Computer Performance

March 16, 2012

What determines the performance of a computer? Many things. But it boils down to two broad categories. Hardware and software. Hardware is the physical computer itself and all of the components that go into making that computer. Software includes Windows, other software you have, and infections. In this article, we are only addressing the hardware side of performance.

If you use Vista or Windows 7, do this. Right click on Computer (either on desktop or in start menu) and choose “Properties” from the pop-up menu. Under the system section, you should see a number in a blue square and to the right it will say “Windows Experience Index” in blue. Click on Windows Experience Index to see the details.

Here’s what it looks like on my computer:


First off, let me say that I have a very high performance computer. So don’t feel bad if your number isn’t this high.The highest possible number is 7.1. If your computer is in the 4-6 range, you are in pretty good shape.

You can see here that the index considers the processor, the memory (RAM), Graphics, Gaming Graphics, and the hard drive. Let’s briefly talk about how each one determines the performance of your computer. When looking at computers in the store, this is a good thing to do to get an idea of the performance of a computer you are thinking about purchasing. You can also use this on your current computer to see if and how much you can boost the performance of your computer with an upgrade.

The processor is the brain of the computer. It’s what does the work. Processors can have anywhere from 1 core up to 8 (at the time this was written). They also have a speed rating in GHz. This says how fast each core can process. Most programs can only utilize one processor. So, the fastest a program like that can run is determined primarily by the speed of the core. So in that case, a core running at 3.0 GHz will run a program faster than a core running at 2.5 GHz. However, some programs can use what is called parallel processing. That means they can use more than one core at a time to speed things up. In that case, the more cores, the faster a program like that will run.

Even if you aren’t using any programs that use parallel processing, having multiple cores will still speed up your system because Windows will try to evenly distribute the load amongst the cores.

Memory (RAM)
The amount of memory has a huge impact on how fast your computer will run. The RAM is the working area that the processor has to work in. The processor can only process something if it is in RAM. If there is not enough RAM to hold all of the currently running programs, then Windows will swap out some programs to what is called virtual memory. Virtual memory is nothing more than a special place on the hard drive where it can store memory contents temporarily when there is not enough RAM to store all running programs.

So a system will a small amount of RAM will spend a lot of time swapping out programs between RAM and the hard drive and as a result, that system will be slower than a similar system with more memory.  When we get to the hard disk section of this article, we will expand some more on this, but I’m sure you already noticed from the picture above, the hard drive is much slower than the other components in the system. So the hard drive is often the bottleneck of the system. So anything you can do to ease the burden on the hard drive helps performance.

Graphics/Gaming graphics
I’m lumping these two together because they are very similar. Graphics performance is related to how well your computer processes graphics. Graphics includes things like games that use hires graphics, or working with pictures, videos, or drawings. Because graphics are large and require a lot of memory, there is a separate graphics processor in your computer for processing graphics. Sometimes this graphics processor is inside the computer’s processor, sometimes it’s a chip on the motherboard, and sometimes it’s in a video card plugged into the motherboard.

If you don’t use any graphics intensive applications like the ones I listed above, then having your video functionality built-in to your computers processor, or having a chip on the motherboard is probably fine. But if you do use any of the graphics intensive applications I listed, then you will get much better performance if you have a good video card with a good amount of fast memory on it dedicated to graphics processing. And many games require video cards in order to function.

Hard Disk
Files and programs are read from and written to the hard drive. When windows boots up, it’s loading from the hard drive. When you click on a program, it’s loading from the hard drive. When you open a document, it’s loading from the hard drive. Most any time you do anything in Windows it’s accessing the hard drive at least a little.

While processors, memory, and graphics processing have been steadily getting better and faster, hard drive speeds have not. That’s why you can see from the picture above that the hard drive is a lower score and is the bottleneck. Also notice that windows says the overall performance score for the system is the same as the score for the hard drive. That’s because overall system performances is generally determined by the slowest component in the system, also known as the bottleneck.

The component that is the bottleneck of the system will also be the busiest component in the computer. When you couple that with the fact that the hard drive is the most likely component in the computer to fail, you have a recipe for disaster! That’s why it’s so important to not only make sure you have a sufficient amount of RAM in your computer, but also back up your computer regularly.

We now have Solid State Drives arriving. They are fast, but they are expensive. My system has an SSD. You can see the rating for it above is 7.2. The motherboard in my computer is older and is limiting the speed of my SSD. SSD’s are fast, but they are expensive. And although the price has come down, they are still much more expensive than traditional hard drives.

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