Best Practices for Computer Performance and Safety

Written on April 30, 2010 by William George


In the course of my work as a sales consultant here at Puget Systems, I am often asked how I recommend setting up a computer. After all, providing advice like that on hardware configurations is my job! However, there are some deeper insights into how a computer can be set up which go beyond just selecting the right hardware. There are things I don't often have the opportunity to discuss, and which aren't really within the purview of a system builder. I wanted to take some time to write about the ideas and practices I use in my own computer setups, in the hope that some of this advice will help others to get the most out of their computers.

Hardware Considerations

I primarily want to share setup insights not directly related to the hardware in any given system, but in order to facilitate that advice there are a couple of basic principles of computer design I would like to encourage.

Use a Dual Hard Drive Setup - I strongly recommend having two hard drives: a smaller, fast one for Windows and applications, and a larger one for data storage. Some folks might need even more data drives (which is fine), but the important part is to separate your data from your OS installation and programs. There are several advantages to this approach, including:

  • You can reinstall Windows or programs without affecting saved data files

  • Data can be backed up easily and independent of application files

  • The data drive could be moved to a new computer in the future

  • You can invest in a high-speed drive for your OS / applications without having to buy into large capacity that might be cost-prohibitive

  • You can get a large, slow data drive without having to worry as much about affecting application performance (though data stored on that drive would be slower)

  • Both drives can be active and accessing data at the same time without slowing each other down

Personally, as of writing this document, I use a 80GB Intel SSD for my main drive with a 500GB data drive. I also use an external 1TB disk for backups.

If you want to make it easy to save data to your secondary drive without having to manually change where every file is saved, consider migrating your Documents folder to the drive. You can do this by opening the User folder (top-right option in Windows 7's start menu). In the window that opens, right-click on each of the folders listed there - My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, etc - and go to Properties. Select the Location tab and then click on Move to relocate the folder to your preferred drive.

Get Lots of RAM - It has always been my opinion that more RAM (random access memory) is better than faster RAM. There is anywhere from a 0 - 5% performance spread in most applications between the slowest and fastest DDR3 RAM currently available. This is very small, considering the higher cost of enthusiast memory. However, there is a massive performance difference between having enough memory for everything you are running and falling short of that amount. When you don't have enough memory, Windows will use hard drive space to make up the difference, and that is infinitely slower than RAM, causing a system to grind to a near-halt.

You do need to balance out the amount of memory you get with the cost, and while prices on memory usually trend downward over time they can fluctuate greatly in the short-term. Right now I think that 6, 8 or 12GB is reasonable, depending largely on how many slots for memory a given motherboard has. 4GB is sufficient for more basic usage, but if you tend to run multiple programs at once, I'd aim higher.

Next >
Tags: Advice, Performance

As recommended in the article, I included a 1tb external usb drive in my Puget purchase, specifically for backups. My system has one internal drive. I've been using the external drive for two types of backups: "Windows Image Backup", as well as a backup of my data folders, using copy/paste.

First question: Is there any reason that each type of backup can't reside on the same drive? They both seem to fit, no problem.

However, that brings up a question I haven't researched well enough to get a clear answer: when I hover over the "Windows Image Backup" folder on the external drive, Vista tells me the folder is empty. I tried to google it to determine what's going on, and found a few hits on tech forums that seemed to suggest "Folder Is Empty" is misleading. Supposedly, the contents of the folder are there, but I'm not using the right method to see that it's not empty. What's going on, and is there a way to confirm that the folder is NOT empty? The image creation app certainly isn't giving me any reason to doubt that it's working. Edit: I can see through drive properties view that the contents take up 113gb, of which about 80gm is taken by my data files. That leaves about 30gb or so that could be the Windows Image File, or not.

Hope this makes sense. Thanks in advance!

Posted on 2010-01-26 16:25:08

There is no reason that both types of backups can't be on the same drive, so long as you have space. I keep images of all my computers on one drive, alongside a backup of important data files.

On the issue of the folder reporting itself as empty, I've never thought to look. I will check when I have a chance and see what mine says; if I uncover anything of interest I will report back.

Posted on 2010-01-26 17:20:19

I checked my Windows image backups, and they are not reporting as empty or anything. There are a few subfolders under the main backup folder, and then the data files themselves seem to be under one of those. Check out the attached screenshot.

Posted on 2010-01-27 09:47:09

Thanks, that was helpful. I still don't trust Microsoft, but you've answered my questions.

Just a side note, not asking for more investigation... But because I don't trust Microsoft, I prefer not to rely on the "changes only" method for making Windows image backups, preferring to create a 100% new image each time. But that seems to be too simple for the image creation app, which wants to limit itself to updating the image with changes, not starting from scratch. So I've been formatting the external drive in order not to give the backup app an updatable image file to glom on to. What's interesting is, even after formatting the drive, the image creation app continues to tell me there's an updatable image file on the (now empty) drive. :eek:

Posted on 2010-01-28 07:49:35

Hmm, curious. I really don't know what might be causing that... perhaps Windows 'remembering' that the drive letter you are using is already supposed to have an image on it? Have you tried to see at that point if it will really let you do an incremental backup?

Posted on 2010-01-28 09:04:35

Not tried that, but it's an intriguing suggestion, thanks.

Posted on 2010-01-28 20:59:59

Regarding your comments on "No paging file"

I have also come across suggestions that a way to improve performance is by increasing the page file size to the maximum available.

What do you think about that?

Posted on 2010-02-01 17:07:40

I am pretty sure that if you literally set the paging file to the maximum size Windows will allow that things *will* break when you reboot the computer. Windows will no longer have any significant amount of room for temp files, and you won't be able to save anything. That would be a bad idea indeed.

If you meant instead to set the size of the page file to one specific setting - not an 'initial' and a 'maximum', but just the same number for both - then that would at least help with the potential for fragmentation. It would still let Windows page out data to the drive when there was space left in memory, though, so I think you will still see some performance degredation compared to no page file at all. If you don't have enough RAM, though, that is definitely the way to go.

Posted on 2010-02-01 17:21:07

I gathered from the reading that the recommendation to turn off virtual memory was RAM dependent, i.e., if you have enough RAM you don't need VM.

If I wasn't confused on that point, can you suggest a generically acceptable RAM number? If I was confused, can you clarify?


Posted on 2010-02-01 19:20:00

you may want to change the date on article as it says written on 4-30-10.

you can only pass off an article once not multiple times... where's your webmaster?

Posted on 2010-04-30 05:16:18

I am in the process of setting up my new system and I need advice with two issues. This topic seems to be right on them: Virus protection and Backup.
I'm sure I'm not alone and so perhaps we can work together to get some clarity.
Perhaps we should split this into two new threads: backup and anti-virus?
Your thoughts on how to proceed ?

Posted on 2010-12-06 19:01:22

Here is an informative technet blog post regarding virtual memory size recommendations. Bottom line: it depends entirely on how you use your computer.

Posted on 2010-02-02 07:17:41

On my personal systems I will turn off the swap file once I have 4GB or more (on modern Vista / Win7 systems - XP can get by with a little less). If you tend to run lots of applications simultaneously, or very memory-intensive programs like Photoshop, then 8GB or more might be needed. It really depends on your usage patterns, so if you try running with no swap file then just watch for low memory warnings from Windows; if you get them a lot then you probably don't have enough real RAM for your uses.

Posted on 2010-02-02 10:54:52

Photoshop (Elements) is such a memory pig, I always have to reboot before I use it, and be prepared to reboot in the middle of a project. So.. with 12gb of physical memory, I flipped off Virtual Memory about 2 hours ago, in more ways than one.

I then played a couple of WoW battlegrounds. No problemos so far, gracias! The linked article to was also very much appreciated.

Posted on 2010-02-02 19:59:35

Photoshop (Elements) is such a memory pig, I always have to reboot before I use it, and be prepared to reboot in the middle of a project. So.. with 12gb of physical memory, I flipped off Virtual Memory about 2 hours ago, in more ways than one.

I then played a couple of WoW battlegrounds. No problemos so far, gracias! The linked article to was also very much appreciated.

with 12 gbs of memory that seems crazy.

i use cs4 and NX2 both for my D700 and NX2 i have follewd dr. jason odel's book on nx2 which recomends temp files and cahe on separate drives than program. i get much snappier results whne opening a shoot which may have 100 plus shots in it using ViewNX to cull the keepers and NX2 to work them.....never had to rebooot or anything like that... now about 2 machines back i had to reboot before i would burn a slew of discs via nero.

the internet is full as you well may know of info for Photoshop and photoshop elements...personally i would use adobes recommendations which are a sticky at their support forums before i would rely on others who may have much smaller files, or work with jpegs.... i shoot Raw so that opens a whole difffeent workflow that is more taxing on a computer.

i also listened to recomendations via Puget which early on werent' getting the results expected on 12gbs systems and i7-9xx and Asus P6T Deluxe. I thought they were full of it but this is late novemeber last year and Asus forum proved them correct. Bios updates have fixed all that and i am adding some ram to get another bit of time out of this year old box before i move on to 6 core but only after second generation. i am done with early adoption... always a few hundred more (in my biz it's a few thousand more) and let someone else be the geneui (sp) pig for a while.

personally i don't see the point in turning off the swap file only to be replaced by ram drive? if i am missing something please enlighten me.

Posted on 2010-02-17 16:40:59

Turning off the swap file and using a RAM Drive serve different purposes. If you were to make a RAM Drive and put the swap file on it that would indeed be pretty rediculous, but that is not my recommendation.

Disabling the swap file forces Windows to use RAM rather than hard drive space, which is vastly slower. Windows *should* be smart enough to never do that when RAM is available anyways, but at least with XP and earlier I observed it doing so. I've not run a Windows 7 system with the swap file enabled long enough to be able to tell if Windows cached data unnecessarily, but this removes the possibility.

Using a RAM Drive can serve many interesting purposes, but in particular I like to use it for temporary files that don't need to be stored on a real drive for any length of time. This again cuts down on disk access, which can improve performance for things like web browsing and other random little tasks. It also make a nice place to store files that you'd rather leave no trace of: you could just power a system off and the files would disappear, with pretty much no possible chance of recovery (assuming that was the only copy).

Posted on 2010-02-18 14:47:36
nick wyckoff

This is a wonderful article that anyone buying a new computer should read. Actually its equally important for someone trying to configure an already owned modern system. I mess with my current PS computer's settings without always knowing what I am doing. This article gives me a new baseline for recommended changes.


Posted on 2010-02-25 17:44:36

Using a RAM Drive can serve many interesting purposes, but in particular I like to use it for temporary files that don't need to be stored on a real drive for any length of time. This again cuts down on disk access, which can improve performance for things like web browsing and other random little tasks. It also make a nice place to store files that you'd rather leave no trace of: you could just power a system off and the files would disappear, with pretty much no possible chance of recovery (assuming that was the only copy).

ahhh that speaks volumes of what we actually have to show any true helpfulness no?

Posted on 2010-02-26 05:42:11

Post your discussion here!

a good read... i need more info on the ram drive and how it would interact or play any role in my audio/photography usuage.

anyone know where i can read more about it as i see both jon and william use it and i am going the 12gbs or ram route from 6gbs. so it may be a thought but all the white papers i have read from MS "said" windows 7 made best use of those components then ever before.... that said we are still working off a slimmed down vista kernal aren't we?

need ram drive info.....

Posted on 2010-02-26 05:40:36

Would there be any advantage or disadvantage in having 3 hard drives in a system: a small (80G) SSD for Windows (and applications that insist on living on the C: drive), plus 2 traditional hard drives for applications and data?

Posted on 2010-03-20 00:09:58

The only reason I can think of for having an additional application drive would be if the main drive didn't have enough room for all of your programs. Most software will benefit from being on a fast drive, though, so I'd just keep them on the C: drive with Windows (that also makes it easy to backup both your OS an applications at the same time).

Posted on 2010-03-20 13:33:30

Oh, strange! I'm not sure how that happened, but I have corrected it. I don't recall the exact date I wrote it, but I set it to the same date that this thread was started, which is at least a close estimate.

Posted on 2010-04-30 09:55:22

I was wondering if using 2 - 2GB DDR3 1333MHz instead of a 4GB DDR3 1333MHz will get me the same performance.

Posted on 2010-06-22 13:29:52

Yes - as long as the memory generation (DDR, DDR2, DDR3, etc) and speed (MHz) are the same then it doesn't matter what size of modules you are using.

However, some motherboards *do* benefit from running memory in either sets of 2 or 3 modules. In that type of case, 2 x 2GB would actually be better than 1 x 4GB. 4 x 2GB and 2 x 4GB would both be the same, though.

Posted on 2010-06-22 13:32:45
Michael McAllister

Posted on 2010-06-30 20:16:23

It isn't that data is left at the end of a browsing session that bugs me, it is the constant writing of cache data which as far as I know all browsers do by default. Firefox *does* have an option to cache browser data into the RAM instead of the hard drive, which is nice, and if that were the only thing making me want a RAM Drive I could see being tempted to just switch browsers. In fact, I used FF exclusively when it first came out: I love tabbed browsing, and IE6 didn't have that at the time. Once newer IE versions included it, though, I switched back. I personally find it easier and more stable to stick with apps included in Windows as much as possible (IE, WMP, etc).

Posted on 2010-07-01 09:57:06
Michael McAllister

I definitely understand the sentiment of wanting the most compatible software. Fortunately, Firefox has become much more compatible with various sites/programs over the years, so you shouldn't run into too many problems with it. I personally like it for the fact that Internet Explorer seems unnecessarily bloated. It doesn't do that well at managing screen real estate.

If you ever get the chance, compare the differences between Firefox and Internet Explorer when it comes to toolbars. In Internet Explorer, a good portion of the screen is used entirely for toolbars. If you have an add-on that uses a toolbar in Internet Explorer, the only way you can get rid of that toolbar is by uninstalling it completely, whereas with Firefox, you have the option to get rid of the toolbar alone, and not necessarily the entire program, which comes in handy for antivirus software (i.e. Norton's browsing protection toolbar).

I also am a fan of Google Chrome. In my absence from WoW, however, my account was phished. Fortunately, I had canceled my subscription prior to this happening, so the offender didn't get access to my bank information (I was using PayPal anyways), but they did manage to lock me out of my account and tamper with my character.

After this happened, I switched back to Firefox because it gives the option to start Firefox in Private Browsing mode by default, and I have a feeling that the offender may have got my account information off of my RAM somehow. :(

Posted on 2010-07-01 10:54:21

I'm aware that this is quite old but I tend to disagree with some of the posts, at least in my experience, and they are on Antivirus and RAM.
In your article you said that more ram is better, I do agree with you 100% but you also then recommended to have at least 6, 8, or 12 gb. This seems quite excessive. Then again, as stated before, this is for my computer usage. If you are running photoshop or catia or autocad or some sort of software like that then I do agree 6gb+ would be recommended. For any other computer though I would say that 4gb is plenty. I have 4 gb and do a good amount of stuff on it at the same time, games, music, movies, internet all at the same time and have only ever once gone above %75. Usually I run right between %25-%60 leaving me with plenty of room. I would have liked the article to read, "without specific RAM intensive programs, 4gb would be more than plenty".
The second problem I had was antivirus. I reread your article and tend to agree with it a lot more now. I have an antivirus program now, I didn't for a while though (like 6 month). I used to use AVG free and now am trying out Microsoft security essentials. The key to a good antivirus is to have a very small memory footprint and to stay out of the way most of the time. Like you said, Scanning all downloaded files manually is the best way IMO. Most of the time you don't need some background program doing whatever it wants to keep you safe. I had norton a while back and absolutely hated that thing. It always said there were problems and would never shut up. Plus it would do its system scans and my whole laptop would freeze and then be really slow for the next 15 minutes while it did its scan.
I like your suggestions for backups, doing them manually and not using system images. My personal method is on my external hardrive, I have a folder filled with all the .exe files that I have installed. This way, even though its harder than a system recovery, I have everything on my current operating system all lined up and able to be put onto a new one if I do get some sort of deadly virus.

Great read though, Thanks _F

Posted on 2010-09-29 08:59:09

Thanks for the feedback, Bosque! I agree that the amount of RAM you need is very much determined by what applications you use (and how many you tend to have running at the same time). The numbers I gave were a bit on the high side, as I think it is safer to err on the side of having more than you need rather than less - and hopefully this way it will be longer before folks start popping in saying "Only 12GB of RAM? Its 2020 now and I have 12TB!" or some such thing. I still remember the famous "no one would ever need more than 640KB" line from back in the 80s :)

Posted on 2010-09-29 10:07:24

Haha so true. Plus with the machines you are making they seem very very sturdy and future proof.


Posted on 2010-09-30 15:42:00

Two threads would be fine, and I'd recommend putting them in the "Computer Software and Gaming" category on the forums.

Posted on 2010-12-06 23:14:03

You need some coffee?

Posted on 2011-01-14 18:26:35