The bogus business of boosting your computer's performance.

The bogus business of boosting your computer's performance.

The bogus business of boosting your computer's performance.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
March 9 2009 6:03 PM

Cash for Speed

Programs that offer to boost your computer's performance are mostly bogus.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The guy in the ad for My Faster PC clearly doesn't know much about computers. For starters, his go-to search engine is called Boggle, displayed in oddly familiar red, yellow, blue, and green letters. Plus, he's searching for a URL—"MY FASTER PC.COM"—which he should have entered (sans spaces) in his Web browser's address bar, not Boggle. On top of his ineptitude, his "darn computer" is slow as mud and constantly crashing. And to make matters worse, he's got an annoyingly inquisitive wife who keeps pestering him for updates about what he's doing. No wonder the guy's willing to shell out $30 for an instant fix.

Our man is in luck. As soon as he runs My Faster PC, everything changes. The software transforms his computer so thoroughly that he and his desk suddenly begin to hurtle through some kind of space warp. "Did it work?" the wife wants to know. The guy is bowled over: "Oh yeah."

We've all been in Mr. My Faster PC's place before: After a few years, your PC has ground to a halt, loading programs and Web pages slothfully and freezing at the slightest provocation. My Faster PC is one of dozens of programs that promise to fix all that by cleaning your computer of all the junk that's collected over the years. It's a particularly cunning metaphor. We're used to other types of machines getting dirty and needing a tune-up from time to time; you wouldn't throw away your car, oven, or vacuum cleaner just because it collected a little dirt. Are computers any different?

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Don't fall for it. Among Windows experts, there's a lot of controversy over whether computers need to be regularly "cleaned" in order to keep them running well. (As far as I can tell, there aren't many such discussions among Mac or Linux enthusiasts, though that doesn't mean those systems always stay pristine.) But if cleaning your PC feels like something you should do, buying expensive programs that are advertised infomercial-style isn't the best way to go about it. Learn it from me: The other day I bit the bullet and bought a copy of My Faster PC. It was a particularly scammy process. In addition to the $29.95 program, the site's checkout menu had pre-enrolled me into paying for "extended download service," a $6.95 option that allowed me to download the software again if I ever lose it—something most software I've bought online offers for free so long as you hang on to your e-mail confirmation. Plus, it turned out that I was not actually buying the software but leasing it. My $30 covered a year's use of My Faster PC, and unless I canceled it, my credit card would automatically be charged annually to extend the service.

What a con. In its ad copy, My Faster PC promises several different services, including tools to defragment your hard drive, clean up unwanted files, review which programs are set to start with your computer, and check your machine for updates. All of these services come baked into Windows already. Of course, there may be better defragmentation and scanning tools than those made by Microsoft, but My Faster PC doesn't ship with these; instead, it seems to load up Windows' own native tools. That $30 saved just a few clicks on the start menu.

The main new thing you're buying with My Faster PC, then, is something called a "registry cleaner." This refers to the Windows registry, the database at the center of Microsoft's operating systems that tracks settings for hardware and software on your computer. (Microsoft used to offer its own registry cleaner but no longer supports it.) As programs like My Faster PC describe it, the Windows registry is kind of like your car's air filter—after installing and removing programs over months and years, the registry becomes stuffed with digital grime. "This junk can cause crashes, errors, and general slowness," says the Web site of Registry Defender, the cleaning program that ships with My Faster PC. It adds this dreamy promise: "Remember when your computer was new? You didn't have to worry about errors and crashes. Registry Defender can help you bring back that new computer feel."

When I scanned my few-years-old Windows XP machine, My Faster PC found that I had more than 530 registry errors that needed fixing and handily offered to fix them. Here I hesitated. I had read a few scary-sounding warnings online about registry cleaners. These apps search the registry for settings that look like they can be deleted without any trouble—duplicate entries or settings that apply to programs that you've uninstalled, for example. To understand the danger in this approach, imagine that you hire a maid to clean up your antique closet. How would the maid tell the difference between a genuine keepsake and a piece of junk? Registry cleaners face the same dilemma. They may decide that some line of your registry is garbage when in fact it's keeping vital parts of your system alive. (Be sure to back up your Windows registry before running a registry cleaner.)

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Just to see what would happen, I let My Faster PC fix the errors and then I restarted my computer. The good news is that everything seems to work fine; the program doesn't seem to have deleted anything important. The bad news is that it offered no improvement whatsoever. My computer didn't launch into space. It acted pretty much as it had before. What's the deal? Are registry cleaners a scam?

Well, they're controversial. The root debate is over a phenomenon known as "software rot," the idea that programs—the Windows OS, in this case—deteriorate over time, getting slower and buggier simply as a consequence of age. If you think about it, there's no real reason why this should happen: There are few moving parts in a PC, so if you kept doing the same thing with your computer day after day, nothing in it should slow down. One school of thought argues, then, that software rot is in our heads: The computer's registry isn't getting "clogged" and slowing everything down. Instead, we just think our computers are getting slower, but what's really happening is that we're getting used to the speed, or we're running more demanding programs that run more slowly than apps we ran when we first bought the machine.

But few people believe this. Many of us have had personal experience with a Windows machine that seems literally to have aged—one year it's running like a dream, and the next it takes ages to open up the Web browser. Your software hasn't actually rotted. Instead, you've screwed it up. Even when you're being careful with your machine—you avoid free or beta software, you check your system for viruses, you keep a firewall—your machine suffers what an auto mechanic might call "everyday wear and tear." This happens when you install a lot of programs on your machine, or when you uninstall programs that don't fully remove themselves, or when hardware on your system is working off drivers that are old or buggy—or when any number of other problems befall your computer. Windows is a complicated, many-headed beast, and few of us know the intricacies of how to care for it, so it's understandable that it would fade over time.

How can you fix a slow computer? You're not going to get much help from registry cleaners. Even though dusting out your registry sounds like a sensible, eat-your-spinach kind of thing to do, there's no empirical research showing that removing stray entries from the database does anything for the system's performance. But if you want to ignore my advice—say you're a neat freak and the idea of having hundreds of "errors" on your registry drives you crazy—try CCleaner, which does what My Faster PC claims to do but is free.

But you'll probably see better results from a few other simple procedures. First, get an app like Spybot Search & Destroy to search for and remove spyware and adware from your computer. (Ironically, Spybot flagged My Faster PC as a harmful app.) If your computer takes ages to load up, check out this guide for removing unnecessary start-up apps. I've also heard from a few Slate colleagues that backing up your data then reformatting your hard drive and reinstalling Windows works wonders for your machine's speed. If none of that works, consider that your computer may genuinely be too slow for what you're asking it to do—if your machine is four years old, it may not have the necessary pep to play that trailer for I Love You, Manin HD.

Oh, and here's another thing: Be patient. So it takes 30 seconds to load up Firefox? Take a few deep breaths and think about the weekend. It's just 30 seconds. You'll be fine.