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What Factors Determine Computer Speed?

By Eugene P.
Updated May 16, 2024
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With the exception of the central processing unit (CPU), most hardware within a computer has two numbers that can help to determine the speed of the system. The first number is the amount of the resource provided, such as the volume of a hard drive or the capacity of the random access memory (RAM) chips. The second number is the speed at which the hardware operates, which can cause other components inside a computer to become slower if it is too low. Software also determines computer speed, specifically how many programs — or processes — are running in the background and taking up computer power and resources. Overall computer speed ultimately is largely determined by how well all the software and hardware components operate together.

At the center of a computer is the CPU, which is the main processor that performs most of the operations within a computer or delegates tasks to other components. The faster a CPU, the faster a computer will be in most cases, although other factors can mitigate the increase in computer speed. The cache, which is a buffer between the CPU and hardware such as a hard drive, can cause the CPU to operate slowly if it is not fast enough to feed information to the CPU or accept it quickly from hardware. Additionally, the circuits known as buses on the motherboard serve as the primary pathways for reading from hardware, and they need to be as fast as the CPU. If these components are not assembled so they have complementary speeds, then the overall computer speed will be slower than expected.

The size and rate of the RAM also can affect computer speed. RAM is used to hold information in a location that can be accessed quickly, allowing programs to run fast, and large data calculations to be made efficiently. Like other components, RAM has a given speed that determines how fast information can be read and written to it. If there is an insufficient amount of RAM in a system, then the computer will start to use the hard drive as a virtual RAM disk, which is accessed at a much slower rate.

A computer’s hard drive, the physical storage device, can affect computer speed. Aside from the speed of reading and writing operations and the amount of available space, which the operating system uses to temporarily store memory pages from RAM, a hard disk can suffer from disk fragmentation. Disk fragmentation occurs when information, such as a program or a document, is not stored in consecutive memory locations but instead is spread across many areas of a hard disk. This means the drive must jump to several random physical locations to assemble a single file, slowing execution. Regularly defragmenting a hard drive can solve this problem.

The software that is installed also can reduce computer speed. When a computer initially starts, certain programs and drivers are loaded into memory. Many of these are vital for the computer’s operation, but some are not and simply occupy memory, processor cycles and, potentially, network bandwidth. Managing the amount of processes that are running at any given time, as well as other programs that might be in the background, can increase computer speed significantly and release valuable resources for other programs to use.

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Discussion Comments

By Viranty — On Jan 29, 2014

@RoyalSpyder - It's true that computer viruses can affect computer speed. Some Trojans speed up your hardware, while others slow it down. In fact, some even restrict you from accessing online files.

By RoyalSpyder — On Jan 29, 2014

@Chmander - When discussing issues relating to computer speed, I always like to compare it to a person working on a treadmill. When the speed is slow, it's very easy to keep up, as you can simply walk instead of running. However, once the speed of the treadmill is increased, it's harder to pick up the pace, and things become much more intense.

In fact, you can even consider the human heart to be like a "hard drive" of sorts. The more you work your body, the harder your heart has to work to ensure stability. On another note, this article leads me to a question. Can computer viruses affect the speed of a computer?

By Chmander — On Jan 28, 2014

From my experience, the factors that determine computer speed largely depend on how many programs you have running at the same time, as umbra21 stated. Also, based from my experience as well, having too many programs running can wear out your computer over time. The reason why is because you're causing your computer to work harder than usual.

By irontoenail — On Nov 23, 2013

One thing to bear in mind when you are thinking about upgrading your computer to get more speed, is that your computer is only going to work as fast as the programs will allow it.

Very few programs are set up to take advantage of a quad-core computer for example. They will not work any faster than they would have with a dual-core computer. So definitely double check whether or not it's worth putting in bells and whistles like that.

The other thing is that most computers don't really need to be defragmented any longer. I would look up a tutorial on that before doing it, because it's probably not going to help unless your system is fairly old.

By Mor — On Nov 23, 2013

@umbra21 - Yeah, my advice to anyone who wants to increase their computer speed and isn't very good with computers in general is to find an article that shows them how to remove malware and disable programs working in the background when the computer is on. You don't need to worry about installing more RAM or anything like that until you've made sure that these basic steps have been done.

By umbra21 — On Nov 22, 2013

Honestly, if your computer is sluggish from the moment you turn it on, it's probably because you've got a lot of programs running in the background that you don't need.

If you want to speed up your computer you should either get rid of them altogether, or change the settings so that they only run when you actually ask them to run.

You'll be able to see a lot of them in the bottom right hand corner of your screen if you are running Windows. Even things like Skype or other message programs are going to slow down your system for no reason if you aren't using them right that moment.

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