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How to Boost XP Performance

by Mitch Tulloch, author of Windows Server Hacks

A car that isn't tuned regularly soon ends up running poorly and costing more to operate. Nothing is more frustrating than driving to work and being stuck behind a beater that's burning oil. In the same way, it's important to your productivity--and sanity--to ensure your Windows XP computer is tuned and running well.

Let's look at several tips for boosting the performance of your computer to make your journey (work or play) an enjoyable experience. Some of these tips involve simple tweaks or configuration tasks; others are good habits you should follow, like regular car tune-ups; while a few involve expending a bit of time and money.

Souping Up Your Hardware

A good place to start is to make sure the hardware for your Windows XP machine is powerful enough to provide you with a good user experience when you use the platform. The easiest (and cheapest) way to boost your hardware is to add more RAM, and if you're using graphics-intensive programs, you should have a lot of it installed. A faster hard drive can also boost performance--but replacing the drive that has your boot volume requires a bit more work, unless you have a disk-cloning utility like Norton Ghost and know how to use it. Replacing your processor with a faster one also requires some technical knowledge, and overclocking your existing processor can be a dodgy thing as well, so don't go there unless you know what you're doing.

Of course, the best way to soup up your hardware is to ditch that old Pentium II box you've been using and buy a brand-new Pentium 4 hyperthreaded 64-bit capable machine with all the bells and whistles you can afford.

Tuning Your Desktop

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Unless you're a graphic designer or something similar, you probably don't need the 32-bit (highest) color depth on your desktop and can get by easily with the less processor-intensive setting of 16 bits (medium) instead. If you've got a good video card, the card itself does the processing and changing this setting won't make a difference; but on cheaper hardware with shared video memory, doing this may boost performance a bit.

The transitions and fades and other bells and whistles of the XP desktop can slow down the screen operations that draw your desktop and make your system feel sluggish. The simplest way to deal with this is to go Control Panel -> System -> Advanced -> Performance -> Settings -> Adjust for best performance. Enabling this setting basically replaces the default XP theme with the classic Windows 2000 theme by disabling all of XP's fancy visual effects.

You can also use Tweak UI from the Microsoft Power Toys for Windows XP to tweak other aspects of your user interface. For example, I find it annoying that there's a half-second delay as each level of the Start menu opens on my machine, and Tweak UI is an easy way of fixing this.

Optimizing Your Hard Drives

Hard drives tend to fill up over time with unneeded applications, temporary files, system restore points, and other gunk. System Restore by itself has 12 percent of your boot volume space allocated. This is probably way too much for the average user's needs, so you can decrease this to a reasonable level. To do it, choose Control Panel -> Performance and Maintenance -> System Restore, then click on System Restore Settings. On the screen that appears, drag the slider until it reaches the percent of hard drive you want allocated, and click on OK.

Do the same for your Recycle Bin, which by default uses up to 10 percent of each volume--another potential space hog on your machine. Together, that's almost a quarter of your hard drive potentially used up, which for today's desktop computers that typically have hard drives of 80GB or larger is a lot of space! To decrease the space used by the Recycle Bin, right-click on it, choose Properties, and drag the slider until it reaches the percent of the hard drive you want allocated, and click on OK.

There's also Internet Explorer's cache, which on my new machine from Dell is configured by default to store a whopping 252MB of temporary Internet files. Reducing this to 25MB is more than sufficient for most web browsing and frees up lots of space for other uses. To do it, in Internet Explorer choose Tools -> Internet Options, and in the Temporary Internet Files section, click on Settings. Then drag the slider until you reach the amount of disk space you want to use for the files, and click on OK.

Then there are the various temporary files created by different applications like those in Microsoft Office. You can clean out old temp files and a lot of other useless stuff by running Disk Cleanup; see my previous article Disk Cleanup Hacks for tips on using this tool. And of course, don't forget to defragment your hard drive from time to time--do it often if you create and delete a lot of files as part of your work or install and uninstall applications frequently.

Removing Nasties

Spyware and adware can also clog your system and slow down performance. There are various tools for getting rid of spyware; one good one is the free Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware, which, while currently in beta, is quite a good tool. Run this on your system every week or so if you're an active Internet hound to keep your system clean.

Blaster, Sasser, Mydoom, and other worms can also bring your system to a screeching halt, so running the Microsoft Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool regularly is another good idea. Of course, good antivirus software should block such infections from occurring in the first place, but it's still wise to double-check from time to time and make sure your machine is free from such nasties.

Disabling Unnecessary Services

When Windows XP boots, it launches a number of applications called services that run in the background and provide various functions for the operating system. These services consume memory and processing time to various degrees, and on stand-alone home machines many of them don't need to be running and can be disabled. For a quick summary of the services you can safely disable, check out Symantec's recommendations . Be careful though: if you don't know what you're doing you can easily break functionality for certain applications on your machine. A good way to proceed is to disable unneeded services one at a time and verify that all your apps still work properly; that way, if you suddenly discover something doesn't work, you can easily roll back by enabling the last service you disabled.

To disable a service, type services.msc at the Run box or command prompt to run the Services Computer Management Console. Click on the Extended tab, and look at the Startup Type column. That shows which services launch upon startup. Any service with "Automatic" next to it launches on startup. Right-click on the service you want to stop running on startup, choose Properties, and then choose Manual from the drop-down list. The service will no longer start automatically, but you can always start it manually via the console. If you want the service completely disabled, choose Disabled.

Other Tuning Tips

Tuning your pagefile can improve performance, especially if you have another hard drive to which you can move your pagefile. For tips on this, see my previous article Optimizing Your Servers' Pagefile Performance, which, while written with Windows servers in mind, still pretty much applies to desktops running XP as well. The NTFS file system itself is also open to several tuning enhancements that can generate performance gains, and I've outlined several of these in my article NTFS Performance Hacks.

Some users (particularly gamers who have high-performance machines) were concerned about the "improvements" in Windows XP Service Pack 2 and worried that their games might run more slowly after installing the Service Pack. A series of benchmarking tests run by Joel Durham, a Windows XP Expert Zone Community columnist, has fortunately laid to rest that particular set of worries, so if you're a gamer and haven't installed SP2 yet, you can go ahead and do so.

A cool tweak for optimizing memory use is to clear out the prefetch folder on your XP machine. Windows saves information about apps you've started and stores this information in this folder so that the next time you boot, portions of these apps can be preloaded into memory in case you plan on running them again. But what if you don't plan on running them again? Then memory is wasted holding these bits of programs ready. For more information on this tweak, see the article Gaining Speed: Empty Prefetch on your XP System by Robert J. Shimonski, a colleague of mine on, another popular site where I regularly contribute articles.

Finally, if you work a lot with really large files (say you're a graphic designer and you run Photoshop), then you can get a big performance boost by adding a RAM disk to your system. A RAM disk is a way of using physical memory to simulate a very fast hard drive. A good article explaining the benefits of this and suggesting RAM disk products you can use is this article by Juha Saarinen from PC World. Just remember that whatever you save in a RAM disk is toast when you turn your machine off, since memory is cleared at shutdown; it's OK to store temporary files on a RAM disk, but not the new novel you're working on!

Mitch Tulloch is the author of Windows 2000 Administration in a Nutshell, Windows Server 2003 in a Nutshell, and Windows Server Hacks.

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