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How fast is my computer?

Many times, when speaking with customers over the phone about their computer problems, I will ask something like "how fast is your computer?" or "do you know how much memory you have in your computer?". In a lot of cases though, computer users just do not know the answers to these questions or how to find them. If this sounds like you... you have come to the right place.

First of all, when addressing the performance and capacity of a computer, there are three categories to consider. The first is the processor. This is the brain that runs everything. It does most of the work. Processor speed used to be measured in megahertz or MHz. You would hear speeds like 400 megahertz or even 900 megahertz. When Intel introduced the Pentium processor, a common speed was 100 megahertz. The Pentium II processors were in the 300 megahertz neighborhood. Pentium III processors were typically 450 megahertz up to as high as around 1100 megahertz. Today's processors are even faster. A typical processor today runs at about 3000 megahertz or faster, but you don't hear the term megahertz anymore. Now it's gigahertz. It's not much different. It's just that 1100 megahertz is the same as 1.1 gigahertz or 1.1 GHz. So instead of 3000 megahertz, it's 3 gigahertz. If all that seems complicated, just wait... the way we have been measuring the speed of processors is now becoming obsolete because processor architecture is changing, but for now the gigahertz and megahertz will do.

The second category to consider is memory or RAM. Many people hear the word memory and think it addresses how much data they can store on their computer, but that's not it. The amount of memory determines how much data your computer can juggle in the air while it is working. For example, when you open a Word document, the computer copies that document from the hard drive into memory. Memory is not permanent storage. Let's say you open a Word document and make changes to it, but you don't hit the save button. Now... you yank your computer's power plug from the wall (please don't do this or you may need to call me). The changes to the document were stored in memory, but had not been written to the disk. Those changes are gone. Memory is simply a temporary space for the computer to work on things. So... why do you need a lot of memory? Have you ever noticed how your computer gets a little slow when you have too many things open? The reason is simple. As you open programs, games, documents and spreadsheets the computer has to write information about each one to memory. If you open more than your memory can hold, then it starts writing some of that information to a big file on your hard drive. Now it has to access some information from memory which is fast and some from the hard drive which is much slower. This really slows things down. So... if you find yourself consistently having to have many things open at once and you notice a performance problem, you should consider adding more memory to your computer. A good amount of memory to have on a new computer today is 512 megabytes.

The last category is your hard drive. This is where everything sits. Your school work, your pictures, your music. These files are written to or saved on your hard drive. We talked about opening a Word document and making changes. When you click the save button those changes are written to or saved to the hard drive. The hard drive does not really determine how fast your computer is, but it does determine how much data you can store on your computer. Typical hard drives today are 80 gigabytes or 80GB up to around 250GB. You can get larger, but they are expensive. Because your hard drive stores all your data or files, it is the most critical component in your computer. Ironically, because it has moving parts, it is the most susceptible to failure. That is why it is so important to backup your data, but that is another subject entirely.

Each person uses their computer differently, so what seems to be an obsolete computer for one person may work fine for another. However, as a general guide, you should consider buying a new computer if your processor speed is less than about 1.2 GHz. Anything faster can certainly handle email, web surfing and some word processing, though maybe not heavy 3D gaming. If your processor is okay, but you need more memory, add more. If your processor is okay, but you are running out of room for your photos and documents, get a larger hard drive.

So... how fast is your computer? How much memory do you have? What about your hard drive capacity? Here's how to find out in Windows XP. Right-click on the "My Computer" icon and click "Properties" on the popup menu. The System Properties window opens. In the lower portion of the General tab you will find your processor speed and memory capacity. Now close this window and double-click the "My Computer" icon. Find your C: drive. Often, it will be labeled "Local Disk (C:)". Right-click on the C: drive and click Properties on the popup menu. The window that opens will show you how large your hard drive is and how much of it you have used.

If you would like to know even more about your computer's specifications or if you have an older version of Windows and can not find these details, go to http://belarc.com/free_download.html and download their free utility. It will show you more about your computer than you may want to know.

Posted by Charles Swihart on 5/1/2006

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