Table of Contents
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.
Turn Off Virtual Memory – Microsoft has designed Windows so it will use hard drive space as extra memory in case a system runs short on actual physical memory (RAM). However, I have found that even when you have abundant amounts of RAM free, there are still times that Windows writes data to ‘virtual memory’ on the hard drive. This can cause slowdowns in performance, so if you have enough RAM I think it is prudent to completely turn off the use of virtual memory.
This can be done by right-clicking on Computer and going to Properties. Then go to Advanced System Settings, and on the Advanced tab click the Settings button under Performance. On the Advanced tab on the next window, click on the Change button. Go to each of the drives listed there and set them to “No paging file” – make sure to click “Set” before navigating away (to ensure that the setting is saved). A reboot will be required once you are done. If you get low memory warnings after doing this then you may not have enough RAM to accommodate your applications, and I recommend going back and setting a small page file on your fastest hard drive. SSDs, however, are not ideal for page files. Their speed makes them appealing for this, but having a lot of write operations constantly going on a SSD will wear it out faster.
Turn Off System Restore – In an effort to make a way for changes to a computer to be ‘un-done’, Microsoft created the System Restore process. It takes a snapshot of your computer at regular intervals, and before a major update or change is made, and then allows you to revert back to an older setting if something goes wrong. In principle this sounds great, and sometimes it works well. I’ve also seen times that it didn’t fix an issue… or even made things worse. I recommend a very different approach to such problems, which I will cover a little later under Data Redundancy. If you don’t need it, this ‘feature’ can be turned off to save on disk space and reduce slowdowns caused by the making of new restore points.
To turn off System Restore, right-click on Computer and go to Properties. Then go to System Protection and select the Configure button. Once inside, select the Turn Off System Protection radio button and click Apply.
Create a RAM Drive for Temporary Files – Windows and many other applications are constantly writing small bits of temporary information to your hard drive, and I find that this can cause data fragmentation over time. Internet Explorer is one of the worst offenders here, because it caches files as you surf the internet. This cache can slow down other disk activities going on at the same time. To remedy this, I take a portion of my RAM and make it into a RAM Drive. There are several utilities to let you do this, though I haven’t found any good free ones. The one I personally pay for and use is called RAMDrive by QSoft. It is fairly affordable, comes with versions for both 32 and 64-bit Windows, and has an easy to use interface for setting drive size. I recommend 512MB-1GB for most folks, and no more than 1/4th of your physical RAM.
Once a drive is set up, you can tell Windows to use it for temp files by right-clicking on Computer and going to Properties. Then go to Advanced System Settings and select the Environment Variables button. Once there, relocate both User Variables (TEMP and TMP) to your new RAM Drive – and then the same two values under System Variables. As I noted earlier, Internet Explorer’s temporary files are a big offender too. To relocate them, open Internet Explorer and go to Tools -> Internet Options. On the first tab, select the Settings button under Browser History. Click Move Folder to relocate the temporary files, and make sure to set the Disk Space to be Used to some amount smaller than your total RAM Drive.
There are also other programs that use temporary files: Photoshop’s scratch disk, Windows Media Player’s file conversion folder, etc. You’ll have to use your best judgement on what is appropriate for your specific needs.
Antivirus – I recommend running a reliable antivirus application at all times, and keeping it up to date (most programs handle that automatically, at least for virus definition updates). Make sure that active scanning of all incoming files is enabled, along with any advanced options like scanning inside of compressed files (zip, rar, etc) and email attachments. Depending on how computer savvy you are, full-system scans are may be needed on a regular basis. I prefer to turn off those options and just scan if I suspect there is a problem.
Another necessary protection, if you are using a high-speed, always-on internet connection, is to have a router with a hardware firewall. Recent versions of Windows have a simple software firewill built-in, but putting some protection outside of the computer is recommended. Many routers available these days offer basic firewall capabilities, which simply makes it so that people outside of your network cannot connect directly to your computer without your involvement. That feature, by the way, is called Network Address Translation.
Backups – If you care at all about the data stored on your computer then regular backups are a must. Having a dual hard drive setup comes in handy here again, since I recommend different approaches to backing up your data and your OS / applications. I recommend using an external hard drive for backup purposes, making sure that it is large enough to back up all of your drives. If your data is extremely important, consider maintaining two backup copies – one with the computer at all times, to make recovery easy, and another off-site to ensure data integrity even in the case of a disaster.
For the main drive, where only Windows and programs should be, I suggest making an image backup once you have all of your software set up as desired. You can make updated images from time to time as you get new programs or update existing software to new versions, but never overwrite the original image you made in case you need a safe starting-point to return to. Windows 7 includes image-based backup now, which you can set up by going to the Start Menu and typing in Backup and Restore. Once in that interface, there is an option on the left-hand side to Create a System Image. Click on that, and follow the prompts from there.
The reason that image-based backup is ideal for primary drives is that it gives you an easy way to fix OS-related problems or full drive failures. Instead of having to reinstall Windows, go through all of the updates, install drivers and reload software you can simply restore your latest known-good image and keep on working. Images can be restored to any drive of equal or larger size (compared to the source drive), so it is also a great solution if you want to move to a larger or faster drive later on. To restore from a Windows-created image, you can either use the original Windows install disc or a ‘System Repair Disc’ – those can be created in the same interface where backup images are made. Boot to either, and follow the prompts for repairing the system by restoring a system image.
For data drives, I find that a file-based backup is easier to work with than an image. With image backups you generally have to restore the whole image to get at the data, but it is conceivable that you might just need access to a single file or folder from your data backup, and restoring a whole disk image would take far longer than necessary. Having individual files is also easier to work with if you ever needed to access the backup on another system. For this, I use a free utility from Microsoft called SyncToy 2.1. That program lets you create pairings between folders where data will be synchronized between two locations, with a variety of optional parameters. I set it up so that new and changed files are copied over to my backup drive, but deleted files are not removed from the backup (in case I ever need them later). Once a pairing is created you can set up a task in Windows Task Scheduler to have the backup executed on a regular basis. I recommend weekly at least, but daily is even better if you change files a lot and don’t want to lose more than a days work at the worst.