How to optimize Windows 8 on old hardware
Microsoft has made a point of advertising the performance enhancements and optimizations being made to Windows 8. Although Windows 7 was well received and typically offered better performance and stability than its much-maligned predecessor, Windows Vista, Microsoft had some loftier goals in mind for the jump to Windows 8.
Although it’s too early to confirm that Microsoft has achieved all of their goals, it appears they're on the right track. Windows 8 has generally been an improvement over Windows 7 on the few systems we've installed the RTM release on: they boot up and shut down quicker, for example, and overall performance seems faster. This makes sense, because the new OS is built to boot and shut down faster than previous editions, use less memory and disk space, consume fewer combined processor and GPU resources, and accommodate a wider range of devices and screen sizes.
The Windows 8 file manager, task manager, and even the setup process itself has been optimized; the ultimate goal for these improvements is to enhance performance and minimize resource consumption, which in turn would lower power consumption and potentially improve battery life on laptops, tablets and other mobile devices. So while it's not terribly expensive to build a new PC tuned for Windows 8 (check out our guide to building a speedy Windows 8 PC for under $500) you might want to try installing it on your old PC first and implementing a few of the tricks and tweaks we've learned from testing Microsoft's latest operating system.
While Windows 8 is designed to be installed on cutting edge technology, it was also engineered to work well on lower-performing hardware. In fact, Windows 8’s system requirements are barely any higher than Windows Vista’s, which was released almost six years ago.
According to Microsoft, Window 8’s hardware requirements are:
- Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster
- RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
- Disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
- Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver
If you’d like to take advantage of some of Windows 8’s ancillary features and capabilities, these additional items will also be required:
- To use touch, you’ll need a tablet or a monitor that supports multi-touch.
- To access the Windows Store to download and run apps, you need an active Internet connection and a screen resolution of at least 1024 x 768.
- To snap apps, you need a screen resolution of at least 1366 x 768.
- Internet access (ISP fees might apply)
With that said, Windows 8 should still install and run on some systems that don’t meet these requirements. To test that theory we installed it on an ancient Asus Eee PC 900, which is powered by a lowly, single-core Intel Celeron M 900MHz CPU and paltry integrated Intel 915GM graphics. The Eee PC 900 system had been updated with 2GB of memory and a 64GB solid state drive, though.
As you probably suspect, Windows 8’s performance isn’t stellar on a machine with such meager specifications, but the OS was surprisingly smooth. It wasn’t until the system was taxed with a handful of running applications and multiple open browser windows that things significantly slowed. We managed to remedy the situation with some tweaking and streamlining, and now we know enough to show you how you can optimize Windows 8 on an older PC.
New OS, new issues
Before we dive into the actual Windows 8 tweaks we made to our low-end Eee PC, we should mention that it is exceedingly common (and dare we say expected) that any new operating system will have its fair share of bugs. As such, it is paramount that users looking to migrate and get the most out of Windows 8 download the latest patches for their software and install the latest drivers for their hardware.
Although nearly any component or device that works with Windows 7 should also work with Windows 8, there are low-level differences between the operating systems that could affect compatibility, stability, and performance. Keeping the OS patched and using the latest drivers available for Windows 8 will help ensure optimal performance and stability, so run Microsoft Update and seek out any new drivers available for your components right away.
Don't rely on Microsoft
Microsoft may have made great strides in recent years to improve the reliability and performance of Windows, and the company does include some useful tools to help users maintain their systems, but there is always room for improvement. Many free third-party applications are more comprehensive and offer additional features than Microsoft’s built-in tools and the adaptive nature of a few of Windows’ features consume resources and can affect the user experience on slower hardware. Because of this, it’s often beneficial to replace or augment some of the tools built into Windows 8 and manually specify some settings to prevent the OS from having to manage them on the fly.
If you have a hard drive, the first thing we’d recommend is replacing Windows 8’s built-in disk defragmenter (do not use a disk defragmenter on a solid state drive). Windows 8’s built-in defrag utility isn’t bad, but there are a few free solutions out there that are much better. Defraggler, available for download at piriform.com, is a free replacement for Windows’ integrated disk defragmenter, and (because it does a more thorough job analyzing and remedying file fragments) drives defragmented with Defraggler can theoretically offer better performance. The real-world performance differences will be miniscule, but on older hardware every little bit counts. We’d suggest downloading and installing Defraggler immediately after installing the OS. Do a Disk Cleanup to free up some space, update the OS, and then run Defraggler to ensure the majority of the OS’ files are contiguous and that they are placed on the fastest part of your hard drive.
Another free tool available at piriform.com, CCleaner, can also come in handy when optimizing a system. Not only does CCleaner do a good job of augmenting Windows’ built-in Disk Cleanup utility to better clean out junk files and reclaim disk space, but it has easy-to-use options for cleaning out startup items too. On a fresh installation of Windows 8, the removal of unnecessary startup items is less important, but if you’re upgrading a system that’s already running an older version of Windows, all of the junk that’s polluted the original OS will migrate to the Windows 8 upgrade, so all of the unnecessary junk should be cleaned out.
Here's what we did for our aging Asus Eee PC: First, install Windows 8 to a freshly formatted drive. Next, update the OS and install any patches and drivers available from Microsoft Update. Check the websites of your major component manufacturers (your graphics card, monitor, etc.) and install the latest drivers, then download and install CCleaner from Piriform's website (mentioned earlier). If you're using a standard hard drive (not an SSD), you should also download and install Defraggler. Finally, run Windows’ built-in Disk Cleanup tool and CCleaner. If you have a hard drive run Defraggler and defrag the disk for optimum performance; we didn't need to do this since our eeePC is now running an SSD.
Make some changes
After installing the OS and cleaning up any junk leftover from the installation and update procedures, we move on to tweaking some of Windows 8’s settings to better suit our aged PC. Our first stop was the Advanced System Settings menu, where we can alter the OS’ virtual memory settings and visual options.To get to the Advanced System Settings in Windows 8, switch to Desktop mode, click the Libraries shortcut in the taskbar, and then right-click on Computer. In the resulting context menu, select Properties, and the System control panel will open. Click on Advanced System Settings in the left pane of the window and the System Properties control panel will open. Click on the Advanced tab, and then click on the Settings button in the Performance section at the top to open the Performance Options control panel. Once open, click on the Visual Effects tab at the top and then tick the "Adjust For Best Performance" option and hit Apply. If there is a particular visual effect you’d prefer to leave enabled, you can individually select it here, but the more options that are disabled the better your PC's performance will be.
While the Performance Options control panel is still open, click on the Advanced tab at the top and on the resulting menu click on the Change button in the Virtual Memory section.
There’s lots of debate as to how to best configure Windows’ paging file, but unless you consistently run tons of applications a run out of physical and virtual memory, Microsoft’s recommended paging file size should be fine. The recommended size of the paging file is going to vary based on how much memory is installed in your system; in our Eee PC, which had 2GB of RAM, the recommended size for the paging file was 2039MB. By default, Windows will start with a smaller paging file and scale it up on the fly if necessary. By manually specifying the paging file size, Windows will no longer have to dynamically manage the file and the recommended amount will always be available.
To specify the paging file size in Windows 8, select the Custom Size: radio button in the middle of the Virtual Memory control panel and then input the recommended paging file size in megabytes (listed at the bottom of the window) in both the Initial Size and Maximum Size fields. Then click the Set button, click OK, and the click OK to close the Performance Options window. Click OK in the System Properties window as well, then restart the computer if necessary. However, as noted earlier, you really don't have to do this.