The Norman Transcript

August 24, 2013

How slow is your computer?

By Dave Moore
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Sluggish performance is probably the number one computer complaint of all times.

“My computer is so slow.” If I’ve heard that complaint once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.

Care must be taken, though, to distinguish between slow computer performance and a slow Internet connection. They can appear sometimes to be one in the same, but they are not.

The actual speed of a computer depends on a number of things. How many useless programs are running invisibly in the background? What is the processor speed? How large is the processor’s cache? What is the speed of the motherboard’s front-side bus (FSB)? How much random-access memory (RAM) is installed? How much RAM is available to process video? How fast does the hard drive spin?

If you don’t know what any of those things mean, that’s OK. Outside of adding more RAM, there’s not much that most folks can do about these hardware-related specifications, anyway.

Most people judge the speed of a computer by how responsive it is to user input, i.e., when they click on something, how long do they have to wait before something happens? After pushing the computer’s power button, how long does it take for everything to “load” before the computer can be used to do something useful?

Generally speaking, if you have a fairly modern computer with a decent amount of RAM and it takes longer than about 10 seconds for a program to run after double-clicking its icon, then something is wrong. At this point, it’s time to see what programs and operating system processes are running in the background and trim those back to a minimum. Defragmenting the hard drive can help here, also.

Internet connection speed is a completely different subject. Some people think they have a slow computer, when what they really have is a slow Internet connection. It helps to make sure you are not comparing apples to oranges. For example, the bargain-basement DSL connection from AT&T will never be as fast as the extra-fast (and extra cost) cable Internet connection from Cox.

I pay a little extra for faster service and, to me, it’s worth it. I have also tweaked all of my computers to be as fast as possible, so I know that, if something is slow, it’s not the computer’s fault.

Slow-loading websites can also lead some folks to the wrong conclusion, thinking that their computer is slow, when really, it’s the animation-laden slow website that’s at fault. For example, visit my website.

On a good day, with an average connection speed, its front page should load in under five seconds. That’s because there are no active animations or videos on my website. On the other hand, top-heavy websites such as Yahoo, CNN and MSN can take much longer to load.

Internet traffic also affects how quickly a website can load. If a million people are all trying to access the same Sandra Bullock news story at the same time, things can get very, very slow, or even come to a complete stop. The same holds true if every Cox customer in a neighborhood gets home from work and tries to check their email at the same time.

Wireless network speeds can also fluctuate wildly, and not all wireless hardware is created equal. “G” wifi is faster than “B,” and ‘N” is faster than G or B. The distance between a wirelessly-connected laptop and a wireless router can affect speed, as well. As I write this column, I am connected to an open wireless network located in a restaurant next door to my location.

Even though my computer says that the connection speed is 54 Mbps (pretty fast) and signal strength is “very good,” my website takes over 15 seconds to load. Yahoo and CNN take 30 seconds to load. Usable, but slow.

To test the speed of your Internet connection, visit www.speedtest.net and try out the various tests that are offered. Avoid clicking on the “speed up your PC” ads, and just run the tests. Be sure to try them at different times of day, too, and while other programs and applications are and are not running. The results can be very interesting.

Dave Moore has been performing computer consulting, repairs, security and networking in Oklahoma since 1984. He also teaches computer safety workshops for public and private organizations. He can be reached at 405-919-9901 or davemoorecomputers.com.