Improving Windows XP Performance

Written on November 20, 2007 by
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Introduction

If you own a computer, chances are fairly good that it’s running Windows XP, and chances are also fairly good that it’s not running as fast as it could. XP is the operating system of choice on about 85% of today’s computers (according to OneStat.com). It’s designed to be a system that is compatible with most PC hardware and usable by most people, but in order to do this it was necessary for Microsoft to add features that most people just don’t need. Worse yet, these extra features use up system resources that could be put to better use elsewhere – opening large web pages, perhaps, or running that fantastic new game.

Fortunately, most of these unnecessary features can be disabled. This article describes how to optimize your Windows XP system for maximum performance. I’m going to recommend removing a lot of XP’s ‘look and feel’ as well – your system will run faster without it, and most of it isn’t that noticeable. Everything suggested here is reversible, though, so if you decide that you really miss your animated transitions, they can always be reenabled.

Before You Start

The process described in this article isn’t hard to follow, but there are still a few steps that will help you avoid problems.

  1. Take the opportunity to back up your data, whether you’re using a professional backup utility or just copying folders to a thumb drive. It’s good practice to do this on a regular schedule as well as any time you make major changes to your computer.

  2. Test your computer between each major step. While most of these changes will work for most people, it’s possible you’ll find that some of these steps disable needed features or cause instability on your computer. If you suspect you’ll fall into one of these categories (or just aren’t very confident about the process), it’s good to do one section at a time, and wait a few days in between to see if problems develop. This makes troubleshooting much simpler.

  3. Have your Windows XP disk on hand. Undoing some of these changes may require the XP installation disk. Make sure you have it on hand before starting this process.

  4. Take notes as you go – you’ll be making a lot of choices about what to keep and what to delete, and there’s nothing quite as frustrating as trying to figure out what your original settings were, four days after the fact.

  5. You may want to set a restore point, as this is the easiest way to undo any mistakes, such as uninstalling video drivers. To do this, open the Start menu, point to ‘all programs’, then ‘accessories’, ‘system tools’, and finally click on ‘system restore’. Select the radio button for ‘create a restore point’, and follow the directions on the wizard. If you want to use the restore system to undo changes to your computer, open the program in the same way, select ‘restore my computer to an earlier time’ and choose the correct restore point to go back to.

First Things First

The first step is to clean up your computer. Adware, spyware, and malware can have a huge impact on computer performance, and are usually the first suspect when a computer is running abnormally slow. If you have an antivirus program, this is a good time to run a full scan. If you don’t, go get the free version of AVG now! Whatever program you use, be sure to update it before running a scan.

Download Spybot – Search & Destroy from http://spybot.com/en/index.html or one of their mirrors. This program is like a miniature antivirus program, but it focuses its search on trojans and marketing bots acquired through websites. Install, update, and run a full scan. This will take a few minutes to over an hour, depending on how much information is stored in your system. Follow the program’s directions for dealing with any problems found.

Do the same with AdAware, which can be found at http://www.lavasoftusa.com/. A full AdAware scan can take a little longer to run than Spybot.

These programs are similar, but it’s worth running both of them, as Spybot focuses on code that could harm your computer, while AdAware cleans up anything that could compromise your privacy. Neither program is a substitute for good antivirus software, however – make sure you’re using that in addition to these two.

Unnecessary Items

The next step is to uninstall any programs or services that you’re not using any more. This frees up disk space and generally unclutters your system, leading to faster response times. Some programs also have vulnerabilities that are exploited by viruses or hackers - while it’s not a major concern, it is an easy way to reduce unnecessary risk.

To remove programs, open up the control panel and click on ‘Add or Remove Programs’. The list will take a while to populate, then you can select each item for more details and an option to uninstall it. Be careful not to uninstall system drivers or components that other software relies on. This is where restore points can be useful! Pay special attention to programs that run automatically on startup or access the internet frequently (such as Weatherbug or system monitoring software), as these can take up quite a bit of bandwidth and CPU time. If you’re using it, by all means keep it. Otherwise, lose the fluff, it’s only slowing you down.

While you’re in the Add/Remove Programs window, click on the Add/Remove Windows Components tag on the left side. This will take you to a list of Windows Components. Unless you know you’re using them, deselect the following:

  • Fax Service
  • Indexing Service
  • Internet Information Services (does not affect internet access)
  • Management and Monitoring Tools
  • Message Queuing
  • MSN Explorer
  • Networking Services (does not affect internet access, but may be needed if you’re in a corporate network)
  • Other Network File and Print Services
  • Outlook Express (if you don’t use it)
  • Windows Messenger

System Properties

Right-click on the ‘My Computer’ icon and select ‘Properties’. These tabs contain many of the basic settings for your system, which can be changed to improve performance.

Under the ‘Automatic Updates’ tab, select the option to turn off automatic updates. You’ll need to check www.windowsupdate.com every few weeks yourself, but this will eliminate one more resource-eating Windows background task.

Under the ‘Remote’ tab, uncheck ‘Allow Remote Assistance invitations to be sent from this computer’ and ‘Allow users to connect remotely to this computer’. If you ever need them for tech support, they can be reenabled. Otherwise, they’re a security risk.

Select the ‘Advanced’ tab, and click on the ‘Settings’ button. Under the ‘Visual Effects’ tab, select the ‘Adjust for best performance’ to clear all checkboxes. This applies a look and feel similar to Windows 2000, which is much simpler and faster to respond. If you prefer the XP look, the following boxes can be selected to give some of its appearance with a negligible impact to performance:

- Smooth edges of screen fonts
- Use drop shadows for icon labels
- Use visual styles on windows and buttons

Still in the ‘Performance Options’ window, under the ‘Advanced’ tab, there is a setting to control the paging file (under the heading ‘Virtual memory’). The paging file is a section of the hard drive set aside to be used as an overflow area for the RAM, which allows the system to remain stable when applications call for more memory than it actually has. Accessing the paging file is slower than normal RAM accesses, though. If your system has at least 1GB of RAM, you can gain a significant performance boost by turning it off completely. This carries some risks – if you exhaust the available physical memory, Windows will unexpectedly quit the current application or freeze. The benefits are worth the extra care, in my opinion, but if you frequently push your system to its limits this option may not be for you.

Close the ‘Performance Options’ window and go back to the ‘System properties’ screen. Still under the ‘Advanced’ tab, select the ‘Error Reporting’ button and disable it. Tada, no more annoying message asking you to inform Microsoft every time an application freezes.

Under the ‘Hardware’ tab, open up the device manager. Expand the IDE ATA controllers and right-click on the primary and secondary IDE channels to open up their properties screens. Under the ‘Advanced Settings’ tab, make sure the transfer mode is set to ‘DMA if available’.

Back in the device manager, expand Ports and disable any unused parallel and serial ports. There’s no need for them to be taking up system resources if you’re not using them.

That’s all for this section. Close the device manager and the system properties window, and open up the control panel for the next section.

Internet Settings

In the control panel, open up the ‘Internet Options’ screen. These steps will free up some system overhead and speed up your browsing experience, but a lot of them have privacy and security benefits as well.

Under the ‘General’ tab, click the buttons to ‘delete cookies’ and ‘delete files’. These will clear any cached data on your system, which frees up disk space and removes anything that might have been causing problems. While most cookies are harmless aids to web browsing, they can also be used to collect information about your browsing and report back to their owner – a process that takes up time and compromises your privacy.

In the same screen, click ‘settings’. Set the slider for ‘amount of disk space to use’ to roughly 25MB. This will limit the space your system can use to store temporary web pages. You shouldn’t notice a performance difference, but if you do, it can always be moved higher again.

Under the ‘Content’ tab, be sure that the content advisor is disabled. It usually is by default, if it’s not, it just adds an extra amount of overhead each time it checks a web page for you.

Click the Autocomplete button to open a submenu, then clear all checkboxes and hit ‘Clear Forms’ and ‘Clear Passwords’ to disable the autocomplete feature. It’s not recommended to have a log of your form and password data on your computer, and disabling this will give a substantial performance boost.

Click ‘Okay’ on both windows to go back to the control panel. If you have Java installed, click on the icon for it. Under the update tab, uncheck ‘check for updates automatically’ and choose ‘never check’. Applications that update themselves will slow your system’s performance, because they run at some level at all times, even if they’re only scheduled to check every once in a while. Disabling as many of these as possible will do a lot to free up your system’s resources.

Misc Settings

From the control panel, open the ‘Folder Options’ icon. Select the ‘Use Windows Classic Folders’, unless you’re really used to using the tasks on the side bar – they slow your system down just that much more.

Under the ‘View’ tab, the only boxes that should be checked are the following:

- Display the contents of system folders
- Display the full path in the address bar
- Do not cache thumbnails
- Remember each folder’s view setting

Be sure to click ‘apply’ at the bottom of the window, and then ‘apply to all folders’ at the top to make sure these settings are used for your entire system.

Go back to the control panel, and select the ‘Date and Time’ icon. Under the ‘Internet Time’ tab, deselect the option to automatically synchronize with an internet time server. This is another background task that will take up resources even when it’s not actively checking the time. Click ‘OK’ to exit the window.

Next, open the Administrative Tools icon, and open ‘Computer Management’. If you’re not sharing files, expand the shared folders list, and make sure each of the folders are empty. Delete any folders that you don’t need. Windows may not let you delete everything in this list. If you are sharing files, this is a good time to sort through them and get rid of what you don’t need.

Services

Still in the Computer Management screen, expand ‘Services and Applications’, and then expand ‘Indexing Service’. This service catalogs the contents of your hard drive to speed up search times, but unless you search for files frequently (multiple times daily), Windows will waste more time organizing the data than it will save during the actual searches. To disable it, right-click on the directory in the right hand pane and delete it. Then right click on the Indexing Service icon in the left-hand pane, move to ‘All Tasks’, then click on ‘Tune Performance’. Select the ‘never used’ button, and hit okay.

The next step is to disable unnecessary services, which is done by selecting the ‘services’ icon and then right clicking the individual services to get to their properties screen, where they can be disabled. These services (plus open applications) are what you see when you hit ctrl-alt-delete to look at the task manager, and disabling the unnecessary ones will give your system a sizeable performance boost. However, some of these services are very necessary for your computer to continue to function, and could wreck serious havoc if they’re disabled. Deciding which services to disable is a fairly complex process and is outside the scope of this article, but there’s a good guide available at Overclocker's Club. I’ve followed this guide’s advice without trouble, but be warned that the previous suggestion about taking notes goes double here!

TweakUI

TweakUI is a Microsoft program that gives the user access to some XP user interface settings that would otherwise be hidden. It’s not hosted on Window’s download site anymore, but a search for ‘download tweakui’ in any major search engine should bring up a number of mirrors. Download and install, and we’ll start fine-tuning some of XP’s settings. The whole point of this program is to set up XP’s user interface exactly how you want it, so feel free to experiment with different settings. The suggestions below are designed to maximize performance without crippling anything major, but you may find that you want to play around with it more.

Select ‘General’ in the left-hand pane (select, not expand), and uncheck all the boxes in the settings window. You could leave ‘Optimize hard disk when idle’ turned on if you wish, but it’s not necessary if you defragment the drive yourself.

Select ‘Mouse’, and set the menu speed to fast. This affects how quickly menus and submenus open up, not the general mouse sensitivity. There’s a test icon below the slider bar and to the right if you want to see how much difference it makes.





Select ‘Explorer’, which is the next item down the list, and uncheck everything except the following:

  • Allow Logoff on Start menu
  • Clear document history on exit
  • Enable Windows+X hotkeys
  • Manipulate connected files as a unit
  • Use Classic Search in Explorer
  • Use intuitive filename sorting


Now expand ‘Explorer’, and select ‘Customizations’. Reduce the number of folders to one or two hundred – if you really have more than that with custom settings, I’ll be very surprised.

Select ‘Common Dialogs’ and uncheck all boxes. Do the same for ‘Taskbar and Start menu’ and ‘Templates’, unless there are specific ones you want to keep. Click the ‘Apply’ button in the bottom right corner to save your changes, and close Tweak UI.

TuneXP

TuneXP is similar to Tweak UI, but it focuses on optimizing Windows’ internal operations (its back end, if you will) rather than the user interface. An internet search for it will bring up the developer’s website and a number of mirrors, download and install it from whichever you prefer.

Under the ‘Memory and file system’ menu, click on the following options to enable them:

  • Clear pagefile on shutdown (leave this unchecked if you turned off your system’s paging file)
  • Disable Paging Executive
  • Faster shutdown
  • File allocation size tweak
  • Optimize prefetch
  • Increase NTFS performance
Open up the IO Page Lock Limit menu and select ‘512 MB RAM or above’. If your system has a very small amount of RAM (under 1GB), you may want to set this value lower.

Depending on your copy of XP, some of these options may show an error of ‘failed to set data’. This is normal and just indicates a slight version difference, don’t worry about it. Leave the bottom four choices alone for the moment, they’re more effective when run after making a few other changes.

Under the ‘Hardware’ menu, click to enable ‘Enable UDMA-66’, ‘Increase USB polling interval’, and Speed-up Windows IRQ handling’. Go to the next menu over, which is labeled ‘Internet’, and turn on ‘DNS cache increase’. For the next menu, ‘Services’, Messenger and Themes should be disabled if they aren’t already.

Exit the program and reboot your PC to apply the changes. Open up TuneXP again and go to the ‘Memory and file system’ menu where we made changes earlier. Now click on ‘Clear prefetch folder’, and consider disabling ZIP folders. You can use WinZip instead, which is a faster utility.

Make sure you have some time and aren’t in danger of losing power before starting the next step. Select ‘Ultra-fast booting (rearrange boot files)’ to start the process of optimizing your system’s boot process. You may be promted for a Y/N confirmation in a DOS window. As the name implies, TuneXP will rearrange and defragment your system’s boot files to minimize its startup time. It will also go on to defragment the rest of your hard drive, which can be a lengthy process, so go take a break with the beverage of your choice.

Unfortunately, TuneXP’s defragmenting utility, while very effective, is not very user friendly. There will be a process bar to indicate the boot files are being moved, but it will close when the system begins defragmenting the rest of your drive. In some systems a command prompt window will open up, with information that the ‘defragntfs’ application is running, but it can also run invisibly in the background. If this is the case, the hard disk access indicator on your case can give you a clue if it’s running, or you can press CTRL+ALT+DEL to open the task manager. In the processes window, the defragmenting process will appear under the name ‘defrag’ or ‘dfrgntfs’.

DO NOT shut down your computer before this process is finished. It will cause problems you really don’t want to deal with. Once it’s done defragmenting, reboot your computer.

Conclusion

So there you have it. These steps should give your computer a noticeable performance boost and make Windows XP run faster and smoother than before. We at Puget Custom Computers are committed to making our computers work right out of the box for everyone, with no bloatware or nonstandard settings, so we don't apply many of these optimizations by default. However, we encourage people to learn more about their system and technology in general whenever possible, and learning how to get the most of your hardware is a great way to apply that education.