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The reason for this question is that many times clients, friends and parents ask me why their perfectly working old PC cannot be used online anymore. I am looking for a good answer to those people and myself (mostly myself).

In 2000 I worked on a Pentium2 400MHz PC and I remember surfing graphically rich sites, watching RealPlayer embedded videos and enjoying Flash movies.

Yesterday I fired up that old pc and went online - the PC slowed down to a crawl on most sites I tried to open.

The sites I was viewing just had images, text and one or two flash banners - just like most sites in 2000.

So what has changed? Browsers? JavaScript? Flash?

Here are my theories - correct me where I'm wrong:

  1. Heavy JS usage. In the 90's you clicked on a link and that took you to another URL. Now clicking you get modal windows, sliders, social voting, etc. JS is known to be heavy on the CPU, even if the browser does some on-the-fly compiling it sill has to be done by the CPU.

  2. The way browsers are made Browser engines are getting more reusable. Well done abstraction layers allow the same engine to be used on PC's and devices. Abstraction takes a toll on the CPU, because the engine is not made specifically for that hardware architecture.

  3. Flash, HTML5 video Many Flash banners have rich animations and many times they are ineffectively made. Flash video and HTML5 video nowadays requires you to have a modern GPU.

  4. Modern CPU architectures Today I work on a 3GHz CPU. Technically that should be around 6x times faster than my P2 400MHz. Actually it is even faster because modern CPU's do not work the same as my P2. We cannot compare the MHz values anymore because of multiple cores and other new technologies. That is the reason we are now talking about architectures (like Haswell) rather than GHz values. So, since the CPU so much faster it can easily handle jQuery, Google maps and flash video on the same page.

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New versions of .NET frameworks have been released. And now days there would be much more client side processing than in 2000! –  Anto Oswin Aug 5 '13 at 15:03
    
Do other programs fine of them? Old computers are old. –  Zirak Aug 5 '13 at 15:06
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Heavy JS usage. In the 90's you clicked on a link and that took you to another URL. Now clicking you get modal windows, sliders, social voting, etc. JS is known to be heavy on the CPU, even if the browser does some on-the-fly compiling it sill has to be done by the CPU. … Flash, HTML5 video Many Flash banners have rich animations and many times they are ineffectively made. Flash video and HTML5 video nowadays requires you to have a modern GPU. And the ads! My god, the ads!!! These are all reasons I hate sites like TV.com; they are completely unusable on anything less than a supercomputer. –  Synetech Aug 5 '13 at 19:44
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Over and over again people forget the performance bottleneck of modern PC architecture, much more important than parallelism and even megahertzes. It is the memory access speed, aka latency or cache! Cache can make your PC 10-20x faster even at the same frequency! Dont' I exaggerate anything? Is memory really the modernt PC performance bottleneck? –  Val Aug 6 '13 at 9:34
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@Synetech adblock and noscript? –  Tobias Kienzler Aug 7 '13 at 8:22
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closed as too broad by Tog, Breakthrough, Daniel Andersson, CharlieRB, Darth Android Aug 7 '13 at 20:46

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

6 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The answer is the internet simply uses more resources on a computer. More CPU processing, more RAM, more disk I/O, and newer instructions required by the OS. It is not one thing, it is all things that a modern browser can do that end up taxing every aspect of the computer. (Open a static html site and I bet the computer will be as fast as ever; but what sites are static these days?) One thing like too little RAM can cripple a computer, but you overload 2 or 3 things at a time and you have a computer that for all intents and purposes doesn't work at all.

An older computer CAN be used, albeight slowly. But you need to make sure it is not being overloaded by simply keeping the OS running AND has extra resources availible to actually browse. What is your baseline specs with no programs open? And the PCI bus can be your friend for upgrading things like your disk and graphics. Here is what we have found works for us to use older hardware in modern times.

  • CPU - If your baseline CPU usage is 50%, then you have very little left over to run anything else. You need to make sure you stop all unneeded services, and stop all backround programs from running. And if you use active virus scan like AVG, you are pretty much screwed on being productive; nothing can be running in the backround.

  • RAM - If you have 512MB ram and your baseline RAM usage is 300mb, then you will be using swap space to browse which means your computer will run EXTREMELY slow; this one thing alone can cripple ANY computer. I have seen my browser use 1-2GB alone. Watch your RAM usage at all times to make sure you do not use swap. Also, install as much ram as you can, and make sure it is as fast as it can be (PC-66,PC-100, PC-133?)

  • Disk I/O - Count the files on windows 7 vs windows XP vs windows 98; windows 7 has exponentially more files it uses. Since seek times are the biggest slow down on a platter style drive, you will for sure have very slow disk read rates because of the slower seek times AND the additional files accessed. Condense your OS partition so it is not more than 20% free (make it smaller if it is) and defragment using a third party defragmenter using a smart placement or defrag by access times to minimize the head movement in the drive. If you can, get a PCI SATA controller and use a modern 10K SATA drive like Western Digital HLHX series drives (fast and cheap on EBAY).

  • Graphics - Get as modern a PCI or AGP graphics card that you can to take a load off of your CPU. I have seen single tabs in my browser cause one of my cores to run 75% or more (Athlon X4 630). While a graphics card will not help on all pages, on some pages it will.

  • Network - Use a dedicated NIC to take a minimal load of your CPU, although you probably already are on that old of hardware.

  • Sound - Use a dedicated sound card to again, take minimal load of your CPU. Although some don't help with this.

  • Resolution and bit depth - Drop your resolution and bit depth to 16 bits to help take a load off your MB, CPU, and possibly RAM.

  • MB - Don't forget your northbridge and southbridge have limited bandwidth that will also get eaten by overhead, so reducing your overhead could help keep things so your MB itself isn't slowing things down.

  • OS - It is possible your CPU cannot even support the instructions needed for a modern Microsoft OS's; making a move to Linux could also help greatly for this reason, and it will reduce your overhead on your CPU, RAM, and disk.

We used a PII 266 with 256MB RAM 7 years ago and 256MB was max RAM. That alone crippled the computer. The next computer was, and is, a P4 2.8 with 2GB RAM that my wife refuses to get rid of because it runs as fast or faster than most people she knows and why fix it if ain't broke. But we apply many of the things I have mentioned above to keep it running fast. No background programs (not even virus scan), condensed partition size, defragment by access times, business class 2D PCI graphics, and 2GB RAM. The computer stutters on high resolution videos and some sites slow it down, but rarely. Other than that it is used everyday for average office like activities.

If you can't get enough RAM, you don't have adequate disk I/O, your CPU usage is 60% idling, and your CPU doesn't support the instruction required, you will be crying because of how slow browsing is and the errors because of it. But address ALL those issues first, and any other second, then you should be able to make it work.

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If I had a computer that old, I'd SERIOUSLY want to test the difference between them. That said, I'm skeptical of one or two things " get a PCI SATA controller and use a modern 10K SATA drive like Western Digital HLHX series drives (fast and cheap on EBAY)." - I don't run 10K drives on even modern machines. 5400 or 7200 rpm should be enough. I'd also note that a lot of more modern ethernet controllers offload work to the CPU - I remember having a 10mbps Ethernet adaptor with a specialised chip made by 3com. This would be fun to experiment with! –  Journeyman Geek Aug 6 '13 at 3:24
    
The point is that there are bottlenecks you cannot get rid of; CPU speed, RAM bandwidth, MB chipset bandwidth, etc. So to counteract these things, you want all other things to be as fast as possible. I'm with you on dedicated controllers still offload work to the CPU, but with the right ones it could help little bit. When you only got 400MHZ with PC-XXX RAM, you need all the help you can get! We ran windows 2000 on the PII 266 in 2005 which taught us this! :) –  Damon Aug 6 '13 at 3:56
    
These are some great suggestions. I use a fresh windows install with only drivers and user portable apps where possible (although portable apps have an abstraction/virtualization layer of their own that slows them down). –  Armand P Aug 6 '13 at 7:13
    
As for hardware upgrading. Nobody usually wants to put man hours and money into old PC's. Unless it's museum piece - like my 60MHz laptop from 1990 which still can open gmail on ie5 - go Google :) –  Armand P Aug 6 '13 at 7:17
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Hmm, another element here might be the browser. I need to test it, but if you're running windows, k-meleon might do a decent job rendering things. I need to rummage around for an old 2k, 98 or (eww) me disk to try this. –  Journeyman Geek Aug 8 '13 at 2:25
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Simply, a lot of modern HTML features we take for granted did not exist back in those days. There are attempts to build 'modern' browsers for older OSes - classilla, for example. You can easily load up linux onto a suitable PII or PIII system and still be able to handle a basic modern webpage.

On the other hand

enter image description here

This is google on OS/2 warp 4.52, on a VM on a modern CPU. I could replace this with linux and the same page would render correctly. If I only could find a modern browser of some sort, I'd certainly be able to render this very simple page. Opera might work

enter image description here

Same page, different browser (opera 5.2 I think), and it works gloriously here. It breaks down to newer browsers support far more than older ones did. If you could get a 'modern' browser to work, it might render things better - SE chat breaks down for one - and its a modern HTML5/Ajax based website.

Naturally I have neither flash nor HTML 5 there, but you get the idea. Its all about the browser

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I am in awe, sir. You are a time traveler. I'd upvote this by the number of years between the last time OS/2 was popular and 2013 if I could, but unfortunately I can only meagerly +1 it. –  allquixotic Aug 5 '13 at 15:26
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"Its all about the browser". Please allow me to disagree. Being able to render properly is all about the browser. But, as the OP states, sites slowing to a crawl are about browsers and plugins being more resource-intensive, sites using bigger images, more complex JS, etc. Back in the day, sites were just sites to display information. Now they are "Web Apps" that perform complex operation, there's even image and video editors in HTML5. Try that on a Pentium II (even with a modern browser)! –  That Brazilian Guy Aug 5 '13 at 15:46
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@JourneymanGeek the multiple videostreams BeOS was able to play on a P2 were almost certainly much less compressed (MPEG2 vs h264) far lower quality than anything modern. Back in '99 I considered 360p to be a high quality video (vs 240 or 160p); and don't recall seeing anything above 480p except for an occasional simulation from scientific computing. –  Dan Neely Aug 5 '13 at 17:55
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+1 for OS/2 Warp screenshots. Takes me back 20 years... –  Suman Aug 5 '13 at 18:19
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Another method might be a browser that pretends to be an smartphone or tablet because some sites have special, less heavy versions for devices. –  Armand P Aug 5 '13 at 19:42
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I have a 9 year old P4 desktop at home, with Ubuntu 12.04 installed. It has a 500GB hard disk, 3GB RAM, and a 512MB video card. I use it as home server, for backup, file sharing, and for batch scanning negatives. I don't know how it would work with XP now, but I suppose it would not make much difference in speed.

It can do almost anything. YouTube videos work. Some videos don't work properly, probably because the resolution is too high. Most sites work, although it takes a bit longer. Doing two things at a time may take a while... I can even start up VirtualBox and run Photoshop in it. That really works, although sometimes I have to wait several seconds. Wait for each action to complete. Close everything else, especially Firefox with heavy sites in it.

So how does this relate to your situation? This is a P4, so two generations later, but still 9 years old.

My guess is that Windows gets slower with all updates. I cannot prove that, but it's my gut feeling. JavaScript in websites is much more complex. Think of jQuery and what it can do. Browsers can handle PNG transparency. CSS3 and HTML5 require more power. Do you use add-ons? Antivirus? Antivirus from 10 years ago required less power I suppose. Now there are all these different kind of threats and the antivirus program has to scan for them.

There is not one reason. It's the whole package. Not only more memory, but faster memory. Hard drives have faster connectors.

Your old computer may need a system that requires less in the basis, like Ubuntu, Debian or Centos. Maybe that makes it more acceptable, but maybe it doesn't make much of a difference. You can only try. Ubuntu is the most fancy for desktop usage, the others have less bells and whistles, but do the job.

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I should probably try some linux distro - I hear that you can optimize it quite well for older machines. –  Armand P Aug 5 '13 at 21:31
    
Ubuntu itself doesn't have much bells and whistles either, those are mostly from Unity. With Xfce it runs fine even on yet lower-spec'd machines. –  leftaroundabout Aug 6 '13 at 16:39
    
I've used Unity for several months and just switched to Gnome 3 classic. I don't see how Unity would use up much more system resources, except for the occasional transition effect, like when minimizing a window. That can be disabled, but even if it's enabled it won't make the system slower overall. It will just be ugly. –  rxt Aug 7 '13 at 8:37
    
A PIV is closer to .. lets see 4 architectures, and maybe a dozen generations old. And yeah, with the right OS, failing hardware failure, that old thing is probably still usable. –  Journeyman Geek Aug 7 '13 at 9:18
    
I think when you get on system that old (the OP), you really see what resources all that rendering and client side processing really takes for something that seems so simple. It's not just CPU, its everything right down to the MB chipset, CPU cache speeds (@ VAL), RAM latency, the whole works! –  Damon Aug 7 '13 at 21:34
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Modern browsers are optimized for maximum speed, not for minimum memory usage. Hence, 1Gb+ RAM requirement is pretty much common these days, at least for comfortable browsing with 5 or more open tabs/windows.

Old computers just don't have that much RAM.

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The ram goes to processing the page. For example google.com is 200Kb, but chrome uses 20Mb of ram to display it. I am sure it could be done more effectively. –  Armand P Aug 5 '13 at 21:22
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I think the answer depends a bit on what you mean by "view". I can view the text and graphic content of most sites with links2 -g on a 10-year-old Dell running Xubuntu.

All of the fancy css formatting is gone but once you get used to the default layout, it is very readable.

The only sites that don't work are those that block access by older browsers (e.g., Facebook, Trello, etc... I assume this is a JS issue)

To answer your question, the content of most modern websites can be viewed on old PCs but you may not be able to see the formatting or use interactive features.

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Links is great. I occasionally use it when the dynamic part of a website gets in the way of understanding content. –  Armand P Aug 6 '13 at 7:38
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A lot of modern websites are designed to look very good. Back in the days, you could not even think of webpages designed like they are now. Another change in Website Building is the fact that there are used more images, and not to forget, higher quality, so bigger images.

Of course this requires a lot of CPU and GPU power, which is now more sophisticated than in 2000. Also, you are right about Javascript. It indeed consumes a lot of your CPU power.

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In the 90's there were graphics rich sites too - Gamespot in 2000 - web.archive.org/web/20000229034633/http://www.gamespot.com The size of images has not increased much - still mostly mid sized jpegs. I guess websites are made in a more direct approach: layers, transparency etc. In the old days you had to graphically cheat to achieve such effects - but the cheats were easier on the CPU. –  Armand P Aug 5 '13 at 21:28
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