To read the advertising by Windows maintenance suite vendors, you’d think Microsoft sells technologically challenged operating systems that will function properly only with the grace of third-party intervention. For XP, and to a lesser extent Vista, there might be a grain of truth to that—a very small grain that can be easily addressed without a suite. Windows 7 or 8? They run just fine with only occasional, minimal intervention.
In truth, the utilities that Microsoft has included with all its operating systems since XP, a select freebie or two, and a modicum of knowledge are all you need. (And if you can automate some maintenance tasks, all the better.) Here’s how to keep Windows humming as sweetly as when it was first installed.
If you don’t use it, ditch it
One of the major performance sucks on any system is software you don’t need. It’s not the applications themselves, which only waste disk space when they’re idle, but the background processes and start-up overhead they create that’s the problem. Even useful and popular applications spawn unnecessary stuff, but we’ll get into that later.
Some vendors litter their PCs with “branding” software that duplicates Windows functionality, but has the vendor’s name on it. You don’t need a Wi-Fi connection utility—Windows has its own. It’s quite elegant. The same goes for disk and device management. Branding apps can be removed for a cleaner, faster-booting Windows.
To remove useless or redundant software, open the Control Panel and go to Programs>Programs and Features. Peruse the list and uninstall anything you don’t require. How do you know it’s something you don’t require? If it’s an application you don’t use, and it doesn’t belong to Windows, it’s quite likely dross. But you’ll need to do some research on the web for software you don’t recognize. Information is readily available and you may, of course, re-install if you make a mistake.
The number one post-purchase cause of pointless software bloat is blindly clicking through installation routines. It seems that these days, every piece of free software, and even some pay software, wants to install a browser toolbar or reset your home page. They get paid if you do, and probably even if you don’t. Step through installation dialogs carefully and decline any offers, which will usually be selected by default.
There are third-party uninstallers that do a slightly better job of removing traces of uninstalled software, such as directories, files, and registry entries that for some reason vendors don’t or can’t remove. However, a cleanup program such as Piriform’s CCleaner and Wise Registry Cleaner will take care of these traces as well. Both are free and standalone, i.e, they don’t annoyingly integrate themselves into Windows as many do.
One other thing you should check for periodically are duplicate files. These may accumulate over the years as you make ad-hoc backups, re-install software that may use a different location to store data, or download the same stuff inadvertently. A good duplicate file finder such as Auslogic’s Duplicate File Finder or Nirsoft’s SearchMyFiles is all you need for this. They’re both free.
Disable background apps you don’t use
As I mentioned, even useful software will install and run stuff you don’t really need. For instance, Java and Adobe install updaters that continually suck CPU cycles and slow your boot times. If your Java is out of date, your browser or Java apps will let you know.
Adobe, Apple, Intel, and others love to install background applications that help their software load faster or assist in some other way. If it’s for a piece of software you use regularly, it may be worth it. If not, you might want to disable it.
To disable a background app, run msconfig.exe in Windows XP or 7 or the task manager in Windows 8, and select the Startup tab. Once again, searching online for information may be required to find out what’s useful and what’s not. Some programs still use the Startup folder on the Start Menu, so you can remove items from there as well. There’s no undo as with the Startup tab, so while you’re only removing a shortcut, it pays to be a bit more careful with the Start Menu.
Note: Adobe Flash is an oddball: You must log on to the company’s website to stop it from automatically updating itself.
Back in the days of FAT16 and FAT32, defragmenting files made a noticeable difference in hard drive and system performance. But with the advent of NTFS, faster CPUs, and more memory, defragging your hard drive is rarely necessary, and the difference may not be noticeable.
That said, an occasional defrag isn’t going hurt—once every six months should do it. Windows 8.1 elects to automatically “optimize” (defrag and rearrange files) your hard drives on a weekly basis. I’d argue for my semi-annual schedule, but as long as it’s not happening while you’re trying to work, it’s no big deal. All this is done via the Optimize Drives dialog in Windows 8.1. Older versions of Windows require right-clicking on a drive icon, selecting Properties, then Tools, then Defragment Now.
The Windows defragger is more than adequate, but there are numerous third-party replacements such as Auslogic’s Disk Defrag, IObit’s Smart Defrag 3, and Piroform’s Defraggler. They purportedly work better by offering more control over where files are placed. I’ve used or tested them all, and all work well. Is there a discernible difference in the results versus the Windows defragger? Maybe on an old, slow system, but I sure can’t tell the difference on mine.
Note: Never defrag an SSD. SSDs don’t store files contiguously, so defragging not only doesn’t work, any attempt wastes precious write cycles. Instead…
TRIM your SSD regularly
Now this is a bit of a tricky one. Windows 8.1 Optimize Drives is smart enough that it doesn’t defrag SSDs (make sure you’re updated—this wasn’t always true), instead sending a command that tells the SSD to perform its housecleaning. You may have thought that because your operating system supports TRIM (Vista and later, XP with drivers), that your SSD is continually taking care of its housekeeping chores. You’d be wrong. Instead, like a lackadaisical child, it says it will, then puts it off as long as it can.
Alas, Windows XP, Vista, and 7 don’t have this optimize command, so you’re dependent upon a utility from your SSD vendor, if they even provide the function. Most don’t. There’s also a program called Solid State Doctor from LC Technologies that will force the housekeeping as Windows 8.1 does.
A workaround, if you own a copy of Windows 8 (updated to 8.1 for the optimize function), is to use Aomei’s free Partition Assistant to create a Windows-to-go thumb drive. Use it to boot to it and run the Optimize Drive function on the host system’s SSDs. It’s my current MO for older Windows installations running off of SSDs.
Keep reading to learn how to manage the Windows registry and update drivers.
Flush flotsam from the registry every once in a while
About the only thing really missing from Windows’ own utility kit is registry cleaning and optimization. Microsoft says you don’t need it. That may be true, however, there’s a little neat-freak in a lot of us, as well as memories of the old days, where a bloated registry would actually take a noticeably longer time to load. That latter measurement may have been exacerbated by “watched pot syndrome.”
Strictly necessary or not, I run CCleaner or the Wise Registry Cleaner, which also condenses the registry, regularly. Largely because I install so much software to test, but also because I get paid to ignore my own advice to see what happens. Both programs do a bang-up job of sussing out and removing unused registry entries. They also clean up your hard drive by deleting cached files, and unlike Windows cleanmgr.exe, they do so for non-MIcrosoft software.
Update your drivers and BIOS, maybe
There’s a truism: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If your PC is functioning fine, then the hardware drivers and BIOS are doing their job. If your PC is getting quirky, and you’re noticing irregularities in, say, printing, then search out the latest drivers for the device in question. If the driver has been submitted to Microsoft, then Windows Update or the Update Driver Software function will find it for you. If not, visit the vendor’s site for the latest and greatest.
BIOS updates are often issued, but rarely required. Quite often you’ll see the comment that you shouldn’t update unless you’re experiencing the specific problem that’s fixed by said BIOS update. Other times, there will be support for newer technologies or peripherals, which you’ll probably want. Apply as needed, but be careful. Make sure there’s no power interruption, and make a backup of the old BIOS and your settings just in case.
There are third-party driver installers in many suites as well as some standalones. They can be useful at times as they keep track of drivers that may not have hit the Windows driver repository. Personally, I like to search myself to learn more about the update. But generally, if it ain’t broke… I have many IT colleagues who totally disagree and install every update. Your call.
Monitor system health
Many maintenance suites install a background app to monitor your PC’s health. You don’t need it. Windows provides its own, and every modern BIOS (invoked by pressing DEL, TAB, F2 or another key at boot-up) monitors such things as CPU and system temperature, as well as hard drive health via S.M.A.R.T (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology). At least it will if you tell it to—it’s often turned off by default.
If there’s something amiss with your hard drive, the BIOS will warn you at boot time, and if you suspect somethings amiss with your fan, CPU, or its installation, there’s always a section of the BIOS section that will show you the temperature, fan speeds, and other data. Reboot and seek it out if you hear your fan whining more than usual.
If you want to know what’s going on with your CPU, memory, and disk access within Windows, open the task manager (taskmgr.exe) and choose the Performance tab (and Networking tab prior to Windows 8). Or, download the super-lightweight and free OpenHardwareMonitor. OHM is clean, simple, and shows you the temperatures of all the hardware components, voltages, fan speeds, and more. Motherboard vendors often provide monitoring apps as well.
If you want more detailed S.M.A.R.T info than your BIOS provides, or to invoke your drive’s own integrated short and long self-tests (many BIOS’s lack this facility), Passmark’s free DiskCheckup is the ticket. If you suspect drive problems, run the short test first, then the long test (hours for large, multi-terabyte drives) if you’re certain the drive is at fault. It may not be. I hate when that happens.
You don’t need a suite to keep your PC in ship-shape, though more power (and clutter) to you if you install one. Just forego real-time optimization features—they may hurt rather than help performance. See my recent System Mechanic 12.7 review.
For those of you who read the ending first, or like things neatly tied up, here’s a brief synopsis, automotive-style.
30-day service (once a month)—Optimize SSD (Windows 8.1 Optimize Drive or equivalent), run disk cleanup to remove unneeded files
180-day service (every six months)—Defrag hard drive, search for and remove duplicate files and empty folders
Inspect and fix as needed—Upgrade drivers and/or BIOS to solve hardware issues; update software if necessary. Watch installation dialogs for unwanted side-installs of software. Disable background tasks that are re-enabled after software updates.
Required tools: Windows’ own utilities, plus CCleaner, Wise Registry Cleaner, OpenHardwareMonitor, and Passmark DiskCheckup.
Jon Jacobi is a musician, former x86/6800 programmer, and long-time computer enthusiast. He writes reviews on TVs, SSDs, dash cams, remote access software, Bluetooth speakers, and sundry other consumer-tech hardware and software.