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September 18, 2007

7 Easy Ways to Speed Up a Slow PC

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Sick of Your Snail-like Desktop?

The boot process in Windows XP – or, for that matter, in all Windows-based operating systems – can go from a speedy process that takes a couple of minutes or less, to an annoying, day-long event. How long exactly depends on how corrupted your start-up has become because of one or a combination of several possibilities. For instance, the 10 or 20 toolbars that you have installed, the pieces of hardware that have come and gone in your system, and the inability to just say “NO” to every add-on that is packaged with software, can wreak havoc on your OS.

So, what can you do to make your PC act as well-mannered as it did when it came out of the box with the cow-spots on it? With some easy (and FREE, mostly) fixes, you can make your PC better than it was when you bought it! Here are seven things you can do to get your desktop back!

Most errors or problems can be lumped into two broad categories: before the desktop loads and while/after the desktop loads.

    Before the Desktop Loads …

  1. Blue – Screen Errors

    Everyone just cringes when a blue screen of death (BSOD) comes up on the monitor, telling us things such as “Stop Error: Driver IRQL Not Less or Equal.” As a general rule, these errors can be attributed to faulty, cheap, or mismatched RAM. Many computer-users add RAM to try to speed up their computers but, unfortunately, some frequently buy or mismatch the speed, type, and CAS latency.

    How to solve this? First off, always buy quality memory, such as Kingston. Then, be sure to match the speed and the CAS of all modules that you purchase. To help you here, you may want to take advantage of a wonderful Kingston tool “The Kingston Memory Configurator” which you can find here.

    Note: The one blue-screen error that is definitely not RAM-oriented is “Unmountable Boot Volume.” This error signals that you need a new hard drive.

  2. Extremely Long Wait Before the Desktop Loads

    I hate to say it, but don’t most men (hmmm …present company excluded, usually) skip reading the directions before they use ANYTHING? Whenever you install a program, you just click next, next, next, next . . . until you can finally click on finish so that you can use the new program you downloaded or bought.

    Well, while you are skipping over the directions that come with the program (and the 174 extra programs that are bundled with it), you have installed four toolbars, three pieces of spyware, two macros, and a partridge in a pear tree. Each of these programs leaves its footprint in your registry, which is the part of your operating system that controls almost everything.

    Cleaning your registry will speed up the boot process immeasurably. I have personally tried a LOT of these programs, and have only found one that actually works: RegVac. You can purchase a copy for about $30, which will entitle you to free updates forever; you can also download a free copy here and, of course, read the directions! Remember that after you run RegVac (as well as any other program), the changes are not made and stored by your computer until you reboot!

  3. After the Desktop Loads …

  4. Program – Not – Found Errors

    Many times, the uninstall routines for programs are not as smooth and well-written as the install routines. As a result, the uninstall process can lead to program-not-found or shortcut errors. If this happens, the first place to check is the startup folder, by clicking on Start > Programs > Startup to find out if the program you are missing is located there. If it is, you can simply hold your mouse cursor over it, right click, and choose delete. If it is not, try the steps in the section below.

  5. Missing File or Miscellaneous Program Loading Errors

    Often, programs that are installed and running on startup will become corrupted due to a user’s inability to shut the computer down gracefully with the start button (as opposed to the power switch). All programs as well as the registry and the operating system save their changes when the computer shuts down; if you aren’t able to do this because a program locks up (and we all know this NEVER happens on a Windows-based PC), or there’s a momentary loss of AC to your home, you might have a missing file or miscellaneous program error. In addition, some programs have auto-updating features, which might only have run half way when you turn the computer off, forgetting that the program is being updated.

    You can bring up almost all of the programs that are loading on startup by clicking on Start > Run and typing in msconfig. The last tab over is called startup and will have a list of most of the programs that are being loaded on your taskbar next to the clock and date. If you note the error message that you received when the computer was starting, you can cross-reference it to a directory, an executable, or the actual program name and remove it from the startup list.

    However, for those of you who are a bit more daring and want to use a more full-flavored program, download StartupList or HijackThis here. Both of these programs will bring up EVERYTHING that loads from the registry as well as other places. Additionally, HijackThis will bring up every program and add-on for your browser. Both programs are quite powerful, so be careful, and ALWAYS make only one change at a time, write it down, reboot and test your change. NEVER make wholesale changes for two reasons. First, you can’t tell the effect of the change without rebooting. Second, and more important, you won’t remember all the changes that you made and you will have a much harder time undoing them.

  6. Get Rid of Extra Programs

    Many programs try to weasel their way into your startup routine when there is no reason they have to be there. QuickTime, WinZip QuickPick, and AOL Instant Messenger are a few that come to mind. Remember that each and every icon that you see next to your clock is sucking down your valuable and limited system resources. So, why not use a shortcut in other places for these extra programs, and stop them from loading in your taskbar? If you do this, your available system resources will go up, while the programs are only a click away.

  7. Bonus Tweaks …

  8. Make A Permanent Swap File

    A paging or swap file is hard-drive space that acts like RAM. By default, Windows creates your swap file as temporary, which means that it is created on bootup and deleted when you shut the computer down. The problem with this is that it is very inefficient.

    You can create a permanent swap file (pagefile.sys with any NT-based operating systems such as NT, 2000, and XP), by bringing up the System applet from Control Panel, or by right-clicking “My Computer” and choosing Properties > Advanced > Settings > Advanced and Change (at the bottom). Highlight your fastest drive (usually the drive and partition that you boot from), click on “Custom Size” and type in the number that is twice the amount of your installed RAM in MB. For example, if you have 512 MB of RAM, type in 1024 in both the minimum and maximum. Click “Set” then “OK,” and reboot. This will add to your heap, which is the sum of your installed RAM and swapfile. However, permanent swap files are prone to fragmentation, so make sure that you defragment regularly.

  9. Update Your Graphics Card Drivers

    Drivers are software that help a piece of hardware — in this case, the graphics card — to work with your operating system. You can find out your graphics card driver version in many ways, but the easiest is to right-click your desktop somewhere where there isn’t an icon, choose Properties > Settings > Advanced > Adapter > Properties > Driver. The driver version is listed in the middle of the tab.

    You can find a newer driver by going to the website of the graphics card manufacturer, such as NVIDIA, or the PC manufacturer’s site (if it’s a name brand such as a Dell, HP, etc.) and matching it to the model number of your computer or your current graphics card. A word of warning, though: Before installing a graphics card driver, disable your anti-virus software or you will have problems.

I can’t guarantee that these processes will solve every startup problem you might have, but the odds are they will speed up your system. Remember, every time you use your computer, install software, and update programs, some of these problems will also begin even though you can’t actually notice them. It makes sense then, to take a bit of time and give your computer some TLC so that you can enjoy the rewards of a faster computer.

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About the Author

(VP of IT Pro Content) heads up the IT pro curriculum at Pluralsight. He brought his expertise over from TrainSignal, where he spent eight years helping to grow the company into the leader in online IT training. Gary has a B.B.A. in Management Information Systems from University of Iowa and brings hands-on experience with computer hardware, networking and administration, as well as a passion for education, to the Pluralsight team. You can follow him on Twitter: @garyeimerman.


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