Hidden Performance Gizmos
Although not intended as performance tools per se, a number of the apps in the Administrative Tools Control Panel applet available in all versions of Windows include options for revving up your system. These settings are much easier to reach when you put them on the Start menu, however.
To do so in Windows 2000, right-click the taskbar and choose Properties. In the 'Taskbar and Start Menu Properties' dialog box, click the Advanced tab. In the Start Menu Settings scrolling list, check Display Administrative Tools and click OK.
In XP and Vista, right-click the Start button, and then choose Properties. Click whichever Customize button is selectable. If you use the Classic Start menu, check Display Administrative Tools in the 'Advanced Start menu options' list at the bottom of the dialog box. If you use the default Start menu, click the Advanced button in the top right of the window. Under 'Start menu items', find System Administrative Tools and select whether to display it on the All Programs menu or on both the All Programs and Start menus (see the screen shot at upper right). Click the OK button twice.
Mind Your Memory
Poor performance may signal problems with your system RAM. Vista will prompt you to use its Memory Diagnostic Tool if it detects a problem with your RAM, but if you want to be sure, you can run this utility any time you want: Choose Start, All Programs, Administrative Tools, Memory Diagnostic Tool. (Click Continue if prompted by User Account Control.) To check your system, click the first option, Restart now and check for problems (recommended).
The tool will reboot your PC, and you'll see a text-based (or DOS-like, for you old-timers) screen. Press <F1> for more options. You can choose from three types of tests: Basic, Standard, and Extended. Selecting one from the keyboard displays a brief description that is incomprehensible to all but the most serious of geeks. Leave the highlight on one to select it and then press <Tab> to move to the next section, namely the Cache settings and the Pass Count, or the number of times you want the test repeated. If your PC gives no indication of problems, I recommend the Basic test with the defaults for the Cache and Pass Count. Press <F10> to start the test with these settings.
The memory test can take several minutes. After it reboots your PC, Vista displays the results; if no problems are found, Windows will start and show a pop-up in the system tray to report that fact. If it reports errors, replace the memory modules; browse to "How to Upgrade Your RAM" for video instructions.
Scrub the Services
Every time you start Windows, it loads a bunch of "services" that perform various tasks, some of which you may not need. The fewer services you run, the faster Windows starts and the more memory you have for applications and tasks.
Making changes to services can cause problems, so set a System Restore point or back up your Windows Registry (browse to "Block Spying Cookies, but Keep the Helpful Ones" and scroll to the middle of the page for directions.) Even after this precaution, be careful about which services you disable. Never shut down a service you don't understand, and don't disable several at once. Instead, turn one off and see if your system runs okay without it for a while before disabling another.
To control which services run, use (what else?) the Services tool: Click Start, All Programs, Administrative Tools, Services (or open the Administrative Tools Control Panel applet; see "Hidden Performance Gizmos" above). Which services are listed depends on your computer's configuration. In XP and Vista, a short description appears on the left when you select a service (see the image at the top of the next page). If you don't see the description, select the Extended tab at the bottom. In Windows 2000, choose View, Details and look for a Details column that explains each item.
Disable all the tools you don't use. For example, if you never send out faxes from your PC, double-click the Fax service in the list to open its Properties dialog box. Next to 'Startup type', choose Manual or Disabled. The former prevents the service from starting with Windows but keeps it available when needed.
If the description in the Services tool doesn't help identify it, search Windows' 'Help and Support' program (look for a shortcut on your Start menu). For a thorough description of services along with suggestions on which you can safely disable (sorted by Windows version), consult the Black Viper Web site.