It is no secret that Windows gets slower and slower over time. In this post, I listed 10.5 ways to improve the performance of an aging Windows XP installation. If you're a power user you might have already experienced how Vista slows down after some months. Some of the tips discussed here could also be used for Windows Server. However, you should be even more cautious then.

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I highly recommend backing up your system before you consider applying the advices here. Note that some of the tips are for inexperienced users; others should only be used by skilled IT professionals. If Windows performance is your specialty, then tip 10.5 is the one for you.

1. Uninstall unused programs

The number one reason why Windows gets slower over time is that you installed too many apps. So the first thing to do is to check what apps you really need and uninstall all the rest. Go to the control panel and then to "Add or Remove Programs" ("Uninstall a program" in Vista) and remove any unused programs. You also have to check the start menu and the programs folder on your hard disk because some applications might not show up in Microsoft's uninstall tool. Always use the uninstall feature that comes with the program to make sure that everything is removed from the disk.

2. Remove unnecessary auto-starting programs

It's a bad habit of many software vendors to launch parts of their apps when Windows boots up. In many cases this is not necessary and it only occupies valuable system RAM. This can slow down your computer significantly if your PC doesn't have enough memory. There are many free tools available that give you an overview of auto-starting programs on your computer. My favorite tool for this purpose is Microsoft Sysinternals Autoruns. It is a sophisticated tool, maybe too sophisticated for some users. Other recommended options are Runalyzer and Startup control. The latter one is very easy to use. All tools allow you to disable auto starting programs. If something is not working properly after the next reboot, you can just enable it again.

3. Clean your system

Uninstalling programs often leaves remnants because many uninstall tools don't work properly. If you uninstall only a few programs, you can do that manually by checking the hard disk, especially the Programs folder, and by searching in the Registry for the program names. Another option is to use a professional cleaning tool like the free CCleaner. It will help you to get rid of many unnecessary junk on your disk.

4. Defragment the hard drive

Defragmentation physically reorganizes your hard disk by storing files closer together. This can speed up your system when you launch applications or when a program has to load further components. To defrag the hard disk under Windows XP right click on "My Computer" in the Windows Start Menu. Then go to Disk Defragmenter and click on defragment. Under Vista, this is usually not necessary because it defragments the hard disk automatically by default once a week. If you want to check the settings on your computer just enter "defrag" in Vista's Start Search prompt.

5. Locate malfunctioning programs

Sometimes a computer hangs even though there are no performance consuming tasks running. In such cases a malfunctioning program might be the reason. Often it is obvious which application causes the problem, but sometimes further research is necessary. Tools like Microsoft's free Sysinternals Process Explorer and Process Monitor can help you to track down the miscreant. Sometimes it is only a wrong setting that lets an app wait too long for the response of a system component or another application. Finding the cause of the problem can often be time consuming and requires much experiences. It could be faster to check if a newer version of the program is available or replace it with another tool that is more reliable.

6. Get the latest system drivers

If your system slows down every time you access a certain device, then a badly programmed system driver might be the reason. Go to the hardware vendor's homepage and download the latest drivers for this device. If you're uncertain which device causes the problem, you might try the Device Verifier tool that comes with Windows. It can help you to locate problematic drivers. But this is only something for professionals. Please read the documentation first. Under Windows XP, you can start the Device Verifier on the command prompt by entering "verifier". Under Vista you can use the Start Search prompt.

7. Add system memory

If all the tips above didn't help, you probably just need more memory. When you bought the computer, its memory was probably enough. Even though you didn't change the operating system since then, you certainly installed new applications. Newer applications tend to occupy more RAM than their predecessors. To verify that lack of memory is your problem launch the Windows Task Manager by right clicking the Windows Taskbar whenever your system slows down. In the status bar at the bottom you can see how much Physical Memory is occupied. If you are close to 100%, you should consider buying new RAM. IT professionals might also like to play with a RAM optimizing tool like FreeRAM XP Pro. Be cautious with such tools under Vista. New features such as Superfetch make them more or less superfluous.

8. Use a second hard disk

In some environments a second hard disk could improve the performance. If you work with applications that use the hard disks heavily, it could help if you install them on a second disk. For example, if you have virtualization software like VMware Workstation or Virtual PC installed, it will improve performance when you install the virtual machine on another disk other than the system volume. If you have a laptop you could get an external disk drive. If performance is an issue, you should make sure that the drive supports eSATA. eSATA controllers are available for the Express card slot.

9. Replace system files with their original version

Some applications replace Windows system files during the installation procedure. This can cause compatibility issues and it can also be the reason why the poor performance of your system. With the sfc command (System File Checker) you can make sure that you only work with the original system files. Note that some of your programs might not work properly anymore afterwards. So you should take this option only into account when you are already quite desperate.

10. Reinstall Windows

And if you finally messed up your system after following some of the tips above you might as well reinstall Windows as the ultimate solution. Starting from scratch with a fresh system will rejuvenate your computer. You'll be surprised how fast it will be afterwards. If you go this way, I recommend that you completely erase the system partition during the Windows setup process. Don't forget to backup your data before.

10.5 Try meditation

If all these tips didn't help, then maybe the problem is not on your hard disk, but in your brain. Perhaps you are just too impatient. Meditation can help you to be much more relaxed next time when your compi doesn't react for several minutes while you are working under time pressure. I recommend Meditation for Dummies. After you worked through this book, you'll even be able to confirm that Microsoft's hardware recommendations for Windows Vista are by far enough for a well performing system. 😉

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You still think performance is everything? Try these 50 ways to speed up Vista.

  1. david f. 16 years ago

    you’ll have to forgive my surprise after reading the headline.

    i thought that the “10.5 ways” to speed up xp or vista was going to be a recommendation that people switch to MacOS 10.5 when it ships this month!

    my bad.

  2. reaper 16 years ago

    Meditation! LOL, that’s the best one so far!

  3. trasshbox 16 years ago

    11. Disable unnecessary services 🙂

  4. David, I have no doubts that Mac OS always perform better. I mean, there are not so many malfunctioning device drivers, simply because there are not so many devices available. The same applies to software. You can’t mess up your computer as easily as under Windows because there are only a few high-priced apps available. So let’s just hope that Mac OS will never become a mainstream OS. I am sure that Mr. Jobs will keep the prices high enough, so the ordinary, tasteless Microsoft customer can’t afford a Mac anyway. 😉

    Reaper, actually, it is the only one where I can give you 100% guarantee that it will really work.

    Trasshbox, yes that is another way, if you know what you’re doing.

  5. bhattathiripad 16 years ago

    i am sure that the best is to shift to MAC OS 10.5 rather than meditatation (which any way will be required while using windows!!)

  6. Roman 16 years ago

    Actually my problems started with a second 500 gb
    Right away, slow read and write. No fragmentation needed.

    I’d checked CPU temperature (one more way) – it was too high.
    I’d cleaned cooler from a lot of dust – temp. dropped by 12 celsius!!!

    Unfortunately it didn’t help a lot.

    No spear services and processes (28 in Task manager with Norton Antivirus, ZA firewall)

  7. Roman, I don’t think that this is a CPU issue. It could be a driver problem or maybe a hardware defect. Do you still have problems if you unplug the second hard disk? You could try to operate the second hard disk on the second IDE port.

  8. Paul Anacker 16 years ago

    Hi Michael!

    Note: Roman didn’t say how he added a 2nd 500 GB HD. Perhaps it was an external drive. If it was a USB drive, that could be the problem because of the slow transfer rate of USB; better (but more expensive) to go with an eSATA HD.


  9. Pete Wilson 16 years ago

    I don’t see the point of #1 unless you’ve used up your space – installed software should have a minimal (theoretical) impact on system performance, if any.

  10. Pete, the point is that you should first uninstall all unnecessary programs before you follow the other instructions. For example, you should get rid of all the junk before defragmenting your machine. Another reason is that many programs come with auto-starting components and it is also possible that they made changes to Windows that slowed down your computer. But you are right; I should have mentioned this in the post.

  11. Bryan 15 years ago

    #2 should be #1. Installed programs that are not running are just data spinning around on your disk, and unless your disk is nearly full or very fragmented, this doesn’t have an effect on system speed (ask: would you tell people to remove their user data, unless the drive were full?).

    For the same reason, #3 is really not about system speed but about being a neat freak. Which surely has its benefits, but is a departure from the stated purpose of the article.

    #10 is really just a more drastic way of accomplishing #2, #3, #4, #5 and #9.

  12. Bryan, I think there is a misunderstanding somewhere. I didn’t want to say that #1 helps to improve performance by its own. This list is just a step-by-step guide. It is what I do if someone asks me for help because his or her PC has slowed down, recently. The point is, you should do #1 before you start defragmenting the hard drive. I guess, I didn’t make that clear enough in the article.

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