Getting greater stability from Windows
Version 4.1 — December 22, 2007
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QUESTION: Any tips for getting a tad more stability with my Windows system?
That’s a hard one. Really, it’s like saying, “Any tips for better health?” Everybody has an idea (y’know?). And they’re probably all good ideas — they just may not apply to your particular health needs.
I usually have a very stable Windows system (I say “usually,” because there’s always the occasional piece of new software that causes havoc before it’s removed and the mess cleaned up), so I tried to think about how I keep things this way. Like keeping your body healthy, it’s an overall attitude that is, nonetheless, a bit hard for me to pin down. But here are my Top 10 Computer Health Tips. They definitely help.
Before talking about the bullet-pointed specifics, though, let’s stop and consider the central principle of system optimization. Most of the particular hints thereafter are based on it.
Most of system optimization is a process of making each main part of your hardware, operating system, and software combination work to its own very best capacity so that it doesn’t get in the way of some other part. As you improve the weakest or least optimized piece of your system, something else then becomes your “weakest link.” Keep removing or optimizing “weakest links” until you get to the level of performance that is sufficient for your current wants and needs.
EXAMPLE No. 1: You find that large downloads take a long time because you don’t have enough RAM, and the extensive swap file / page file activity is dragging down system speed. You add more RAM to remove this problem. You then discover that, say, your modem is now the factor holding you back. It isn’t that anything went wrong with the modem, just that you uncovered the fact that it was your next weakest component for that particular job.
EXAMPLE No. 2: You get a new super-fast CPU that is four times the speed of your old one, but you keep your older 64 MB video card (which, once upon a time, was really great!). To your surprise, you don’t see much improvement on overall system performance, and you get a few more system hangs where everything freezes up. Neither the mouse nor the keyboard will respond. What happened is that your new fast CPU was sending information faster than the old video card could handle. Upgrading to a 512 MB video adapter likely would solve the problem. (In the meantime, crank down the Graphic Acceleration rate to fix the problem with hanging.)
Here now, raising my cup to your computer’s health, are my “Top 10 Computer Health Tips:”
Where hardware is concerned, a good (though rough) guideline is to use components that are approximately contemporary to each other. More or less, they were made to work with each other in conformity with industry trends the year they were made. Yesterday’s video adapters were made to work with yesterday’s CPUs, but aren’t so great with today’s CPUs. The same is roughly true of operating systems, too: Hardware works best with the version of Windows that was newest when the hardware was also the newest thing — or the version of Windows that came out shortly after. This, too, is the result of the “expectations baseline” shifting: in making each new version of Windows, Microsoft naturally wanted to be sure it worked with the hardware and software that people were using at that time, or were expected to be using in the near future. But, every few months, we all keep raising the bar!
Be sure that the bugaboo utilities like CrashGuard, First Aid, memory-managers, the FindFast indexer from Microsoft Office, and similar utilities are not running.
I do not extend this principle to all such third-party utilities. But all of the so-called crash-preventers, uninstallers, and especially the memory-managers should go!
In the last few years, a new group of “diseases” has invaded our computers in increasing numbers. Technically, they aren’t viruses, though some of them are much more serious invaders than most viruses are! The polite collective term we have adopted for these is parasites, though I personally prefer the more expressive and descriptive term scumware. There are several categories of such invaders, including:
Obviously, these are a bad security risk. But why have I listed them on this page concerning computer health? It’s because these scummy little mud-suckers can have horrible effects on computer performance and well-being. Frankly, they’re just not written all that well. If bugs galore can persist in each version of Windows with all of the thousands of Beta testers and millions of opportunities for user feedback that Microsoft has, imagine how easy it is to accidentally hang the computer or throw up a system error by sneaky software written by programmers of various skill levels in the privacy of their own basement frankencoding labs. The best thing about scumware is that most of it just doesn’t stay invisible because it’s either throwing something obvious in your face, or it makes computer performance atrocious.
If a browser is installed correctly (for example, a repair reinstall doesn’t improve things) and there isn’t a network issue, probably 90% of all browser hangs, redirects, and other misbehavior are the result of scumware. If the basic elements of computer hygiene are followed, and a previously fast computer has become seriously slow and frustratingly uncooperative, a majority of the time it will be because of parasites. It’s always worth checking!
For additional information on parasites, and further steps and resources for identifying, removing, and protecting yourself from them, see my page The Parasite Fight! Click the Quick Fix link on that page and follow out the specific steps listed.
Windows accumulates trash. Folders that are supposed to empty themselves don’t. Ultimately, these slow down the computer. There are many Windows cleaning tools and tricks floating around the Internet, including some very exhaustive ones that search out every available temporary location. In practice in the field, though, 99% of such problems are taken care of by cleaning just two folders.
One very handy tool for easily cleaning the Temp and TIF folders in every user profile on the computer — at least on NT-based operating systems such as Windows 2000, XP, and Vista — is KillBox. Download a copy then click Tools | Delete Temp Files. Mark the boxes for the categories of items you want to delete, then click the “Delete Files” button at the bottom. Repeat for all profiles. Please note that this will only find these folders if they are in the default location in Documents and Settings. (In addition to cleaning the Temp and TIF folders — if you wish — you can also clean the Prefetch, Recent, and History folders.)
To clean these folders manually, the following routine, in my experience, is the most time-efficient and provides significant gains in system performance. It resembles changing the air filter on your car — things just run better after you do it! In fact, this routine is so efficient for computer health and performance matters that I usually call it “the usual cleanup.”
That’s it! You’ve just done “the usual cleanup” regimen.
There are, of course, other folders you can clean out, though these are the ones most likely to affect computer health. While in the Internet Options box (or using KillBox), you might want to click the “Clear History” button. If you rely heavily on the browser History function, then you may not want to do this. If you rely heavily on autocomplete of URLs you type in the browser Address field, I recommend you save frequently accessed URLs as Favorites instead, and keep the History folder pretty skimpy. Also in the Internet Options box, in the TIF section, click “Settings” and reduce the amount of space allocated to the TIF folder to 20-30 MB. Each MB, remember, is 1,024 KB worth of files that often are usually 4 KB in size! Windows systems often come, by default, with hundreds of MB allocated — then users wonder how their Temporary Internet Files folder can accumulate tens of thousands of items! This was important back in the days of 14.4 modems (or slower!) when we really didn’t want to unnecessarily reload page contents. Today, even on dial-up, this isn’t really an issue (and on broadband, not an issue at all!). The only reason for allowing any significant space at all is for the use of Windows updates and certain other brief, legitimate purposes.
TweakUI ver. 1.33 has a “Paranoia” tab which lets you set many different stores of temporary information to be purged on each computer startup. Though originally conceived as a personal privacy option, this has some very good uses for maintaining computer health as well. Some folders that you might consider having it clear at history are: Documents (actually this is the Recent folder, which can get pretty clogged) and Internet Explorer’s History folder (though some may wish to control this simply by reducing the number of days History is retained — again, in the Internet Options box).
Additionally, in Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP, you can run Disk Cleanup periodically by launching CLEANMGR.EXE from a Run box. Personally, I don’t use this because it doesn’t clean all that much that is useful; but for a user who doesn’t delight in wending his or her way through multiple folders and locations, Disk Cleanup is a handy way to do at least a bit of this sort of cleanup.
Get rid of the “eye candy” that doesn’t do you any good! By “eye candy” I mean visual embellishments that may be attractive or cool, but don’t do anything else for you. Dumping some of these frees up a few system resources, makes the operating system snappier overall, and simply gives Windows less to trip over.
For example, it may be cool to have menus “flow” open, but that really just slows me down; and by turning off menu animations, I get the effect of a perkier, snappier system, especially with faster response time on menus. This can have valuable practical effects as well, since video hangs during Start Menu screen refreshes can cause Windows lock-ups on computers that have a tendency to hang.
In fact, nearly all true computer freezes — those situations where suddenly nothing moves, the mouse won’t respond, the keyboard won’t respond, and the computer never comes out of it on its own — are due to video issues. Every menu, screen scroll, window animation, typed character, and mouse movement requires a video response. If your video adapter is flawed or has a bad driver or is just really slow, Windows may shove input into it faster than it can handle. The video card then reaches a point where it doesn’t finish its most recent request, and so never tells the rest of the system, “OK, I’m done now, you can have control back.” Therefore, the mouse and keyboard (for example) never think it’s their turn, so they never respond to anything further. The system hangs. What helps in most situations in Windows 9x is to reduce the Graphic Acceleration. This is found in System Properties, which you can reach either through the Control Panel, or by right-clicking on My Computer and selecting Properties, or by holding down the Windows key while pressing the Pause-Break key. Bring the Graphic Acceleration down one or two notches. If this solves or eases the problem, then you know you need a new video card, or a new video driver.
Another similar trick is to reduce the color depth of your display settings. If you’re running 32-bit color, determine whether you can tell a difference at 24-bit or 16-bit — if not, consider speeding up the computer by using the less intensive setting. In Windows XP there is an easy menu for addressing most video issues in System Properties at Advanced | Performance | Settings. In Windows Vista, you’'ll find this in Control Panel | System | Advanced System Settings | Advanced | Performance | Settings.
For all Windows versions from 95 through XP, go through TweakUI and turn off every “extra” you don’t really want. (But leave on the ones you really do want, because really enjoying your computer is an important part of its maintenance.) Don’t forget the New tab — remove anything you don’t really want to appear in your New context menu. On the Paranoia tab, decide whether to have Windows automatically clear out the Internet Explorer history cache on each startup (or whether you rely on that information being available to you).
By the way, don’t forget that the Windows 9x version of TweakUI was also created for Windows 2000. Furthermore, it also still works in Windows XP, and has a few features that didn’t make it into TweakUI XP — so you can use them both! For a more detailed discussion of the use of TweakUI and other Windows PowerToys, see my Windows PowerToys FAQ.
If you have Windows 98, run the System File Checker every now and then, to make sure that you do not have critical system files missing or damaged. (Click Start, click Run, type SFC, click OK.) In SFC, click on Settings, then Search Criteria, and restructure the folders listed so that the entire Windows folder and all of its subfolders, and the entire Program Files folder and all of its subfolders are included. Sometimes Win98’s SFC will give you confusing information on file overwrites; you just have to use your best judgment and common sense in sorting through its messages.
SFC can cause problems, though. Fortunately, these are easy to avoid if you know about them. The most serious issue is that the wrong copies of certain files are restored. Microsoft support article KB 192832, SFC Extracts Incorrect File Versions, explains the main problem, but the best discussion of this utility is MS-MVP Rick Rogers’ article, System File Checker Explained.
SFC also exists in Windows XP, but it is a very different program. For a description, see KB 310747, Description of Windows XP & Windows Server 2003 System File Checker. I make one significant change in my recommendation of SFC if you are using Windows XP: There is no need to run it periodically. Just run it when you think you need it!
In Windows Vista, SFC is much more of an administrative tool. You must be an administrator running from a console in order to run it. No longer is it a system maintenance tool for the general user. See: You cannot use the System File Checker tool to verify or to repair Windows Vista if Windows Vista is in a mounted image file or in a bootable WIM file (MSKB 929840) for a discussion, and Some Windows Vista functions may not work, or Windows Vista may stop responding (929833) for an example of how to run it as an administrator (that is, from an elevated command prompt).
For the perkiest system, if you are using the FAT or FAT32 file system, do not let hard drive fragmentation exceed 2%. This is less critical on NTFS partitions, which seem to handle fragmentation much better, but I would still recommend keeping it under 5%.
How I handle this, and the method I recommend to you, is to defrag each main partition once or twice a week. I run Norton Speed Disk automatically overnight, defragging my C: on Monday and Thursday, E: on Tuesday and Friday, and F: on Wednesday and Saturday, “and on the seventh day, Speed Disk resteth, and he runneth Norton Antivirus.”
NOTE: The native Windows defrag tool, beginning in Win98, no longer specifies fragmentation percentages. Quality third party tools, such as the Norton Utilities tool Speed Disk and Raxco’s PerfectDisk, do show this value. If you defrag frequently, you probably don’t need to know the exact fragmentation value because fragmentation will be kept at negligible levels.
NOTE: On Windows XP this has become progressively less of an issue. Being responsible for thousands of computers with the usual user complaints of poor performance, defragging no longer even seems worth doing for performane issues alone, except in severe cases. On Windows Vista, this has not yet shown itself to be an issue at all, though this is more likely the result of the much newer and higher-end hardware on which Vista is being installed.)
As part of “frag control,” move your temporary file folders (Temp, Temporary Internet Files, Recent, etc.) onto their own partition so that they aren’t tripping anything else up, nor spreading “fragmentation contagion.” (This is a disease I named: When you already have significant fragmentation on a partition, it is more likely that other files will become fragmented, so that framentation spreads more quickly.) Don’t mess with the swap file / page file settings unless you know what you’re doing (especially in Windows 98 and ME!), and only do it then if the steps you are taking are designed to minimize fragmentation on the hard drive, without significantly reducing swap file performance.
Read my article on Windows 98 & ME Memory Management and follow its recommendations.
In Windows 98 and ME, if you have no more than 128 MB of RAM, do not have any settings in the VCache section of the SYSTEM.INI file. If you have more than 128 MB of RAM, you may wish to use certain VCache limits, but I still suggest you first try your system for a week with no such limits, provided you do not permit VCache to exceed 512 MB. Again, see my article on Windows 98/ME Memory Management.
Speaking of RAM, users frequently ask whether adding more RAM will make their systems more stable. The answer is a qualified “yes.” That is (ignoring the issue of computer performance, and sticking to the issue of computer health), inadequate RAM will compromise your computer’s overall functioning. For Windows 95 with no version of Internet Explorer later than version 3, I recommend nothing less than 12-16 MB to even function minimally, 24-32 MB for truly stable functioning for most users; and 64 MB to be really sweet. Anything after that is pure “gravy” for most users. But if you have any Windows system with IE 4 or later on it — which includes both versions of Win98, plus Win ME — these numbers automatically double: 24-32 MB as bare minimum, 48-64 MB to be reasonably happy with the stability, and 128 MB to be really sweet. (This may need to be increased if you have special applications or usage patterns that push hard against the envelope.)
More RAM doesn’t make a computer faster. It only keeps it from being slower! Remember the basic rule of optimization: By adding more or faster RAM, you are, at best, reducing the chance that the RAM is your “weakest link.” In Win98 or ME, the main advantages in more RAM are only two: (1) It allows more RAM to be used for VCache. (2) It decreases the need for actual swap file use (though there will still be swap file allocation).
Read and apply MS-MVP Alex Nichols’ article on Virtual Memory in Windows XP.
In response to the common question of whether adding more RAM will make their systems more stable, the answer in Windows XP (and, to a lesser extent in 2000) is a mostly unqualified “yes.” In addition to the reasoning given in the immediately previous section, the newer NT-based versions of Windows, and especially Windows XP, handle memory management brilliantly. Throw more and more memory at them, and they will probably find clever things to use it for.
For Windows XP, I recommend nothing less than 128 MB of RAM, with at least 256 MB being more ideal as a baseline, and 512 MB being the sweet place where most users will start to see some very nice performance enhancements. (As usual, this varies according to the individual user and computer.) If you have a slower CPU — say, something less than 400 Mhz — a greater amount of RAM will help overcome other speed deficiencies, and may even make it feel like you got a new CPU.
That is, although more RAM can’t make a CPU faster than it really is, in Win XP it often feels like it does. This is solely because, once it finds that it has a large enough RAM surplus, Win XP will start using that extra memory for atypical purposes, such as caching the entire file table (thus accelerating disk access by removing the time factor in thousands of tiny little operations). As with earlier versions of Windows, therefore, the main advantages in more RAM are (1) to allow more effective caching to RAM and (2) to decrease the need for actual page file use.
An article on Windows Vista memory management is planned for this site. In the meantime, treat it as you would treat Windows XP, except that Vista will have much higher RAM demands than XP. (Don't run Vista on less than 512 MB of RAM. To enable all features and have a comfortable experience, you will need at least 1 GB of RAM. I recommend at least 2 GB for most users, and most users are finding that, in this case, “more is better” — Vista will find a way to make use of it!)
Go ahead and load everything at Windows startup that you want to be routinely running every time you launch your computer — but no more! Excessive program launching at Windows startup has (minor) several bad side-effects. For example, it prolongs the startup process; in Windows 9x it predepletes System Resources, and in any Windows version it consumes RAM, CPU cycles, and other commodities; it increases the change of having incompatible programs conflict with each other; and it complicates troubleshooting since there are more things to rule out.
Most brand-name computers come with excessive “extras” that are probably intended to pass for “value-added” bonus utilities but which, in fact, usually just get in the way. Don’t load these at startup. Many other programs will automatically configure themselves to launch at startup; you usually don’t need or want them to do so.
On most Windows versions, you can disable an item from launching at startup by launching MSCONFIG, clicking the Startup tab, and unchecking the box in front of each item you don’t want to run automatically at startup. For a more thorough approach (as well as links to pages that help you sort through what you should be launching), see my article Startup Program Loading.
This should give you a good start to keeping your computer system in a spry, perky, healthy condition!