If your system is in desperate need of an overhaul, then no amount of tweaking in Windows Vista will help. Replacing components in your system with newer, better hardware is the next step. This will cost money, of course, but even a complete overhaul needn't cost more than £100.
Add more memory
The first thing you should consider doing to give your PC a big speed boost is to upgrade the memory. If it's only got 1GB installed, it will probably be pretty sluggish, but for just £15 you can upgrade this to 2GB – which is the minimum you really need to run Windows Vista smoothly.
Go one step further and install 4GB (2 x 2GB sticks) and you'll be rewarded with a PC that feels brand new. Memory is dead easy to install; it will take you the best part of five minutes to remove your old memory and put some new stuff in.
To make sure you get the right memory for your PC, run the Crucial System Scanner. Chances are it will be of the DDR2 kind if your PC isn't more than a couple of years old.
Add a new hard drive
Getting a brand new hard drive to replace your current one that's full up is an easy and inexpensive way of improving the performance of your PC.
Which one you go for depends on how much you disk space you need and what you want to spend. A sensible choice would be a 500GB drive, which should cost around £45.
Look for one with 32MB of cache (for faster reading and writing times), and if you've got a little more money to spend, choose a hard drive with a spin speed of 10,000rpm (such as the Western Digital Raptor range); this is better than the more common 7,200rpm version because it can move data around on your PC much more quickly.
Fitting a new hard drive is easy – remove the old one inside your PC's 3.5-inch bay by unscrewing it or unclipping it from its caddy. Providing you're fitting a SATA hard drive (and you should be, otherwise consider a new motherboard), connect the thin SATA cable from your motherboard's SATA connector (1 or 2) to your new hard drive, along with a SATA power connector.
Upgrade your graphics card
If you want to play games and watch high-definition videos, then a good graphics card is a must-have. Integrated graphics on the motherboard just don't cut the mustard. Even Windows Aero will run rather shabbily, which impacts just about everything you do on your PC.
Provided the motherboard in your PC supports the newer-style PCI-Express graphics cards, then there are plenty of options at your disposal. Because there's so much choice available, it's cheap too. For example, an NVIDIA 9400GT 512MB costs just £50, or if you'd prefer to look to the other side of the fence, an ATI Radeon HD 3650 512MB – which is slightly quicker than the NVIDIA card – is about £55.
To find your old graphics card, if you ever had one before, look for the longest connector next to the back of your case. Push the retaining mechanism on the slot and gently pull the old card out.
Now, simply push the new card in place of the old, and if it has an additional power supply, locate a PCI-E connector from your power supply and plug it in. Make sure you get the latest drivers from either www.nvidia.com or www.amd.com so that your new card runs at its best.
Upgrade your case fans
Few people realise that upgrading your PC's case fans can give you a boost in performance, as well as stopping it from sounding like a chainsaw.
The reason a case fan can speed up your PC is because a quality fan will do a better job of cooling your system, enabling you to overclock the processor. If your case will take it, try upgrading the size of the fan to a 120mm version.
If you're planning to overclock the processor (something you can do by checking your BIOS setup program and documentation), an upgraded CPU fan is a must, as the extra heat that's produced will need shifting. Check out www.quietpc.com to see a good range of case and CPU fans.
Clean out the dust
While your PC case is open, now's a good time to get the duster and polish out. Well, actually, polish will probably melt your computer's internals, but getting rid of the dust that's coating your components and clogging your fans will help your PC work at its best, and it will help it last longer, too.
Be careful when you're doing this, however, because you don't want to damage anything. Get an artist's soft brush and a vacuum cleaner, and with the vacuum set to a low speed, stick it near the bottom of the case while you gently brush over every area inside your PC.
The dust should come off and immediately get sucked into the cleaner. And just to be on the safe side, touch a radiator to earth yourself before you start.
First published in Windows Vista: The Official Magazine magazine, Issue 27