Keep Windows running smoothly

c: | f: /

When Windows slows to a halt or your computer takes 15 minutes to boot it’s probably time you bone up on how to prevent it happening again.

If you’re unlucky enough to be running Windoze and it gets slower and slower as time goes by then there’s no easy way to say this: you’re doing something wrong. Luckily, I have some simple tips to keep things sweet.

Googling for answers tends to give a wide variety of hints and fixes that usually end up with one or all of the following sentiments:

  1. Post your HijackThis log output
  2. Defrag your machine and update your virus definition files
  3. You’ve got a virus: reformat your machine

They’re all wrong. Universally wrong. Because once your machine has started down the path to crawlsville it’s hard work to claw it back. What you need is preventative advice on maintenance. And this is what you’re now going to find out. A lot of this is specific to Windows XP, but the general ethos is applicable to other OSs too.

Configuration

  1. Control Panel > Advanced > Performance settings: Turn off Animate windows when minimizing and maximising, the three Fade options, Show window contents while dragging, the two Slide options, and Smooth scroll list boxes. If you can live without them you can also turn off the Use visual styles on windows and buttons, the translucent selection rectangle and the shadows. All this stuff just wastes CPU resources
  2. Control Panel > Display > Appearance > Effects…: Turn off Use the following transition effect for menus and tooltips and Show window contents while dragging if it’s not off already
  3. In Windows Explorer, go to Tools > Options > View and make sure to tick on Display the contents of system folders and Show hidden files and folders. Turn off Hide extensions for known file types. For extra geekiness, turn off Hide protected operating system files and for better performance, set your current folder to use the ‘Details’ view and then Apply to all folders
  4. Right-click an empty portion of the taskbar and select Properties > Start menu > Customize > Advanced. Shut off Highlight newly installed programs because it’s a waste of time (you know what you’ve installed, right?) and then go through the list of Start menu items and select Don’t display this item against anything you don’t use, e.g. My Music, Search, My network places and Set program access and defaults. For added speed, turn off List my most recently opened documents: you can open the application itself (e.g. Word) from your desktop and 9 times out of 10 the most recent files you used will be there for you anyway on the File menu
  5. Start > Run and type services.msc /s in the box, then run that command. In the Services panel that appears, double click the following items and make sure they are set accordingly:
    1. Alerter: Stopped and Disabled — unless you’re in the habit of notifying other network users when you’re going to reboot your PC
    2. Error reporting service: Stopped and Disabled — when was the last time an application crashed and you chose to Send Report to Microsoft?
    3. Indexing service: Stopped and Disabled — a colossal waste of processor resource
    4. Also check the status of any services that have an Automatic startup type: a lot of them are operating system things but if there are applications there that you don’t need all the time, either disable the service (if you’ve removed the app) or at the very least set them to Manual so they can start when needed
  6. In Windows Explorer, right click each hard disk volume and choose Properties. Make sure to untick Allow indexing service to index this disk. For the sake of five or ten seconds extra running time to perform a search of your hard drive, the amount of resource this automatic service takes up is simply not worth it; the meta info it gathers is complete dross

Housekeeping

Maintaining computer performance is not about defragging your hard drive every six months. It’s routine stuff you can do to keep stuff tidy, daily or weekly:

  1. Keep your Recycle bin empty
  2. Clear out C:\Windows\Temp from time to time
  3. Empty C:\Documents and Settings\{your_user_name}\Local Settings\Temp fairly regularly
  4. Keep an eye on the directories in C:\Documents and Settings\{your_user_name}\Application data. Quite often, apps that have been uninstalled don’t remove stuff from here
  5. Start > Run and type msconfig. On the Startup tab go through each entry and make sure you really need that program or process running. Things you can probably get rid of have the words ‘update’, ‘upd’ or ‘sched’ in their title (e.g. jusched = Java Update scheduler, google_updater = Google Earth/Chrome auto-update, realsched = real player upgrade, or qttask = QuickTime updater). If you don’t know what something is, Google its exact name, e.g. SynTPLpr and take a rough consensus from the top five or so links on what it might be, then decide if you can live without it
  6. When you install a new piece of software, never, Ever, EVER just click Next, Yes, Next, Next, Next, Finish. One of the most profoundly simple but best things you can do is look for the Change folder option in the installer and use it! Group your applications into logical areas (e.g. Audio, Video, Graphics, Internet, etc) and store your applications in those folders. Do the same when it asks you where you want the shortcut to be put: never let it decide for you, but tell it to put it in one of your groups. If you don’t need it on the desktop or in the Quicklaunch area, don’t put the icon there. If it doesn’t give you such options at install time, move the shortcuts afterwards via Windows explorer or drag n drop them into the relevant folder from your Start menu. I cannot stress the importance of this step. It simply makes your computer feel more responsive because when you hover over Start > All Programs, Windows doesn’t have to build a full list of all 180 applications you’ve installed and figure out how to display them on the start menu. It only has to render your groups, then when you scroll up to a group it only has to read a small subset of items in that group. Keeping your menu/directory structures short and wide (instead of long and thin which is the default) gives a huge performance boost
  7. Related to the above point, you can also do Start > Run and type regedit. Run that command and in the panel that appears, navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER > Control Panel > Desktop. Find a key in the right hand pane called MenuShowDelay (if it doesn’t exist, right click and choose New>String value then type the name in). Double click it and enter a fairly small value (like 30) in the Value data box. Next time you log in/reboot your menus will appear faster after just 30 milliseconds instead of the default which is nearly half a second

Things that really help but cost money

  1. More RAM. The best present you can buy Windows is good quality memory. 1Gb is an absolute minimum: more is better, but check the latency of the memory sticks
  2. More than one hard drive. Think parallel processing:
    1. Have one drive that is just your operating system and core files, or partition it and put your OS on the smaller partition and use the other partition for backups and infrequent storage
    2. Put all your data on the second or third physical drive, not on your OS disk. In fact, make a folder on a second hard drive called ‘mydocs’ or your user name or something then go to Windows Explorer, make sure you are in ‘Task’ view (not ‘Folders’ view) and under Other places on the left, right-click My Documents > Properties. Change the Target folder location to be your new directory on your separate hard drive. Doing this helps threefold: 1) in the event you need to rebuild your operating system, your data is not lost when you reformat the C: drive, 2) it helps prevent disk throttling so your disk head isn’t bouncing all over the place trying to read from the application and write your data to the same disk at the same time, 3) it spreads the risk of data loss (think eggs in one basket). One thing you may like to do is turn off System Restore on non-OS (Data) drives. If you are monitoring all drives and need to do a restore after installing some software which hoses your OS disk, you’ll find that your latest spreadsheet or document has gone along with it. Control Panel > System > System Restore, click each non-OS drive/partition and shut it off. You can also reduce the amount of disk space used if you don’t restore that often: it just wastes space otherwise
    3. If you have a third drive — even a paltry 6Gb drive ripped out of an old machine — consider employing it as a scratch disk. Set all your big applications like Photoshop to use this disk as a scratch disk for temporary files. In fact, let Windows use it for its page file as well. Go to Control Panel > System > Advanced > Performance Settings > Advanced (!) > Virtual memory > Change. Click on C:, select Custom size and set both Initial size and Maximum size to something small like 50Mb and click Set; it’s always worth having a nominal amount of swap on C: in case some application is badly written and has hard-coded that it expects it to be there. Then choose your scratch disk from the list. Repeat the procedure but set this one to something large. Conventional wisdom dictates that the maximum size of your swap should be one-and-a-half times your RAM, i.e. on a 1Gb machine set it to about 1500Mb. It won’t hurt to make it bigger if you have the space but anything more than twice the amount of RAM is probably a waste. You can either set the initial size to the same as your maximum or set it to roughly half your installed RAM and let Windows figure it out. Opinions are divided on this but I don’t think it matters too much. Reboot to feel the difference

Avoid list

  1. Never, ever install RealPlayer. It’ll take over your machine and grind it to a halt. There are plenty of other free players out there which do a much better job
  2. Never install registry cleaners — they universally screw things up
  3. Never install spyware sweepers, or anti-virus software, or personal firewalls. Seriously. It’s all crap. More importantly, it stops you from applying common sense and vigilance to your computing habits. If you get emailed a file called Angelina Jolie Naked.jpg.exe and you double click it — with or without a virus scanner installed — you deserve everything you get. At least if you don’t have a virus scanner you can’t shift the blame :-) That’s partly why you should turn off the Hide file extensions of known types checkbox so things like that can’t hide from you

When it comes to viruses, they all have to do something. If you keep your system highly tuned using the above techniques — none of which are rocket science and some you only need to do once — then you start to get a feel for how your machine should respond. If all of a sudden it takes longer than you expect to boot up or perform some task then it might indicate some infection (or it could be your latest application which may have started some annoying service / updater you don’t need). In the case you find it is a virus, grab a copy of the standalone virus/spyware removal tool that’s specific to the parasite you have, boot into Safe Mode, blat it and remove the tool.

Also, getting in the habit of looking at what is running on your machine — what proecesses are starting in msconfig and which services are running — means you are more likely to spot foreign stuff that shouldn’t be there.

I have a lowly single core 1.8GHz machine — five years old — and it’s almost as fast as the day I installed it. Same with my 1GHz laptop that’s 7 years old. Magic? Nope. Just combinations of the above. I hope the info’s useful to you too.

2 varmints scribbled here

    hcgtv

    Nice article Stef, it’s very close to what I do on my aging Windows XP laptop.

    The only thing I do different, is run an anti-virus program, I use avast!. There was a time when I didn’t, since I knew what software to install and run, and kept away from stuff I wasn’t familiar with.

    Today, very often I hit a website and avast pops up warning me about a potential issue. So even though my system is locked down, running the apps I trust, the web is the Wild Wild West.

    Were it not for Adblock running in Firefox, the avast popups would happen more frequently, since ads are being used these days to deliver dangerous payloads. Don’t get me started on sites that employ popups or completely take over your browser session.

    An anti-virus may slow down your system a tiny bit, but these days, the milliseconds are worth the peace of mind. Especially if you have a home network with other users that may not be as technically savvy as you, where viruses arrive on their machines and travel your intranet.

    Stef Dawson

    Yep, I hear you about avast! — I know people who swear by it.

    One thing you reminded me of that I forgot to mention is that of browsers letting stuff through. To help combat this I limit my use of IE to sites I’ve written (for testing only) and set my Firefox cookies to Ask every time. It doesn’t stop stuff from happening but since nearly all popup/tracker sites set cookies, the fact it alerts you when the ad starts gives you a chance to shut the window down before the page fully loads.

    Answering yes/no to cookies is a pain at first, and it’s amazing how many sites use 3rd party tracking stuff, but over time it gets easier. I wish Firefox’s cookie handling was better in this manner, allowing me to accept primary domain cookies only and automatically rejecting 3rd party cookies unless I explicitly wish to override them; a bit like Opera does, although their system is really annoying.

    I appreciate that not running a virus scanner or adblocker is risky. The most common question I’m asked is “but how do you know you haven’t got one if you don’t have a virus scanner”. As I intimated, that simply comes down to knowing your system and keeping bloatware off it (that usually involves wiping the hard drive when you buy a new machine and starting afresh because the amount of junk put on by hardware manufacturers is unreal).

    Sure I’ve had a few close calls and one time a little worm popped in to say hello but it was fairly easy to get rid of. In fact it made it to my machine exactly as you stated: someone on our works LAN got infected and it made it to the network file server (which for some reason hadn’t had its Updates applied) and muggins here put a USB stick in it. The irony of course being that the person who brought it into the company had an up to date virus scanner installed. And had 11 other viruses on their computer that I had to clean. Thank heavens for ComboFix!

    I could write whole columns on how awful virus scanners and personal firewalls are: they either lull you into a false sense of security so you let your guard down, or pop up so many alerts about legitimate programs that clicking “yes” just to shut the damn scanner up becomes second nature — like those popups in Vista asking you to confirm admin access for every tiny operation.

    Worst of the lot, imo, is ZoneAlarm, whose cryptic messages about allowing such and such a process access are so badly worded that you almost have no choice but to allow things to run. Hardly anyone (me included) knows what half the processes in Windoze do.

    Having said that, Personal Firewalls do have their place; for example blocking hokey software from dialling home to check you’re using a legit key. But I wouldn’t know anything about that…

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