5 easy ways to troubleshoot a slow computer

Don’t let your machine succumb to old age.
A man sitting in a cubicle, frustrated with a slow computer. He's probably wondering, "Why is my computer so slow?"
When you're struggling with a slow computer, you get old waiting for your websites to load. Tim Gouw / Unsplash

Neither you nor your gadgets can escape the passage of time. A slow computer is generally just a laptop or desktop that’s showing its age. And just as annual checkups can help keep your body healthy, regular maintenance can prevent your device from slowing down too soon.

So the next time you notice your computer running slow, stop what you’re doing and give it a thorough exam. With smart tactics and a little luck, you should be able to bring back at least some of its youthful speed.

Audit your installed apps

The main difference between the bright, shiny computer you unboxed on day one and the sluggish, wheezing beast you might find yourself with after five years, is all the applications you’ve loaded onto it.

Regularly review your list of installed programs, and keep in mind that just because you’ve installed something, it doesn’t need to sit on your hard drive until the end of time. The only apps you should have are those you’re using frequently, so take note of what those are and get rid of the rest. You can always download and reinstall a program if you change your mind.

[Related: When to repair your computer and when to replace it]

On Windows, open Settings via the cog icon on the Start menu, then choose Apps. If you have Windows 11, click Installed apps, and if you have Windows 10, look for Apps & features. You can sort programs by size, name, or when they were installed, so you’ll be able to see tools you may have forgotten about. To remove an app from Windows 11, click the three dots to its right and choose Uninstall. On Windows 10, select the app from the list of apps and hit Uninstall. There are also ways to uninstall a bunch of apps at once if you need the efficiency. 

On macOS, open the Applications tab in Finder, locate the app you want to trash, and then drag it down to the Trash icon in the dock. If you downloaded the program from the Mac App Store, you can also remove it from the Launchpad window—press and hold the Option key until the icons start jiggling, then click the small x button on the top left corner of the application you want to remove. Some apps may leave residual files on your computer, so you may want to make sure you’re completely uninstalling them.

Keep an eye on free storage space

One guaranteed way to slow down your computer is to not give it enough virtual space to work with. Beyond removing apps you don’t use, you should always make sure there’s a good chunk of storage available on the hard drive—around 20 percent at least, if you can manage it.

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In File Explorer on Windows, you can click This PC (or your computer’s name) on the left to see how much room is left on your local drives. On macOS, go to System Settings, General, and open the Storage tab.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to freeing up disk space on your computer. It’s just a question of monitoring what you have on your disk and deleting what you don’t need—from old documents to installation packages. You should also consider moving files you don’t access regularly to the cloud or an external hard drive. Just make sure you always have two copies of your most important files for backup purposes.

Don’t let programs overstep their mark

The default settings in plenty of programs allow them to do whatever they want as soon as they’re installed, including running in the background whenever your computer is on. Allowing your favorite programs to do this means they can jump into action without you having to launch them manually each time. But it’s best to keep the number of active applications a minimum, as many apps running in the background can result in an obnoxiously slow computer.

To see which apps are overstepping their mark on Windows, right-click on a blank part of the taskbar, choose Task Manager, and scan the Processes tab (it should open by default, but if not, click the icon on the left-hand sidebar that looks like three squares forming a 90-degree angle). On macOS, type Cmd+Space to open Spotlight and search for Activity Monitor. Anything eating up CPU or memory could be the reason why your computer is running so slow.

If there are apps that shouldn’t be on these lists, there are two things you can do. First, check inside the applications themselves to see if there’s a setting you can disable to prevent them from running automatically. If you can’t find any, stop them from starting up with your operating system. On Windows 11, switch to the Startup apps tab in Task Manager (its icon looks like a car’s speedometer), and on Windows 10, switch to the Start-up tab. For macOS go to System Settings, General, and Login Items.

Update your programs to avoid dealing with a slow computer

Keeping your apps up to date will fix bugs and security vulnerabilities, but most importantly it’ll prevent your laptop or desktop from slowing down. Most programs will handle this automatically, but it’s worth double-checking that you haven’t missed any updates.

You should also make sure that your programs aren’t collecting bloatware, including add-ons you may no longer need, older versions of a software still hanging around, and installation packages you haven’t deleted.

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This is especially important for your web browser. Every once in a while, check in on the extensions you’ve installed, and remove the ones you no longer use, as having too many of these can seriously slow down this type of program. On Chrome and Edge, the instructions are the same: click the puzzle piece icon at the top right corner of the window and go to Manage extensions. On Firefox it’s similar—click the puzzle piece icon to the right of the navigation bar and go to Extensions on the sidebar. On Safari, go to Settings and click the Extensions tab. 

Run a system reset if your computer is still too slow

Just like your programs, you can avoid suffering with a slow computer by keeping Windows and macOS up to date at all times. Microsoft and Apple make this difficult to avoid, but you can make sure you’re on the latest version of your operating system through Windows Update (Windows 11) or Update & Security (Windows 10) in your PC’s settings, or Software Update in macOS, which you can find by going to System Preferences and General.

Another way to prevent your computer from slowing down is to reset your device and return it to its factory-fresh state. This process is easy, but it’ll eat up some of your time—it wipes out all but the bare bones of your operating system, so you’ll need to back up all your files beforehand and reinstall all your programs afterward. But a full reset also clears out redundant data, reverts programs back to their original state, and removes all bloat and clutter from your machine. It may sound like an extreme alternative, but it’s often worth an hour or two of inconvenience just to get a clean slate.

On a Windows 11 computer, head to Settings, System and then Recovery. Once you’re there, click Reset this PC. On older versions of Windows, the path is slightly different, but Microsoft has full instructions you can refer to if you get lost along the way. The instructions to reset a Mac computer will differ depending on the processor inside the machine, but Apple has a complete guide to help you through this process.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 21, 2021.