What Makes a Computer Run Fast?

There are many factors that influence how fast a computer runs. From processing units, to memory, and disk space, there is no shortage of options for making your computer fast. Even small, affordable changes to your build can drastically increase your computer’s speed.

Since switching from buying prebuilt computers to building my own, I’ve been able to learn all the inner workings of a computer, and have more intimate knowledge of the backend factors that influence how fast a particular build runs.

We’ll cover all the most important factors of computer speed, and determine how much they individually and collectively influence the speed of your computer.

1. Central Processing Unit

How Crucial It Is to Speed: 5/5

The Central Processing Unit or CPU is by far the most crucial component in your computer when it comes to speed. The CPU is the “brain” of the computer, and this chipset is responsible for the bulk of information processing within your computer.

CPUs use an internal clock to synchronize data processing, and “clock speeds” are measured in Hertz (Hz) and this number represents the number of processing cycles a unit is able to complete in one second.

3.2 gigahertz (GHz) is about average based on a quick study of recent computer models for sale and represents about 3.2 billion processing cycles completed per second.

The highest clock speed ever achieved was 8.43 GHz achieved using a cryobath-cooled processor, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Though CPU-Z Validator shows speeds as high as 8.7 GHz being reached.

2. Graphics Processing Unit

How Crucial It Is to Speed: 5/5

The Graphics Processing Unit or GPU of your computer is the only other component that is as important to your computer’s speed as your CPU. While all computers have a GPU of some kind, not all of them have a dedicated chipset for processing graphical information.

Computers without a dedicated GPU have what is referred to as an APU or Integrated Graphics. This is when the computer’s CPU takes on the task load of processing graphical information alongside its typical calculations and processing.

If you have a PC tower, installing a graphics card is a relatively easy way to improve your computer’s speed. The chipsets are standardized. So, there’s no worrying about physical compatibility. You just need to ensure that your tower has space and free input slots for the chipset.

Laptops are a little more difficult to install a GPU. Since laptop parts aren’t standardized, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to install a new GPU. Additionally, many laptop chipsets need to be soldered to the motherboard, further complicating installation.

3. Random Access Memory

How Crucial It Is to Speed: 4/5

Random Access Memory or RAM is where your computer stores all of its session data. When you use your computer, it will naturally generate information based on what you’re doing. This information helps keep your computer’s workflow consistent.

By saving a portion of the data generated during the session to your RAM, your computer can retrieve it without having to reprocess all the data necessary to relaunch or reload your program. However, this memory can become clogged when you use your computer for long periods.

Typically, RAM gets wiped when a computer turns off. However, Windows 10 introduced a “quick restart” feature which prevents the computer from fully shutting down and preserves session information even when “shut down” is selected.

You’ll need to turn off fast startup, if you have a Windows machine that is gummed up with old session information. Truthfully, you should do this anyway. Storing session information for weeks and not fully shutting down for weeks on end puts a great deal of strain on the components.

While powering on and shutting down your computer multiple times per day would be excessive, even damaging, it’s considered good practice to shut down your computer—and wipe the RAM—regularly to prevent the data processing and storing components from becoming clogged.

4. Disk Space and Type

How Crucial It Is to Speed: 3.5/5

Your computer’s disk space and type also influence your computer’s speed, especially regarding the process of locating files on your computer. There are two types of disk storage used in computers: hard disk drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SSD).

Hard disk drives use a spinning, magnetic disk to store and locate information by writing the data to the disk as a series of magnetic North and South poles on the disk. To read information back, it goes to the same location on the disk and reads the magnetic poles back as 1s and 0s (binary code.)

Solid-state drives don’t rely on any moving parts; they’re non-volatile. Instead, they save the information to NAND flash memory which maintains its charge, even when not refreshed regularly. This allows the drive to write to memory and access the written data more effectively.

Solid-state drives are faster and more reliable than hard disk drives. NAND flash memory is much easier to access and has a lower failure rate than the HDD’s spinning disk.

Additionally, the amount of free space remaining on your disk drive is going to influence your speeds, but not in the way you think. The idea that freeing up space on your PC will make it run faster is a pervasive myth, but there is a nugget of truth.

When files are written to a clogged disk drive, the files run the risk of becoming fragmented. Fragmented files are related files stored in multiple locations rather than one continuous location.

Fragmented files make it hard for your PC to find, read, and access all the files related to your query in a timely manner since your computer will have to search multiple directories and find all the related files.

If Directory A has 100% of the files needed to run a program, the computer only needs to find Directory A. But if the files are fragmented the CPU must find all directories with related files, and that takes time.

Defragmenting files takes all the files on your computer and reorganizes them to be concisely and continuously stored in accessible directories.

Windows and Linux users have native support for defragmentation. It’s also a popular myth that Mac machines do not fragment data. This is untrue and as a result, there are many third-party apps you can use to defragment a Mac.

5. Cache

How Crucial Is It to Speed? 3/5

Caches are used to store temporary files and information related to your current PC session. Your PC has multiple caches and each data processing component comes with its own cache for temporary files and information related to its processing.

When a computer’s cache becomes full, the computer may start to slow down as its processes are bogged down by the immense load of information it’s storing.

Clearing out your computer’s caches is an excellent way to speed up your processor. Clearing the caches will remove all data. So some programs may need some extra start-up time to regenerate the data they need to run in the caches. But performance with a clean cache is hard to pass up!

6. Power Supply

How Crucial Is It to Speed: 3/5

Your computer’s power supply or PSU may also be a critical factor in your PC’s performance benchmarks. Your power supply, as suggested, powers all the components in your PC. People who buy their components and assemble a PC will be familiar with the standard PSU wattages.

However, prebuilt computers typically come with an in-house PSU that provides exactly enough wattage for the build and no breathing room. This increases the stress on the PSU and leaves prebuilt computers susceptible to additional wear-and-tear damage as well as component damage from under-powered components.

When a component is not being supplied with an adequate amount of power, the component will typically self-enforce a bottleneck—reduced performance to prevent the component from becoming damaged.

This bottleneck will cause your PC to run slower as your components won’t be outputting an adequate amount of power. So, it’s best to avoid getting bottlenecked by supplying your PC with an adequate PSU.

7. Cooling System

How Crucial Is It to Speed: 3/5

Like your PSU, your PC’s cooling system also influences the speed of the unit. When components become too hot, they bottleneck themselves to avoid getting hotter. This means your PC will run slower if it gets too hot.

8.  Operating System

How Crucial Is It to Speed: 2/5

Finally, your operating system may also influence your computer’s speed. A few years ago I serviced a 2009 MacBook that was, at the time, running OS X Mavericks. The computer’s chipsets were just not powerful enough to run even the operating system, let alone standalone programs.

If you’ve noticed a drop in performance after upgrading your operating system, rolling the system back to a previous iteration may be a good option for you!

Final Thoughts

Wrapping up our list of components that influence the speed of your computer, there are quite a few considerations to make when it comes to speed. While it may be tempting to think of your computer as a singular unit, you have to consider all components independently when looking at your computer’s speed.

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