Chapter 5 Maximizing Performance
Although your computer spends 99.9% of the time waiting for you to do something, the biggest concern is that other 0.1% of the time when eight seconds can seem like an eternity.
A common misconception is thatwith all else being equala computer with a fast processor, say 3 GHz, will naturally be faster than a 2 GHz system, and the microprocessor industry wouldnt have it any other way. Sure that new system youre eyeing seems a whole lot faster than your year-old machine, but how much is due merely to the processors clock speed and how much is determined by other factors?
Now, the increased processor speed is an obvious benefit in some specific circumstances, such as when youre performing intensive statistical calculations, using 3D modeling software, or playing particularly processorintensive games. But in most cases, ones qualitative assessment of a computers speed is based on its ability to respond immediately to mouse clicks and keystrokes, start applications quickly, open menus and dialog boxes without a delay, start up and shut down Windows quickly, and display graphics and animation smoothly. For the most part, all of these things depend far more upon correctly optimized software, the amount of installed memory, the speed of your hard drive, and the amount of free disk space than on mere processor power.
Probably the biggest drag on an older systems performance, and the primary reason it may seem so much slower than a new system (not to mention slower than it might have been only last year), is the glut of applications and drivers that have been installed. Any computer that has been around for a year or more will likely suffer a slowdown, the only remedy being either a thorough cleansing or a complete reinstall of the operating system (see "Reinstalling Windows XP" in Chapter 1).
Because financial limitations prevent most people from replacing all their hardware every three months (or whenever the proverbial ashtray gets full), most of this chapter is devoted to solutions that will help improve the performance of your existing system without spending a fortune on new gadgets. For example, the way Windows uses the swapfile (virtual memory) can be inefficient, and spending a few minutes fixing this bottleneck can result in performance increases all across the system.
Of course, this doesnt mean it never makes sense to upgrade, only that its not always the best answer to a performance problem. Even if money were no object and you could simply buy a new computer or component without thinking twice, youd still have to take the time to install and troubleshoot the new hardware and reconfigure your software.
Naturally, there is a certain point past which your computer is going to turn into a money and time pit. The older your system is, the less vigorously you should try to keep it alive. Its easy to calculate the point of diminishing returns: just compare the estimated cost of an upgrade (both the monetary cost and the amount of time youll have to commit) with the cost of a new system (minus what you might get for selling or donating your old system). I stress this point a great deal, because Ive seen it happen time and time again: people end up spending too much and getting too little in return. A simple hardware upgrade ends up taking days of troubleshooting and configuring, only to result in the discovery that yet something else needs to be replaced as well. Taking into account that whatever you end up with will still eventually need to be further upgraded to remain current, it is often more cost effective to replace the entire system and either sell or donate the old parts.
Trimming the Fat
In many ways, Windows XP is able to better take advantage of your hardware than Windows 9x/Me, but that doesnt mean its configured for optimal performance right out of the box. Because all the software you run is dependent upon the operating system, tweaking Windows for better performance can result in performance gains across the board.
To start off, there are several easy settings that can have a substantial effect on Windows responsiveness. The next few sections explain these settings.
Tame Mindless Animation and Display Effects
Windows XP adds animation to almost every visual component of the operating system. While these affectations may be cute, they can easilymake a 2 GHz computer perform as though it were an antiquated 386. Rather than watch your Start Menu crawl to its open position, you can configure your menus and list boxes to snap to position. Youll be surprised at how much faster and more responsive Windows will feel.
The settings that can affect performance are scattered throughout the interface, but the ones that control display effects are the ones that concern us here. Double-click the System icon in Control Panel, choose the Advanced tab, and click Settings in the Performance section. The Visual Effects tab, shown in Figure 5-1, contains sixteen settings, all explained later.
Unfortunately, the four selections above the list are rather misleading. For example, the Let Windows choose whats best for my computer option reverts all settings to their defaults, chosen by a marketing committee at Microsoft to best showcase their products features. The Adjust for bestappearance option simply enables all features in the list, while the Adjust for best performance option just disables them.