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How to speed up Windows Vista: official and unofficial tips

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Microsoft has published an article on speeding up Vista, aimed at general users.

It's not too bad. Here's the summary:

  • Delete programs you never use
  • Limit how many programs load at startup
  • Defragment your hard drive
  • Clean up your hard disk
  • Run fewer programs at the same time
  • Turn off visual effects
  • Restart regularly
  • Add more memory
  • Check for viruses and spyware
  • Disable services you don't need

Still, it's a bit scattergun. I prefer a two-stage approach to improving performance (same applies to a single application):

1. Find out what is slow

2. Speed it up, or leave it out

For example, the benefits of adding memory tail off after a certain point. Task Manager will tell you to what extent RAM is slowing down Vista. Further, adding memory beyond 3GB is pretty much wasted on 32-bit Vista, since the system can only address 3GB, and the BIOS will likely use a lot of the fourth gigabyte address space. That said, a system that is critically short of RAM (in other words, constantly swapping out memory to the hard drive) is in my opinion broken and unusable. Adding RAM in such cases delivers huge rewards.

Uninstalling programs gives little performance benefit if they are not running (unless disk space is limited). The aim is to reduce the number of running processes, not entries in the Start menu.

Vista defragments your drive regularly, by default. The benefits are often rather small, so it would be equally valid to suggest removing it from the schedule, or scheduling it to run less frequently.

The advice to restart regularly needs examination. Yes, a reboot can fix a sluggish machine. But it shouldn't be necessary, and I recall that keeping Vista always-on was intended to be a benefit of the operating system. Yes, here's a quote from a Power Management in Windows Vista presentation [and here's the PowerPoint]:

  • Windows Vista promotes the use of sleep as the default off state

In the right circumstances, Vista can run for ages without any problem. I've actually had Media Center (Vista Ultimate) run for several months without any issues; though this kind of thing is not very green so that's another reason to do regular switch offs. Still, to my mind "restart regularly" is a symptom of some problem that should be fixed.

Turning off visual effects is reasonable advice, though once again it may not yield much benefit. I tried it on my system and was surprised how little difference it made. Reason: I am running with Aero and a decent-ish graphics card, and hardware acceleration seems to handle the visual effects rather easily. Once again, if it's not the thing slowing you down, then removing it won't speed you up. You can test this quite simply, though it is tedious. Try it both ways. Did it make a difference? Measure it if possible.

It really is worth using the built-in tools, like Task Manager and the Reliability and Performance Monitor, to see which processes are grabbing lots of RAM and CPU. One of the good things about Vista is that such tools are easy to find. Click Start, type "reliability", and click the link.

I'd also like to see mention of some favorite candidates for slowing down Vista:

1. Outlook 2007

2. The indexing service

3. Anti-virus software

4. Windows Defender

Hmmm, at least three of these are from Microsoft. Perhaps they are too embarrassing to mention.

Finally, I suspect disk performance is a big factor in real-world Vista speed. The reason is that many applications are very talkative when it comes to disk access. Here's something to try: go along to the Sysinternals site and download Process Monitor. This gives a good picture of what the actual processes on your Vista box are up to. Note how many events are occurring, how many of them involve file I/O, and which processes are responsible. You will also discover a large part of the reason why Outlook 2007 is so slow.

PS Another article, also just published, has good coverage of swap files and ReadyBoost.

This article originally appeared in ITWriting.

Copyright (c) 2007, ITWriting.com.

A freelance journalist since 1992, Tim Anderson specializes in programming and internet development topics. He has columns in Personal Computer World and IT Week, and also contributes regularly to The Register. He writes from time to time for other periodicals including Developer Network Journal Online, and Hardcopy.

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