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XP Speed

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By Fred Langa

Langa Letter:

Ten Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better

Tune XP's Visual Performance
Depending on how you set it up, XP may have reserved a substantial amount of your CPU horsepower for things like animating various desktop elements, placing shadows under menus and cursors, and rounding the upper corners of open windows. In the aggregate, these visual effects can slow down screen-drawing operations significantly. Also, XP may have selected a "color depth" for your video system in excess of what you really need; this, too, can slow down screen operations.

To adjust the color depth, right click anywhere on an empty portion of your desktop and select Properties/Settings. For most normal business users, the Color Quality setting should be set to Medium (16 bit). Higher settings do matter in photo/video editing and similar applications, but for mundane things like Web browsing, E-mail, and word processing, the Medium setting is fully adequate, and it's faster.

To adjust XP's desktop animations and visual effects, right click on My Computer and select Properties/Advanced/Performance Settings. You can choose to activate/deactivate individual items or use the general "best performance/best appearance" buttons. When you've made a change, click Apply, and you'll see the effects almost immediately. (By the way: Selecting Best Performance makes your desktop look very much like the classic desktop in Win98/Win2K.) Experiment until you've found the mix of speed and visual effects that works best for you.

2) Improve XP's Folder Views
Windows XP's default folder view, with its giant icons, makes me feel as though I'm staring at a coloring book instead of a business computer. But you can easily change the folder view to something more restrained, space-efficient, and useful.

Open My Documents. In the View menu, select Status Bar, List, and Arrange Icons by Name. Next, right click on an empty spot in the My Documents toolbar and select Customize. Choose any of the Available Toolbar Buttons you wish and click Add. (I select the Undo, Delete, Cut, Copy, and Paste buttons.) Exit the dialog.

Now click to the Tools menu and select Folder Options. Under the View tab, tell XP to show you the full path, to show hidden and system files, not to hide any file extensions, and not to hide protected folders--plus any other settings you want. When you have the folder options set the way you desire, click the "Apply to all folders" button at the top of the dialog. This adjusts all windows opened by Explorer, so they'll inherit the visual choices you made for this one window.

3) Customize the Taskbar
Right click on an empty spot in the Task Bar (the bar next to the Start button). Uncheck Lock the Taskbar. This lets you resize various portions of the taskbar the way you want them. Now, explore the other Taskbar settings to see if any will work for you.

One I always select is Toolbars/Desktop. I place the new Desktop toolbar far to the right on the Taskbar, over by the clock area. Whenever I want access to something on the Desktop that's covered with open windows, I can use this new Desktop toolbar as a shortcut to get to the item on the Desktop without having to close or move any open window.

4) Just Say "No" To Phoning-Home
By default, XP wants to contact the Microsoft servers to auto-search for patches, downloads, and updates. It also wants to send Microsoft information about any crashes you experience. The former can be an annoyance if the auto-update cycle kicks in at an inopportune time. The latter is a potential security hole, because the crash-reporting information includes a mini-dump of XP's memory contents; it can include snippets of open documents, passwords you've recently typed, and so on.

You can turn off both behaviors by right clicking on My Computer, selecting Properties, and first choosing the Automatic Updates tab. Select either Turn Off or, minimally, Notify me.

Now select the Advanced tab and click on Error Reporting. Check "Disable error reporting," but leave "notify me when critical errors occur" checked.

5) Control Your Trash

By default, both the Recycle Bin and Internet Explorer's Cache want to consume ridiculous amounts of your hard drive space. Right click on the Recycle Bin, select Properties, and on the Global tab, decide how much space you want the Recycle Bin to consume, either for all drives in your system, or on a per-drive basis. (It's a percentage of the total space. I adjust the slider way to the left, so I'm using "only" a few hundred megs of space for trash.)

Similarly, open Internet Explorer, and select Tools/Internet Options. Under Temporary Internet Files, click the Settings button and select a reasonable size for this cache area. Generally speaking, if you have a fast connection, 5 Mbytes to 10 Mbytes is adequate; 25 Mbytes or so is usually enough with a slower dial-up connection.

6) Rein In System Restore
Like the items in No. 5, above, System Restore is an incredible space hog. It might be worth it, if System Restore were a truly complete and foolproof form of backup, but it's not. At best, System Restore can and will get the core operating system running again after a bad crash, but it doesn't return all files to the pre-trouble state, and it can't remove all traces of a program that went bad. As a result, System Restore's usefulness is limited, and so should be its appetite for disk space.

Right click on My Computer, select Properties, and select the System Restore tab. Select your main drive (usually C:), click Settings, and move the slider to reserve a reasonable amount of disk space. With a good regimen of daily backups, you can even move the slider all the way to the left. (I do.)

If you have more than one drive, you may wish to turn off System Restore entirely for non-system drives. There's little, if any, benefit to be gained by having them monitored. And if you're really religious about making a full backup before you alter your system or install new software, you may wish to completely turn off System Restore for all drives.

7) Improve XP's Virtual Memory Settings
On its own, Windows places your "swapfile" or "paging file" (a portion of your hard drive that's used as a kind of pseudo-RAM) on your C: drive, and sets it up so it can grow and shrink as needed. However, you may be able to do better. For example, if you have more than one physical disk in your system, you may get better performance from either placing the swapfile on the lesser-used disk (assuming it's the same speed as the primary disk) or by splitting the swapfile across two disks. You also may see modest improvements in responsiveness if you set the swapfile to a fixed size, so Windows won't waste time growing and shrinking the file on demand.

Swapfile management has been somewhat of a black art in previous versions of Windows, but the XP Help System actually has good information on the subject (a first for Windows!). Select Help And Support from the Start menu, and do a search for "virtual memory." Be sure to check out the "related topics" delivered by the search for additional good information.

8) Control XP's Hidden Devices
For reasons known only to the programmers in Redmond, XP may deliberately hide certain system devices from you. While this might make a kind of sense in, say, XP Home edition, these devices remain hidden even in the Professional edition.

For example, if you're used to Windows 98's networking applet, you may be surprised by how clean and uncluttered XP's networking applet is. But XP may simply be hiding lots of networking elements from you. To see if this is the case, right click on My Computer, select Properties, Hardware, and Device Manager. In Device Manager, select View and Show Hidden Devices.

Depending on how XP was set up, you may find a number of networking devices--"Miniports"--that the Networking applet didn't display. In my case, I found unnecessary PPOE, PPTP, L2TP, and Dial Out elements. I disabled all these unneeded elements, leaving only the IP miniport enabled, and thus restored some sense of control over my networking setup. Depending on how your system is set up, you may find other hidden devices, or no others. It varies hugely. But at least now you'll know if XP is hiding things from you.

9) Take The Brakes Off Your Network Settings
XP's default network settings for Maximum Transmission Unit, Receive Window, and such, may or may not be ideal for your circumstances. The only way to know is to take a close look: For example, DSL Reports and SpeedGuide have excellent free information, online tests, and even one-click tweaks that can automatically optimize all or some of XP's internal plumbing for high-speed connectivity. DSL Reports also offers a free, simple network tweaking tool called DrTCP that lets you instantly and easily adjust a variety of parameters; this tool makes iterative testing a snap, as you experiment to find the best settings for your particular setup.

(Incidentally, when WinXP-specific solutions aren't offered, use those for Windows 2000; that's the closest match for XP.)

Part II

InformationWeek

Fred Langa, Part II


  In our original "Ten Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better" we covered many fundamental tweaks and adjustments that can help you to move XP out of its bland and sometimes limiting default settings and into a configuration that better fits your own personal needs, preferences, and work style.

Of course, there actually are thousands of possible adjustments you can make. In that original article, I simply tried to pick the 10 I thought would help the most people.

But as I was recently installing XP Pro on a new PC--perhaps my 15th or 20th XP setup--I realized there were some additional tweaks I've made on essentially every XP system I've handled.

When tweaks become useful enough to be part of a routine installation, they're worth sharing. Here, then, are another 10 very useful changes, additions, or alterations you can make to XP. All are free, and take only minutes to implement:

10) Install The Recovery Console
The Recovery Console lets you start XP without the graphical user interface: It's roughly analogous to "booting to DOS" in older versions of Windows. It's useful for low-level maintenance, and in emergency situations when something has gone wrong and is preventing you from starting XP in the normal way.

I should point out that in a couple years of using XP on all my primary systems, I've never actually needed the Recovery Console. But I like having it handy, just in case: I depend on my PC for my livelihood, and should something go wrong, I want to be able to fix it as rapidly as possible.

Microsoft says; "In the Windows Recovery Console, you can: Use, copy, rename, or replace operating system files and folders; enable or disable service or device startup when you next start your computer; repair the file system boot sector or the Master Boot Record (MBR); create and format partitions on drives...." And so on. (See this for more information.)

You can access the Recovery Console several ways, including booting from your XP setup CD or installing the Recovery Console as a startup option right on your hard drive, so it's always instantly available. That's the way I prefer it. It's very easy to set up, and Microsoft provides complete instructions here.

After installation, when you start your PC, you'll see a new dual-boot type of selection screen which will give you the choice of booting either to your normal installation of XP, or to the Recovery Console.

To keep the Recovery Console boot option from getting in your way, you can limit how long it appears on the startup screen. I set it to display for just three seconds; it's there if I need it--I can hit a key to stop the countdown--but it otherwise passes by quickly, allowing normal booting to continue.

You can adjust the startup behavior this way: Click to either My Computer/Properties/Advanced or to Control Panel/Performance and Maintenance/System/Advanced. (Both routes get you to the same dialog box.) Next, click Settings in the "Startup and Recovery" portion of the dialog. Set the "Time to display list of operating systems" to whatever value you wish. This value, in seconds, is how long the Recovery Console option will appear at startup.

If this brief run-through on the Recovery Console is too compressed for you, you can find a longer, more-detailed explanation here. Enable ClearType
ClearType lets you adjust the boldness or opacity of your on-screen fonts, resulting in more readable type on some systems--especially on laptops and PCs with flat-screen LCD displays.

ClearType is built into XP; the basic on/off control is part of the Display/Properties/Appearance/Effects menu. But you'll get far better control of ClearType by visiting this page to activate it and to choose the specific settings that work best on your system.

If you'd like more information on ClearType, this page may help.

11) Install WNTIPCfg
"Wntipcfg" is the "Windows NT IP Configuration" Tool; a graphical, point-and-click way to control and get information about your IP configuration. It replaces XP's built-in command-line tool, which is harder to use.

Once installed, Wntipcfg lets you easily see the addresses of any/all network cards in your system; to see how long each address is good for; and if you wish, to force the address to be released and renewed on demand. (This can be a fast and easy way to change your numeric Internet address, making it harder for hackers to find you.)

Wntipcfg is free. The download and additional information is here.

12) Limit "Universal Plug And Play" Support
This and the following two items are free downloads from Internet guru Steve Gibson.

"Universal Plug And Play," or uPnP, is a network-oriented outgrowth of the more familiar basic PnP (Plug and Play) hardware standard from the mid-1990s. UPnP will probably become more important in the future, but relatively few devices and services make use of it now. If it's not something you use (I don't) it makes sense to disable uPnP temporarily. This lets your firewall close--and preferably stealth--the uPnP port, so crackers can't break in, and in fact can't even see that there's a PC online if they look for that port.

The easiest way to control uPnP is with Steve Gibson's tiny, free "UnPlug n' Pray" utility, which I've installed on all my PCs. When you run it, the software tells you if uPnP is active; and if it is, offers to disable it nondestructively. Or, if uPnP is disabled, the utility lets you turn it back on with a click. This way, you can turn off uPnP now and yet reactive it easily on demand at any point in the future, should you need to. Stop Messenger Spam
Windows Messenger (not to be confused with MSN Messenger, the IM/chat toy) is a built-in operating system tool that normally allows, say, a network administrator to broadcast a message to everyone on a LAN; the message might be something like "Server going down for maintenance in 5 minutes. Please log off." Some other legitimate tools and services may use Messenger to display information, too.

But a problem arises when people who have no use for Messenger leave it enabled; and/or when people who need Messenger leave it set up so that it can be accessed freely from the Internet.

Spammers discovered this en masse in 2002. Ever since then, Messenger-based spam has afflicted unprotected PCs. These spam messages often are disguised as Administrative messages, trying to fool the unwary into taking whatever action the spammer wants.

The easiest fix is to use Gibson's free "Shoot The Messenger" utility that lets you toggle Messenger on or off at will. You'll find more information and the download here.

Some firewalls also let you block Messenger by name. And all firewalls should let you block the ports that Messenger normally uses: Port 135 (TCP/UDP) and--less commonly, for a related but slightly different form of messaging--ports 137 and 139.

13) Tame DCOM (not applicable with XP SrvPk2)
Microsoft's Distributed Component Object Model, or DCOM, is a protocol that enables software components to communicate directly over a network. As you might imagine, this can be good or bad, depending on how it's used, and whether or not the communication is authorized and nonhostile.

DCOM can be important in some circumstances (especially in enterprise settings), and may become more generally important in the future: It's not something you want to rip out of your operating system wholesale. But DCOM currently serves little purpose on most systems, and has been a security problem in the past. (See "What You Should Know About Microsoft Security Bulletin MS03-026" for example.)

To help control DCOM, Gibson offers this tiny free utility that lets you see your current DCOM setup; and to disable or enable DCOM at will. It's there if you need it, but safely inactive and inert if you don't. AutoFix Two Major Problem Areas
Internet Explorer lets you put various sites and services into "Zones" with different security levels set via the Tools/Internet Options/Security menus.)

For example, you can assign a suspect site to a "Restricted" zone, in which the site's actions will be tightly monitored and controlled, helping to protect you from potential malicious downloads, scripts, and whatnot. A known-safe, known-friendly site might be given more latitude by assigning it to a different zone.

But the Zone settings can be confusing, so the online testing service at PC Pitstop offers a free "autofix" script that, with one click, adjusts 20 IE Restricted Zone security settings from their fairly lax defaults to much safer custom settings

A second free autofix offers a one-click way to tell Outlook Express to use the newly enhanced Restricted Zone settings. This helps reduce some of the worst vulnerabilities for Outlook Express, making this notoriously unsafe software a little more secure.

All the PC Pitstop autofixes are here; run the full suite of (free) PC Pitstop tests to see which ones apply to your system.

14) Install TweakUI, And Related Add-Ons
Microsoft offers a free collection of 11 useful add-ons and extensions for XP here. Some of the tools are extremely useful: For example, TweakUI offers easy access to a host of system settings that otherwise are hard to get at. Other tools, like the "Webcam Tmershot," are more specialized and narrowly focused, but all are worth a look. The software is a la carte: You can download any or all of the utilities, as you wish.

15) SendToAnyFolder
I move a lot of files around on my system, and the free "SendToAnyFolder" utility from Trogladite software makes it much easier than conventional cutting-and-pasting or dragging/dropping. The software adds itself to the right-click context menu in Explorer, letting you move a file or files to a different location on your hard drive with fewer clicks and mouse movements than otherwise.

16) Use A Startup Monitor
A "Startup Monitor" is a tool that notifies you when software has inserted itself into your PC's startup sequence. If the software is something that should run at startup, you can allow the change. But if the software is setting itself up surreptitiously--some browser hijackers do this, for example--you can disallow the change, and thus protect your system.

Perhaps the best known such tool is simply called StartupMonitor, from Mike Lin. He describes it as "a small utility that runs transparently (it doesn't even use a tray icon) and notifies you when any program registers itself to run at system startup. It prevents those utterly useless tray applications from registering themselves behind your back, and it acts as a security tool against Trojans like BackOrifice or Netbus.... StartupMonitor watches the Start Menu's Startup folders and the Run entries in the registry."

StartupMonitor is free, and available for download here http://www.mlin.net/StartupMonitor.shtml . There are many other startup-monitoring tools available on other sites, too, should you wish to try something different.

Ten From You?
These tweaks all have become part of my routine setup for new systems: I install them on all my XP PCs.

But what do you use on your PC? Please use the discussion area to post your favorite tweak or tweaks. By the time we're done, we should have an awesome collection of real-world, real-life tweaks that can help make XP work just the way we want it to.

Last Updated on Saturday, 23 August 2008 16:38