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12 Windows Vista Tweaks To Boost Your PC's Performance

Our tips on finding and weeding out system performance hogs, optimizing memory, and restraining Vista's features will make your system soar.

Summary of advice: if you're using 32-bit Windows, you can top things off at 2 Gbytes and not feel like you're missing much of anything. Depending on what you're doing, you might not need even that much anyway.

A trick I've seen bandied around a lot is to save memory by shutting off unneeded system services. This is a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which is it's entirely too easy to shut something off, forget about it, wonder why the system is behaving bizarrely, and then realize too late that it was actually needed for something. The total amount of memory you get back from shutting off assorted system services is not going to make a major impact on performance, except on a severely memory-constrained machine -- which you shouldn't be running Vista on anyway.

However, one Vista program that I have absolutely no problem with people shutting off is the Sidebar. It's entirely optional anyway, and unless you're actually getting some use out of it there's no overriding reason to keep it running. (I personally don't use it at all.)

Find Out What's Hogging Your System

On current hardware, Vista should not be slow. If your system runs slowly, something is wrong, and you owe it to yourself to find out what. To that end, you need to do some research and see where all of your CPU and I/O are going. Don't guess; investigate. Sometimes the answer is surprisingly simple.

Use Process Explorer to investigate what's running.
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My first choice to investigate such problems is Sysinternals' invaluable Process Explorer utility. Download it, unpack it into a directory somewhere in your user profile, and use it as your Task Manager replacement. When I run it, I typically select "Show Details for All Processes" in the File menu to run it as an admin so I can see information from system services, as well as my own applications. I then turn on the CPU History and I/O History (under Options) and run it in the System Tray. If things start to bog down, I glance at the CPU and I/O meters to see if either of them is peaking. If they are, I hover the mouse over the meters to find out what's using the most of either one of those resources.

Constant hard drive activity is one of the symptoms that many people cite as evidence that something is wrong. Using Process Explorer helps you figure out what's causing all that churning, and to what end. If your disk is in use, but the I/O history is flat or very low, that means whatever's running is doing so at such a low level of I/O priority that anything you do is likely to override it immediately anyway. The disk light is something of a red herring.

(Sneaky trick: If your computer is at eye level, try putting the system unit under a desk and see how your perceptions change. I found that when I wasn't paying attention to the hard drive light, the vast majority of the time I had no clue that the system was busy with something, so it didn't matter.)

Some of the programs that might use I/O or CPU are system components. Here's a few of the most common and what they do:

  • TASKENG.EXE: The Task Scheduler Engine. Anything that's run as a scheduled task (such as a defragmentation operation) will typically show up with this as the host process.

  • SVCHOST.EXE: Service Host, a process that runs system services. If you double-click on a SVCHOST.EXE process in Process Explorer and then click on the Services tab, you'll see what services are running under that process. You can also hover the mouse over the SVCHOST.EXE instance in the Process Explorer task list and see a tool tip that lists all of the services running under that process.

  • TrustedInstaller.exe: A system process used to perform installations of system components, such as Windows Updates. Many people have reported that TrustedInstaller.exe starts up, runs very aggressively for a couple of minutes -- sometimes interrupting or slowing down other things, like games -- and then stops. (There's been a huge number of complaints about this, so I suspect it's a candidate for a Service Pack 1 fix.)

Another nice feature of Process Explorer is that you can display a "company name" column for any given executable to find out who made the thing. If you see something doing a lot of grinding, and it's not a Microsoft-branded system component, then chances are you've found one of your culprits.

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