How to Maximize Performance in Windows Vista

Published April 04, 2007

| ExtremeTech

Performance is probably the most coveted intangible when it comes to PCs, and tweaking, to the performance hungry, is considered more of a necessity than an option.

Gearheads go to great lengths to get quicker system response times, faster-running games and shorter PC boot-up and shutdown times.

One way is to overclock the heck out of the poor components (and then, for bragging rights, to log on to a message board and claim a stable CPU frequency of about 300MHz faster than what's actually possible). Another way is to tweak out the operating system itself.

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Unlike previous Microsoft operating systems, Windows Vista is pretty streamlined right out of the box. It makes terrific use of a system's resources, but it's built as much for pretty looks and increased stability and security as it is for horsepower.

It's time now for a course of action that will take the ball and chain off this baby and let it fly.

The ink on Windows Vista's end-user license agreement is barely dry, so it's very likely that more speed tips, registry hacks and deep settings will be revealed in the weeks, months, and years to come.

For now, here's our set of tweaks that can help you turn up the throttle on your new operating system.

Keep Those Drivers Fresh

ExtremeTech and lots of other Web sites have published quite a few bytes of copy about how drivers for Vista are premature at best. Graphics drivers, especially, are hurting in terms of efficiency and stability.

It's likely that the biggest boost you're likely to see will come in gradual increments as AMD, Nvidia and other companies work out the wrinkles that prevent their hardware from performing at peak under the new operating system.

The first step in optimizing Vista, then, is to keep your drivers up to date. Check for new drivers for all of your hardware often — daily, even. Not only can new drivers enhance performance, they should also gradually enable more features.

We're still waiting for better video quality from AMD's ATI cards, for instance, and for a full feature set for Creative Labs' SoundBlaster X-Fi cards.

Lose What You Don't Need

If you installed Vista yourself and have experience installing previous Windows OSes, you surely noticed that Vista hardly asks any questions about your computer — and what you plan to do with it — than did prior OSes.

Windows Vista makes all kinds of assumptions about your computing habits and the features you may or may not need, and it inevitably installs some overhead that you simply don't need. You can get rid of it.

Windows XP had the "Add/Remove Windows Features" button in the Control Panel Add/Remove Programs applet, and Vista has something like it.

1. Open Control Panel and click "Uninstall a Program" to launch Vista's Uninstall or Change a Program Window. In the Tasks pane on the left, click "Turn Windows Features On or Off."

2 Check the list of features. Each feature is preceded by a checkbox which, if filled, indicates the feature is installed. If you hover the mouse over a feature, a help tooltip appears to tell you what it is.

3. Uncheck any feature you don't need. Some of the features are headings with a sub-list below them; just click the little "+" sign to expand.

For my gaming system, I've purged everything except:

— Some of the games
— XPS Viewer (under .NET Framework 3.0)
— Remote Differential Compression (a network optimizer)
— Windows Ultimate Extras

Note that when you uncheck features, you're not removing these features from your system; you're simply turning them off so they don't sit in the background eating up resources.

You can turn any of them back on by invoking this window and filling the checkboxes.

Next, it's time to flush any services that you don't want or need.

Click the Start button and type in "services.msc" and hit "Enter." (The cursor jumps to the Search bar in the Start Menu when you click the Start button; you can usually just punch in whatever program or module you want to run right there).

The Services applet appears. Each service is basically a little nest of software support code for something the computer can monitor or do.

Well-written services include a description of what they do (note that lots of third-party services don't include a description, to which we say: shame). The "Status" column in the Services window shows whether or not the service has been started. "Startup Type" means how the service starts:

— "Automatic" means the service starts when Windows starts.
— "Manual" means the service starts when Windows detects that something needs it.
— "Disabled" means the service doesn't start at all.

Most services are either set to "Automatic" or "Manual." There's no need to change any manual services; they only start when it's necessary for them to do something. There are probably some automatic services you really don't need, though.

You can find a full list of services at TweakHound, an excellent source of all kinds of tweaks.

To change how a service starts, right-click it and click "Properties." If you don't want a service to load, first stop the service by clicking "Stop." Then, pull down the Startup Type list and set the service to "Manual" or"Disabled."

If you're not sure about a service, it's safer to set it to "Manual"; that way, if something calls it, it should start up. If you know you don't need a service, set it to "Disabled."

The services you need depend on what you do with your PC. For instance, if you're not using ReadyBoost, you can disable that service; you can disable Windows Error Reporting if you don't want to report errors; you can disable Tablet PC Input Service if you don't want to use Tablet PC features; and so on.

You can almost certainly disable some services that start automatically by default:

— Computer Browser
— Distributed Link Tracking Client
— IKE and AuthIP IP Keying Modules
— Offline Files
— Remote Registry
— Tablet PC Input Service (unless you're using a tablet PC)
— Windows Error Reporting

Some services that you absolutely should not disable include:

— Multimedia Class Scheduler
— Plug and Play
— Superfetch
— Task Scheduler
— Windows Audio
— Windows Driver Foundation

Feel free to experiment with services; just keep track of which services you tweak and, if something doesn't work, re-enable the last service you turned off. Streamline the system by shutting down as many services as you can, based on your own unique needs.

As an example, here are the services I've disabled on my networked gaming machine:

— DFS Replication
— Computer Browser
— Distributed Link Tracking Client
— IKE and AuthIP IPsec Keying Modules
— IP Helper
— IPsec Policy Agent
— KtmRm for Distributed Transaction Coordinator
— Offline Files
— Remote Registry
— Secondary Logon
— Security Center (Use caution if you disable security services!)
— SSDP Discovery
— Tablet PC Input Service
— Terminal Services
— Windows Defender (Ditto the above warning!)
— Windows Error Reporting Service

Hose Out the Background

For the most streamlined operation, it's essential that your computer has as few programs running in the background as possible.

You can tell a bit about how much junk is running behind the scenes by looking at the system tray (the area next to the clock on the taskbar). The more icons you see there, the more stuff is running that you may not actually need.

I recommend a two-step process for getting rid of any background applets that you don't need. Check out the tray icons and use the interfaces from those programs to disable them natively. Then, run good old MSCONFIG to clean out anything else.

First, look at the tray. Some of the stuff there belongs there; you might see a little speaker icon, a battery power icon, an icon for the Sidebar, network status icons and a few other odds and ends that Windows puts in the tray.

Look for third-party icons; QuickTime often occupies a part of the tray.

Right-click on any icons you find that aren't simple Windows status icons. Look for a settings, properties or a similar option. Then, in the resulting window, look for a way to prevent the program from loading when Windows starts.

For example, to prevent Steam (a popular game-data delivery service) from automatically loading, you would:

— Right-click the Steam tray icon.
— Click "Settings."
— Click "Interface."
— Uncheck "Run Steam When Windows Starts."
— Click "OK."

QuickTime, however, presents a challenge. You can tell it not to display the tray icon, but it will still run in the background. For that, and other programs that don't always display tray icons, use the second method.

Click the Start button, type "msconfig," and hit "Enter."

You'll see the System Configuration window, which operates essentially the same as it does in Windows XP. Click the "Startup" tab.

Look at the list of startup items. Each is preceded by a checkbox. You can prevent any of these programs from starting simply by unchecking it.

You'll note that QuickTime, which wouldn't let me disable it through its interface, is there. Simply uncheck it to prevent it from running in the background — and sucking up resources.

Steam, QuickTime and many other such programs will start automatically when they're needed. For example, if you launch an MOV file, QuickTime will start whether or not its little applet is running in the background. Steam will launch if you start a Steam game, even if it's not running behind the scenes.

Now, some items are necessary. You might see things like a mouse or gamepad applet that the hardware needs to offer its programmability. You might see Windows Defender, which, if your computer has constant Internet access and lacks another anti-spyware program, could help protect it.

Here's a good rule of thumb: If an application in MSCONFIG references hardware, you should keep it. If it references software, get rid of it (unless it's a vital security program).

Hardware applets often supply needed front ends; software applets usually help a software program open faster. Software opens just fine without helper applets, so there's no need for them to suck up processor cycles all the time.

When you've cleaned out the list, unchecking anything you don't need, restart the computer.

Use ReadyBoost

ReadyBoost is a Vista feature that uses a compatible USB flash device to enhance performance.

Note that the oft-misunderstood feature isn't a replacement for a memory upgrade, and it doesn't affect game performance — you won't see higher frame rates by adding a keychain drive to your system.

ReadyBoost caches disk reads on the fly and can often speed up data access. Reads from a USB key or other ReadyBoost device are much faster than random reads from a platter on the hard drive.

ReadyBoost data is encrypted, so if someone swipes the flash device he or she can't tell what you've been up to. It's secure, and it really does speed up access in certain instances.

To enable ReadyBoost, just plug in a flash device. (Microsoft recommends one about the same size as your system's main memory. For instance, if you have 1GB of RAM, grab a 1GB ReadyBoost device.)

The system will automatically detect the drive and offer to use it either as an external drive or as a ReadyBoost drive. Simply choose the latter, and a window will appear.

You can change the amount of memory on the device is used for speed. Windows will recommend the amount it can use with the most efficiency. Click "OK" and you're done.

Adding a ReadyBoost drive isn't like doubling your system's memory, but the performance benefits are well worth the price of a USB flash device.

Speed Up the Interface

Windows Vista features what some of us think is the prettiest graphical user interface in the operating-systems industry. Its stylish transparencies and nifty animations — driven by Direct3D and your graphics card — give it a polished look that's a pleasure to use.

Unfortunately, that shiny, new interface, called Aero, is also a resource hog. If you're running Vista on a PC that's near or just above the system requirements, you might want to shut off some or all of those features.

Here are some actions you might want to take to tweak interface niceties:

— Lose the transparency. Right-click the desktop, click "Personalize" and click "Windows Color and Appearance." Uncheck "Enable Transparency." Click "OK."

— Get rid of the Sidebar. It's cool, but some of those gadgets chow down on memory. Right-click the Sidebar, click "Properties" and uncheck "Start Sidebar When Windows Starts." Click "OK." Then right-click the Sidebar and click "Close Sidebar." If you ever want it back, you can simply click the Start button and key in "sidebar" and hit "Enter."

— Get rid of some of the visual effects. Open Control Panel, click "Performance and System Tools" and click "Adjust Visual Effects." In the resulting window, you can uncheck line items for animations, fades and other effects; or simply click "Adjust For Best Performance."

— Go with a non-Aero theme. To get rid of Aero entirely, use the Windows Classic, Windows Vista Basic or Windows Standard theme. Right-click the desktop, click "Personalize" and click "Windows Color and Appearance." Click "Open Classic Appearance Properties" ... and choose a theme in the Color Scheme list box. Click "OK."

When you perform such tweaks, Windows Vista won't look as pretty. It will, however, respond much faster. A high-end system might not benefit a whole lot from these adjustments, but they'll improve low-end computers in spades.

Miscellaneous Hacks

Next up are a few hacks I've come across in my travels. The first is for systems that have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) with a reliable battery attached.

If your system is equipped with a serial-ATA (SATA) hard drive, go to Device Manager (the quickest way to do that is to click Start and punch in "Device Manager" and hit "Enter").

Expand the Disk Drives entry. Right-click on your SATA hard drive and click "Properties." Click the "Policies" tab and click "Enable Advanced Performance." This option enables extremely aggressive write-caching, which can speed up drive access but also cause you to lose data if the power goes out suddenly.

A couple of tweaks require you to hack the registry. To do this, click the Start button, type "regedit" and hit "Enter."

Note: You should make a backup of the registry before you alter it. Click "File," click "Export" and in the resulting window, make sure "All" is selected at the bottom. Give the file a name and click "Save."

This will create a full backup of your Windows registry; if you accidentally hose something, you can go into Windows Safe Mode and restore it.

Alternately, you can create a Restore Point before you alter the registry; go to Control Panel, then System and Maintenance, and then System. Click "System Protection" in the Tasks list. Click the "Create..." button, and follow the prompts.

I recommend two registry hacks for minor performance gains. First, turn off the low disk space checks:

1. Using the left side of the Registry Editor, navigate to "HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionPolicies."

2. Right-click in the right pane and select "New Key."

3. Name the new key "Explorer."

4. In the Explorer key, right-click in the right pane and click "New DWORD (32-bit) Value."

5. Name the DWORD "NoLowDiskSpaceChecks."

6. Right-click the new DWORD and click "Modify."

7. Set the Value Data to "1."

8. Click "OK."

This will prevent Windows Vista from checking the space on your hard drive and popping up the notorious "Hey, you're running out of space!" warning balloon.

Next, you can probably safely disable the NTFS habit of creating 8.3 versions of filenames for backward compatibility. DOS is dead, right?

Open the Registry Editor and:

1. Navigate to "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESYSTEMCurrentControlSetControlFileSystem."

2. Find the DWORD called "NtfsDisable8dot3NameCreation."

3. Right-click it and click "Modify."

4. Change the value to "1."

5. Click "OK."

You should reboot after you alter the registry. These tweaks mildly speed up hard drive access by removing needless overhead.

Defrag Once in a While

If you've somehow gotten the impression that Windows Vista doesn't need to be defragmented, think again.

Vista comes with a defrag program (Microsoft's worst yet, in terms of usability) and it even comes preconfigured to defrag the hard drive once each week.

Unless you keep your computer on 24 hours a day, launch Disk Defragmenter (click Start and type in "defrag" and hit "Enter") and disable its scheduler.

You can do this on your own, with a better defrag application which, unlike Microsoft's, still shows you a map of the drive as it defrags.

Download Disk-Defrag from AusLogics and install it. Then run it. It's speedy and free.

Unless you install and uninstall programs, move and delete data and otherwise assault the hard drive regularly, you don't need to defrag more than once a month.

Pick a night after you're done with your PC, start the Disk-Defrag application, start a defragmentation and go to bed.

Use It

The last way to speed up Windows Vista that we'll cover is simple.

Use it.

Vista's Superfetch feature, its prefetching powerhouse, is incredibly powerful on its own — don't mess with it.

Vista monitors your computing habits and caches the stuff you use the most. It also moves things on the hard drive that it thinks you'll want to the fastest area of the platter.

It does all kinds of background work to speed up, tune itself up and make itself as responsive as it can be.

Use Vista regularly and, in about a week, it should be fully optimized based on what you do.

Windows XP started the trend with its own self-optimization, but Vista truly gets it right. Vista's own optimization isn't perfect, but the steps in this article will boost it so that it's even more responsive and well-tuned.

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.

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