The way Windows handles software is far from perfect. Every time you install a program, bits of it are scattered all over your system, and the end result is a slower PC.
You've probably encountered this; old computers tend to feel clogged up and sluggish. The parts inside haven't degraded - they're still as capable as the day you bought the PC - it's your programs that are to blame. This even applies to programs you've already uninstalled, which leave traces of themselves behind like litter after a particularly fine picnic.
It's not surprising, then, that the primary method of speeding up a system is to clean it thoroughly. Remove the artefacts of past programs and you remove the dilly-dallying of Windows looking for things it will never find.
But there's more to a fast system than a tidy hard drive. There are many subtle tweaks that can be made to Windows itself that lead to a slicker experience.
In this test, we're looking at a selection of programs that do both. We're judging our subjects based on some real-world tests, such as system boot time and the time taken to load Internet Explorer 8, although these are subjective - your results may vary from ours depending on the content of your system.
Each time we test an application, we're starting from the same point: a worn-in Windows 7 installation with apps such as RealPlayer, AVG Antivirus, OpenOffice and Apple iTunes installed - a selection of the most treacle-like applications you can install on your PC. We're also looking at how easy these programs are to use.
It doesn't matter how effective software is if it looks as though it's written in Sanskrit, because you're unlikely to understand exactly what you're doing to your computer. A good system speed-up is one done without much prodding from you; you wouldn't take your car to a mechanic and expect to be referred back to a Haynes manual, would you?
Avanquest Fix It Utilities 11 Pro
Fix It Utilities, obsessed with doing everything it possibly can, digs its claws in deep to your computer. It leaves a little program running in your taskbar at the bottom-right of the screen that doesn't seem to go away even if you ask it to, and pushes the option to use its built-in antivirus facilities even if you've already got your own antivirus software installed. It's not the best of starts, frankly.
The language used within the app is also a bit weaselly - it lists scans not yet run as problems with your system, for example - but we can't fault it for simplicity. There's a single button marked 'One click fix all' which seems to do just that, running through its battery of tests and fixes to make sure your computer is in tip-top condition with little input from you.
It's not entirely concerned with system speed-ups, but that's definitely a large amount of Fix-It Utilities' remit. There's an internet optimiser, a section dedicated to Windows speed-ups, and a scan that promises to shuffle your computer's memory into a fast order.
Go deeper than the one-click option, though, and you might start getting a bit baffled; the presentation of deeper sections such as the Startup Commander are tough going to say the least, full of check boxes and changes that don't immediately shout about what they might do to your computer.
Leave them to run on their own, though, and you're unlikely to be disappointed - Fix-It Utilities did a good job at making our system feel quicker, and its active protection facility (which monitors your computer regularly for issues so it doesn't get sluggish again) is an excellent touch.
You shouldn't have to go in and run programs like this - they should look after you.
Ostensibly simple interface
Great hands-free tweaking
Can be surprisingly complex
Does a lot of things well, but it's too simple in some places, too complex in others.
iolo System Mechanic 10
Where other apps might over-simplify things, System Mechanic makes a good stab at saying exactly what it's doing with the clearest language possible. You won't be mystified as to what any of its functions do, but be prepared to read for a while; everything is described in excruciating detail.
Compared to, say, Fix-it Utilities, System Mechanic seems a bit more honest; when it says "problems", it means problems with your computer rather than problems with the way you've used the software.
You're given complete control over the way you go about fixing issues, too. You can certainly whack the Repair All button and let the program do all the work for you, or you can methodically go through System Mechanic's repair sections and fix your issues one by one.
System Mechanic also has what it calls a tool box, containing a bunch of mini programs sorted by category, so you don't need to know that you want a registry compactor, for example - if you know you want to improve your computer's performance, you just go to the appropriate section.
OK, System Mechanic isn't for everyone. If you're completely averse to any kind of technical language, you'll probably turn away in horror, even though it does a competent job at explaining things clearly. But if you want a piece of software that's going to speed up your PC and make sure it's in tip-top shape, this is definitely it.
Iolo's ActiveCare technology sensibly keeps an eye on things when you're not using your computer, which means it doesn't slow down when you're in the middle of something, and with a year of updates included and a three-PC licence we'd even go as far as to say this was a bit of a bargain.
Best speed improvement here
Clear explanations throughout
Can be overly wordy
Easy to use, well laid out: this is an app with speed at its very core, and we love it.
IObit Advanced System Care Free 3
There's a lot to be said for clarity. IOBit's AdvancedSystemCare Free 3 needs a little digging before you can work out what each of its sections do, and the language used in its tutorials isn't really very friendly.
Run a scan and you'll probably be told your Windows system has an amazing number of problems - ours had about 10,000. But those problems were a lack of individual 'immunisations' from the program's security section, something we'd have lumped in to a single issue. Scare tactics.
ASC has its advantages, though. The Turbo Boost option scales up your processor and helps you switch off everything unecessary for when you need a litle more performance. The one-click Care button runs through its litany of tests and solutions (without explicitly bothering you with any details of what it's actually doing) and it certainly offers a wide range of potential refinements to be made to your PC.
Its focus is on increasing your computer's speed and safety by cleaning it up rather than using any specific tweaks, however. Strangely, IOBit has chosen to spin many of the tweaks that would work well in ASC - features that many other apps include by default - off to separate packages. Want better games performance? Get Game Booster. Faster web connection? You need to download Internet Booster.
This isn't exactly efficient, and the way IOBit goes about encouraging you to download these apps - including a confusingly labelled tick box in the installer and a whole page of seemingly useful options in the main app acting as Trojan horses - is just cheeky. There's no box. There's an installer, and a sneaky one at that; not only does it suggest installing a browser toolbar, but IObit tries to get further software on your system at the same time.
Tries installing rubbish on installation
Uses scare tactics
Doesn't actually do that much
Does a decent job in the tasks it covers, but that doesn't cover too much ground.
You may think it's a bit of a strange move, including CCleaner in this test. We'll admit it; we've thrown in a bit of a curveball.
This is not explicitly a speed-up tool. The name is a dead giveaway - it's all about cleaning up your PC. But you really won't find a better representation of why cleaning up is the best way to make your system run faster than CCleaner, one of the most widely respected and widely used free applications on the web.
It's the industry standard for a reason: the results speak for themselves. Of course, we're not suggesting that it's perfect. CCleaner is not exactly friendly if you don't know what you're doing with your computer. Nothing is sugar-coated, and there's a lot in there that won't be obvious to novices.
But that's only on the surface; look carefully: there are two buttons. One says Analyze, the other says Run Cleaner. You don't actually have to know anything beyond how to click a mouse to get the most out of CCleaner, so don't be too intimidated.
Click the Registry button on the left and you're similarly equipped - two buttons get the job done. Doesn't matter if you know what's going on or not. And while other applications do more to spruce up your computer, or do it in a flashier way, they're either paid-for apps or they're slathered in sneaky add-ons. Glary Utilities tries to install the Ask toolbar into your web browser. AdvancedSystemCare makes a stab at installing its own Yahoo-based toolbar, and tries to get you installing a host of extra apps, too.
CCleaner is, appropriately, clean of sneaky installers, and we applaud publisher Piriform for making it that way. Nothing. No box, no tricksy installers, just an honest computer cleaner that does its job perfectly.
Piriform's other applications cover alternative aspects of PC efficiency, so check the website.
Does the job well
Can be a little intimidating
Won't boot your machine quicker
Intensive system cleaning that will lead to a much faster PC in the end.
Free for non-business use, this has one of the widest ranges of tweaks, speed-ups and cleaning tools we've seen in an application. Particularly a free one.
GU's one-click section focuses on cleaning potentially threatening files and tightening up the areas of your PC that get a little loose with time, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole host of additional modules that do way more than straight cleaning.
There's a memory optimiser, a start-up manager and a registry defragmenter; jargon-filled sections which, we assure you, all help to shave microseconds off that vital boot time.
That jargon, unfortunately, runs all the way through. So while you might get on well with the one-click section, if you're not an experienced user, you probably won't have much luck with the rest of the program because the complexity of its modules increases along with the complexity of its language. And its AutoCare section, which should schedule automatic cleaning and fixing, isn't available in the free edition.
The commerical version, which also adds a 24/7 technical support system, will set you back $40, or around £30 - for that money, we'd gravitate towards System Mechanic any day. That said, we'd rather endure free Glary's direct use of jargon than AdvancedSystemCare's rather confusing interface, and there's a lot here worth using.
Good selection of utilities
Works well to improve performance
Can feel overly compelx
Free version doesn't have scheduler
Probably the best system cleaner and speed up app you'll ever find for free.
And the winner is... Iolo System Mechanic 10
Are you willing to pay money? Then go straight to System Mechanic and do not pass Go. It's got all the features you need for a fast, clean computer, and a team working on it that's completely dedicated not just to cleanliness but to firing up your PC's turbocharger.
That's not to say that Fix-It Utilities is in any way poor; if you're not up to speed with computer lingo, it's well worth a shot.
On the free side, as long as you're careful to avoid the tag-on toolbars offered in the installation packages of Glary Utilities and AdvancedSystemCare, you can't really go wrong installing all three; it's certainly not going to hurt.
CCleaner does the neatest job of tidying things up, and Glary Utilities' more advanced tweaking modules really are top notch if you're looking to add that final extra lick of speed.