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Speeding up Windows
Monday, June 25, 2007

(The following was tested mostly on WIndows XP. It may apply to other versions)

Do you sometimes get the feeling your computer is not as fast as it used to be? It may not be all in your head. A number of hardware, software, malware reasons could be to blame.

The Problem

The problem is sometimes noticed suddenly, and other times it creeps up over time, but at some point you realize that you are spending more and more time waiting for the computer to finish simple tasks.

This is one of the more common frustrations for personal computer users.

Quick Tips

This is a list of some quick steps you can take to get your computer working faster again:

  1. Define the problem [more info]
  2. Check for CPU or memory bottlenecks [more info]
  3. Empty the Temp folders [more info]
  4. Clear the Internet cache [more info]
  5. Check disk free space [more info]
  6. Check for malware
  7. Disable Unnecessary startups
  8. Uninstall unnecessary software
  9. Defragment the hard drive
  10. Disconnect unnecessary hardware
  11. Check for hardware malfunction

Each of these steps is described in more detail below.

Define the problem

By defining the problem, I mean - describe the problem more precisely. When is the system slow, is it slow during system startup, while running specific applications, all the times, or randomly? This can help a lot in narrowing the list of possibilities. For example, if the system is slow when web browsing, but normal at other times, then the problem may be with the web browser, the internet cache, or with the network connection.

The number of reasons is vast, but they fall into the following broad categories:

  • Faulty software
  • Faulty hardware
  • Malware/virus/spyware
  • Overburdened computer

If the system is slow all the time, it may be inadequate hardware, malware, or a disk problem.

If the system is slow and the hard drive is making clicking sounds, then you have a failing hard drive - back up your data immediately and run drive tests.

Check Memory and CPU bottlenecks

Check the Task Manager: The Task Manager is a very useful program that everyone should be familiar with. It can be started by typing CTRL-SHFT-ESC (i.e. hold down those three keys at the same time). Once the program window appears, click on the "Performance" tab, and you should see something like fig. 1

Fig. 1 - CPU usage

Figure 1 - CPU usage

For a dual processor system the CPU graph would appear in two sections, one for each processor. This example shows a lightly loaded system, and the CPU Usage History graph shows the processor speed is not a bottleneck.

There are some additional things we can note, the most important is the section marked with the red "A" above, and that is the amount of Physical Memory (RAM) - both total and free. In this example we have 1 GB (approx) of total memory, of which about 300 MB are still available. Clearly, lack of memory is not the problem here.

Another useful parameter is the amount of "Virtual Memory". If the main physical memory (RAM) is exhausted, Windows uses part of the hard disk as virtual memory. This allows Windows to run large programs which may not otherwise fit in memory. The virtual memory uses a file on disk, named pagefile.sys (a hidden system file in the root folder). On a typical system the size of the pagefile is 1.5 times the physical ram. In our system that would be 1.5 GB, which means the sum of memory usage by all programs active at any given moment can be no more than 1.5 + 1.0 = 2.5 GB (the sum of pagefile + physical ram). You can note this is the "Limit" commit charge in section-B of Fig. 1 above.

While Virtual Memory is nice to have, we don't want to use it too often, because it is also very slow. Since it resides on disk, it is several thousand times slower than physical memory (RAM). Even the fastest computer will slow to a crawl if it uses virtual memory a lot. System designers know this, and your computer will use virtual memory only when it runs low on RAM.

A very useful parameter in section-B is the "Peak" commit charge (906748 in Fig. 1 above). This is the largest chunk of memory that your computer has needed at any one instant since the last restart. In our example, we note that RAM size is 1046508, while the Peak commit charge is 906748, i.e. RAM exceeds the peak memory requirement, and so we do not have a memory bottleneck on this machine.

[..to be continued..]

Empty Temp folders

Windows, and Windows applications, will often create temporary files during normal operation. These temporary files serve a variety of functions. For example, if you install a new program, the installer will first extract the install files into a temp folder, then delete them when the install is finished. This is very convenient for the user, who is spared details of how and when these files are created.

A problem can arise if these temp files are not deleted automatically as they are supposed to be. This can happen if the application was interrupted, or had a bug, so the temp files folder gets filled with unnecessary files over time.

It is not uncommon for the Temp files folder to have several thousand files after a few months. Each time an application needs to create a new temp file, it has to sort through these thousands of old temp files, leading to the computer appearing sluggish.

I recommend you empty the temp folder after every 6 months or so, or whenever the computer seems slow.

Before you can clear it, you have to locate it. The Temp folder is usually marked as a "hidden" folder, so you have to tell Windows Explorer that you want to see hidden folders first.

Fig. 3 - Enabling Hidden files

Figure 3 - Enabling hidden files

Launch Windows Explorer (or My Compter), select Tools -> Folder Options (Fig. 3 above)

Click on the "View" tab, then scroll withing the center window to locate the option to "View Hidden files and folders". (Fig. 4 below)

Fig. 4 - Enabling Hidden files

Figure 4 - Enabling hidden files

Click on the "Show Hidden files and folders" button and click OK etc. to apply the changes.

The temp folder location is (in Windows XP and 2000):

        C:\Documents and Settings\<username>\Local Settings\Temp
      
where <username> is the username you use most often to login.

Browse to this folder, and delete all files and folders found there. (Caution: be sure you are in the proper folder. Do not accidentally delete files from some other folder).

You may encounter an "access denied" error with a couple of files in the temp folder. To minimize these access denied errors, quit all other running applications, then try again. If a few files can't be deleted, ignore them and delete all the rest.

One useful tip here is to sort the files by date, and delete everything that is older than today.

Another folder where you can delete all contents every so often is the Windows Temp folder, found at C:\Windows\Temp. This folder does not get as full as the one in "Documents and Settings".

Clear the Internet Cache

As you browse the web, Windows (or more precisely, your web browser) saves temporary copies of the pages you visit - on your C: drive. The purpose of this "caching" is to allow pages to be viewed faster the next time you visit the same web site, since there will now be a local copy.

Most web browsers allow you to tweak the amount of space reserved for this internet cache, but the deafult is fairly large. The amount of cache space reserved by Internet Explorer seems to vary by version, but may be as high as 10% of your overall drive space. This means that if your drive is 200 GB, as much as 20 GB may be used for caching web pages.

Besides wasting disk space, the end result can be slower web browsing, because Internet Explorer now has to wade through thousands of previously saved web pages in order to save a new one. I highly recommend clearing the web cache if you are experiencing slower than expected web browsing.

The steps below describe how to do this for IE v7, but you should be able to do something similar with other browsers as well.

Start Internet Explorer, select "Tools -> Internet Options" from the menu bar (Fig. 5 below).

Fig. 5 - Internet Options

Figure 5 - Internet Options

This brings up a new dialog. Click on the "Browsing History/Delete" button near the middle (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 - Browsing History - Delete

Figure 6 - Browsing History - Delete

This does not directly delete anything, but brings up another dialog where you can choose what to delete (Fig. 7 below)

Fig. 7 - Clearing the Internet cache

Figure 7 - Clearing the Internet Cache

The most important item to delete is the "Temporary Internet Files", so click on the "Delete" button at the top (circled in red in Fig. 7 above). Answer "Yes" when it asks to confirm (Fig. 8 below).

Fig. 8 - Yes, do it

Figure 8 - Yes, delete the temp. files

Another dialog shows deletion in progress (Fig. 9 below).

Fig. 9 - Deletion in progress

Figure 9 - Temp. file deletion in progress

The deletion normally takes less than a couple of minutes, after which you can click on "Close" and "Cancel" to terminate the remaining windows.

For the future, you may wish to limit the max size the cache can grow to. This is done by launching Internet Explorer, selecting Tools -> Internet Options, then click on "Browsing History - Settings" and set the max size in Megabytes. I recommend setting it to something small, like 50 MB (see Fig. 10 below).

Fig. 10 - Setting Internet max cache size

Figure 10 - Setting max Internet cache size

This will prevent future problems due to the Internet cache getting too large.

The above examples are for Internet Explorer, but similar principles apply if you use another browser. In Firefox, for example, the cache settings are in "Tools -> Options -> Advanced -> Network".

[..to be continued..]

Check Disk Free Space

Your system needs some free space on disk (the system disk, drive C:, normally) at all times in order to operate smoothly. This is because Windows, and many applications, are constantly creating and deleting files of a temporary nature as needed. If space is tight, the disk tends to become fragmented, and it takes longer to create and access files, resulting in slowdown.

How much free space is adequate? Conventional wisdom is that you should have at least 10% of your overall disk capacity as free space. However, I recommend that you strive for 1 GB as the absolute minimum, and 5 GB as a more desirable goal for free space on the system disk. (If running Windows Vista, then consider 2 GB as the minimum, and 10 GB as the desirable figure). More than that is even better for future expansion, but will likely not have any immediate impact on system performance.

You can easily check the overall amount of free space by right-clicking on your C: drive in Windows Explorer (or My Computer) and selecting "Properties". The free space is shown in the dialog that pops up (Fig. 11 below).

Fig. 11 - Checking disk free space

Figure 11 - Checking disk free space

In this example we notice that there are about 110 GB of free disk space on Drive C:, so we need not take any further action.

What if we did need to clear some space? I suggest trying one or more of the following:

(a) Empty Temp folders: This is described in more detail above, follows those directions (more info).

(b) Clear the Internet cache: This is described in more detail above, follows those directions (more info).

(c) Turn off Indexing: Indexing (Ref. 2) is an option that creates a catalog of all words in files on disk. The aim is to speed up searches of file content. For example, in Windows Explorer, you can right-click on the C: drive, select "Search" and then ask it to search for any file that contains a specific word or phrase. While generally a good thing, this search catalog (or Index) can take up a fair amount of disk space. Most people can live with slower searches, so if space is tight, disable this option by right-clicking on the C: drive, selecting "Properties", and then un-check the box labeled "Index this drive for faster searching", and click OK (see Fig. 11 above).

Discussion

If you encounter a problem/solution not covered above, do let me know so I can update this page.

References

  1. Rev it up: Rediscover your PCs youth: http://www.microsoft.com/.../performance.mspx (by Sandi Hardmeier)
  2. Windows Search Indexing: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/.../indexing.mspx

Comments
(in order from older to newest)

"Defragging RAM and Swap i.e. pagefile also helps considerably"

Sep. 24, 2008, 5:23 AM by best data recovery software.

"Great information! I am a workstation technician for a non-profit organization. I am responsible for about 60 PC's.

I do all that is listed here on a regular basis. I wanted to add that I also make a setting on each user account (per PC) in the IE browser. This is in Tools>Internet Options>Advanced, scroll down toward the bottom and check the box for "Empty Temporary Internet Files folder when browser is closed"... this helps alot."

Dec. 30, 2008, 8:51 PM by Bradley

"I was curious about exactly how long it took my computer to boot after reading the postings above, so I restarted my desktop and noticed the time taken. It took exactly thirty five seconds to shut down, and approximately two and a half minutes to boot to full functioning. I use Win XP on a desktop, with security software and an additional program to operate my dual monitors; I also have some applications which start off during the booting process like GTalk, Skype etc. So my PCs booting process seems to be in good shape. However it looks like from the above discussion that we need to have proper hardware configurations in order to utilize our machines to their full potential, even when it is idle."

Aug. 6, 2009, 1:31 AM by Computer Support

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(This page last modified on Mar. 19, 2010)

 
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