The Need for Speed

When it comes to personal computing, speed is life. You want Windows to load faster, pictures to draw faster, and files to download faster.

The problem is, the more you use a PC, the more it tends to slow down. Barb Demas can tell you. She runs Home Computing Solutions, a consulting firm in Colchester, Vermont, that specializes in troubleshooting PCs in the home and small office. Demas says that over time, Windows-based PCs often succumb to a glut of startup programs, Windows services, and hidden files and templates.

"Even if you don't know it, there are so many things running in the background at startup that don't need to be running," says Demas. "I go through and clear up everything that doesn't need to be in the startup process. That makes a huge difference."

Fortunately, a little house cleaning can go a long way in restoring pep to that tired PC. Whether it's sweeping out the Windows Startup folder, optimizing network settings, or using software to clean out the Windows Registry, there is a lot you can do to revive a struggling system. Some tips are easy to follow, such as simply restarting your system. Others are full-on computer tweaks, such as forcing your CPU to run faster than it does, that should be undertaken with care.

Here is a sampling of ways you can squeeze every last bit of speed out of your system, without shelling out for new parts (or even a new system).

Simple Tips

Performance doesn't suit? Reboot! Windows can run uninterrupted for months at a time--but that doesn't mean it should. Depending on the applications and devices you use, Windows over time can grow progressively slower and less stable. Periodically restarting the system lets Windows get a fresh start, often freeing memory and other resources that ill-behaved software and hardware refuse to let go of.

Defrag that drive. Disks are bigger and faster than ever. The problem is, they are also more of a bottleneck to system performance than ever, since spinning disks are so much slower than lightning-fast processors and memory. Keep things running smoothly by reordering and streamlining the files on the disk using Windows' Defragment utility. Click Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter and click the Analyze button in the program window. Windows will produce a report on your disk, giving you an idea of how fragmented your files are. Once that's done, you can choose to kick off a full defrag session. Just be warned: It can take a while!

Another tip: Drives filled to capacity are much more prone to fragmentation than those with plenty of free space. Before defragging a drive, make sure you create free space for Windows to work with so it can fully optimize the layout of your files. Delete junk you don't use any more, or move it to some removable media--which leads us to our next tip.

Take out the garbage. Windows saves everything, and I mean everything. Temporary files, browser cache, old program installation files--you name it, Windows is probably stashing it on your hard drive. Clear out the detritus with Windows XP's Disk Cleanup. Click Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Cleanup to put the program right to work, scanning your drive and looking for files it can delete or compress.

In the Disk Cleanup dialog box, check the items you want Windows to delete. You can also click the More Options tab to wring further efficiencies out of your PC--for instance, nuking all but the most recent restore point data, which is used to recover Windows from serious crashes. Run Disk Cleanup every month or so to prevent unused or unnecessary files from taking over your disk. If you want to keep a tight rein on Windows' temp files going forward--and improve your personal privacy, to boot--download IE Privacy Keeper, a free little utility that makes short work of dusting clutter from your disk.

Open media files fast. If you want to launch an image, video, or audio file quickly, you should look for outside help. Irfanview is a marvelous little program that opens nearly every type of media file in a flash. It even lets you touch up photos and images. Irfanview won't optimize your system, but it will let your system access media files a lot faster. And it does it for free.

Supercharge your searches. I've spent so much time searching for files and data in Windows and Microsoft Outlook that I've ground my molars down to stumps. Want to avoid crowns? Tweak the Windows search facility. Click Start, Search, For Files or Folders. In the Search Results folder interface pane, click Change Preferences, then click the With Indexing Service link. Click the Yes radio button and click OK. Windows will now index files on the disk during idle moments, resulting in much faster searches. Another option: Install the heralded Google Desktop search utility. It produces lightning-fast searches on the desktop. Just keep your eye out for any security updates Google may release.

Speed up menus. If the Windows Start menu and other application menus take a moment to appear on screen, you can speed things up by disabling shadows. Right-click an open area of the Windows desktop, click the Appearance tab, then click the Effects button. Uncheck the Show shadows under menus check box. You can also uncheck the 'Use the following transition effect for menus and tooltips' checkbox. This disables the fade effect that can sometimes add overhead to menu displays. Click OK and click OK again to adopt the new settings.

Advanced Tips

Stop using Internet Explorer. Microsoft's Web browser is a hog. Switching to the Mozilla Firefox or Opera browser can yield swifter program launches, faster page loads, and an all-around smoother ride. In my personal experience, Firefox has proven the fleetest browser, but Opera consumes the least system memory--useful for older systems with 128MB or 256MB of RAM.

Tune Internet connections. Are you getting the most out of your broadband connection? Go over to SpeedGuide.net and find out. Run the TCP/IP Analyzer routine in your browser to check the health of your connection. You can find it under the Broadband, Broadband Tools menu on the left side of the page.

If you want, you can download the free SG TCP/IP Optimizer utility (also under Broadband Tools), which tests for the most effective MaxMTU value (maximum transmission unit--basically a data packet size) for squeezing more data through your broadband link. Tell Optimizer what type of connection you're using, run through the diagnostics, then let the utility fine-tune your settings.

Cleanse the Registry. Do you install a lot of software and devices? Have you owned your PC for a couple of years? If you answered yes to either of these questions, your Windows Registry is probably a mess.

The Registry is the central database where Windows stores all the configuration data for your system. The problem is, that database can get filled with a lot of junk, be it entries from long-since-removed programs or from hardware you no longer use. The answer? Use a freeware or shareware utility like RegClean to find and erase those dead-end entries. You might also consider the $20 Registry Mechanic.

Travel Lite. Windows is packed full of stuff we simply do not need, which is why the folks at LitePC cooked up XPLite, a $40 utility that strips unwanted features out of Windows XP. Use the software to de-feature your Windows configuration until it loads in a fraction of the time of the standard package. There are also versions for Windows 2000 and Windows 98--handy for wringing performance out of truly aged PCs.

Expert Tweaks

Slim down startup services. Every time you boot up, Windows XP launches dozens of cryptically named programs and services, many of which you don't need. You can use Windows XP's Services facility to get things under control. Click Start, Run, then type services.msc to launch the Services facility. Click the Extended tab at the bottom and look for service entries marked Automatic in the Startup Type column. Click on a service entry to read a description of it to the left. For instance, my PC automatically loads a Bluetooth service, even though I haven't plugged the Bluetooth PC Card into my notebook for nearly six months.

Double-click any offending items, then select Manual from the Startup Type drop-down list box. Now this service will only be loaded when you tell it to. Finally, click the Stop button to unload the service from Windows.

Push that processor. You want something for nothing? Try overclocking the processor in your PC. The BIOS software in many systems and motherboards lets you manually set the clock rate of both the CPU and the front side bus that runs between the processor and system memory. Nudge these up a few percentage points, and you can add oomph to the most demanding games and applications.

To do this, go into the PC's setup program by pressing the appropriate key during boot-up and before Windows starts (you'll be prompted with text on the screen). Then find the area where CPU settings are accessed (often in the Advanced section). Use the interface to nudge up the CPU or FSB speed, depending on what is available on your system. Save the settings and reboot, and the system will run at the new clock rate.

Don't try to do it all at once. Rather, dial in small increases, running a benchmark program such as 3DMark between each boost to test the overclock configuration. Once you hit a failure, reduce the clock rate until the system is stable again.

A word of caution: While most CPUs can be safely overclocked, there is a risk is that an overclocked CPU may fail due to overheating and stress. So it's a good idea to make sure your system is well ventilated and equipped with working fans before turning up the thermostat. Also ensure you have your data backed up, because overclocking failures can be both quick and catastrophic.

Push pixels. While we're overclocking, you might try amping up graphics performance by pushing the graphics card to new levels. You'll need a third-party utility like the free RivaTuner, which lets you muck around with the settings on many ATI and NVidia-based graphics cards. As with CPU overclocks, the risk of frying the GPU (graphics processing unit) goes up with the clock rate. But most graphics cards are more forgiving of memory overclocks, so you should focus most of your efforts there.

Now, how's that new lease on life? If you're still not getting the kind of performance you want out of your PC, you may be in need of some strategic upgrades. Check back in two weeks and I'll detail the components you can add yourself that will transform your system.

Michael Desmond is a freelance writer living in Burlington, Vermont. He looks forward to cold Vermont winters because he can overclock his processor much higher than he can during the hot summer months.
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