This is a great question because fixing this problem costs so much less than it used to years ago. The shortest answer is – “buy and install more memory (RAM)”.
One of my college professors used to have a rule about upgrading an older computer before buying a new one. His rule of thumb was simple.
1. Add more RAM.
2. Add more RAM.
3. Update the graphics card (to one with more RAM).
4. Add more RAM.
If it’s still slow …
5. Buy a new computer, and sell the old one.
Now, that rule doesn’t fully apply today. Some computers have a maximum amount of RAM that can be added. Once you’ve hit that point, you can upgrade the graphics card (unless it’s a laptop, in which case you can’t).
Where should you get RAM? Not at a Best Buy! I’ve found Crucial.com to be the best site for providing a tool to tell you how much RAM you have, how much your computer can handle, and what your options are. Their prices are great too.
Adding RAM is very easy. It takes a screwdriver and a few minutes. I like to tell people that adding RAM is harder than making your bed in the morning, but much easier than changing your oil – and your clothes won’t be dirty at the end.
Besides memory, what else can you do?
First, make sure that in your system tray (next to the clock, in the bottom right corner) you have as few icons as possible. Those are all programs that are running. Many programs, upon installation, set themselves to automatically start with your computer. Why? No good reason. This started with programs like “RealPlayer” and “Quicktime” back in the 90’s, in hopes that you would use them more frequently if they took less time to open – and they had the added catch of slowing down your computer all the time.
So what’s running in that system tray that doesn’t need to be? Is Quicktime there? Perhaps you have your instant messenger running all the time, even multiple instant messengers. Do you need Skype and MSN to be open all the time? If not, right click and exit the application. You can always start it again when you need to. Make sure you know what each of these things are. (There are acceptable ones, like Anti-Virus and Network Connections/Wireless.)
Second, a good cleaner tool can come in really handy. CCleaner is a free program that will remove temporary files, internet history, cookies, clean your registry, and more. It’s free to download, and works well.
As a last resort, I’m a fan of regularly backing up all your files, and re-installing Windows and all your programs. I think every 2 years is about right, unless you’re a Power User, constantly installing and uninstalling programs. Backing up your files is fairly easy, but reinstalling Windows is not. Make sure to get professional help for these projects.