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.

Although Windows 8 is Microsoft’s latest operating system, its minimum requirements aren’t much higher than the ancient Windows Vista.

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.

ASUS
The underpowered Asus EEE PC 900 netbook is almost five years old, but it can still run Windows 8 pretty smoothly with a few tweaks.

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

Disabling superfluous graphical effects in Windows 8 will minimize memory use and make the OS feel snappier.

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.

Manually configuring virtual memory settings and specifying a set paging file size will prevent Windows from changing it on the fly.

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.

Disable unnecessary items

To further optimize Windows 8 on older hardware, we recommend disabling as many unnecessary startup items and services as possible, disabling any unused hardware, and turning off any nonessential Live Tiles.

Turning off Live Tiles couldn’t be any easier. On the Start Screen, simply right-click on any Live Tile and select the option to turn it off. By default, Windows 8 launches with the Sports, Travel, Finance, News, Mail, Bing and Weather live tiles all active. If there are any you can live without, disable them to prevent Windows 8 from constantly fetching data and updating them.

After a clean installation on an Asus Eee PC, Windows 8 would launch with 34 running processes and consume 30% (.6GB) of available memory.

There probably aren’t many hardware components that can be disabled, but by doing so Windows will boot faster and with more available memory because the component’s driver won’t be initialized. There are two ways of disabling hardware—via the system BIOS or in Device Manager. The BIOS method is preferred because the component won’t even be recognized by Windows, which will prevent its drivers from loading at all. The exact procedure is going to vary from system to system, but typically you’ll have to press F2 or DEL when your system is first powered up to enter the BIOS and then navigate to the Integrated Peripherals section where items can then be disabled. To disable hardware components via Device Manager, 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 in the System control panel click on Device Manger. When the Device Manger window opens, click on any arrow next to a hardware group to expand the list, and the right-click on an item you’d like to disable and select Disable from the context menu. On our system, we disabled the wired network controller since we were using Wi-Fi and also a Bluetooth controller. Many systems still have BIOS entries for serial ports (RS-232); this can usually be disabled as well.

To disable unnecessary startup items, we’d once again recommend using CCleaner. Windows 8’s built-in configuration utility (msconfig) will work as well, but CCleaner’s startup menu is more comprehensive, expandable, and easier to navigate. CCleaner also has the added benefit of being able to list add-ons launching with Internet Explorer, should you want to clean up the browser as well.

On a fresh Windows 8 installation, there won’t be many startup items to consider. After an upgrade from a previous edition of Windows, or after installing a myriad of applications, however, there will probably be numerous items that can be eliminated. To disable unnecessary startup items, launch CCleaner, then click on the Tools button on the left side of the program’s menu, and then click on the Startup button. On the Startup menu, click on the Windows tab, and every program that launches with Windows will be listed. Delete any unneeded items, which usually means everything except for anti-virus/anti-malware tools and any utilities you use regularly. Any “helper” or “speed launcher” apps can probably be disabled. If you’re unsure, Google the name of the program to ascertain what it does and if it is essential.

There are multiple ways to disable services in Windows 8, but using the System Configuration utility (aka msconfig) seems to be the most foolproof and least confusing. To launch the System Configuration utility, press the WIN+R key combination, type msconfig in the run field and hit the Enter key. When the utility opens, click on the Services tab and then tick the option at the lower left labeled "Hide all Microsoft Services." What you’ll be left with is a list of services installed with any application or drivers that were installed on the system.

You shouldn't start disabling all services willy-nilly, but chances are many application-specific services can be safely disabled. On our machine, even though we started with a clean OS and installed only a few applications, we were still able to disable four services, three associated with Google software updates and another associated with Adobe Reader. There may also be a couple of Microsoft services that can be disabled, like the Theme service or the Touch Keyboard service (if you don’t have a touch-screen), but tread lightly here; if you’re not certain a service can be disabled, leave it alone.

Eliminate annoying UAC notifications

This recommendation may put off PC veterans who manage multiple systems for other, less savvy users; if you are tweaking your personal PC, however, it shouldn’t be an issue. Every time a UAC (User Account Control) warning pops up, not only does it pause the system and require a click, but the warning and screen dimming effect can take an eternity on older hardware. Eliminating UAC notifications entirely can significantly boost the performance of Windows 8 on aging hardware; to minimize the number of pop-ups while still having some level of additional protection, you can also just reduce the UAC notification level.

User Account Control is a security component in Windows which alerts users to changes being made on the system. More experienced users can safely lower the default UAC settings to prevent unwanted warnings and interruptions.

To do so, slide out the Windows 8 charms by placing your mouse cursor in either the upper- or lower-right corner of the screen and click on the Search icon. Then highlight Settings in the Search panel and type UAC into the search field. “Change User Account Control settings” will appear in the left pane, click it, and the UAC Settings window will open. Simply drag the slider down one notch so Windows 8 will no longer dim the screen and will only notify you when an app tried to make changes to the system.  Dragging the slider all the way to the bottom will disable all notifications, which is not recommended unless you're a PC power user who is willing to take the risk.

 

Results

We collected some data on how these tricks affected our aging Asus Eee PC running Windows 8, and here's what we came up with: immediately following a fresh installation (and fully patching the OS via Microsoft Update), Windows 8 would launch with 34 running processes, consume 30% (.6MB) of available memory, and use 9.72GB on the disk in our particular machine. After running Disk Cleanup and CCleaner, 9.52GB of disk space was used. After disabling any unneeded startup items, visual options, services, and hardware, running processes were reduced to the 33 and the used memory dropped to only 20% (.4MB). Anecdotally, the PC seemed to perform typical tasks faster (opening and closing applications, moving files, etc.) and navigating the Windows 8 interface seemed to be much smoother.

Windows 8 runs surprisingly well on older hardware.

The changes we outline here probably aren’t going to affect any benchmark scores, but they will result in a snappier system with more available memory and resources, which is exactly what’s necessary to squeeze some additional life out of an aging PC. Try it out on your hardware and let us know how it goes; if you’ve got some tweaks of your own to optimize Windows 8, we’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

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