I suspect some of us here were/are developers and programmer's. Some have very detailed OS knowledge.
One other thing about RAM, W7 (and Vista too to a lesser degree) will attempt to use ALL RAM, both the 32 and 64 bit versions. Older versions didn't do that, it attempted to discard RAM used as soon as the application was done with it. What this meant was when you looked at the PERFORMANCE TAB in TASK MANAGER in you'd see actual RAM in use. In Vista and W7 you could see ALL RAM 'used', but it really wasn't. Under these 2 OS's, the SWAPPING or PAGEFILE usage would be the determining factor if you used all RAM up.
As for the 4 steps above, yes, generally one would have to do this, but at this point 'we' don't know if these are necessary to 'worry' about.
RAM, you have enough, unless you are SWAPPING. Task Manager will show that info, or the Resource Monitor that you can reach from the Performance tab in Task Manager.
We'll assume it isn't a virus at this point until there are other indicators that it is possible.
Registry, maybe it could use some cleaning, but that is NOT necessary. Errors in the registry, you've got no indications of that probably.
Startup's, not unless you've run out of RAM. Startup's 95% of the time do 2 things 'harmful'. One is INCREASE boot time, they get loaded into RAM, do something, and either find nothing to do (time lost is seconds on booting), do something (takes more time), or just hangs around waiting to do something (takes up RAM space). Once in RAM they could on a time 'trigger' do something, check for an update, change something on your screen (check the temperature and update), or monitor the stock market such as a gadget would do. We can exclude these until we think this is the problem for now. Even if left in RAM, if they are dormant, they will be discarded if you should use all RAM up.
Now let's review what you consider 'slow'?
1. Slow loading for programs like browsers
2. Fairly frequent freezing (ex. "Firefox not responding" message, and it happens with all 3 browsers I have, Chrome, Firefox and IE. Normally I only have one browser open) usually I can wait it out...takes one minute or less, but sometimes I have to shut down the browser and reload, and it will then open up quickly.
#1, not all programs? Just the browsers? Smells of a network connection issue?
#2, sort of confirms this.
Are you on 64 or 32 bit Vista? What versions of each browser are you running? If you boot to SAFE MODE WITH NETWORKING, does the browser work better? What Firewall and Anti-virus do you have? If you disable these for a few minutes does the browsers work better?
I just checked the listing of open programs in my computer, and I counted 7! I know, I know, you guys told me to set them to manual setting for opening them...and I will do it. One program that opens up automatically is "Safety Remove Hardware." I had to use it once months ago and the sucker opens up automatically every time I reboot.
I read somewhere, probably in the HP Help function, that I should shut down programs that open up but I don't need. I have been afraid to do that because I thought it might screw up the operation of another needed program.
Where did you see the list of OPEN PROGRAMS? On TASK MANAGER? MSCONFIG? Details please?
Safely Remove H/W, DO NOT CHANGE THIS... if you attach ANY removable media (not a CD/DVD disc) you must USE this to be able to take the device out without the possibility of losing data (external USB drives, flash drives, digital camera's, etc.).
DO NOT CLOSE ANYTHING unless you KNOW what you are doing. At best you could hang the system, worst case, lose data!
Defrag'ing is done by the OS without any intervention by you. It is a SCHEDULED TASK on Vista and W7. Older versions required YOU to do this manually. With today's newer FileSystems, disk access and rotational speeds, large size disks, and CPU speeds, this isn't as important as it was before anyway. Yes, a defrag'ed disk does work better, but with the system spec's of today, the effect of a non-defrag'ed disk isn't as apparent as it was before. Basically this is due to the layout of a modern filesystem such as NTFS vs. the old FAT filesystem. The disk heads don't need to travel as far to find data, and the filesystem does a better job of handling file part locations.