A Windows Treatment
If Windows stumbles but doesn't fall, your PC likely needs only refurbishing, not a full operating system makeover. In fact, machines with startup problems can usually be repaired without a last-gasp reinstallation. (Of course, if your PC experiences problems before Windows loads, chances are they have nothing to do with the OS; click here to read Kirk Steers' "Five-Minute Fixes" from January.) Follow these steps to reinvigorate your current Windows setup.
Cut Back on Autoloads
You may be amazed at just how many programs load automatically at Windows boot-up and then run in the background as you work (not all of them appear as icons in the system tray, either). Each of these programs uses memory and other resources, which might even cause a conflict with another program.
To view your list of autostart apps, select Start, Run, type msconfig, and press Enter to open the System Configuration Utility. (Windows 2000 lacks this utility, download Mike Lin's free Startup Control Panel alternative for that OS.) Click the Startup tab (see FIGURE 1
Windows 2000 needs no autoload programs, and Windows XP requires only one--sort of. If you don't use Microsoft Messenger, you may want to uncheck 'msmsgs', but doing so can cause problems with Outlook, Internet Explorer, or other Microsoft programs. Windows 98 and Me have several autoloading applications. In these versions, keep LoadPowerProfile, SystemTray, ScanRegistry, PCHealth, and TaskMonitor selected (including both instances of the first one if it's listed twice, which can occur as part of Windows' boot process). If you use Windows' Task Scheduler, don't uncheck SchedulingAgent (to find out whether a program is using the applet, select Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Scheduled Tasks and see if anything is listed). For Windows Me, keep StateMgr.
Determining whether you need your other autoload apps requires a bit of detective work. You can usually figure out what application put the entry in your startup list by reading the information in the Startup tab's Command column. For instance, if you see that the loading file is located in the Roxio folder, it's a good bet that the entry is a Roxio program. Google can also help ferret out the source of these programs; if you search for the file name, you're bound to find an explanation.
Keep checked any listing related to your firewall or your antivirus program to make sure they're always running in the background. On the other hand, some autoloaders put an icon in the system tray for launching an application that you could just as easily launch from the Start menu. Having these programs autoload is a waste of resources, so uncheck away.
Sometimes it's a judgment call: If a utility enhances Windows in a way you like, running it at all times could be worthwhile. The four programs recommended in "Longhorn's Features--Now" fall into this "maybe for you" category. But even then, if Windows gives you trouble, consider disabling such a program--at least temporarily--to see whether it's the culprit; life may be better without it.
Unfortunately some unchecked programs have a way of reappearing checked and autoloaded, even though you just unchecked them. Why? The application that installed the autoloading program sees what you've done, and responds by "correcting" your mistake. (Older versions of Real Networks' media player are known offenders.) If this happens to you, unchecking the option will just create a cycle of frustration. Instead, launch the application and explore its menus, looking for a "load at startup" option. When you find it, uncheck it.
If you don't find such an option, check the vendor's Web site, or as a last resort call its technical support line. If you discover that there's no way to turn off the autoloader, and you have no good reason to leave it on, ask yourself how badly you want that program on your PC--which brings us to our next section.
Uninstall Unused Apps
A program doesn't have to be running to mess up Windows' performance. Getting rid of all the applications on your PC that you no longer use is a good idea. Doing so isn't always easy, however.
Most programs have their own uninstall routine. Unfortunately, these routines seldom remove everything. All too often installing a program gives you both benefits and problems, and uninstalling it removes only the benefits. I sometimes suspect that software developers write installation routines on the assumption that you bought your computer to run their software exclusively, and they create uninstall routines only because they have to--while reassuring themselves that no one would ever want to use the feature to remove their programming masterpiece.
Nevertheless, the program's own uninstall routine is the best place to start the removal process. You might find a shortcut to the uninstaller on the program's Start menu entry. If not, select Start, Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs (in Windows XP) or Start, Settings, Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs (in all other Windows versions). Find the program you want on the 'Currently installed programs' list (under the Install/Uninstall tab in Windows 98), click the Add/Remove or Change/Remove button (see FIGURE 2
You haven't really gotten rid of the program yet. Reopen the System Configuration utility to see whether the uninstalled application still autoloads anything; if it does, follow the steps in "Cut Back on Autoloads" above. Next, open Windows Explorer and delete the program's folder inside the C:\Program Files directory (if it's still there). And if a shortcut to the program is still on the Start menu, right-click the item and then select Delete.
To reassign any file associations that the uninstalled program may have claimed, open Windows Explorer, select Tools, Folder Options (View, Folder Options in Windows 98), and click the File Types tab and then the File Types header under 'Registered file types' to sort the list of file types by program (this header isn't available in Windows 98). Check the list for any extensions associated with the uninstalled program. If you find one, click Change and select a new program to open that file type. For example, if you uninstall an image editor, you can reassociate .bmp files with Windows' own Paint utility. Or click Delete to make .bmp an unassociated file type. Then you'll be prompted for which program to use each time you attempt to open a file of this type.
You'll also want to clean the program out of the Windows Registry. (See "Pare the Registry" below for instructions.)
Ferret Out Spyware
You need to scan your system for spyware regularly, but it's especially important to do so when Windows behaves oddly (well, more oddly than usual).
No anti-spyware program I've used finds all the miscreants, so you should run more than one scanner. Fortunately, two of the best are free: Lavasoft's Ad-Aware and Patrick M. Kolla's Spybot Search & Destroy. Click here to download these and other popular (and free) spyware catchers. Get the latest updates for the programs after you install them and before you scan your system.
SpywareGuide (www.spywareguide.com; see FIGURE 3
Update Your Drivers
Conventional wisdom urges us to frequently update our drivers--the programs that tell Windows what to do with hardware. Of course, conventional wisdom once held that the world is flat.
If your PC is running well, there's no reason to update your drivers. But if you're having trouble, a driver update might help. First, open Windows' Device Manager by right-clicking My Computer and selecting Properties. In Windows XP and 2000, click Hardware, Device Manager. In Windows 98 or Me, click Device Manager.
Look for entries with yellow question marks or red exclamation points: The question mark indicates that Windows is using a generic driver for that device instead of one designed for it, and an exclamation point means that the device is not working. The drivers for graphics boards, sound cards, and printers are most likely to need an update. Drivers under 'Computer', 'Disk drives', 'Floppy disk drives', and 'Keyboards' rarely require updating.
To update a driver, double-click the component listing and choose Driver, Update Driver in the product's Properties dialog box (see FIGURE 4
Even if the wizard doesn't find one, a driver update may be available. Search for a new version on the vendor's Web site, or enter the full product name plus the word driver in a search engine. When you find an update, make sure it works with your version of Windows. Either the new driver will install automatically after you download and run it or it will provide you with installation instructions.
Updating a driver could make things worse, however. In Windows XP, click Roll Back Driver under the Driver tab in the Properties dialog box to return to the previous version. If you regret updating a driver in 98, Me, or 2000, your only option is to replace it with a generic driver (at least until the vendor releases a bug fix).
Pare the Registry
There's no bigger rat's nest on a well-used Windows system than the Registry. Whenever you install software, change hardware, or download something from the Web, you pour gunk into this vast, loosely constructed database that Windows relies on to work properly. Cleaning it out can make a world of difference in Windows' performance. Before you start, make sure you can restore the Registry to its previous state should you delete the wrong key. Windows 98, Me, and XP (but not 2000) back up the Registry automatically, but it doesn't hurt to make an extra backup before doing something that could hose your PC. With your personal data, it makes sense to store the backup at another location, but that's not the case with the Registry backup. If your hard drive goes bad, it's pointless to restore this Registry backup in another Windows setup.
In Windows XP and Me, you can use System Restore to back up the Registry. Select Start, All Programs (Programs in Me), Accessories, System Tools, System Restore, Create a restore point, and then follow the prompts. To back up the Windows 98 Registry, select Start, Run, type scanreg, and press Enter. When you see no more errors, click Yes and then OK.
Windows 2000 offers no reliable way to back up your Registry, so you have to use third-party software. I recommend Lars Hederer's free Emergency Recovery Utility NT (ERUNT).
There are easier (and safer) Registry-cleaning tools than Windows' own Registry Editor. One is ChemTable Software's $30 Reg Organizer, which gives you a conventional Registry editor (prettier than Microsoft's), as well as a tabbed view of Registry keys that often need cleaning (such as File Types and Startup Processes). You can even create a list of favorite Registry items and return to them with a single click (although a list of Registry keys that you must return to repeatedly would more appropriately be called "least favorite").
Reg Organizer's Registry Cleanup tool searches for problems and presents its findings. It can, at your discretion, repair some of the errors it finds and delete entries that it can't repair. And here's another cool Reg Organizer feature: If you've just uninstalled a program, click the utility's Search and Replace icon to finish the job. Here you can delete all listings containing the removed program's name (or the name of its vendor).
If you're brave enough to clean out the Registry with Windows' own Registry Editor, read "Care and Feeding of the Windows Registry," Stan Miastkowski's May 2002 Step-By-Step column, for instructions.