How To Make An Old Laptop Faster – Matt revives a 10-year-old laptop with only 4GB of memory. How can you run faster?
Windows 10 is good enough to run on machines with limited performance, but with a few tweaks you can help it run faster on slow machines. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
How To Make An Old Laptop Faster
I’m trying to revive an old but good laptop for my son to use for his A levels. I bought a cheap 256GB SSD to improve read/write speed, but it seems to be stuck with the current 4GB of memory. Its two memory slots can support 8GB, but the 4GB DDR2 memory modules are prohibitively expensive at around £65 each. It doesn’t seem to make sense to spend that kind of money on outdated memory technology for a 10-year-old laptop. What is the best way to configure Windows 10 to run quickly on relatively limited memory? Is it worth using a browser other than Chrome? Is Microsoft Office too much of a resource hog? There must be many good machines waiting for an opportunity for a second life. Matt
How To Make An Old Laptop Faster
Chip costs are driven by production volumes, so older types of memory are no longer in production, or are very expensive to manufacture. Often there are alternatives, such as buying used memory modules, and cannibalizing laptops sold on eBay for “parts or repair”.
In this case, there are very few second-hand modules for sale. When DDR2 was standard, many laptops had 2GB, but very few had 8GB which required two 4GB modules.
If your laptop can use ECC error correction memory, you may be able to buy it. ECC memory modules have an extra chip for parity checking, and are used in servers. Even decades ago, servers had a lot of memory, so 4GB ECC chips should be easier to find.
On the bright side, 4GB laptops have been common for the past decade, and some people still buy them. It is better to have 8GB, but 4GB is usable.
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Windows 10 is designed to run well on most computers, including low-powered machines with limited memory, such as the Surface Go. Photo: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Microsoft has spent more than a decade making Windows more memory efficient. A laptop that can run Vista just fine in January 2007 can probably run Windows 10 just fine today.
Of course, Microsoft had ulterior motives. One was to allow computer manufacturers to make cheaper laptops. Another was to enable Windows to run on smartphones and tablets that only had 1GB or 2GB. Probably none of this matters anymore, thanks to falling memory prices and the failure of Windows smartphones.
A few years ago, Microsoft experimented with a version of Windows 10 called Windows Lean, but it did not use less memory. Their main goal was to put in cheap tablets and laptops with only 16GB or 32GB of storage. Fortunately, this idea seems to have been abandoned. No one should buy laptops with less than a 128GB SSD or a larger hard drive.
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The simplest speedup routine is to tell Windows to optimize for performance. To do this, type “Customize” in the Start menu search box and click “Customize the look and performance of Windows.” This will open the Performance Options property sheet from the control panel. Choose “Adjust for best performance” and Windows will drop all the fancy graphics effects, like moving things in and out of view. You can use the custom settings to keep the features you want, such as “Show window contents while dragging”.
Then launch the control panel, type “power” in the search box at the top right and select “Choose a power plan”. Most laptops are set to “Balanced”. “Power Saver” will reduce performance to extend battery life. “High Performance” provides the best performance but uses more energy.
Task Manager can show you how much memory is being used at any given time. Photo: Jack Schofield/The Guardian
When we used Windows XP and Vista, the geeks could improve the memory usage of Windows. Those days are more or less over. Windows 10 makes good use of memory, its exchange file (pagefile.sys, hidden on your hard drive) and other resources that is better to do its thing.
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In my experience, Windows 10 can use anywhere from 1.2GB to about 3.5GB or more, depending on how much memory you have. If you have more, you will use more. What happens when you run out of space? It stores code pages it doesn’t use in the swap file and only reloads them into RAM when needed. This is one of the reasons why putting in an SSD makes a laptop feel much more responsive: file sharing pages reload much faster.
In reality, Windows 10 memory management is more complicated than that. It is distinguished between several types of memory depending on whether pages are in use, can be exchanged when necessary, can be overwritten because they are no longer needed, or free. Type resmon into the Windows 10 search box, run the Resource Monitor app and click the Memory tab for a colorful representation of RAM used for various purposes, including “reserved hardware.”
Windows 10’s Process Explorer can show you in more detail what is using your machine’s memory. Photo: Jack Schofield/The Guardian
Sophisticated memory management techniques—including compression—make it difficult to know how much memory any particular program is using. Should you include pages that are in RAM but not in use, that are in the swap file, or that use shared resources? Windows provides a lot of common code through dll library files, and if six programs use the same megabyte of shared code, it is counted six times instead of once.
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The Task Manager provides crude but useful guidance. To run it, press Ctrl-Alt-Del or right-click on the taskbar and select Task Manager. Click on the name to sort the applications at the top. The Memory column shows how much each program is using. To make the column easier to understand, right-click in the header area, select “Source Values” from the drop-down menu, then Menu, then Percentages. On my computer, two browsers, Opera and Vivaldi, are now using more than 20% each, and nothing else matters. The next highest score is Voidtools’ Everything, with 2.6%. Word 2010, with six open documents, consumes 0.6%, and a small Excel sheet 0.4%.
Microsoft’s Process Explorer provides more details. Double-clicking on a program’s name tells you how it uses memory, how much code is shared, and how much virtual memory (that is, swap file space) it uses. The Working Set Private Number, which excludes shared code and swap file space, tells you how much real RAM a program is using at that time. This can vary of course. As a general indicator, the Peak Working Set number is probably as good as any.
Once your laptop is running, a quick check with one of the utilities will tell you if there is a program that is using more memory than they are worth.
You can now change the apps that start at boot using the Apps menu of the Settings app. Photo: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
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The task manager has Startup and Services tabs that tell Windows what to load when it starts. Both are more or less obsolete. It’s worth checking the startup apps and disabling the ones you don’t want, but do so from the Apps section of the Settings (gear) app.
When we used old XP and Vista, disabling services could make a big difference, and some of us swear by Black Viper’s guides. Today, I did not bother, and Black Viper stopped providing service configurations with the April 2018 version of Windows 10.
If a process or service “goes rogue” – which can include a single browser tab – it’s easier to find it in Process Explorer, right-click it, and then suspend, restart or kill it. Task Manager also allows you to suspend and kill tasks, which can be useful if malware takes over your browser.
Process Explorer can show how much memory your browser uses, here Vivaldi shows. Photo: Jack Schofield/The Guardian
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Any Windows browser will run on 4GB, but the common “lightest” browser is Microsoft Edge. This is partly because it has few features and extensions, and partly because it is a modern Windows Store app. Store apps can be suspended in the background, even if they’re hidden in the Privacy section of the Settings app, under “Background apps.”
But Microsoft is now switching to a heavier version of Edge based on the open source Chromium code, like Google Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi, Brave and many others besides Firefox.
There is not much to choose between Chromium-based browsers: they all consume large amounts of memory and resources. Opera was generally the lightest, but “Edgium” can change this. I used the beta test version and it works fine. The code is also de-Googled, which is a plus for people who avoid Google’s “surveillance capitalism.”
Otherwise, the keys for managing the browser’s memory are not installing many extensions and not opening too many tabs. If you can’t help having hundreds, use a “lazy loading” browser. Turned with lazy loading
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