Tuning Windows: Less Bull, More Speed
Everyone has at one point or another offered little tips and tricks of varying quality for speeding up a Windows installation. I can’t even watch TV for more than 10 minutes without seeing one of those obnoxious (and inaccurate) FinallyFast.com commercials, and I hear people all of the time offering “expert tricks” to speed up Vista/XP that don’t even make sense.
So here I offer you the REAL shebang – tips for speeding up Windows (from a real expert), the reasons why they work, and considerations that you usually have to pay for from one of those other lame services frequently advertised.
But first, the obligatory disclaimer:
…Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to the actual tips and tricks.
Less Startup, Faster Finish
Ever log in and, while you hear the hard disk spinning like there’s no tomorrow, wait for it to be done to be able to use your desktop? This is a cause of Windows trying to do too much at the same time during startup, and here’s some tips on cutting down on this time so you can start working sooner.
Before we dig into the registry, let’s first clear out the startup folder. There are at least folders Windows NT checks following authentication for programs to start up after logging in, and most of the time they are filled with unnecessary crap that you don’t even need.
These two folders are located at: “C:\documents and settings\all users\start menu\programs\startup”, and “C:\documents and settings\%USER%\start menu\programs\startup” (Vista paths are different, adjust accordingly). Anything located in these folders, including but not limited to .exe and .lnk files, will be opened by their default programs or directly executed. Delete anything out of these folders that you didn’t put there, checking first that you don’t need them (and be sure to reveal hidden files before doing so).
If you see anything be Adobe, Apple, or Microsoft within these startup folders or the registry keys we’ll soon be discussing, you can probably delete them without any issues. Most of these files are just placed there to “speed up” the launch of the corresponding applications (Adobe and iTunes are notorious for this), but unless your computer acts solely as an iTunes or Adobe machine (as the companies naturally assume), then you can delete the speed launcher and/or tray icon programs.
A similar arrangement is centered around two registry keys: “HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersions\Run” and “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersions\Run”. If you don’t know how to edit the registry, then don’t bother on this step because a few of the files within these keys are actually needed by Windows to start up properly, e.g. CSRSS.EXE and the like.
This website, titled “The Process Library”, is an accurate database for what processes are good and what are not. Use it as a cross-reference to identify a process as needed or not before removing it from the registry’s startup key, and as usual don’t remove any antivirus programs from the startup.
In addition to clearing out the startup folders and registry entries, cleaning up your desktop of unused icons is heavily recommended for performance reasons (less stuff in memory, less stuff causing explorer.exe to eat up CPU time).
By removing the unused/unneeded programs from both the startup folders and registry keys, you can ensure an already-faster startup after logging in, but we’re not done yet.
Defrag, Defrag, Defrag…
Unless you’re running a new Solid State Disk, you need to frequently defragment your hard drive. The NTFS filesystem used by modern installations of Windows NT (e.g. XP and Vista) is very prone to fragmentation, and although many of our steps center around speeding up hard drive access it is good to go ahead and do an initial defragmentation to make the later processes go smoother.
So go ahead and defragment the disk, as you should be doing once a month at the least, and when it’s done come back and we’ll further optimize the system.
This is a reputable software tool, available for free (believe it or not) that we’ve personally used to optimize countless Windows installations (thanks to Anthony for showing this to me). The tool is available here.
After downloading it, go ahead and install it. You’ll immediately notice the simple, taskbar-based user interface, which is a result of the developers putting more effort into the actual optimizations than the pretty interface (that’s a good thing, as you’ll see).
Do the following in this order from the program, and wait for each one to finish before starting another: Everything under “Memory and Filesystem” in order from top to bottom, setting “IO Page Lock Limit” to 128MB. The last step, “Ultra-fast booting”, is by far one of the best tools in speeding up Windows, as it relocates kernel drivers and other bootup executables/libraries as close to the root of the C: drive as possible, causing a tremendous performance boost in Windows.
Now that you’re done with “memory and filesystem”, let’s move on to the “hardware” menu. If you use an Intel chipset, enable UDMA-66: this allows your intel motherboard hardware direct access to memory (bypassing the CPU), and will therefore allow other processes more time to execute.
If you don’t use a lot of USB hardware, save for the occasional flash drive usage, go ahead and increase the USB polling interval. This makes Windows check the USB bus less often, and therefore frees up the processor for more background processing tasks. Gamers may want to speed up Windows IRQ handling, as this makes the keyboard and mouse more responsive (in addition to other IRQ-based hardware, such as network cards).
Increasing the DNS cache under the “Internet” menu is recommended for most users, unless you are a system administrator needing up-to-date DNS settings (doing this speeds up website seeking time).
Under “Services”, disable messenger unless you honestly use it. Fast user switching is not needed if you don’t have other people logging in and out while you work, and disabling themes makes your computer look more like the classic Windows 98 look (but with a tremendous speed boost).
The TuneXP tool automatically defragments the C: drive after running the bootup speed boost, and since that is the last filesystem-based trick we’ll employ you won’t need to defragment any more after this section, unless you do so at the end just for good measure.
Services are background tasks that enable other programs to share functionality along with lower-level operating system access. They usually run as threads under the hungry svchost.exe process, or allocate an entire svchost.exe all to themselves in some cases. Disabling unneeded services will speed up Windows’s startup, but be sure you know what you do and don’t need otherwise you’ll actually INCREASE your startup time, or lose application functionality.
If in doubt, leave a service’s startup type either in automatic or (in most cases) manual.
Leaving a service in manual tells Windows “load it up only when an application tries to use it”. This lets your system run without it for as long as it is not needed, but if the time arises to bring it alive, Windows will take its own sweet time to bring the service alive and make it available. Automatic services are loaded regardless of demand, and disabled services don’t run period (and are not monitored by Windows for demand, either, creating even less overhead).
This Blog post details each standard Windows service, and how to decide whether or not to turn it off. In addition to the normal services, you may want to set application-specific services (such as QuickTime, iTunes, iPod, or Adobe) services to manual, to save processor time.
By doing this, Windows (and thus the processor) has more time to pay attention to other applications, and also has more physical (non-paged) memory to dedicate to applications you may want running faster than the iPod service, which will run regardless of iPod connectivity. Indexing should almost never be enabled, unless you are very disorganized.
The pagefile is a sensitive issue. Some users know their habits enough to tune this down to a fine level, while others have no idea what to set this to due to inconsistent usage habits. If you have 3GB or RAM, and usually only use up to 512MB-1GB of it at a time browsing the web or just running Office, then you probably don’t even need a pagefile, and will see a tremendous performance increase in disabling it.
However, should the time come where you suddenly use all 3GB of that memory with no pagefile to catch any overflow, then you’ll bluescreen and lose everything. So having the lowest needed amount of a pagefile is necessary, and be sure to adjust it to your usual computing habits while leaving room for errors or emergencies.
To edit your pagefile size, hold the Windows key and press Pause/break (Windows shortcut key of the day). This will bring up the system properties dialog, and from there press the advanced tab, and find the “virtual memory” setting (it’s really just the paging settings, for those that know the real definition of virtual memory).
Set the size to something low that you’re comfortable with, and if you have a large amount of physical memory and don’t do any video editing or extensive photoshopping, then go ahead and disable the pagefile entirely.
By adjusting this to the best setting, you will see a huge performance boost since everything Windows does will be loaded into fast physical memory rather than paging it out to the hard drive, further creating a hard drive bottleneck and slowing down memory access for programs. If you resized it a great deal, or disabled it entirely, go ahead and defrag again.
CCleaner, formerly “Crap Cleaner”, does exactly what it’s name implies: it cleans the crap out of your registry. The registry is a huge Windows database of settings and lower-level Windows and application parameters that gets larger with the age of a Windows installation. It also is prone to errors, contributing to its being a root cause of performance problems in Windows installations.
Download CCleaner here, and go ahead and give it a good run, cleaning out temporary internet files, autocomplete caches, system caches and correcting registry errors. Doing so will speed up Windows registry database access and therefore speed up overall Windows/application speed.
Especially important for integrated graphics cards, disable as many visual features of Windows as you can tolerate living without. In Vista, Aero is especially important to disable, and even XP’s menu fading and the like can be disabled for a performance benefit.
Doing this keeps the stress off of the CPU for graphics processing, because not all graphics-related tasks are handled exclusively by the GPU and may require CPU intervention regardless. Integrated cards sometimes use physical memory for graphical textures, so cutting down on how many you use outside of games will speed up other applications.
Run MSConfig, and under the boot tab, enabling the NTLDR /NOGUIBOOT option will decrease Windows’s bootup time, albeit slightly. This is a result of Windows focusing even less on loading graphics at boot time, and therefore lets it get to the nitty-gritty of other core booting functions faster.
Also, disabling Windows Automatic Updates will speed up your computer. If you go through with this, you will have to manually check for updates yourself, but by doing this on your own time rather than letting Windows download and run updates in the background whilst working, you will get a performance boost.
By doing the steps outlined in this post, you will see a tremendous performance improvement in your Windows installation. Be sure to continue to run Antivirus products, because even though they slow down your computer during scans, it is compensated by the fast that most viruses slow your computer down even more.
Most of the services and registry entries that slow down your computer are a result of companies like Adobe and Apple that think only of speeding the launch of their products, without a care as to how much they slow down your computer when idle in the background. These “speedlauncher” programs that normally reside in the system tray are notorious for being memory hogs and slowing your computer down, so getting rid of them is not an issue.
Opening Task Manager after going through all of these steps and checking for memory/CPU hogs is another good idea, and will further help to track down what’s slowing down your system.
I hope everybody enjoyed this article, and gets the most performance out of their Windows installation as possible (for a Microsoft product .
Chris is a frequent contributor to The Coffee Desk, initially brought on as an infrequent "guest writer". He is a gamer first and foremost, but his skill in business and economics and his knowledge of the ever-evolving tech industry earns him the position as one of The Coffee Desk's best editors when it comes to telling it like it is regarding business trends in the software industry.