Friday, September 25, 2009

Spring clean - tuning your Windows XP computer

I remember when I was about 9 or 10 years old, my mother owned a small red Datsun car. It gave her endless hassles - mainly because it was serviced maybe twice in it's decade long file.

It was about car years...and much of those were spent driving (proverbial) dirt roads.

Trying to start the car in the mornings was an exercise in faith: Many mornings it refused point blank to start until it was good, ready and warmed up. That meant I missed an hour or two of school.

To my mind it was a very cool car indeed.

In the summer, my mother parked the car in the shade of a big tree next to our house, and in winter, on the sunny back lawn.

My bond with the little Datsun grew to affection as I devoured Don Quixote, Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe and countless others in the back seat of the little car. In my cozy little capsule, I traveled to distant worlds and places. I ran away, made war, fell in love, faced monsters, sailed the seven seas and made new friends.

Then my mother threatened to get rid of my little red friend!

Something had to be done, so I went to the library and took out a few books on car maintenance - including the service manual for the Datsun.

At first glance, the manuals made for far less interesting reading than Tom and Huck, until it occurred to me that Tom and Huck mended the sails for their their float...and Quixote polished his lance. Wizards and witches made broths. Time travelers oil the gears of their fantastic machines. Explorers repair their own wagons.

By Zeus's moustache, I must service the little Datsun.

The maintenance manual was fine reading material after all! My ship faced (and survived) countless battles and now its captain (me), and it`s crew (me), must drop anchor in a safe bay (the back lawn), and ready this fine vessel for adventure.

It took a bit of convincing, but eventually my mother agreed to buy spark plugs, a plug spanner and a feeler gauge.

Thinking back, I she must have been a little scared when she eventually gave in and bought the tools and parts for an 10 year old book worm to scratch around the guts of her only means of transport.

As only a mother can possibly understand, she was probably not convinced by my passionate begging: My self-professed, newly acquired mechanical prowess probably did not impress her either. I think her 10 year old`s passion and naive determination to help must have made her take the leap of faith. Bless her.

It took me an entire weekend to replace the spark plugs - facing several severe technical challenges along the way. I remember one particular instance where I touched a spark plug lead while the car was idling and had my first experience of high voltage electric shock.

The experience made a couple of new words permanent additions to my vocabulary. It took a few hours and several glasses of red cool-aid to work up the courage to get started again. The oven mittens I was wearing after the incident slowed my work down, but rather that than a very high voltage kick in the but.

Temporary setbacks not withstanding, late the Sunday afternoon, the little Datsun started - every time.

It still sometimes screamed like a stuck pig (I later learned that was caused by a slipping fan belt way past it`s replacement schedule), but the main operation was successful and the Admiral (I promoted myself) had his ship back in service. Together could sail back into the sunset to face a new round of battles and fantastic adventures.

Years later, I started working on PCs. These were mystical devices too. You could do just about anything with it. You could read books, play games, listen to music, write programs, do budgets...the possibilities were endless. But so were the problems.

In less than a year my first PC became a lot slower. Errors occurred more and more frequently. Information got destroyed for no apparent reason. The PC started reminding me of a little red Datsun.

After a trip to the library, I found out that PCs were mechanical devices too and they also required maintenance. Fortunately, maintenance on a PC seldom require parts or tools...or oven mittens. All you need is a bit of information, a little time, and a desire to restore your PC to the sleek, fast and fascinating device it was when you first got it.

Here is the summarized workshop manual for your Windows XP PC. If you have an ten year old, please do me a favor and have him/her join you in repairing the ship for battle once more...for old times sake...

Physical maintenance

Take a good look at your keyboard and mouse. Not exactly clean are they? Are you a bit embarrassed that you did not notice that before?

Let`s fix it:

1) Shut down your PC.
2) Turn the keyboard upside down and GENTLY tap it on the back (do not use power tools or hammers) until no more dust and debris fall out.
3) Now take a damp, soft cloth and wipe the side of the keyboard and the keys clean from that unmentionable grey-black gunk stuck on it. You can use a little bit (about a drop) of dishwashing liquid diluted in about a liter of water if the grime is difficult to get off. Be very careful not to let water drip into the keyboard.
4) Do the same to your mouse, ie wipe the mouse body and buttons clean.
5) Open the mouse and take out the mouse ball (at the bottom) and use a pen or needle to remove the dust compacted around the little black rolling bars.
6) Wipe the mouse ball clean.
7) Replace the ball...the same one you took out, in case you are wondering. If you're mouse does not have a ball, then it is a girl. It does not need servicing of it's moving parts.
8) Rinse the cloth and clean your monitor - not the screen itself, just the box.
9) Now clean the screen in the same way you would a window - but, once again, be careful not to spill any liquid in or on the device, and don`t stand on a chair while you are doing it...and do not use any strong detergents.

Now you have a clean and handsome PC again - at least from the outside. This is an important step because you cannot expect your PC to work faster if it is embarrassed by how it looks.

Just think how effective you will be if you had to go to work without showering for a year. I`m not messing with you. It`s a mystical thing. Computers have feelings too.

Removing data dust

As surely as dust settles on your computer from the outside - just as surely dust of a different kind settles in the inside of your PC...the dust of unused and disorganized data.

First, remove all the junk and then organize your hard disk. Windows XP includes a built-in program (utility) to do this: On the start menu, select "All programs", "Accessories", "System tools" and then "Disk cleanup". The program will run for a few minutes while it checks out your hard disk.

Once it is ready, select "More options" and "Clean up" in the installed programs section. Now uninstall those programs you thought you might need, but never actually use. (Remember that old Tetris game you installed but stopped playing for hours at a time because you noticed hair growing on your hands?)

After removing the programs you no longer need, click on the "Clean up" button in the System Restore section and remove all but the most recent restore point.

Once that is done, click on the "Disk cleanup" tab again and tick all the boxes. Now click ok, and go have a cup of coffee while your computer removes all the old junk during the next several minutes. Instead of coffee, you may use an alcoholic beverage to "get in the mood" if you are so inclined, but keep the dosage to a level that is safe around computers.

Tune hard disk performance

Every time data is written to your hard disk, it is broken down into "clusters" (chunks of information) and stored on the available open spaces of your drive. As files are deleted and added, shrunk and expanded, these clusters become separated and data is spread all over your hard disk (fragmented) - like pieces of a puzzle scattered all over your house after your 3 year old niece came over for a visit.

Your computer has to work hard to re-assemble files every time they are read, and this slows things down noticeably. To re-organize your files into nice, fast and contiguous blocks, follow this procedure:

On the Start Menu, select "All programs", "Accessories", "System tools" and then Disk Defragmenter. Now select your C: drive and click "Defragment" and watch in total fascination as Windows XP moves all your files around the disk until they are all more or less neatly de-fragmented. (For a faster (free) defragmentation tool, download Ultradefrag here:

Your computer will now no longer spend minutes every day searching up and down the hard disk muttering to itself about selfish humans with no regard neat filing.

Clean your startup

You may be (unpleasantly) surprised to see how many things your computer is busy with at any given time. After all, if you are not typing on the machine, then it`s just standing there doing nothing - right?

Unfortunately that is not so. Many tasks run in the background - some of them are essential, but some of them do nothing more than make your computer run slower.

Click on start, then all programs and then startup and review the list of programs there. Make sure that all the items there are really necessary because all of them are running in the background keeping your computer busy. A common culprit is "Microsoft office". Right click on the entry and delete it. You might have to wait 10 seconds longer next time you start MS office, but that`s better than wasting resources all the time on a program that you only use now and then.

Stop the windows indexing service

This part of the operating system keeps a running index of all the files on the search. Considering the benefits the search brings (very little) versus the resources it consumers (a lot) it is not a good deal.

A bad trade of a lot of resources for a very small gain.

If you want a good, fast and very clever search engine for your desktop, have a look at the (free) Google desktop search:

To stop the indexing service from stealing computing resources, follow this process:

1) Click start, run and type services.msc and hit enter.
2) Look for Indexing service and double click it.
3) Click on stop and wait for the service to stop.
4) Change Startup type to manual and press ok.

Operating system update

Microsoft releases updates to their operating systems every two weeks or so. These updates cover mostly security updates to protect you from nasty programs, but also to fix bugs in the operating system.

To make sure you are running the latest and safest version of the operating system, visit the Microsoft update site at, scan for updates and download and install all the critical updates.

Tune operating system performance

Windows XP is a pretty operating system - with animated windows, fading items and all kinds of eye candy. After the initial honeymoon with your new PC is over, you may want to sacrifice the makeup in favor of an PC that runs just a little bit faster.

To get rid of the visual effects, look for the "My Computer" icon on your desktop and right-click your mouse on it. Select "Properties" and then the "Advanced" tab. Now click on the "Settings" button in the "performance" section.

On the visual effects tab, select "Adjust for best performance". This will tell Windows XP to forget about all the fancy graphics and to concentrate on getting the job done. (Your computer will look a lot different after this - if you don`t like it, you can just go back and change the setting back to what it was)

Now, select the "Advanced" tab and make sure the "Processor scheduling" and "memory usage" are both set to programs.

Also click on the "Change" button in the "Virtual memory" section and set the initial and maximum size of the paging file to twice the amount of memory you have in your PC, but not less than 256 and not more than 2048.

Click OK to return to the system properties window and then click on the "Remote" tab. Make sure that neither "Remote assistance" nor "Remote Desktop" is ticked. (Unless you really want someone to remotely monitor what is going on on your computer)

Now select the "Automatic Updates" tab and choose the "Notify but don`t automatically download" selection. Instead of downloading updates without your authority, (and making your internet connection very slow) your computer will now do the polite thing and ask before it downloads a lot of stuff from the internet.

A slightly more advanced trick is to clean the operating system`s pre-fetch queue. This queue is a list of programs (or pieces of programs) Windows XP will load even before you use the program so that it appears to load faster when you eventually do start the program.

The problem with the pre-fetch queue is that a) over time the contents become de-fragmented and b) the operating system will be doing unnecessary work by loading programs you may not even be using any more. You can safely remove (delete) the entire pre-fetch queue every few months or so because the operating system will rebuild it automatically.

To zap the pre-fetch queue, open your file explorer and go to c:\windows\prefetch\ (assuming that your copy of Windows XP is installed in the windows folder of your C drive of course.) Now select all the items in the folder and delete them.

And that`s it - your computer will now run faster!

Looking for adventure?

The tweaks and maintenance tricks above are all safe and can be done by just about anyone. A bit like an ten year old installing new spark plugs in a car. :-)

For the more adventurous, you can gain very substantial performance gains by using more advanced tools, but be warned, these tools are not for novice users. If you do not know what you are doing, you can end up with a broken PC instead of a faster one.


The operating system uses files to swap memory to disk (and back) when required. This file is one of the single most important aspects affecting your operating system`s performance. When page files become fragmented, system performance suffers severely, so by making sure they are de-fragmented can boost your operating system`s performance by a couple of performance points.

The downside is that if a page file becomes completely corrupted, you can end up with an operating system that does not take care when using this utility.



This is a freeware utility that exposes a large number of tweaks for you to play with. It is not recommended for novice users, but if you are willing to experiment a bit you will be able to improve your operating system`s performance significantly.

It takes a bit of work to optimize your computer and to maintain it, but it sure beats buying a new one every year! :-)


  1. Thank you, thank you! Followed your advice and I cannot believe how much faster my computer is now. Even my IncrediMail program that takes ages to open is sluggish no more. I have not done the page file thing, a little scared to go there but maybe I will have the courage to do that soon.

    I also enjoyed your story about the little red car immensely. Thanks for a newsletter that provides amusement and good sound advice.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Waldo.

    Good article. As Elsie said: Enjoyable and amusing read while you present sound advice for the "not-so-clued-up" idjits like myself.
    I also follwed the steps and was pleasantly surprised at the increased performance of my laptop.


  3. Great post, I’m sure many people will have faster computers after reading this! With regard to your advice on deleting the prefetch folder, however, we’d recommend proceeding with extreme caution. We’ve found that by deleting the prefetch folder, Windows and applications will need noticeably more time to start, as the Prefetch data needs to be collected again. Check out this post for further information. Happy cleaning!