avoid the “extra features” like firewalls and other “protections”; also avoid “cleaners” … most of them fall into the category of useless-ware
  3. Consider upgrading your hard drive to one that is faster (7200RPM or hybrid) or fastest (solid state drive) … but do it before your hard drive completely fails
  4. Upgrading RAM is pretty easy … get the correct type/size and plug it in
  5. Manually update your operating system when it is convenient for you, just to get’r’done
  6. Cloud backups are great, but they can hog your Internet bandwidth … schedule them if possible
  7. You typically can’t upgrade your CPU, so keep that in mind when upgrading your computer
  8. Internet speed is measure by ping (40ms is passable, lower is better), download (4Mbps is passable, higher is better), and upload (0.4Mbps is passable, higher is better)
  9. Browser plug-ins are sometimes called add-ons or extensions; there are very few useful plug-ins, so I tend to remove them
  10. It’s not worth checking/replacing drivers or BIOS unless there is an issue, but that can fix issues … avoid driver updater programs

Backup options

Not everyone has computer files that they would miss if they were to suddenly vanish, but most of us do. Some computer files are easy to replace, like operating system files and program files … that’s why most backups tend to focus on your data: the files that can be difficult or impossible to replace.

Don’t put all your eggs all in one basket. Keep at least one backup copy of your important data files that is in a place that is geographically disconnected from your originals … and keep it current.

Backups are important because there are many ways you can lose data: accidental deletion, malicious software, hardware failure, fire, or theft. If you chose your method of backup wisely, you can effectively protect yourself against these potential pitfalls.

The biggest backup choice you must make is local or remote, although, you could do both. Remote (i.e. cloud) backups typically have a monthly/annual cost, but they also are a set-it-and-forget-it solution due to their 3 key features: they are geographically disconnected, encrypted, and automatic.

If you chose to do local backups, you need to be diligent in those same 3 ways.

First, you should be diligent in disconnecting the backup so that your backups don’t suffer the same fate as your original data (protecting against malicious software, fire, or theft).

Second, you need to be diligent in keeping your backup secure, whether through encryption or under lock and key. You don’t want a stranger to stumble upon your unencrypted backup drive.

Finally, you must be diligent in performing backups, since it requires the physical action of connecting/disconnecting and bringing out/putting away from its geographically disconnected location.

I see a place for both approaches, as long as you have at least 2 up-to-date copies (original + backup) of each of your important data files. For those of you who want me to name names and prices:

  • For local backups for Windows users, I like SyncBackFree for backing-up data, and Disk2VHD for backing-up a whole computer into one file … the only cost is a sufficiently large backup flash drive or disk drive
  • For local backups for Mac users, I like the built-in TimeMachine … again, all you need is a sufficiently large backup drive
  • For cloud backups from any device, I like the fully-within-Canada sync.com … it is free up to 5GB, and very affordable beyond that

Cloud-phobia: fear of “the cloud”

So often, I see fear or dismissal in people’s eyes when “the cloud” is mentioned. But like many fears, cloud-phobia can be reduced with a bit of understanding.

Since the dawn of personal computing, most of us have gotten used to running programs or apps, or storing data, on our own computers and devices. “The cloud” refers to services that exist in the Internet, on remote computers, that we can access from our computers and other devices, but doesn’t otherwise depend on local computing or storage.

“The cloud” can refer to two things: “cloud storage” and “cloud computing”. Cloud storage is the storage of data in the cloud, and cloud computing is where the computing is done in the cloud.

We refer to it as “the cloud” because we typically don’t know where the storage/computing is occurring: it may be across town or across the world. It has nothing to do with the dependability or security of the storage/computing, which is typically very strong.

Cloud storage and computing are conceptually simple extensions of local storage and computing that most of us have come to use in our everyday lives. With the current level of security available, and as the Internet gets faster and more ubiquitous, it only makes sense to use the cloud. The benefits of cloud storage are: dependability, scalability, and ubiquity (you can access your data from any cloud-connected device). The benefits of cloud computing are: the programs are more current, and typically the servers they run on are more powerful than your local device.

Chances are, you are already using both cloud storage and cloud computing. If you use email, your mail server (the part after the @ in your email address) stores your email for you until you move it or delete it from there. And if you have ever used Google Maps for directions, you have used cloud computing: Google calculates the best route and gives you the estimated time and distance of that route. These are just examples of the thousands of dependable, secure, services we can access in the cloud.

Speeding up your Wifi

Faster Internet speeds are here, so I expect people will be wanting to speed up their wifi to take advantage of it. This article explores the main wifi standards and speeds, and includes a hint to boost your wifi speed.

First, a side note about units. For simplicity, all speeds are listed in Megabits per second (Mbps). Network speeds can also be stated in Megabytes per second (MBps = Mbps ÷ 8), Gigabits per second (Gbps = Mbps ÷ 1000), or Gigabytes per second (GBps = Mbps ÷ 8000).

Until about 2007, the fastest Internet speeds were slower than the slowest wifi speeds. The table below shows the main wifi standards we have in Canada, when they were released, their theoretical speed (*wiki “IEEE 802.11), and the Internet speeds at the time they were released (**google “ncta internet speed history 2016”):

IEEE Standard Release Date Max Wifi Speed* Max Internet Speed**
802.11b Sep1999 11 Mbps 0.256 Mbps
802.11g Jun2003 54 Mbps 4 Mbps
802.11n Oct2009 600 Mbps 50 Mbps
802.11ac Dec2013 1300 Mbps 500 Mbps
802.11ax 2019? 10,530 Mbps 1000 Mbps

The beauty of wifi is that it is backwards compatible: for example, you can connect a 802.11n laptop/phone to a 802.11b router, and vice-versa. However, that compatibility comes at a price: if your modem/router is set to 802.11b compatibility (which many are, by default) the fastest wifi you can get is 11 Mbps.

So, if you are finding your wifi speed isn’t anywhere near your Internet speed, the easiest fix is to change the wifi setting on your modem/router to 802.11n or higher. Beware that any old 802.11b/g devices you have may stop working, but that equipment is at least 10 years old and probably needs replacing anyway.

Finally, a quick note about Internet/wifi speed: as mentioned in my previous article, there is limited value to higher Internet/wifi speeds. Netflix in UltraHD takes about 25 Mbps/channel (HD content only takes about 5 Mbps/channel), so even if you are streaming multiple 4k channels at once, you are likely using much less than 100 Mbps.

What’s in a Number?

Many people shop for computers and computer services by the numbers, but it’s important to know the significance of those numbers so you don’t end up under-buying or over-buying.

One number we all have a fairly good grasp on is price. Typically you get bigger/better/faster for more money, but there are other numbers that are significant when you have choices within your price range.

Did you know that watching a high-definition video program like Netflix, or a game system like Xbox/Playstation, takes only 5 Mbps (megabits-per-second) of bandwidth? So, unless you are frequently uploading or downloading large amounts of data, it’s hard to justify Internet services of 150 to 940 Mbps. Today, most of us have many good choices from 6 Mbps and up.

Computer speed is based on many factors, including CPU speed, RAM size, hard drive speed, video card speed, Internet speed and what you are running. When shopping, start by looking at the aspects you can’t easily upgrade later, like CPU. With laptops and all-in ones, that list includes video chip and screen size.

So how do you determine the relative speed of different CPUs, video cards/chips, hard drives, etc. to make comparisons? Go to passmark.com and look up specific benchmark numbers under CPU Benchmarks, Video Card Benchmarks, Hard Drive Benchmarks, etc.

Keep in mind that, when it comes to computers, small differences in speed are often not noticeable. You may notice something that is twice as fast, but not necessarily if it is only 50% faster. The easiest way to increase your computer speed, without buying a whole new computer, is to switch from a spinning hard disk drive (HDD) to a solid state drive (SSD) or hybrid (SSHD). SSDs are at least 10 times faster than its spinny equivalent. Even SSDs can vary in speed between makes/models/types.

The bottom line is, you want to buy something that meets your needs and expectations of speed, capacity, dependability, and longevity without breaking the bank. To achieve that, know your numbers, or ask someone you trust to help you make good choices.

Next time, I’ll tell you how you could speed up your home wifi with just one setting.

More scams

I like to keep my articles positive, but every year or so, I feel the need to write about scams in hopes of saving someone the hassle of dealing with the fallout.

Many of the same old scams are still circulating, where you receive a phone call “your computer has been compromised and we’re here to help you”, or you get an immovable popup on your screen asking you to “call this number” … and, of course, phishing emails (e.g. Nigerian Prince). I hope most of you are savvy enough to recognize these old scams.

But there are always new scams, and some can be quite convincing. I have fallen for “too good to be true” scams twice in the past few months.

The first was a website site advertising products with ridiculously cheap prices, specs that were “hard to believe”, and sometimes both. At a weak moment, I was stunned that I could get a 2TB flash drive for $10! (They cost upwards of $1800.) At the time, I was too lazy to research the company or the product, so I fell for it. An hour later, I came to my senses and canceled my order. (I was impressed with the fact that, after a few days, I got a full refund.)

The second scam was for a brand-name, smart thermostat that was advertised on Facebook for $100. I know these are $329 in the store, so I jumped at the chance to get one at this great price! The ad and site looked legit, so I ordered one. I got suspicious when I didn’t receive a confirmation/receipt, and leaped into action once I saw a charge for over $150 on my credit card.

Because I didn’t get a confirmation of my purchase, I had to dig through my browser history just to find the site address (note to self: write it down next time). I wrote to the company, but they said they couldn’t help me without the order number (stalling tactic?). Then I wrote to my credit card company with the details, and they wrote back to me suggesting that this is a known scammer and that I should I send the details to the RCMP via fake@antifraudcentre.ca. When I did that, I got an auto-reply from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre stating that they received my request, but that they were 30 days behind in answering requests. I guess it’s the busy season for scammers.

Again, I hope this information helps someone avoid getting caught by the same sort of trap.

Using your phone or tablet as a computer

Why not?

I see fewer and fewer reasons to need a computer for what most people do. So why not use the power and features of your phone or tablet instead of maintaining a computer?

Is it hard to hold the device while you type on the screen? Answer: You can just prop it up (many stands are available) and use a standard wired or wireless keyboard/mouse. Most phones and tablets allow this.

Is it hard to see because of the small screen? Answer: You can cast it, or connect it, to a big screen. Most phones and tablets can wirelessly cast pictures, sounds, and videos to a nearby smart device with a bigger screen. This works great for reading and streaming, although there is a bit of a delay which can make mousing and keyboarding difficult.

If you want to go “all the way” and use a keyboard, mouse, and monitor with your phone or tablet, you will want to plug those peripherals into your device. Most Android and Windows devices allow this.

I was recently impressed with Samsung’s DeX Pad, which allows you to plug a Galaxy S8 or S9 smartphone into keyboard, mouse, and monitor … effectively turning your smartphone into a functional desktop computer that fits in your pocket. Using this setup, the icons spread out to give you a full-screen experience, DeX-aware apps expand to use the available “real estate”, and non-aware apps still work fine in smaller portrait or landscape windows.

Of course, if you would rather separate your phone/tablet and desktop experiences, there are inexpensive options that make it easy to switch between devices: Chromebox, Chromebit, Chrometop, and Chromebook are all relatively inexpensive devices that give you a similar experience to Android/iOS without the complexity and expense of Windows or OS X.

Yes, there are situations where you just need the full-meal deal, but those situations are dwindling. More and more, traditional desktop/laptop programs are being “replaced” by web-based services, or Android/iOS apps, that are equivalent.

Even gaming and virtual reality (VR) are possible with a smartphone: the hardware cost is a fraction of computer-based gaming/VR, and the experience is nearly as diverse and impressive.

It’s something to consider the next time you go to replace your aging Windows or Mac computer.

Windows 10?

Are you still avoiding Windows 10? Or do you have it, and blame it for all your computer woes?

I’m here to point out that Windows 7 is due to be retired on 14Jan2020, and Windows 8.1 on 10Jan2023, so in a few years, Windows 10 will be the only supported Microsoft platform for workstations. There will not be a Windows 11.

Windows 10 is a pretty good operating system: it is not much “heavier” than Windows 7 or 8, it is very compatible with programs built for this, and previous, versions of Windows, and it is easy to get used to if you have used any previous version of Windows.

The main complaint I hear about Windows 10 is the default setup: Microsoft kept “tiles” from Windows 8, and it is rather forceful in pushing its own browser, mail tool, and certain games. It only takes a few minutes to remove those nuisances (refer to my previous article “Tweaking Windows 10”).

Windows 10 is pretty mature now: it was released more than 3 years ago, and we have seen five major updates to it over that time. The main problems we have seen with it have been with drivers and updates. Driver issues are fading away, but we still see some update issues (as we always have with Windows).

In September, it was announced that Windows 7 users will have to pay for updates if they want to keep using this 2009 operating system past its retirement date. The monthly fee has not yet been announced.

What all of this means is: if there is a reason you need Windows, Windows 10 is the best choice. If you have a legal copy of Windows 7 or 8, there is still a legal/free way to upgrade to Windows 10.

So what’s stopping you from joining the mainstream?

Next month, I would like to explore further the need for Windows. Unless you are a developer or gamer, there are few reasons to maintain a Windows (or Mac) computer when there are so many other choices: ChromeOS, Android, iOS, Linux, and others.

Networking 101

It’s a good idea to have some understanding of the basic components of your home network; your computers and smart devices depend on them to share files, and printers, and the Internet.

If you live in this area and you have Internet, you probably have a modem from Shaw or Telus. If that modem is relatively new, it will have a built-in wireless router and switch. If your needs are simple (i.e. you have four or fewer wired devices, and only short-range wireless needs), then connect your devices and you have a home network.

Wires are not passé. If you are trying to decide between a wired connection and a wireless one, remember: a wire is nearly always faster, more dependable, and more secure. And if you are sensitive to wireless signals, you can turn off the wireless feature. But if you want to connect more than four wired devices, you will need a “splitter”, more accurately called an “Ethernet switch”.

But wireless is handy. If you need better range or coverage for your wireless, you have several options: a stronger router, a wireless access point (WAP), a wireless repeater, or a set of mesh devices.

A network should not have more than one router on it, so if you opt for the “stronger router” approach, have Shaw/Telus “bridge” your modem, thus disabling the one built into the modem before you attach your own. Bridging can usually be done over the phone in a few minutes.

If you simply want to extend your wifi range in one direction, you could add a WAP (connected to the main router with a wire) or a wireless repeater (connected to the main router via wifi). And if you want the best speed/range/coverage, you might create a mesh network … which is basically one wireless router and one or more wireless repeaters configured in a grid layout. Mesh networks used to be out of reach for home users, because of their price and complexity. But now they are relatively affordable (lower cost than some high-end routers) and relatively easy to setup (via smartphone app).

If you are considering replacing one or more components of your network, it’s good to have a basic understanding of your options before you begin … that’s the best way to get the features that suit your needs.

That same basic knowledge is good if you have problems getting online. Know the components of your network so you have an idea of what to reset before calling for help: all network gear is meant to recover from a power outage, so it’s a good first step to unplug each component from power, wait 10 seconds, plug it back in, wait 5 minutes, and try accessing the Internet again.