A sucker buys a new PC at the first signs of a slowdown. A savvy power user gives his aged PC a fighting chance for redemption. From tweaking your OS to compressing files to overclocking your videocard or CPU, there are plenty of ways to tune up a computer, and none require a trip to Bob’s House of New PCs. Follow along this step-by-step as I show you 21 of my favorite techniques for making a PC better, stronger, and faster — for free. These essential tweaks and tune-ups range from common-sense caretaking measures to practical adjustments that you’d be foolish to ignore. Combined, they release your PC’s untapped potential and breathe new life into your system.
1. Secure Your Applications
You know to update your antivirus definitions and run Windows Update, but did you know about that massive security hole in Acrobat 8.0 or the potential risks of running that obscure unzipping app you favor? Probably not. That’s where Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector (http://secunia.com) comes in. PSI uses its massive database of security holes to monitor all the apps on your machine and let you know which ones need updating. PSI even provides a link to any available patches and is on constant vigilance for new application security holes as they arise.
2. Clean Your PC
Depending on the environment, you can breed an entire warren of dust bunnies inside your PC within a few months. That may sound harmless, but the build-up can easily slow or even jam the various fans in your system and impair performance. Just as you vacuum out the dust from your refrigerator’s condenser on occasion (you do that, right?), you should also clean out the dust that’s jamming the fans in your rig. A vacuum cleaner will work on the larger case fans and filters, but I shudder at the thought of capacitors being sucked off the surface of the motherboard. Instead, bring the PC outside (or inside if you don’t care about your office) and use a can of compressed air to clean out the more sensitive areas.
3. Clean Up Windows
Some of the built-in functionality in Windows is underrated. The Disk Cleanup does a pretty handy job of wiping out junk you don’t need such as Microsoft Office temp files and old error reports. To run Disk Cleanup, open My Computer. Right-click the drive the OS is installed on and click Properties. Under the General tab, you’ll see a Disk Cleanup button. Click it and the app will run an analysis of the machine. You can dump the Downloaded Program Files, Temporary Internet Files, Offline Webpages, Microsoft Error Reporting Temporary Files, Recycle Bin, Temporary Files, Web Client/ Publisher Temporary Files, Temporary Offline Files, Offline Files, and Catalog Files for the Content Indexer with no ill effects.
4. Compress Your Files
It’s a known fact that hard drive performance plummets as you approach the drive’s maximum capacity. Folks with 2TB drives may never see that day, but for the peeps subsisting on a nearly full 160GB or 250GB drive, it’s a very real and performance-crippling problem. Assuming you don’t have an additional drive to move the content to, your choices are pretty slim. But before you take a machete to your files, you might want to consider simply compressing them.
I don’t mean firing up WinZip and archiving all the files—that would be too much work. Instead, use Windows’ built-in compression tool, which will make accessing the files no different than it currently is. You can access the feature by opening My Computer, right-clicking on the drive you want to compress, and selecting Properties. Click Disk Cleanup and make sure Compress Old Files is checked. Click Options and specify the age of the files you want Windows to compress. Click OK and Windows will compress only the files you haven’t accessed in more than, say, six months. Once Windows is finished compressing the files, you’ll see that the names of those files are colored blue. The names of the untouched files will appear in black.
I’ve found that with even mid-level CPUs, such as a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, the time it takes to decompress a file is minimal. For even older machines, you shouldn’t see too much of an impact as most of the files that are compressed haven’t been accessed in some time. On one of My machines, I went from 8GB free to 30GB free by compressing older files.
5. Take Advantage of ShadowCopy
Windows Vista includes a nifty feature that makes incremental “shadow copies” of your document files. This lets you revert to a previous version of a file if you, say, suddenly realize you screwed up your resume and need to access the one from a month ago. Unfortunately, ShadowCopy is one of those premium features that’s only included with Windows Vista Ultimate (or Business). Home Premium users can go pound sand. Or so Microsoft thought. Apparently, all Microsoft really did was remove your ability to access those previous versions— the documents are still backed up if you have System Protection enabled in Microsoft Vista. To make sure it’s switched on (it is by default), right mouse-click My Computer, click the System Protection link, then the System Protection tab. There should be a check mark for each drive you want shadowed.
To access the previous versions of your file, download the free app ShadowExplorer from ShadowExplorer.com, install it, and voila, you can now browse through the tons of backed-up files. A drop-down on the upper left-hand side of the window lets you view the backups by date.
One more thought: If you’re suddenly a little freaked out that almost all of your documents are secretly being backed up and, for the most part, hidden from you by Vista, you can erase all of those backups by turning off System Restore (right-click My Computer, select Properties, then System Protection, and uncheck the C: drive), or purge all but the last system restore point (go to Disk Cleanup, select More Options, then Clean Up, and delete what’s unneeded).
6. Scan for Updates
You know to keep your drivers updated, but keeping track of them is like trying to remember to change the water filter on the refrigerator. (Did you last do it in 2008 or 2007?) One way to do a quick and easy scan for outdated drivers is to run Phoenix Technologies’ web-based DriverAgent. Just go to DriverAgent.com and click the Web Scan button on the left. The app will run a quick check of your drivers against Phoenix’s database of updated drivers and tell you what devices need updating. You can either shell out for the service, which finds the updated drivers for you, or freeload like us and simply take note of the devices you want to upadate, and go find the updated drivers yourself.
7. Search and Destroy Malware
Malware is a common scourge of computing performance, not to mention the severe security risks that it poses. You could pay some guy in a white shirt and black tie to clean up your PC for $200, but why do that when you can do the job yourself?
First, start with SuperAntiSpyware (www.superantispyware.com). After installing the app, you can opt to have it protect your home page or not. When you get to the General and Startup tab, select “Start SuperAntiSpyware when Windows Starts,” “Use Windows XP Style Menus,” and “Integrate with Vista Security Center.” Also select “Do not scan when SuperAntiSpyware starts” and “Check for updates before starting on startup.” Perform a complete scan and nuke anything that moves.
Now, download Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (www.malwarebytes.org). Install it, run an update, and have it conduct
a scan. Again, wipe out anything that moves.
In addition to the antivirus software running on your machine (you do have updated definitions, right?), you’ll want to conduct another sweep using Panda Activescan 2.0 (www.pandasecurity.com/activescan/index). This is a web-based scanner that may not fix anything, but it’ll give you an additional level of scrutiny.
8. Decrap Your Drive
Ever wonder how a new PC can be bought for $400 with a new monitor? Part of the answer is the software subsidies. Fire up any low-cost PC and the desktop looks like it got hit with a 12-gauge load of icons. These icons lead to trialware, which when expired, do nothing but decompose on your hard drive and waste space. On some PCs, the amount of trialware has gotten so bad that it takes a few hours just to scrub it off. Now there’s an easier way to zap those apps without spending four hours in front of your parent’s new laptop. PC Decrapifier (www.pcdecrapifier.com) will automatically uninstall and delete the majority of trialware applications that are preinstalled on new PCs. Just download the free app, install, and run it. It will ask you if the PC is new or not. If you select not new, the app will create a system restore point. Otherwise, it will continue to the next step and scan your computer for the various trailware apps. You should then be presented with a list of apps you can uninstall. Once you’re ready to remove the offending trailware, click Next and PC Decrapifier will automatically remove the junk.
9. Archive Your Files
So, you know that hard drives get slower as they approach their full capacity. If you’re lucky enough to have more than one hard drive in your PC (and most power users do), why is your host OS drive so full of crap you don’t need? To improve the overall performance of your PC, move your old documents and games that you don’t regularly use onto the secondary drive.
10. Get S.M.A.R.T
Modern hard drives feature Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology, or S.M.A.R.T., which can warn you if your hard drive is starting to fail—before it actually does. Unfortunately, the OS doesn’t pay attention to these warnings. So, even though you could have known a few months in advance that your drive was about to go tango uniform, the OS kept it a secret. There are a number of good free tools available that can relay the message, such as SpeedFan (www.almico.com/speedfan.php) and DiskCheckup (http://passmark.com), but their interfaces can be a bit overwhelming for the noobs.
For something so simple that anyone can understand it, I run HDD Health (www.panterasoft.com). Install it, configure it to run at launch, and it will alert you (even by email) if enough S.M.A.R.T. errors occur to rate a possible impending drive failure. A simple temperature bar and health bar will also help you decide if it’s time to start doing daily backups of the drive.
11. Revo Uninstaller
Do you have an application that you just can’t get rid of? Think of Revo Uninstaller as a stain remover for software. If some beotch app is dug in like an Alabama tick, Revo Uninstaller (www.revouninstaller.com) will rip it out, head and all. Once you’ve installed and executed the app, you’ll be greeted with a palette of applications you can uninstall. When you choose an unwanted app and click Uninstall, you’re given four levels of uninstall to choose from. The first is the Standard uninstall. The Safe uninstall builds on the Standard uninstaller and searches the registry and hard drive for leftovers. Moderate and Advanced build on Safe by increasing the scope of the search for leftovers from the application. For most apps, Safe is fine. An additional Hunter mode lets you use a sniper-scope view to track down such things as which application is responsible for a toolbar whose origins are unknown.
12. S3 Fixes
Utilizing your PC’s S3 standby state can help make your machine more energy efficient—if only it weren’t such a pain to implement, I could write a whole book on S3 problems. To help you on your way, here are some very common fixes that might solve the S3 standby problems you’re having.
Update the video drivers. If your machine fails to come out of standby, you should obtain the latest videocard drivers directly from the chip manufacturer’s website (Nvidia, ATI, Intel).
Update the BIOS: a motherboard’s BIOS can greatly affect how standby works on a PC, and updating it may fix your problem. Make sure you’re running the latest BIOS from your
Insomnia. If your system mysteriously wakes up, it may be caused by the USB devices or NIC. To disable a device from waking your system, go into the Device Manager (right-click My Computer, click Properties, and select Hardware and Device Manager in Windows XP. In Vista, right-click My Computer, select Properties, and select the Device Manager link on the left-hand pane). Double-click your NIC, select the Power Management tab. Uncheck “Allow this device to bring the computer out of standby.” Now go back, select the mouse, and do the same.
Sometimes in XP you’ll find that after installing a new USB mouse or keyboard, your system won’t sleep properly. To correct that, you may have to use regedit to create the following registry entry: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\usb “USBBIOSx”=DWORD:00000000
If the machine still won’t sleep after entering the registry key, you may have to unplug USB devices one by one until you find the one that’s causing the problem. Alternatively, you can also see if the BIOS lets you disable “USB resume from suspend,” which would prevent USB devices from waking the machine. Not all BIOSes have this flag, though.
13. Optimize Your Startup
Windows Vista features new settings for developers to specify when an app should or should not load. No such thing exists in Windows XP. Instead of applications or applets starting in an orderly manner, it’s more like the front-door bum rush at Walmart for $25 Black Friday laptops. There are two ways to fix the problem. One, simply stop some of those applications from loading; and two, schedule when you actually want those programs to start. I use R2 Studios’s Startup Delayer (www.r2.com.au) to work as the bouncer outside my PC.
First, download and install the app. Once you’ve launched it, you’ll be greeted with a list of applications that are scheduled to run. You can disable apps you don’t want to launch, like the annoying Adobe Updater, by unchecking them. Once you’ve eliminated the things you don’t want launched, you can start to prioritize your other applications. Obviously, you’ll want any antivirus or antimalware applications to have priority, so you can leave those alone. Sun’s Java Update scheduler, however, can be shoved to the back of the line. To do this, double-click the item and you’ll get a window with various options. I’m most interested in the delay setting, which you can specify in hours:minutes:seconds. It’s important that Java polls the mothership to check for updates, but not when you first boot your PC, so I set ours to 30 minutes after the machine boots.
You can do the same for other applications that you feel should be forced to stand in line with such plebes as the
Acrobat Assistant. Once you’ve set up the priorities, you can click the inverted red triangle icon. Select the graphical version if you want to see a display of the countdown before apps are launched, or simply choose the invisible version so it doesn’t get in your face. Reboot and see if the delay order you created works for you or not, and tune to your liking.
The cut, copy, and paste shortcuts are the most mashed keys on the PC, but sadly, the Ctrl+
function only buffers a single item. Ditto is like Windows Clipboard on steroids. Capable of storing hundreds of copy and paste entries as I’ll as pasting HTML as text (handy when copying and pasting from your browser to Word), the app is one of those little things that make Windows XP (sorry, no Vista support) better. Download it from http://sourceforge.net/projects/ditto-cp/.
15. Tweak It
Windows XP power users should be familiar with Microsoft’s collection of PowerToys, which let you greatly increase Windows XP’s capabilities. My favorites include Tweak UI for changing dozens of options, from how fast the menus respond to whether to put the My Documents folder or My Computer icon first on the desktop.
Oddly , Microsoft has made no such applets for its current OS, Windows Vista, but as Yoda said, “There is another….”
TweakVI from Totalidea.com contains a wealth of handy little tweaks for Vista. You can change the OEM contact info for Windows, vary the level of transparency, sort the Start menu, shorten the Start menu lag, add or remove icons from the desktop, order Vista to keep as much data in RAM instead of paging it out to the hard disk, etc. There are also a few cache optimization checkboxes for certain CPUs, but I didn’t find any performance boost from them. I’m more interested in the app’s ability to change those annoying little things like which icon appears in the upper-left side of the screen.
16. Defrag Your Drive
I know, being told to defragment your hard drive is about useful as telling you to brush your teeth at least twice a day (and after meals.) It’s not exactly the latest in PC performance tips but it’s a basic step that everyone should take on occasion.
Windows XP’s defragger provides a good base level of defragmentation, but under very heavy fragmentation and with limited space, it doesn’t cut the mustard. Neither do two popular free defraggers, in my experience: Auslogics Defrag (http://auslogics.com) and IOBit’s Smart Defrag (www.iobit.com). For extreme fragmentation issues, Diskeeper 2009 (www.diskeeper.com) aced the three other options and fully defragged my drive. Not everyone will have the fragmentation issues I did, but if you do, sometimes you gotta pay to get the job done.
Windows Vista is a different story. I previously did some testing with Vista’s defragmentation tool and found that it works surprisingly I’ll, even though it’s as communicative as a Trappist monk. Vista quietly works in the background to defragment the drive during downtime but it has one weakness that will irk many users: It won’t defragment files larger than 64MB.
Why not? Microsoft said its tests show that fragments larger than 64MB have a minimal impact on disk access and it’s just not worth spending the disk and CPU cycles to do it. Still, there are times when you will want a full defrag, such as with video, where having pieces of your video spread all over the disk platter could very well impact performance. Fortunately, there’s a way around this. You can order Vista to perform a full defragmentation. You do this by going to Start, typing CMD, right-clicking the Cmd.exe app that it finds, and selecting “Launch as administrator.” Now type defrag c: -v –w. The –v option is for verbose and –w is for full defragmentation. Those are the basics you need to know; to see all of the available options, type defrag /? into the command line.
17. Overclock Your GPU
GPU overclocking isn’t for the faint of heart and doesn’t always give you significant results. That’s because most GPUs, especially high-end ones, are sorted at the manufacturer, so you can bet a bucket of KFC Original spicy thighs and legs that the majority of parts capable of running at hyper-clocked speeds are already being sold that way.
Still, why not take what you can get? As with CPUs, GPU overclocking poses the threat of breakage, but at least you don’t lose data—you just might have to crank the clocks back down, or worse, replace the card.
One of the most popular tools for GPU overclocking today is RivaTuner (www.guru3d.com). Download and install it. You’ll also want to run the latest reference drivers from either Nvidia or ATI before continuing. After you’ve started RivaTuner, select the Customize option in the Main tab and select Low-Level System Settings. Check “Enable driver-level hardware overclocking.” For Nvidia cards, there’s a drop-down menu that lets you set the standard 2D, low-power 3D, and performance 3D. Select performance 3D. Begin increasing the clock speeds of the core clock, which will also increase the clock speeds of the shader clock. Bump up the memory clock, as I’ll. How far you can go will depend on your card and the cooling in your system. Click Apply and fire up a game you like and play for a bit. Look for visual artifacts such as corruption of textures. This will indicate that you’re on the edge of stability. Go back to RivaTuner and back it down a bit and click Apply. Rinse and repeat. For ATI cards, it’s a bit simpler with RivaTuner; simply select your core speed and memory speed overclocks and proceed with the same methods.
Once you’re at a stable speed, you can check the “Apply overclocking at Windows Startup” checkbox. This will overclock your card whenever you start Windows. Again, the bang-for-the-buck proposition of GPU overclocking is debatable, but for some folks, every penny and megahertz counts.
18. Optimize Your RAM
If you paid the kid next store to build your PC, do you really know if he or she built it the right way? One very common mistake is to misconfigure the RAM modules. Phenom II and Core 2 CPUs both support dual-channel modes for the highest bandwidth, while the new Core i7 supports tri-channel mode. The easiest way to tell what mode you’re in is to download CPU-Z (www.cpuid.com). Decompress it and launch the executable. Click the Memory tab. Under Channels # it should list Dual or Triple. If it lists Single and you’ve got two or more DIMMs installed, they’re misconfigured on the motherboard. (If you have only one DIMM, you’ll need another stick of RAM to run in dual mode.)
Go to the SPD tab. You should see a drop-down menu labeled Slot #. It will give you information about every DIMM installed on your PC and their respective slots. To properly configure your RAM, refer to your motherboard manual and read the section on which slots to put your RAM in for dual (or triple) mode, power down your machine, unplug it from the wall, and rearrange the memory modules. Note, this likely won’t give you any kick-in-the-pants kind of performance boost, as the large on-die cache of most new CPUs ameliorate memory-bandwidth issues, but on an older CPU, such as the Pentium 4, going to dual mode would add as much as 10 percent in bandwidth-intensive applications.
You’ll also want to make sure your RAM is running at the correct speed. Most boards will properly configure RAM, but some won’t. Again, go to CPU-Z, click the Memory tab, and look at the DRAM Frequency. This shows the base clock speed. To compute the DDR/DDR2/DDR3 speed, double the number shown. For example, 333MHz is DDR2/667. If you were expecting your RAM to be set at DDR2/800 speeds, you’ll have to reboot, go into the BIOS by hitting DEL, F1, or F2 during boot, and look for a section that will let you specify the memory speed.
19. Change Your Boot Order
Even if you boot your PC just once a day, you can save six or eight seconds of time spent waiting by changing the boot order of the devices in your machine. Instead of the PC checking on an old floppy drive or CD drive to see if it can or should boot from those devices, it will go straight to your hard drive.
To do this, go into the BIOS (hit DEL, F1, or F2 during boot) and search for the boot order. It’s usually plainly labeled as “Boot” or the like. Make the primary hard drive that the OS resides on the first thing to boot. Now, just relish the thought of what you can do with the time you save.
20. And Overclock Your CPU
Overclocking your CPU is the surest way to gain PC performance for free — although it comes at a risk
Have you seen this forum post: “There’s a secret Microsoft doesn’t want you to know. The company intentionally slows down the OS at the request of Intel, AMD, and Cyrix so the chip companies can sell faster CPUs. But by adding the setting PC = “go fast” to the speed.ini file, you can increase the speed of your PC by 1,000 percent!!!”?
That’s a crock of Bantha dung. Very few OS tweaks ever guarantee performance gains for everyone. There’s only one guaranteed performance enhancer: CPU overclocking.
It’s dangerous, could corrupt your data, and can kill hardware, but it’s the only way to get “free” performance in just about every application you use. Fortunately, modern CPUs almost always offer some overclocking capability.
Even if you didn’t buy into overclocking previously, you may be more inclined now because a) your system is older and you’re not as protective of it, and b) you just plain don’t have the cash to get performance in a safer way.
CPU overclocking runs the gamut from hyper-complex to stupid-easy. The easiest way to get your feet wet is to use the built-in overclocking tool on your motherboard. Any MSI, Asus, or Gigabyte board worth its salt will include an overclocking applet that runs in Windows. More advanced boards will also feature it in the BIOS.
If your board doesn’t have an app you can use, you can still overclock it from the BIOS (unless you have a standard cheapie PC from HP, Dell, or Gateway, which prevent any form of overclocking).
Go into the BIOS by pressing the DEL, F1, or F2 key during boot. You should be in a DOS-like text environment. Since 95 percent of the world uses locked CPUs, there’s only one way to increase the proc’s clock speed: Pump up the front-side bus (Core 2 / Celeron / Pentium / Pentium 4), the base clock (Core i7), or the CPU Frequency clock (Athlon 64 / Sempron / Phenom / Phenom II).
Find the setting for the FSB / bclock / CPU clock in your BIOS and begin increasing it. Start by overclocking the CPU by around five percent. Remember, the clock speed of the CPU is generated by multiplying the FSB / bclock / CPU clock by the multiplier. For example, an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 has a fixed multiplier of 7.5. This is multiplied by the base clock of the front-side bus, which is 333MHz for an overall speed of 2,500MHz, or 2.5GHz. You cannot change the 7.5, but you can increase the 333. To get a five percent clock boost, you would need to increase the front-side bus to about 350MHz. To get a 10 percent clock bump, you would need to increase it to about 366MHz. The same basic overclocking method applies to Phenom II and Core i7.
How much performance gain should you expect? There’s no guarantee, but it’s safe to say you should be able to gain five percent at a minimum, with 10 percent quite attainable on stock equipment, and many folks reporting much higher speeds. Remember, this is not for the faint of heart, but you will achieve real performance gains in anything that’s limited
by your CPU.
21. Use the Cloud
By now, you’d have to be living in a spider hole to not have heard about the “cloud”—a term for sharing resources across the
Internet. There are two really great things about this latest brand of computing hype—it’s free for the most part and some of it is actually very useful. To wit: Here are three free cloud services that can enhance your computing experience.
This handy app lets you store and share files online. With a client installed on your PC, you create a dropbox, to which you can drag and drop files you want shared and synced with other machines. This may seem no different than Yahoo’s failed Briefcase, but it’s far easier to use. It runs in the system tray. Double-clicking it opens a traditional Windows folder where you store files that you can access remotely very easily. The freebie account gives you 2GB. For $10 a month or $99 a year, you get up to 50GB.
Think of Zoho as a good version of Google Docs. You get a free browser-based spreadsheet app, word processor, and presentation app, plus a ton of other productivity tools that will probably do just about everything a normal civilian would need. You get 1GB to store your docs online for free. To get 5GB costs about $3 a month, but given the tiny size of office document files, it’s unlikely you’d need that much room.
I can still remember being agape over the system specs required to get a decent frame rate out of Quake III Arena. These days, you can get the same game experience in your browser. Believe it or not, this free version of Q3A plays and feels much like the original.