I recently wrote an article on what I was installing as software for my new netbook and I realized that some of it was for the sole purpose of speeding it up from its default configuration. I’m going to share some of that information along with other ideas here so that you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to.
Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7
I’m very familiar with Windows XP as the workhorse that it has turned out to be. I’m only vaguely familiar with Windows Vista and I haven’t even seen Windows 7, except through the eyes of other writers.
From what I can tell, some of this stuff applies to Vista and doesn’t apply to Windows 7. I could be wrong about that, but Windows 7 is still a baby so only time will tell.
Get Enough Memory
Microsoft loves telling you the minimum requirements for running any of their software products. If you stick with their minimum requirements, your PC will move at turtle speed. If you want a PC that will operate the way you expect, you need much more RAM to begin with. Luckily, most PC distributors will provide about half of what you need and some of them will provide as much as you need, without it costing more than you would expect.
The minimum requirement for Windows XP is 128 MB of memory. Are they kidding? A typical Windows XP computer requires more than that just to boot up once any new software is installed. I have been able to work with 512 MB, having to keep the number of applications open to a minimum, but 1 GB seems to be perfect for everyday usage. I’m not talking about machines being used for PC gaming because they require as much memory as can possibly be installed.
I don’t care which operating system you use; if you can install up to 4 GB of memory, do it. The 32-bit versions of Windows will address more than 3 GB and not quite 4 GB, but you can’t go wrong if you have that much.
The Swap File
Also called the Windows paging file, the swap file is designed as virtual memory that’s added to the physical memory. When you run out of physical memory, memory is swapped to and from the paging file in order to keep your applications running.
If you have a lot of memory — more than you need to run all of your applications at once — how the swap file operates won’t mean much to you. If you run applications that use almost as much as your physical memory and sometimes a little more, you’ll want to make sure the swap file operates at peak efficiency. If your hard drive thrashes continuously, your swap file needs to be optimized and you probably need more memory as well.
Experts argue about how large a swap file should be and try to give magical figures that will solve any problems. The truth is that the operating system knows how large it should be. It just doesn’t set it up the right way. What I always do is set the minimum and maximum sizes the same and as high as the system recommends. This creates a fixed swap file size that rarely, if ever, causes problems. On my machine with 1 GB of RAM (and some being used by the video), Windows XP recommends 1485 MB, which happens to be about 1.5 times my physical memory size. I rarely use more than 1 GB (caused by Firefox sucking memory if I don’t restart it periodically) and my PC runs at its top speed.
Defragment the Hard Drive
The built-in defragmentation utility provided with Windows XP and Windows Vista is practically worthless, in my opinion. It’s inefficient and it takes what seems like forever, even on a lightly fragmented drive. You don’t need to spend money on a better defragmenter because developers have created free utilities which, in my opinion, are just as good as the commercial offerings.
The utility I use is called MyDefrag and it does the job quickly and efficiently. I recommend defragging a hard drive not more than once per day and you can set up the Windows Scheduler to do exactly that.
Defragging a hard drive is an important optimization step. As files become fragmented, the hard drive seek time takes longer. A heavily fragmented hard drive can take two to three times the amount of time to load or save application settings and files.
Defragment the Registry
I found out by testing my new netbook that the registry is fragmented before you even add the first software application. The larger the registry is, the more memory it will consume the entire time your PC is running. I use Free Registry Defrag to analyze my registry and if it says I should defragment it, I will.
This is something that should NOT be done on a frequent basis. I recommend doing it when you’ve installed new applications, or a bunch of updates, and after you’ve uninstalled applications. The size of the registry doesn’t fluctuate enough to mess with on any other occasions.
Clean Out the Junk
Another software application I installed and ran before adding more software to my netbook was CCleaner. This particular piece of software will let you remove all kinds of unnecessary junk and make fail-safe registry corrections. You just need to pay attention to the instructions and not do anything you’re unsure of.
There are 101 commercial PC clean-up and optimization tools for sale out there. You don’t need any of them if you use the tools I recommend. The last piece of software I recommend is TweakNow PowerPack 2009 because it lets you tweak performance settings that would probably take you forever and a day to find through the regular Windows interface.
If you have a solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard disk drive (HDD), I recommend defragging no more than once per month. An SSD uses flash memory and has a limited amount of write cycles. Everything seeks faster using an SSD so fragmentation isn’t as much an issue. One defragmentation session will eat up a lot of those write cycles. A better way is to simply copy everything onto a HDD and then back again, much like what I do with USB flash drives.