Q: I’ve been thinking about using one of those programs that you see on TV that claim they can speed up my computer. Do they work? — Paula
A: The #1 complaint that we hear in the computer service business is ‘my computer is running too slowly.’
If you have a computer that’s six months old or older, the likelihood that it runs as fast as the day you got it is nearly zero (unless you never use it).
The reasons for this common performance degradation vary, but in general it’s a combination of what you have installed and where you have been on the Internet.
The television commercials prey on those looking for instant gratification for a fairly complex problem.
Most of these so-called services that you see advertised claim to be ‘Registry cleaners’ because the Registry controls every aspect of how a Windows-based computer runs.
Think of the Windows Registry like the registry in a hotel: it’s supposed to keep track of who’s in which room, for how long, what their preferences might be, any wake-up calls requested, what charges have been accrued during the stay, etc.
If things get mixed up in the hotel’s registry, the hotel doesn’t run very smoothly and the same goes for your computer.
And just like every hotel has its own unique set of guests and issues making their registry one-of-a-kind, your computer’s Registry is unique to your combination of hardware and software.
The Windows Registry is a very complex system and to date, no automated process has ever proven to be 100% effective (none of us computer guys would have much to do if they really worked that well).
The unfortunate actuality of Registry cleaners is that they often cause more damage to an already fragile situation (we see the results of this in our stores almost daily).
The worst thing that you can do to a computer that is already unstable or running really slowly is to install additional software. Whenever you install any program into your computer, it must add more entries into your Registry in order for Windows to be able to run it (often adding fuel to the fire).
After this question came in, I decided to test a handful of the Web sites that claim they can speed up your computer over the Internet to evaluate what they actually are doing.
I started with one that you see on television commercials around the clock that shows lots of what appear to be common folk proclaiming the merits of the system.
To really test the honesty of these sites, I decided to take a brand new machine that only had Windows installed and have it ‘evaluated.’ Because this was a custom-built computer from one of our vendors, I knew that it did not have any of the usual trial-ware or other junk common in commercially sold computers (which means that the Registry was pristine).
When I went to the Web site, it offered to install a free scanner to tell me if I had any problems. Once installed, the scanner took less than 30 seconds to report to me an astonishing thing: I had 223 issues with my Registry!
Of course, I knew that this was erroneous, so I declined its offer to help (for $40) and used the uninstaller to remove the program.
Just for good measure, I decided to manually inspect the Registry to see if it had in fact properly removed itself, and found four sets of Registry keys that were not removed.
When a ‘Registry cleaner’ can’t even uninstall itself cleanly, I’m quite certain it won’t do a great job of addressing real issues.
Just to be fair, I tested three additional sites that made similar claims. None of them reported that I was in as bad shape as the first, but each one claimed I had pressing issues: 75, 42, and 39 — and none of them removed themselves cleanly either.
In fact, a couple of them left quite a bit on the computer including extra folders, files, and even entries in the ‘RUN’ section of the Registry (very bad form)!
The reality is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to a slow computer. There are lots of great tools (many of them are free) that can help clean up your computer, the problem is that it takes a knowledgeable eye to know which tool to use when.
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show