(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)
What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?
A reader wrote to me recently: "I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically."
His symptoms may be familiar to you: "Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do -- the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won't move.
"Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.
"It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical."
The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I've come across. He concludes: "Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege."
But understandably, he's reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?
This reader has done the first thing right -- clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.
The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that's not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can't mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.
Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don't like what CCleaner does (you'll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).
When you've created a Restore Point, run the "Scan for Issues" on CCleaner's Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner -- meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.
Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.
Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that -- and drink another cup of coffee or six while it's doing it. It could take some time.
This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)
My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.
This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.
It's like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn't fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you've lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.
I wouldn't recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it -- at least until you're absolutely sure you've backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.
Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don't try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won't like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won't like it and will rebel.
Better to have an operating system that's older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.
You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you'll be considered very cool by your friends.
There's always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that's for another day.