Hi Robert - Your question is a very reasonable one and something I hear quite often among the computer owners I work with. My answer to most is an analogy to a system of highways. When a highway is new, it's been engineered to accommodate a certain amount of traffic and weight, and it feels smooth and pleasant to drive on. Over time, traffic increases, weather and weight take their toll, and eventually the road needs to be repaired or replaced.
Your computer is a lot like the highway. It needs to be maintained. There have been many posts on CNET regarding different software to keep your computer running smooth, but my advice is often the simple answer of backing up your data (which you should be doing anyway) and starting with a fresh installation of your operating system. It's sort of like resurfacing a highway. You keep all of the same hardware and simply clean out the junk that accumulates over time on any system. You'd be surprised how much stuff gets loaded on your system over time without you ever knowing its there.
Also like a highway, the more traffic you place on it, the slower the traffic can flow. So getting rid of the traffic that doesn't need to be there will keep you running faster. There are a few things that dictate how fast your computer is going to run. Let's name them.
1. Your CPU Speed. The faster your CPU runs the faster your programs and utilities run. If your CPU has 2 processors or 4 processors it can handle data that much faster. But remember that just because you have a quad-core processor doesn't mean you'll be 4 times the speed. The newer Intel Processors have 8 virtual processors running at once, but it's the speed of the processor that counts.
2. Bus Speed. By this I mean how many lanes do you have on your highway? This is determined by how many data paths your motherboard can stream simultaneously. Fortunately most motherboards are built to handle the maximum amount of traffic that the CPU can handle. The more expensive the board, the more data it can handle.
3. The amount of RAM and RAM Speed. More RAM means your motherboard has a greater ability to store and process data without having to access the Hard Drive. The faster the RAM the quicker the processing can occur. Having more RAM is sort of like using the Express Lane on the Highway.
4. Storage Device Speed. This is your Hard Drive of course. Conventional Hard Drives (SATA) spin between 5,400 RPM and 15,000 RPM (but not usually above 10,000). Your Hard Drive's speed will be determined by how long it takes to seek out and access data stored upon it. If it spins faster, it's likely to access data faster. On the other hand, by increasing the amount and speed of RAM, you reduce the load on your Hard Drive by decreasing the amount of Pagination (data stored on the hard drive in excess of what can be stored on the RAM chip). So more RAM means faster access time on your Hard Drive. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are becoming the preferred medium for hard drives as they have no moving parts and are much less likely to fail. They also access data almost instantly, greatly reducing the time to go fetch data and thereby speeding up your computer.
5. Graphics Processing Speed. Some computers have a Graphics Processor integrated onto the motherboard and others use a separate card for processing graphics. The faster your Graphics Processor can handle data, the faster your computer can run. Only a small number of laptops use separate graphics cards because they take up space and generate heat. That's one of the big reasons Gaming Laptops are so expensive. In any case, your system's ability to handle graphics will play a role in the overall speed of your system.
6. Finally, Your Internet Speed. If your computer seems to drag when you're logged on the the internet, it could be the result of your internet provider's connection speed. The faster your connection can download and upload data, the easier it makes it for your computer to respond to the data. There is a very large variety of connection speeds and pricing available from most internet providers. You can check your upload and download speed by using one of the many sites available to perform this task for you. Just Google "Check my Download Speed".
Of course, like the highway, time develops more rigorous loads to carry and new and improved materials become available to upgrade your system if it's your desire to make the most of it. The reason I mention all of the six speed items above is simply that your system will slow down when your highway has more and more traffic. The more data that has to be processed at any given time, the slower the highway is going to travel. When you first start your computer is like "Rush Hour". That's when the system has to handle the most traffic. Check for Updates. Make an internet connection, start up all of those start-up programs, and initiate dozens of processes in the background. So yes, the more instructions that need to be carried out, the slower the system will be, and the longer it will take to complete the start-up process.
Once all of the initial start-up routines are completed, there are still multiple processes running in the background. I have noticed that Toolbars are a BIG offender of slowing down systems. It's usually my advice to NEVER LOAD A TOOLBAR!!! They do very little when you aren't using them but can take up an enormous amount of resources in the background.
Your system hardware isn't slowing you down Robert, it's the data that your system is trying to handle that has increased. Broken shortcuts, fragmented files, unneeded files and processes running in the background, are all chewing up your resources. That's why I so strongly recommend that users back up their data frequently and do a fresh installation when things begin to drag too much. It would take you a year to identify every bit of data that's slowing your system down, but only a couple of hours to make a fresh installation of your system.
On that note, I'll plug the idea of upgrading to an SSD for your system. After doing a fresh installation of your operating system on the standard hard drive, clone it to a new SSD and you will see your computer run faster than it ever has in the past. By doing this you accomplish two things. First, you create a backup of the fresh install of the operating system on the old hard drive. Anytime you want to repeat that process you just backup data (which you should be doing anyhow) and clone the old hard drive back to the SSD. Second, you supercharge your system by eliminating the biggest bottleneck in any system, the Hard Drive. Check the Speed Index for the items I mentioned above and you should be able to get the most out of your system for many years to come.