In previous OS News articles, I described how mature computers
up to ten years oldcan be
refurbished and made useful. One
article identified and evaluated different approaches to
refurbishing. This article tells how to performance tune a mature
Windows computer to make it serviceable again. I hope it will interest
anyone who wants to tune Windows.
I volunteer with a charity that accepts computer donations, refurbishes
them, and gets them to people who can’t afford new computers. A quarter
the donations we receive are perfectly good computers that are tossed
out simply because Windows needs a tune-up.
Windows performance deteriorates over time. Just like your car, Windows
needs to be
tuned up to
perform right. Unfortunately most people don’t know this. They consider
their computer to be more like their TV or microwave oven — no
maintenance needed. What a shame, when
so many computers could stay in service with a simple tune up.
This article gives you a quick overview of how tune up a
slowing Windows system.
Before you can performance tune Windows, you have to ensure it’s free
of malware. Malware consumes computer resources to run
you don’t want
to run. Last month’s article
described a step-by-step procedure by which you can easily remove
malware from most
computers, based on my free comprehensive guide How To Secure Windows and
Your Privacy. You need to remove all malware from
a computer before you can tune
Since Windows XP was the dominant Windows offering from 2001 to
2007, we’ll focus on it.
The tips also apply to Vista and Windows 7, but
are fromXP. The information is based on my illustrated
to Tune Up Windows (which covers all Windows versions.)
I’ll assume that the copy of Windows you want to tune resides on an
“unknowncomputer” — a computer about which you can make no
If you’re tuning a “known” computer, your own machine, you may be able
to skip some of the steps.
Back up Windows prior to changing any working
system (even if it’s performing poorly). Use Windows’ System Restoreor
System Protection feature to make a backup or “restore point” for
Windows before you start: Start
-> All Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools -> System
Google “Windows tuning” and you’ll find tons of good performance tips.
there’s a problem. Many web sites present random tips without
prioritizing them. Thefocus
is on high-payback techniques that do not require deep expertise. I’ll
stick to what’s easy and
There are four goals in performance tuning. You want to:
- Reduce the processor load
- Reduce memory usage
- Reclaim disk space and optimize disk access
- Ensure optimal use of the network connection
How important each of these is depends on the system you’re tuning.
What’s Slowing Down Your
Some Windows computers are slow due to a bottleneck,
a single resource that is in short supply. The bottleneck slows down
the entire system. Your system could have a processing
bottleneck,a memory bottleneck,
free disk space or slow disk I/O, or a slow network connection.
Identify the reason a
system is slow — the bottleneck — and resolve it, and you’ve fixed
Or your system might be short on several resources. In
this case you don’t have a single bottleneck you can address to fix
performance. The tips I’ll discuss below might provide a solution. Or
maybe the computer just doesn’t have the resources you need to perform
the tasks you want. In this case you might need to upgrade all
resources by buying a new
The key point is that slow systems
of one or more specific causes. No
system is “just slow”
— there are always specific reason(s) a system is slow.
To identify which resource(s) are lacking for the tasks you’re
trying to perform, view system operation when performance is poor.
Windows includes several excellent tools for real-time performance
and tuning. The
one tool available in all Windows versions descended from Windows NT is
Manager. (The powerful Resource
Monitor was introduced in Vista and improved
for Windows 7, but it’s not bundled with XP.)
The Task Manager allows you to see, in real time,programs’
use of the CPU, memory, disk, and the network connection. To
access it, just
simultaneously press either Ctrl +
Shift + Escape or Ctrl
+ Alt + Delete.
The screenshot below shows the Task Manager. In XP it only has five
tabs, for Applications, Processes, Performance, Networking and Users. The Processes tab lets you view CPU and
memory use in real time. Click View
on the top menu bar and you can easily add I/O statistics to the
default display (as shown below). These are
useful because they show you which processes perform the most disk I/O.
XP Task Manager Processes Panel
To see real-time use of any resource sorted by usage, just click or
on the column heading for that resource in the display. For example, to
find which processes use
the most CPU, justclick on the CPU
column heading. To find which processes are using the most
memory,click on Mem Usage.
Processes that remain high on the
list over time as the Task Manager
auto-updates its display are your “resource hogs” for that resource.
You can correlate the resource hog processes to their
application programsby clicking on the Applications tab. The Applications tab only lists foreground applications, programs
that you have specifically launched.
this understanding you can which resource(s) are
your poor performance. Then you can deducehow to rectify
the situation. If only one resource is short, address the bottleneck
and you’ve fixed the performance problem. If several resources are
strained, you might be able to address the problem by following the
tips below. Or you might need a more powerful system for the work
you’re trying to perform.
Typical Tuning Steps
the Task Manager you have a tool to analyze performance and identify
resource limitations. For typical consumer computers, what are the
commonareas you’ll need to tune?
nearly always find unneeded programs you can prune from these areas:
- Start-up list
The Start-up List and Systray — Pruning the Start-up list
makes Windows boot faster. It keeps unnecessary programs out of memory
and off the processor list. This is important because these programs
remain memory-resident during your entire session whether or not you
This also eliminates unneeded Systray
programs that launch during
start-up. Check your Systray, down in the lower righthand corner of
your screen … do you recognize every icon there? Is
each for a program you need and use? If not, you want to eliminate
those that are
The reason the start-up list accumulates unneeded programs is that many
applications add processes to it when they are installed (usually
asking). Many also try later on,
too, through the technique of “deferred infiltration.” The
result is that consumer
computers quickly become cluttered with little-used start-up
processes. These remain memory-resident for the duration of the session
even if they are never used.
With “well behaved” applications, you can remove their unneeded
start-up list processes and systray icons merely by changing their
configuration options. Often you just double-click or right-click on
their Systray icon to access their options panel.
Many times you’ll have to remove unneeded processes from outside of
the application. Access Windows start-up list through the System
Utility by Start -> Run -> msconfig.
Or use the a free “startup manager” program like WinPatrol, Startup Inspector, or StartUp.
I recommend WinPatrol because it allows you to review and manage all
four of the above areas from within a single tool. Also, WinPatrol
stops any new process from silently adding itself to your start-up
list. To keep good performance you
need to lock down your start-up list going forward! Nothing
get added without your active affirmation.
WinPatrol intercepts any attempt to add a new process to your start-up
list. It presents a message box
allowing you to indicate whether any new process should be added. If
you haven’t had this protection before you’ll be astonished at how
frequently programs frommajor vendors try to sneak their
wayinto your system. It’s “industry-standard practice,” as
they’ll tell you. It’s also why so consumer computers take so long to
either the System Configuration Utility or one of the free start-up
manager tools, you’ll viewa list of all the start-up processes.
You can disable any you want to eliminate. If you don’t
know what a process is or what it does, just google it.
For example, say you notice a
startup item named jusched and
wonder if it’s something you should keep active. Google on jusched and you’ll quickly find out
what this process does and whether you need it. Or look at this web site for the
most comprehensive database of start-up processes around. Good
sites will warn you if any process is spyware or malware.
In the case of jusched, the
web search finds
that this is a legitimate program, the
Java Update Scheduler. Unfortunately, this program sits in memory all
time just to check once a month if there is a Java update. You can
disable this process and use the Windows built-in Task Scheduler
saving the overhead jusched
otherwise causes. This is a great example of a legitimate program that
wastes resources because its function can be
accomplished more efficiently by other means. Typical consumer Windows
systems are cluttered with such processes.
You may occassionally run into an ill-behaved process or malware that
remove through the means I’ve described here. These require editing the
Windows Registry or using anti-malware tools. Read here
for how to edit Registry start-ups. Read last month’s article
in this series for a step-by-step procedure on how to eliminate
Services — Just like the start-up processes, many programs add
unnecessary Services (resident background programs) to Windows. And
Windows by default runs many Services you don’t need. The reason is
that Microsoft has no way to predict which of the Services you will
use. So the philosophy is: better to make it available at a small cost
in overhead than have the user not have access to the Service. Now is
the time to tailor what Windows offers to your own needs.
turn off unnecessary Services
or go to the Windows’
Services panel: Start ->
Panel -> Administrative Tools -> Services. Set any
Services you don’t need to Manual
You’ll notice each Service has a one sentence description. Sometimes
tell you whether you need the Service, but in most cases it won’t.
Windows’ famous ease of use does not apply to Service descriptions.
Therefore, either visit excellent Service reference web sites like The Elder Geek and Black Viper,
or google Service names just like you did with the start-up
processes. I can’t providea complete list here because there are
Services. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the default
Services and their settings vary by Windows version — and even by
Service Pack! Your goal is to stop any Service you do not need
automatically starting every time you boot your computer.
Schedulers — Access the Windows Task Scheduler
WinPatrol or byStart ->
Control Panel -> Scheduled
Disable any scheduled programs you don’t need. Reschedule the
to the times that are optimal for you and your use of the computer.
not unusual to see all kinds of resource-intensive batch programs
launch atrandom times onuntuned consumer computers,
regardless of the
inconvenience this causes.
Many programs use their own built-in schedulers. Check these
product-specific schedulers to see
when they launch resource intensive programs.
Either reschedule the program for a time more convenient to you or
disable it if it is not needed. I’ve found it useful to consolidate
and control all scheduled programs through the Windows Task Scheduler,
rather than allowing scheduled jobs to be launched from many
Nothing is worse than being in the middle of
delicatework when a background program unexpectedly auto-launches
the system. We’re talking about mature systems in this article, so we
assume your system has
single CPU. This issue isn’t nearly as onerous with state-of-the-art
multicore systems that better support heavy background processing and
Mature computershave much less memory for graphics than
machines. This is especially true for display monitors plugged into the
motherboard’s built-in graphics interface rather than to an add-in AGP
graphics card. Most motherboards offer the minimally
acceptable amount of graphics adapter memory for their era. For an
older computer, this means “not much GUI memory.”
For XP you can conserve resources and often enhance
performance by turning off Window’s visual
effects. To do
this,right-click on My Computer
-> Properties -> Advanced Tab -> Performance Settings button.
Then: Adjust for Best
Performance -> Apply -> OK
The same procedure allows you to revert back to full graphic effects if
desired. Just select Adjust for Best
Appearance in the final step.
Efficient Use of the Computer
Many performance tuning web sites don’t mention the biggest factor
affecting Windows performance — you.
Three of the biggestimpacts on how your computer performs are:
- How you use it
- The applications you run
- How much concurrency you demand
you use the computer has a huge performance impact onmature,
single-processor systems. Want to slow down your system? Open
windows. Open dozens of
browser tabs. Launch background processes while you
do interactive work. Let Windows’ Automatic Updates run when it wants,
rather than when it makes sense for you. Starta big background
utility like an anti-virus
scanner or disk cleanup program to guarantee your system bogs down.
Work on a performance-compatible mix of tasks and you’ll
find your old computer is much more responsive. When you the nature of
your work allows
it, take this
to its logical extreme — work on one task at a time.
Pick the most efficient applications
for the tasks you want to perform.
For example, say you have a little writing to do. You could
latest version of Word. But sometimes older versions are more
efficient in terms of start-up
and the size of the output “.doc” data files they create.
Older versions of
software sometimes performbetter than
newer versions. If the older version still contains all the features
want and performs better,
consider using it instead of the newer version. My favorite example of
this principle is Adobe’s PDF Reader. Older versions are so much more
resource-efficient on older machines that they load visibly faster, yet
for my use, all versions just perform the same basic function of
viewing PDF files.
writing example, you might seek analternative to Word that is
more efficient. AbiWord is one
possibility, or here
are more free options. More efficient
is to write the document with an HTML editor, like Kompozer. Or
consider a text editor like Wordpad. Quickest of all is Notepad. It
doesn’t have the features of a word processor, like Word or its
competitors. But if you’re just writing a shopping list or taking down
notes,do you really need a Word processor? Select the most
that still meets your needs for the task you want to perform.
Many users never consider that they could perform tasks more
efficiently by working more efficiently. Or by picking more efficient
programs. It all adds up, especially for mature computers. This chart
suggests someefficient replacements for popular resource-heavy
|Application:||Popular Resource Hog:||Alternatives:|
is way faster than IE,
especially on older computers. It’s the Windows efficiency champ. Opera
is alsofaster than IE.
|Word Processor||Word||Use AbiWord or|
alternatives to word processors such as HTML editors like Kompozer. Best of all use light
text editors like Notepad, when possible.
or other free alternatives on this web page.
|Outlook||Based on this|
forum thread and this
one there are faster free alternatives. You might also try web mail
systems like Gmail
if you have a fast, consistent network connection.
|Web site Generator||Dreamweaver, NetObjects Fusion||Use HTML editors likeKompozer|
or text editors like Notepad when possible.
|PDF Viewer||Adobe Acrobat||Foxit|
reader orolder versions of Adobe Acrobat perform way better than
newer Adobe releases. Find more viewers here.
|Image Editor||Adobe Photoshop||I use Microsoft’s simple|
program to resize, crop, rotate, perform simple
edits, and convert file formats — all the functions many casual users
mentioned that Internet Explorer often runs slowly on mature computers.
reason is that it
becomes cluttered with all kinds of add-ons. As with their start-up
list, most users don’trealize that their copy of IE has been jam
packed with “helpful” add-in extensions.
installed Browser Help Objects
(BHO’s), toolbars, and extensions
program makes it easy to disable and eliminate whatever you don’t want
or won’t use. Going forward,
WinPatrol will give you lock down control over IE add-ins in the same
way it protects your start-up list.
Tasks panel shows what’s currently running (sometimes useful
Here I’m checking IE for unnecessary add-ins.
Reclaiming Disk Space
To clean up the disk(s) of an unknown computer,delete unused user
accounts and reclaim their space. You’ll also want to
delete user data files. If previous users followed Windows convention
most of these should be in their Documents
or My Documents
folders. Otherwise you can use Windows’ Search function to easily find
files of specific types. You’ll want to delete old Microsoft Office
Especially important are space-consuming multimedia
video, photographs, and images). Sort
file Search results and you’ll
often find that
deleting the dozen biggest filesreclaims more space than
deleting the next hundred. Be sure to check for other large file
such as archives (*.zip), downloaded self-installing product files
(*.exe), and disc
Review and un-install any unneeded programs by Start -> Control Panel -> Add or
After you un-install any application
check its folders to verify that
underlying files were actually removed. Sometimes you’ll see
un-install removes a program from Windows Registry but doesn’t delete
all its disk files.
Next, use the option on the Add or
Programs panel to remove unused Windows
Besides deleting pre-existing Windows user accounts you’ll also want to
remove users’ profiles from common
applications. A good example is email. Deleting previous user email
accounts along with their stored emails can reclaim significant space
if the email is stored on
the computer (rather than a remote server).
Once you’ve deleted and reclaimed user disk
space,eliminate the many Windows files that are no longer needed.
Windows’ Disk Cleanup and the free program CCleaner together
delete tons of old Windows files. These filesinclude temporary
files, temporary internet files, histories,
cookies, flash cookies, recently typed URLs, autocomplete
search autocomplete, most recently used (MRU) lists, log files of all
Many people don’t realize that
a list of all the web sites they
ever visited. Depending
on whether Internet Explorer auto-complete is
enabled Windows stores this in either one or two places. Deleting these
lists reclaims significant space on mature computers and addresses
After running programs like Disk Cleanup, CCleaner, and PurgeIE, most
mature XP computers still waste gigabytes of disk space on obsolete
Windows files. These reside in folders used for obsolete
AutomaticUpdates, Windows hot fixes, IE version
upgrades, Office and Outlook upgrades, and
especially Service Pack installs and Windows version upgrades.
Cleaning up these folders falls outside the scope of our goal to focus
on “… high-payback techniques that do not require deep
expertise…” Each folder has a different, complicated tale to
tell. If you’re really short on disk space and have the time and
expertise to pursue it, google
on the folder names you’re interested in (usually $hf_mig$,
$NtUninstall, ServicePackFiles, Installer, SoftwareDistribution, and the ie* folders). If any reader
knows of any easy-to-use tool that cleans all this up, accurately and
reliably for all Windows versions, please post a
Once you are quite sure your system is in a good stable state and that
you’ll never need them, delete older System Restore points. Start the
Windows Disk Cleanup program,
the select the More Options
tab and the Cleanup… button
under the System Restore
The system will ask you if you want to delete all restore
points but the most recent one. Reply “yes” to delete all restore
except the most recent one. This simple action often
reclaims gigabytes of disk space.
After Reclaiming Disk Space
you’ve reclaimed all possible disk space, you’ll want to run
to finish up properly. First, empty the Recycle Bin. Windows does not
reclaim disk space for reuse until you do this.
Second, run a “secure deletion” program like Eraserto over-write all
unused parts of the disk. (Other options are the last free
version of BCWipe
or recent versions ofCCleaner.)
These programs obliterate any user
data you have deleted via Windows by over-writing it. Until you
do this, some
files might still be retrieved using tools that recover deleted
files, because a Windows Delete only removes the directory pointer to
the data file on
disk. It does not destroy data in the file until it re-uses that
On an unknown computer, it is
critical to securely delete data from previous users because you don’t
know what those files are. They could contain illegally
music, video, photographs, software,
or child pornography. You don’t want thaton the computer.
the United States, the courts generally consider any data on a computer
to be yours even
if you didn’t
know it was
there, based simply on yourpossession of the computer. U.S. law
enforcement uses full disk search programs that will find data
not been securely deleted.
Improving Disk Access Speed
Finish with the disks by runningtheWindows disk
utility. You can find it by right-clicking any disk drive in My Computer, then selecting Properties and the Tools
tab. Defragmenting a disk aids performance because it packs data
contiguously on the disk. Otherwise the disk is “honey-combed,”
intermixing data with free space, which slows data
Save this step until last to ensure you only have to
“defrag” each disk once. (By default Windows 7 and Vista run Defrag
weekly. XP does not schedule Defrag by default.)
Does Your Computer Need More Memory?
This article describes software techniques to tune up Windows. Still,
there is one hardware improvement worth mentioning because it enhances
the performance of most mature computers — topping out the
memory.Used memory is
cheap and this is the single hardware upgrade
that almost always improves performance on older systems.
To determine if your XP system would benefit from more
memory, use the computer as you typically would. Then start the Task
Manager and select the Performance
XP Task Manager Performance Panel
On the bottom half of the panel you’ll see memory usage statistics. The
Commit Charge (K) column Totalamount shows how much
memory you’re using right now, while the Peak amount shows the most memory
you’ve used during the session. Compare both these numbers to the
number for Physical Memory (K) column Total. If the Commit Chargenumbers exceed
that for the Physical Memory
column Total, then the
computer would benefit from adding more physical memory.
To apply this to the above illustration, the system is presently using
389,548 bytes of memory. The maximum memory used during the session is
457,464 bytes. Both are under the amount of real memory on this system,
which is 522,544 bytes. So in this example the
computer has 512M bytes of real memory and appears not to need any
more, at leastbased on usage in the current session.
This analysis does not apply to Windows 7 and Vista. These
systems list the Paging
File size on the Performance
You need to add more memory if the paging
file approaches the maximum size listed. Systems perform best when some
memory is stillAvailable orFree. I recommend using the
Resource Monitor to determine when you need more memory. This
article describes a precise technique using RM to see how many page faults are
occuring, which indicates whether you need more memory.
USB Memory is Useful
Another quick hardware
upgrade that improves older computers — add a USB memory stick. With
capacities now intogigabytes, this is an easy way to expand
available storage space at little cost. Plus thumb drives are great for
are easily portable. They can substitute for a slow or broken CD
drive or act as an extra disk drive if you have little free disk
Vista and Windows 7 even have a feature called ReadyBoost
that allows the OS to use USB memory as if it were internal
memory. XP does not support ReadyBoost.
What Not To Do When
their performance tuning zeal some web sites advocate turning off
Windows features. This conserves the computer resources these functions
would otherwise consume. Butconsider what
you’re losing when you turn off each feature.
For example, many sitesrecommend you disable System Restore or
User Account Control.Thiscertainly saves resources. But
these are vital features for most consumers. Iwould not turn
them off if I were tuning a computer for an end user.
Some web sites urge you to clean Windows’ Registry and
a small industry has sprung up selling Registry cleaners.
The trouble is that Registry cleaning requires judgment not easily
embodied in an algorithm. Fully automatic Registry
cleaning can mean inaccurate
changes — a major issue given the criticality of the Registry to
programs have devised two key strategies to address this:
- Automatic Registry backup prior to cleaning (with easy restore)
- Asking the user which proposed changes to apply to the Registry
wouldn’t recommend Registry cleaning unless you have strong
expertise and a good backup. As stated
at Gizmo’s Freeware, “…since the introduction of Windows XP registry
cleaning is no longer a crucial issue…” I favor the view
sometimes promoted at Microsoft that Registry
defragmentation may be worthwhile for advanced users but that
usually is not.
Why Does Windows Slow Down?
Sometimes end users will ask you why their computer slows down over
time. This is a huge question with lots of complexities. You could
discuss Windows’ system design goals, the trade-offs between those
goals, goal prioritization, programmer costs to implement versus
relative user savings, ways operating systems self-manage, power
struggles between Microsoft designers and
marketing directors, planned obsolescence, and whether it really makes
future astronauts to upgrade Voyager IV’s 4k memory module
to modern standards when we finally fly past Pluto. By this time the
person asking the question is probably really
grateful they didn’t major in Computer Science. Or maybe they quietly
slipped away to get a coffee.
Here’s the short answer most people need: protect your system from
becoming bogged down with malware and other legitimate — but
unnecessary — programs that try to insinuate themselves into your
Then tune it up once a year. You don’t have to be an expert to keep
Windows humming. But you do
have to be cognizant that Windows can not protect itself from unneeded
programs, and that, like a car, it sometimes needs tuning.
I’m sure readers will have many additional good tuning tips, so please
add yours in a comment to this
article. Thank you.
In a previous article
that identified and evaluated different approaches to refurbishing
mature computers, I suggested that one valuable technique is
torun more than a single operating system. This couples all
the advantages of the existing Windows install with the
benefits of free and open source software.Next month I’ll
describe and compare different ways to run multiple
operating systems on one computer.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who
databases and operating systems. His hobby is refurbishing computers as
a form of social work and environmental contribution. Reach him at contactfci at the domain name of sbcglobal (period) net.
|Previous Articles in this Series:|
Reuse with Open Source
|How to defeatplanned|
obsolescence through refurbishing
“Recycled” Computers Are Not Recycled
|What really happens to many|
to Revitalize Mature Computers
|Overview of how to refurbish|
|How to secureWindows|
Secure Windows and
|Free comprehensive e-book tells|
how to secure
Windows (July 2008)
to Tune Up Windows
|E-book tells how to performance|
Windows (March 2010)