Soon after Windows Vista came out, many suggestions for tweaking the operating system to improve performance emerged. Unfortunately, most of those tweaks turned out to be pretty disappointing: they either provided the illusion of better performance but did nothing of substance, or they were rehashes of existing Windows XP tips that might note even be valid on Vista.
Still, there are plenty of things that can be done to make Vista run better. Over the past several months I've kept an eye peeled as to what actually works, what doesn't, and why. With less work than you might think, it's entirely possible to have Vista running quite snappily.
I've assembled here the fruits of that personal research into what works when it comes to making Vista run well. I've listed these in roughly descending order of effectiveness, with most effective first.
2 Gbytes of memory is plenty for 32-bit Vista.
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There is one undisputed Vista performance tweak that works: add memory.
Yes, I know; Vista requires a lot of memory. You need at least 512 Mbytes of RAM to install Vista -- a lot more than Windows XP required. Debatable or questionable as this may be, it is simply the way Vista works, and there is no dancing around the issue. (Actually, you need 512 Mbytes to install Vista, but I've found that you can run Vista after the initial installation with less memory -- although that's something of a losing proposition.)
In all fairness, six years have gone by since XP came out, and the baseline memory allotment for new systems is 512 Mbytes or more. Memory is now dirt cheap compared to what it was even a couple of years ago, so there's little reason to not load a system with a generous amount of memory. Everything, not just Vista itself, will run better as a result.
The baseline for good day-to-day performance in Vista seems to be about 1 Gbyte. If you have 512 Mbytes, bring that up to a full gig or more. My Sony VAIO notebook, for instance, runs Vista nicely with 1 Gbyte of memory, although I also don't run games or other extremely demanding applications on it. (Office 2007 runs very well, though.)
There are reasons why adding memory may not be immediately practical or possible. One is cost, especially if the only way to upgrade the current system is to replace all the existing DIMMs rather than add new ones. The strongest suggestion I can give here is: save your money. If you sock away $10 a week, then in about two months you've got enough money to pick up a very good set of matched 1-Gbyte DIMMs by current market value.
One question that I've been asked: Is it true that 32-bit Vista doesn't work well with more than 3 Gbytes of memory? The answer is, sadly, yes. If you're running the 32-bit edition of Vista, even if you have the physical capacity for more than 3 Gbytes of RAM, Vista won't use more than 3 Gbytes anyway. The memory space above 3 Gbytes in a 32-bit system is eaten into by system devices (like the video card) and cannot be effectively mapped out for user applications.
Boot 64-bit Vista, however, and the way memory is allocated changes radically enough to work around this problem. The one big thing holding back many people from using 64-bit Vista, even if they have a 64-bit machine, is device driver support -- most legacy devices will probably never have 64-bit Windows drivers available for them.