Since the dawn of Windows, power-user tipsters (us included) have proffered hundreds of suggestions with the promise of improving your PC’s performance or streamlining its operation. The tip-givers have the best of intentions, but do all of those tweaks, registry hacks, utilities, and “undocumented secrets” really make any difference? To our surprise, in a number of cases, it turns out that tips that sound great on the surface don’t actually do anything when you put the screws to them. And some of those complicated registry hacks are more easily done with tools like TweakUI, saving you a lot of hassle.
We put 25 of the most commonly published XP and Vista performance tips and registry hacks to the test. Do the speed tweaks yield dividends? We clocked performance with PCMark and timed boots and shutdowns repeatedly after making the changes suggested in the tips. In the end, we found that many tips were right on the money, but some were outright wrong or just a waste of time. Some tips fell into the gray area in between, offering some improvement but perhaps not enough to merit the trouble of the hack to begin with.
You can almost ignore the question of whether XP’s Indexing Service slows down your computer. The fact is it doesn’t do much good anyway. Indexing is supposed to help Windows keep better tabs on files, but it does a terrible job of it and offers the user no options for configuring what gets indexed. It’s almost beside the point that it can slow your system—sometimes only a little and sometimes to an outright crawl. Even Microsoft acknowledges that the Indexing Service can cause hard drives to thrash and that it “uses lots of pagefile space and lots of CPU time”—in fact, Microsoft often recommends disabling it. Note, however, that Vista’s integrated search and indexing system is considerably improved.
There are several ways to turn off XP’s Indexing Service. The most thorough is to open the Control Panel, open Administrative Tools, then open Services. Scroll down to Indexing Service and double-click it. Change the Startup type to “Disabled.”
Viewing web-page source files in Notepad is hardly a user-friendly experience. You can hack the registry to change which app opens source files, but using TweakUI is a better choice.
Load TweakUI ( http://tinyurl.com/553fw6 ), browse to Internet Explorer > View Source. Click Change Program... and browse for whatever app you prefer. This only changes the setting for Internet Explorer; to change the View Source app for Firefox, type about:config in the address bar, scroll to view_source.editor.path, and change the setting by pasting in the full path to the application you want to use. (The Firefox tip works with XP and Vista, but you’ll have to tweak the registry if you want to do the same for IE under Vista.)
When’s the last time you didn’t have an application hang on you during shutdown? XP waits a grueling 20 seconds by default before trying to kill services that are still running when you’re trying to get out of the office, but you can knock this down to as low as zero with a quintet of registry hacks.
Make the following changes in regedit:
Many users want photo folders to show up with thumbnails in Explorer and have, say, everything else default to the list-based detail view. But if you have a large number of folders, Windows won’t keep track of them all, and if you go over the default of 400, some will revert to the standard view. This can be tweaked in the registry but it’s easier with TweakUI: You can get Windows to remember up to a maximum of 65,527 customized folders with a simple change.
In TweakUI, scroll to Explorer > Customizations. Change the “Folders to remember” to whatever number you’d like.
A total bust. Turning off the mechanism that stamps a date and time on a file every time you access it (via a command-prompt instruction) does nothing for performance whatsoever. It may actually have negative consequences: Some sources worry that turning off these timestamps can wreak havoc on programs that rely on them, like incremental backups. Skip this one altogether.
Conventional wisdom holds that you need to write and rewrite a hard drive numerous times with garbage before it will be totally unrecoverable by forensics experts. That’s not exactly the case: We overwrote a hard drive just once with zeroes and asked the recovery gurus at DriveSavers if they could rescue it. The answer: They couldn’t save a single bit. Now we don’t pretend to know about the hardcore resources of groups like the NSA, so if you’re that paranoid about being branded a terrorist because of a deleted PDF of The Anarchist’s Cookbook discovered on a used drive you bought on eBay, by all means, spend a week wiping that drive. But if you’re just casually recycling a drive for resale or donation, a single pass will do the trick and will save you literally days of time waiting for the wipe to finish.
Run a program like KillDisk (www.killdisk.com) and select a single zeroes-only pass.
One of the most notorious Windows tips ever is that deleting all the files in the Windows\Prefetch directory will cause your system to boot faster. We tested the tip by repeatedly measuring boot times on a trio of both XP and Vista machines with overstuffed Prefetch folders, then running the same test after clearing the folders out. The result: No improvement in boot time in any of the cases. Some testers have reported that clearing the Prefetch cache actually lengthens boot time, though we didn’t experience this either.
In the Windows 95/98 era, conventional wisdom held that you should manually set your virtual memory (i.e., pagefile) size to at least 1.5 times the amount of RAM in order to optimize performance. (By default, Windows will manage pagefile size on its own: You will likely find the initial pagefile size set to 0.5x or 1x the amount of RAM you have). We were skeptical about this tip, but our benchmarks surprised us: Some systems showed no change at all, but some (particularly older machines) showed substantial improvement beyond the usual random noise we see in benchmark results. We got at least a 10 percent jump after we upped the initial pagefile size to 2x the amount of RAM on two separate machines. It won’t work for all computers, so the jury’s still out on this one, but because it’s so easy to do and there are no negative consequences, it’s worth a shot just to see if it has any effect.
In the XP System Control Panel, click Advanced, then (under Performance) click Settings, Advanced. In the Virtual Memory module, click Change. Click Custom size then up both Initial and Maximum size to roughly double your amount of RAM. Click Set (important!), then OK out of all windows.
In Vista, click “Advanced system settings” in the System Control Panel and follow the same instructions.
Say you set up a network drive for a computer you had months ago but is no longer on your network: When Windows boots, it spends at least some time reconnecting to that drive, wasting precious seconds you could be spending on Facebook. While XP and Vista are better than older versions of Windows about network connections (who can forget those interminable “Connecting...” messages?) it still makes sense to disconnect from network shares you no longer need. You won’t actually boot noticeably faster without those extra drive letters, but Explorer will become usable more quickly after launch. This is especially noticeable in Vista, which has a helpful “loading” progress indicator that overlays the address bar: Having any number of network shares will cause it to take an extra 10 to 20 seconds to fully load.
Right-click each shared folder in Explorer and select Disconnect. This will permanently remove them from your drive list unless you map them again.
By default, both XP and Vista wait 400 milliseconds before presenting expansion menus (those menu items with right-facing triangles on them). You can eliminate the wait completely for instantaneous menu expansion (though be warned, you may not actually like it). Note that this will not make, say, your primary File or Edit menu show up faster—those menus automatically load as fast as possible.
Run regedit at the Run prompt. Browse to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Desktop. Double-click the MenuShowDelay key in the right-hand pane and set the value to 0.
The theory goes that you should disable any service you aren’t using, and that turning off IPv6 and QoS Packet Scheduling options in your NIC properties will boost browsing speed. One absurd legend holds that QoS alone actually “reserves” 20 percent of your bandwidth. Microsoft has formally debunked this tip, and our tests back that up: We found zero difference at all in file-transfer speeds whether QoS and IPv6 options were on or off, on both XP and Vista systems.
Splitting up the pagefile and your everyday apps is common sense. Doing this allows Windows to dump temp junk onto one drive while not having to interrupt reads or writes on the other. If you have two hard drives, this is a tip that definitely works and works well: Expect at least a 5 to 10 percent speed boost, depending on the existing speed of your rig and, especially, the performance of your drives. But any second drive will help at least a little: While not recommended, you can even put the pagefile on an external USB drive and see some performance gains.
Follow the same instructions as the “Virtual Memory” tip earlier. When in the VM settings, click your secondary drive, add a “Custom size” or “System managed size” paging file, and click Set. On your primary drive, select “No paging file” and click Set. OK out and reboot.
Unless you have so much junk on your hard drive that you are nearly out of free space, deleting any number of files—whether they’re temp files or permanent ones—won’t improve performance at all. The only exceptions to the rule are for programs or processes that involve every file on your drive: Virus scans or full disk backups, for example, are faster if there’s less data to deal with. It makes sense to clear these files out using Disk Cleanup every now and then for the sake of good digital hygiene, but you won’t get a performance boost for your trouble.
System Restore is a real aid when it comes to rolling back bad Windows patches and driver updates, but by its very nature, it is said to impact performance because it’s always creating restore points, thus robbing you of a little power. The truth: System Restore lurks idle most of the time and rarely does anything at all, creating checkpoints only during app installs plus once every 24 hours by default. Even then it spends only a few seconds doing so and only during idle time. It’s virtually unthinkable that you’d try to run a program at the exact same time that System Restore began creating a restore point, and even if you did, you probably wouldn’t notice. The proof is in the benchmarks: We got nearly identical results on PCMark whether System Restore was on or off. (Note, however, that System Restore can consume a fair amount of disk space—this is configurable—so if gigabytes are precious to you, consider throttling it back.)
Regardless of the actual value of defragmenting a physical hard disk (see the tip below), there’s really no value at all in defragging an SSD. The reason has to do with the way flash memory is constructed. The theory behind defragmenting a hard drive is to order data into contiguous, uninterrupted segments of the disk. But flash memory isn’t built that way: Blocks of data are placed throughout the drive space and are all accessible with the exact same speed, and since there are no moving parts in an SSD, there’s no advantage to rearranging them. Some even caution that, since flash memory is limited to a finite number of writes before it fails, defragmenting can actually do more harm than good.
One of the most venerable suggestions for improving disk performance is to defragment your hard drive regularly. The science of defragging is sound: By putting all the bits of a file or application in sequential order on your drive, the drive should have to do less work (and spend less time) to access those files. Thus: faster performance. Well, in practice it’s not really true. Today’s hard drives are fast enough to make fragmentation largely irrelevant, and our benchmark tests have repeatedly borne this out: On moderately fragmented drives, defragmentation will offer negligible to no performance increase. For seriously fragmented drives (think 40 percent or more), especially those running XP or older OSes, defragmentation can help, but don’t expect the world. As for third-party defrag tools, there’s no real evidence that they’re any more effective than Windows’ built-in defragger.
Click Disk Defragmenter under Accessories / System Tools.
For privacy reasons, many users on shared computers like to clear the Recent Documents folder or delete it altogether. Totally understandable, but there’s no need to turn to the registry to do the job. It’s all in the invaluable TweakUI (and in Vista, it’s built into the OS).
In XP: Install TweakUI and browse to the Explorer section; then uncheck “Allow Recent Documents on Start menu.”
In Vista, right-click the taskbar, click the Start Menu tab, and uncheck “Store and display a list of recently opened files.”
No one seriously needs to be reminded they’re running Windows while the computer is loading the OS, right? Turning off the Windows splash screen ought to cut a little bit off of system boot time. For most systems, this generally works, but we never saw an average improvement of more than two seconds—and even less on Vista systems (probably because in lieu of the animated progress bar, you get a colorful Aurora). Still, a second is a second....
XP: At the Run prompt, type msconfig. Click the BOOT.INI tab, and select the
Very similar for Vista: Run msconfig, click the Boot tab, and select the No GUI Boot option.
To maintain backward compatibility, Windows keeps an alias of every file and folder name in the old 8.3 format, even on NTFS partitions that support long filenames. The odds that you will ever need to use this format to access a file are incredibly small, so you can turn it off via a registry hack. The tip does nothing for general performance, but it can shorten the time it takes to open and display folders, though you’ll notice a difference only with extremely full folders (1,000 items or more) and usually only the first time they are opened.
Run regedit and browse to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\FileSystem. Select NtfsDisable8dot3NameCreation and change the value to 1.
Another huge nuisance in Windows. There’s just nothing quite like leaving a file open overnight, then returning to your PC in the morning to find that Microsoft has helpfully restarted your machine for you, shoving all your work into digital limbo and leaving an evil calling card: “This update required an automatic restart.” It’s possible to stop auto-reboots, but it’ll take a registry hack.
Run regedit and browse to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Polices\Microsoft\Windows. Create a new key under Windows and call it WindowsUpdate. Now create another new key under WindowsUpdate called AU. With AU selected, in the right-hand pane right-click and create a New DWORD. Call it NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers. Double-click the DWORD and give it a value of 1. Reboot, and Windows’s death grip over your system will be ended.
One of Windows’s little eccentricities is that when you install a new application it places it in the All Programs list at the bottom, not in alphabetic order where it belongs. You can manually reorder the list by right-clicking on one of its entries and clicking Sort by Name, but you’ll need a complicated registry hack to automate things every time you install an app.
Run regedit and browse to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer. Right-click the MenuOrder key (in the left-hand pane) and select Permissions. Click Advanced. Deselect “Include inheritable permissions...” (Vista) or “Include from parent the permission...” (XP). Click Copy at the Security pop-up. Click OK. Now, back in the Permissions view, select your user name and deselect “Allow” next to Full Control in the Permissions pane at the bottom of the window. Repeat this step for any groups you are part of (Administrators, etc.). Reboot. Now when you install apps, they’ll be alphabetized automatically. Whew!
You’ll find an option within Vista’s msconfig utility that cryptically lets you set the “Number of processors” used during boot. By default it is turned off (with the drop-down set to 1). We tried upping the setting to 2 on a dual-core system and, guess what, no change in boot time whatsoever. Turns out this is just a debug setting for coders who want to test how programs load on single-core machines without having to physically go to a less-sophisticated PC. It can be completely ignored. By default Windows uses all your cores.
Superfetch is an update of the XP Prefetcher, designed to more intelligently load applications into RAM based on frequency of use. With Superfetch on, your PC should theoretically get faster over time, particularly when loading frequently used apps. You won’t see improvement in general performance, like rendering Photoshop files, but Superfetch does tend to make apps load 10 to 20 percent more quickly, depending on their size.
Superfetch is on by default. To ensure that it’s active, go to the Control Panel, open Administrative Tools, and select Services. Scroll down to Superfetch and ensure that it is set to “Started” and “Automatic.”
This feature is disabled by default in Vista because if your computer loses power before a write is completed, you can lose data. If you’re confident in your UPS’s capabilities, crank it up and you’ll see at least a 10 percent improvement in performance. Remember, write caching is supported only on SATA drives. The options are grayed out for older ATA disks.
In Explorer, right-click the drive you want to speed up and select Properties. Click the Hardware tab, select Properties again. Click the Policies tab. Check both of the boxes beneath “Optimize for performance.”
Yes and no. If you have a reasonably modern system, with even 1GB of RAM or more, you won’t see any performance increase from ReadyBoost, which lets you use removable flash memory to cache disk operations. In fact, with lots of RAM, we saw a slight dip in performance when using ReadyBoost. The picture is different if you’re pathetically RAM-poor: With just 512MB of RAM, app load times and general performance can be modestly improved with ReadyBoost... but why not spring for some real DIMMs instead of this half-baked setup? You shouldn’t be running Vista at all with so little RAM, nor should you be reading this magazine. 2GB of name-brand RAM will cost you less than 50 bucks; pricier than a 2GB thumb drive but oh so worth it.
If you really want to run ReadyBoost, the easiest way to turn it on is to insert your thumb drive and allow AutoPlay to run. Select “Speed up my system” from the menu. If you have AutoPlay disabled, right-click the thumb drive in the Computer view, select Properties, and choose the ReadyBoost tab. Dial ReadyBoost up to the maximum supported level of 4GB.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in November 2008.