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How to squeeze the most from your computer

  • Story Highlights
  • Here's how to squeeze the most performance out of your older computer
  • It may be your software that's slow, not your computer; check for updates
  • Move as many of your activities, such as e-mail, to the Web as possible
  • If you're still using Internet Explorer, stop! You're better off with a newer build of Firefox
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By Chris Pirillo
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(CNN) -- No budget for a new computer in this recession? It's a common malady these days.

A self-admitted tech geek, Chris Pirillo is president of Lockergnome.com, a blogging network.

A self-admitted tech geek, Chris Pirillo is president of Lockergnome.com, a blogging network.

But this doesn't mean you have to suffer along with substandard performance from your system just because it's got more dust on its cover and less hard drive space than that shiny floor model you've been drooling over at the local Fry's.

Will an '09 Ford Escort outpace a '67 Mustang in a drag race? If the Mustang's been neglected and allowed to rust away in the back yard for the past decade, then...probably. If it's been babied and protected from the elements, then it's not even a fair contest.

Like any machine, a well-maintained car or computer will surprise you, no matter its age.

In our modern consumer culture, it's not surprising that many people are under the impression that newer always means better. Yesterday's top-shelf computer is as disposable as a Taco Bell spork, and what cost $3,000 four years ago is now surpassed by technology that didn't even exist -- for any price then -- for a comparable pittance. We're conditioned to kowtow to the expectations of obsolescence. Why settle for less, manufacturers will ask coyly, when we could have so much more -- interest-free for six months if we just sign up today?

I'm here to tell you that even if you don't have the riches to get your dream setup today, you don't have to settle for less than what yesterday's perfect computer can offer. Here's a list of things that could help keep you and your machine playing nicely together for a while until you can save up enough pennies for tomorrow's offerings.

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It may be your software that's slow -- not your computer. Check for driver and version updates either at your computer manufacturer's Web site or through the list of software you use frequently; see if new drivers or versions are available. If you've been using the same programs for a year or two, it's likely that such updates are available, and those updates could result in noticeable performance improvement.

The future of the desktop is on the Web, where there's little (if anything) for you to install to (and slow down) your system. For this reason, I recommend moving as many of your activities to the Web as possible. Many of today's Web sites are built with rich JavaScript frameworks, which enable amazing in-browser experiences for everybody.

If you can, begin accessing and managing your email from the Web rather than the desktop. If you use more than one computer on a regular basis, this is likely what you're doing anyway. A lot of people I know swear by Google's Gmail (especially for its pretty good spam-filtering capabilities), but you have many options -- and most of them are free.

At the risk of seeming Google-centric, I have to point out that it's even possible to manage basic documents and spreadsheets online -- once proprietary to bloated Microsoft Office products -- for free with Google Docs. And sharing the data from these applications for collaboration with friends and coworkers has never been easier.

If you're still using Internet Explorer, stop! Please, stop. It's not fast -- not by today's standards. You're better off with a newer build of Firefox or possibly Google Chrome or Safari (my personal favorite).

External hard drives are a good way of keeping transient data off your computer's core hard drive, which should give your operating system some extra room to do its job more efficiently. Another option takes us back to the Web -- you can often get an online backup plan that will remove your valuable data not only from that main hard drive, but also from your computer's immediate vicinity.

If a calamity (whether human-created or, as insurance companies like to say, an "act of God") befalls your household, your data will be safe in a sanctuary far, far away and not melted on that physical, external hard drive next to that poor old computer we've been trying to save!

Instead of downloading music and storing it indefinitely, consider paying for a music/content subscription service instead. There'll be less data bogging down your computer, less stuff for you to manage, and you'll have access to so much more content.

Comparably minor hardware upgrades like more RAM or better video cards will likely make a major difference in your old system's performance. A second monitor is one way I've found of, if not making my computer more productive, at least making my interaction with the computer more productive.

Doubling your screen real estate is a great way of getting the most out of the information that your computer's giving you without having to switch back and forth between pages on a smaller, single-screen setup. Make sure your video card supports this option; if not, there are USB converters that might help overcome this obstacle.

See? Your old computer, treated with care and respect, can still make that pan-global road trip on the Information Superhighway. It just needs a careful hand on the wheel and a steady toe on the pedal to maximize its potential: That New Computer Smell on an Old Wallet Budget.

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