What Makes a Computer Fast? Part 2: Hardware


Once you’ve got a good understanding of how much your computer actually has to do, you can start to consider the state of the hardware you’re using to deal with it. One concept you should understand before we get too far into this though, is the idea of bottlenecking. A bottleneck is a weak link in your system that leaves all the other parts twiddling their thumbs while it tries to catch it’s slow-keister up.

Going back to the DMV/Post Office idea, imagine that before getting in line to see the individual clerks for your issue, you had to check in at a reception desk worked by a very slow worker who took WAY to long to get each person checked in. The line behind the reception counter would start to get very long while the line leading to the individual clerks would become very short, or even non-existent if the receptionist took longer to check people in than it took the clerks to get them out the door.

This concept is very prevalent in computers. If it takes your computer more time to pull data from your hard drive than it takes your processor to process that data, then your hard drive is acting as a bottleneck. This will result in a slow computer where the obvious upgrades, like additional RAM or a faster processor, won’t make any difference. Because, due to the hard drive bottleneck, they were never allowed to output to their full potential in the first place!

As I go through the various pieces of hardware that affect the speed of your computer, I’ll talk about how to identify if that part is a bottleneck. Quickly though, there is a easy, fairly reliable tool built into Windows Vista and 7 to check for these issues called the Windows Experience Index (WEI). This can be found by going to Control Panel –> System and Maintenance –> System.

Windows Experience Index


Your computer’s processor plays, by far, the biggest role in determining the overall speed of your computer, and yet, is probably the least likely cause of a slow computer. In general, processors are very, very fast. So unless you’re trying to run a spiffy new game on a ten-year-old Pentium processor, it’s probably not the reason for any slow downs. Here’s an easy way to check if your processor is holding your PC back:

Hit Ctrl + Alt + Delete and bring up your Task Manager (just like we did when talking about processes earlier). Now click on the performance tab and you’ll find this:

My CPU is at 27% and I’m using 2.91GB of my 4GB of RAM

The top graphs show your CPU usage and the bottom graph shows your RAM usage.

With this graph open, go about your normal computer routine, but keep an eye on this graph. If you’re getting close to maxing out your CPU with your normal activities, then you’d probably benefit from a faster processor. However, more likely than not, you’ll find that you barely use a quarter of the total CPU power of your machine.


Adding more RAM to your PC has long been the go-to suggestion for improving the speed of your computer. Very often, this is a great choice for an upgrade and gives good results, but rather than rush into a purchase blind, let’s talk about why it works. Really, if you think about it, adding memory to a computer is kind of a counter-intuitive way to speed it up—you wouldn’t make a car go faster by adding more passenger seats, you’d add a better, more powerful engine. This is because rather than speeding up your PC, sufficient RAM improves performance by allowing the machine to avoid things that slow it down. Kind of like improving the speed of a car by making it more aerodynamic—rather than speeding it up, you’re avoiding things that slow it down.

The negative condition avoided by a sufficiently large RAM cache is called the Pagefile or Virtual Memory (VRAM). The Pagefile is a portion of your computer’s hard drive that acts as a spill over if your processor needs more work space than your cache of RAM provides. The problem with this is that your hard drive is MILES slower than your RAM in speed. In fact, the entire purpose of RAM is to provide your CPU with storage fast enough to keep up with it’s gajillions of calculations per second. So anytime your RAM proves insufficient, and your CPU is forced to use the slower Pagefile, your computer will run into a huge bottleneck. This will make your PC run slow. The obvious way to avoid this is by having enough RAM that your computer is able to make as little use of the Pagefile as possible.

Before you go out and drop a hundred bucks on RAM though, understand that there is a sweet spot. While you definitely won’t harm your PC by adding lots of RAM, you’ll also see highly diminished returns after a certain point. Remember that RAM doesn’t speed up your PC directly; it only helps you avoid something that will slow it down. Once you’ve got enough RAM that your Pagefile issues are nullified, there’s very little that adding more RAM will do to improve the speed of your computer. Modern systems (Windows Vista or 7) usually get most of what they can out of 4GB of RAM.

The amount of RAM you’re using can be monitored in the same way we watched our CPU usage before. Open up the performance graph and go about your business. If you’re seeing your RAM consistently sit at more than 75% of your total cache, you could probably benefit from more memory. If not, you’re probably sitting pretty where you’re at.

Data Drives

How familiar is this situation to you? You double click an icon on your desktop to open a program, your mouse changes into the little hourglass or spinny circle, you hear the familiar whirring of your hard drive, and then, after a moment, your program finally opens. If opening a program or a document were just up to your processor or your RAM, it could be done in a heart beat. But any time you have to bring your hard drive into the mix, things start slowing down hard core.

This is because your hard-drive is mechanical; the data is actually stored on a metal platter and there is a metal actuator that seeks the data just like an old school record player. In contrast, your CPU and RAM communicate digitally at MUCH greater speeds. Calling up a program from a slow hard drive is like picking someone up for work or school; you pull up, honk the horn, and then tap your fingers and watch the clock while you wait for them to get in. Once the doors close, ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! Because of the nature of mass data storage it would be very difficult to completely eliminate any bottle necking from this component, but some upgrades can be made to minimize the resultant lag.

First, you could upgrade to a Solid State Drive (SSD). These devices are digital rather than mechanical and thus run loads faster than traditional hard drives. Upgrading to an SSD will give you immediate, guaranteed speed increases. Unfortunately they’re very expensive, costing somewhere around six times what you’d get a hard disk drive for. The best response to this is buy a very small SSD, somewhere between 40GB and 80GB and just installing the most fundamental programs along with your OS. You can then use a larger, slower, and WAY cheaper hard disk drive to install lest oft-accessed programs as well as less often used documents, pictures, videos, and other data. This will minimize the amount of time your PC spends dealing with this bottleneck.

Another upgrade you could consider making is improving the data transfer technology between the data drive and the motherboard. SATA II connections max out at 480Mbps, while newer SATA III connections can support up to 6.0Gbps! If you don’t have any SATA III ports on your motherboard, you could always add a SATA III controller card to your system.

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