Ten free ways to speed up Windows 10

A hand holding a mechanical stopwatch on a yellow background
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Your PC gets slower as it ages. Windows isn’t always to blame, but as the interface between your hardware and your apps, and the largest piece of software running on your machine, you can be excused for making it the focus of your frustration.

So it seems only fair that we give Windows the best chance we can of performing well. We’ve compiled the ten most effective changes you can make to help Windows keep running as fast as your PC will take it.

We’re not going to recommend installing more memory and swapping in an SSD: as an IT Pro reader, you’ll have considered these already. Instead, we’ll focus on settings and options, all of which you can implement for free.

How to speed up Windows: Slim things down

We’ll start with everyone’s favourite piece of advice: don’t start up any applications or processes you don’t need. Windows 10 generally launches quickly but, over time, the more applications you install, the more processes will be added to its startup payload. So, while the OS itself might still be running quickly, it will have to perform a lot of additional background tasks before it can hand over control of your PC’s resources to you. Your first couple of minutes might feel sluggish and, if any of those processes are the start of an ongoing cycle, checking and updating things in the background, they could carry on using processor cycles and memory the whole time your PC is active.

Open Task Manager by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete and clicking it on the list of options. Switch to the Startup tab then remove any applications you don’t need to use every time your PC starts. You’ll often find browser engines, sync tools, maintenance utilities and VoIP clients dropping bundles here, many of which can be safely disabled. In some cases, their only job is to make the app launch faster when you need to use it. Unless it’s something you use every day, you can probably afford to wait a few seconds for that software to launch – and reap the benefits elsewhere.

How to speed up Windows: Conserve bandwidth

Windows updates are chunky bundles, so Microsoft would like to use your PC to help it distribute them. By including your machine in a mesh of computers, each of which stores parts of the latest update, it can offload the job of serving patches to other machines and its own servers will run more efficiently. The benefit of being part of this network is that you should receive each download more quickly but, in return, your PC will do some background work for other Windows users who find themselves in the same position.

Open Settings by pressing Windows+I, then click Update & Security followed by Delivery Optimisation. Check the switch below “Allow downloads from other PCs”. If this is enabled, select “PCs on my local network” if you only want to share update bundles with other computers on your LAN, rather than those on the wider internet. Alternatively, click the switch so it slides to the left if you want to turn off the sharing option.

At the same time, make sure your active hours are correctly configured. Active hours are the times of day during which Windows assumes you’re working, and during which it won’t apply patches. Later versions of Windows 10 are adept at working out for themselves when these hours are but, if you want to define them manually, open Settings and click Update & Security, then Windows Update, followed by “Change active hours”. To let Windows work these out for itself, select “Automatically adjust active hours for this device based on activity”; otherwise, click the switch below that option to turn it off, then click Change and specify them yourself.

How to speed up Windows: Turn off visual effects

Windows might not be as glassy as it once was, but rendering that interface still takes some effort. Tone it down and your processor can spend the saved time on more important tasks. Open the control panel and type “performance” into the search box. Click “Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows” then uncheck the boxes beside any of the effects that you don’t want it to use.

How to speed up Windows: Check your energy settings

Windows’ default energy saver settings allow your PC to run as fast as it can when on mains power, but trims performance when it detects that you’re using a laptop battery to help extend its running time. There’s also a balanced setting, which should give you acceptable performance for an acceptable span of time.

To ensure Windows has access to your PC’s full potential, regardless of power source, click the taskbar battery icon and then drag the Power mode slider to the right (“Best performance”). If you don’t see the slider, make sure your PC is set up to use balanced performance by pressing Windows+I to open Settings, clicking System followed by “Power & sleep” and then “Additional power settings”.

How to speed up Windows: Switch off enhanced search

The old concept of drives, folders and files is a hangover from the analogue world of office work, in which their equivalents were filing cabinets, buff folders and documents, and we didn’t think twice about being expected to dig through them manually. It made a lot of sense for a long time, but not any longer. Now that we work across multiple platforms and are just as likely to store our data in the cloud as we are on our own machines, it’s an outdated construct that needs to be consigned to computing history. Search is the only tool that will help us do that.

The Search tool built into Windows 10 is getting more accomplished all the time and, as well as indexing files based on their names, it can ingest their contents so that you can search on subject matter, keywords, phrases and more. But running the indexing system’s background processes full time uses up processor cycles and, although Microsoft has made improvements in build 2004, you may still want to consider minimising Search features on an older machine.

Open Settings by pressing Windows+I and click Search. Click Searching Windows in the sidebar and make sure “Classic search” is selected to confine the index to your desktop and libraries (such as the Documents and Pictures folders). Scroll down and click Advanced Search Indexer Settings, then click Advanced. Switch to the File Types tab and deselect any of the extensions that you don’t want to include in the search results to minimise the amount of data the crawler needs to process.

How to speed up Windows: Free up disk space

Windows doesn’t only use disk space for storing apps and the files and folders you can access directly. It’s also used as a temporary stash for data that won’t fit into system memory. The RAM on your motherboard is faster than your hard drive so Windows will reserve it for only the data it’s working with immediately. Anything it won’t need for the next few seconds can be offloaded to a disk-based cache that, even if it’s stored on an SSD, will be slower than RAM as it has to traverse an interface.

When you have insufficient disk space, it can naturally only accommodate smaller amounts of data, so Windows will have to read and write it in reduced chunks. This will negatively impact your PC’s performance. As a rule of thumb, make sure at least 10% of your hard drive is available, but more is better.

As well as deleting programs you no longer use, uninstall Windows features you don’t need, like language packs. To get rid of these, open Settings and click “Time & Language” followed by Language. Click on the languages you don’t require, then click the Remove button that appears. If you only have one language installed, you can’t remove it.

Use Windows’ Disk Cleanup tool to shrink bloated caches and remove temporary files it no longer needs. Click Start, type “cleanup” and click Disk Cleanup. Select the files you want to remove in the “Files to delete” section, followed by OK. You can delete old installation and admin files by clicking “Clean up system files”.

You can also free up disk space by using Storage Sense, which automatically deletes files you no longer need, empties the recycle bin and, if you’re using OneDrive, removes local copies of files you haven’t used for a while. To turn it on, open Settings and click System followed by Storage. Click the switch below “Storage Sense” so it slides to the right. To tweak what Storage Sense can do on your machine, click the link “Configure Storage Sense or run it now”.

How to speed up Windows: Defrag your drive

This tip is becoming less relevant as computers increasingly use SSD storage, for which the traditional concept of fragmentation doesn’t apply. However, if you’re using a hard drive – particularly one that’s been in use for several years – defragging can make an appreciable difference. Why? Over time, Windows has to break up files and applications and slot them between existing blocks of data where gaps open up when other data is deleted. Often these gaps will be too small to accommodate what needs to be written to them contiguously, so bookmarks need to be set in the file allocation table recording where each part of every file has been deposited. The read/write head uses this to scavenge for the blocks it needs. The more the head has to move to piece a file together, the longer it takes to open, execute or update. SSDs, which don’t have any moving parts, don’t have the same problem.

There’s a broad selection of third-party defragmentation tools to choose from, but we recommend sticking with Windows’ own tool unless you have a reason for looking elsewhere. Click Start and type “defrag”, then click “Defragment and Optimise drives”. Find the drive you want to work with in the list of installed devices and check the “Current status” column. If the entry beside it says anything other than “Needs optimisation”, you can leave it as it is. However, if it needs attention, select the drive and click Optimise.

How to speed up Windows: Quieten things down

It’s easy not to notice how chatty Windows can be. Aside from new mail notifications, you’ve got application pop-ups, good news from Windows Defender that it’s not found any problems… even hints and tips. Every time it remembers something it needs to tell you, it interrupts the job in hand. Minimising these interruptions won’t only be good for your concentration – it can also help your PC run more efficiently.

Press Windows+I to open Settings and click System followed by “Notifications & actions”. Scroll down to the notifications section below Quick actions, and choose whether you want banners and/or sounds for some, all or none of your applications, whether you want to see notifications on the lockscreen (turning this off may be sensible in a shared office), and if you still want to see Windows tips, tricks and suggestions.

How to speed up Windows: Stop syncing

OneDrive is built into Windows 10, where it’s taken up residence on the taskbar. Leaving it running the whole time is convenient but, if you only use one PC, do you really need to be syncing its contents to the cloud the whole time and wasting processor cycles on checking for updates that are never going to appear? You could use OneDrive through the browser instead. The same is true of Dropbox and other cloud sync services.

To uninstall OneDrive, click Start and type “remove”, then click “Add or remove programs”. Scroll to Microsoft OneDrive in the list under “Apps & features” and click it, followed by Uninstall. You may be asked for your admin password, which, if you’re using a corporate machine, might be controlled by IT.

If that’s too dramatic, you can either unlink your account, or just pause syncing. To unlink, right-click the OneDrive icon on the taskbar, then click Settings. Switch to the Account tab, then click “Unlink this PC” followed by “Unlink account”.

To pause syncing while your PC is doing something else demanding, right-click the OneDrive icon, followed by “Pause syncing…” Choose how long you’d like to pause for: two, eight or 24 hours. Notice that the OneDrive icon is overlaid with a pause button as a warning that your edits won’t be reflected on the server. To resume syncing before the pause period expires, click the icon again, then click the pause button at the top of the OneDrive tab.

How to speed up Windows: Reboot

Some problems can’t be fixed when Windows is still running, but a reboot sees to that. Restarting your machine closes and unlocks any files that are in use, clears virtual memory from the hard drive and unloads background processes that started since your last boot and haven’t properly disengaged. In short, it frees up a lot of resources.

Make sure that you’ve followed tip one before rebooting and removed any startup applications that you no longer require before power cycling.

As with all of these tips, the improvement is likely to be marginal but, deployed in concert, they should make an appreciable difference to your computer’s performance – and may be enough to put off the time you need to splash out on a replacement.

Nik Rawlinson is a journalist with over 20 years of experience writing for and editing some of the UK’s biggest technology magazines. He spent seven years as editor of MacUser magazine and has written for titles as diverse as Good Housekeeping, Men's Fitness, and PC Pro.

Over the years Nik has written numerous reviews and guides for ITPro, particularly on Linux distros, Windows, and other operating systems. His expertise also includes best practices for cloud apps, communications systems, and migrating between software and services.