This was published in CPU magazine and I thought it would be a good start to an OS Tweaking thread. I am going to leave it verbatim as it was published, and we can add to it as we go.
July 2010 . Vol.10 Issue 7
Page(s) 48-52 in print issue
Windows 7: Power User Edition
High-Octane OS Tweaks
By now you know that Windows 7 is everything that Vista should have been - faster, more efficient, packed with more features, and better tuned for an era of online existence and distributed storage. Whether you're buying a new system or looking to breathe new life into an old (but not too old) machine, version 7 is clearly today's must-have Windows.
Of course, we can't expect miracles. Like prior Windows versions, this one starts off promising and then slowly grows fat and sluggish over time. Additionally, Win7 arrives "out of the box" with a bunch of default values that may not be exactly optimal when it comes to performance. We know how much you like optimal. So let's dive into tweaking and tuning and making sure your Win7 installation is running fast and furiously.
Many of the tips that have applied to improving performance in prior Windows versions carry over with Win7. However, because some users need gentle reminders, and also because sometimes the details change from version to version, we've updated several of these for Win7 while including some new tweaks specific to the new OS.
Pick The Right Components
Microsoft has a long and infamous history of drastically understating its Windows hardware requirements. For example, Microsoft begins by requiring a 1GHz processor (at windows.microsoft.com/systemrequirements). Now, that might be fine with a quad-core CPU, but we sure wouldn't want to try anything beyond WinXP with a single-core 1GHz chip. As for memory, Microsoft's 2GB recommendation (for Win7 64-bit; 1GB is the minimum requirement for Win7 32-bit) is low even for most novice users. If you're running the 64-bit version of Win7 (which you probably should these days, all other things being equal), you want at least 4GB of memory, if not 6GB or 8GB. This is doubly true if you need to run WinXP Mode (www.microsoft.com/windows/virtual-pc) or any other virtualized environment. We run WinXP Mode under Win7 Ultimate 64-bit on a Phenom II X4 955 (3.2GHz) with 6GB of RAM, and it still runs agonizingly slow.
Perhaps most of all, try to score an SSD (solid-state drive) as your boot volume. This is doubly appropriate for Win7, given that the OS has been redesigned to minimize writes and flushes, which favors SSDs, and now offers native TRIM command support. Low-capacity SSDs are now widely available for less than $150, and all but the cheapest and worst should rampantly outperform hard drives on basic Windows tasks, such as boot, hibernation, and application loading. Get an SSD for Windows and store all of your data on a big, cheap, ordinary hard drive. The performance benefit can be massive.
Clean It Up
How long have we been suggesting this? Probably so long that many users now take the advice for granted and ignore it. After all, why worry about the size of your temp file collection when you have hundreds of spare gigabytes lying around? But what if you don't have hundreds of empty gigs on your C: drive? What if you did as we just suggested and got yourself a 32 to 64GB SSD as your primary drive? Suddenly 4GB or 5GB of garbage sitting in your Windows folder becomes 10% of your total boot drive capacity and puts you a lot closer to being pinched for spare blocks with which to perform your write/erase processes. If you value your write times, revisit the old days and clean that clutter out. In the Start search field, type Disk Cleanup. Choose your target drive, then, under the Disk Cleanup tab, go through and pick all of the file types to delete. This is doubly important because you don't want to defrag an SSD (or subject it to unnecessary writes of any kind).
Adjust For "Best Performance"
For many years, Microsoft has tried to make Windows look as silky and smooth as possible. Along the way, we've all known that looking good soaks up system resources. If you can live without some of the visual bells and whistles, you can regain a bit of lost performance. Dig into Control Panel>System And Security>System>Advanced System Settings. Click the Settings button under Performance. In the Performance Options pop-up window, you'll see a long list of visual elements and effects within Win7, most of which are enabled by default as part of the Let Windows Choose What's Best For My Computer option. You can select Custom, then pick and choose which items to disable. For a fast, slash-and-burn approach, pick Adjust For Best Performance to turn off all effects. This will result in a blander interface but better response times, particularly if you're saddled with integrated graphics or a trailing-edge graphics card.
Use Write Caching On SATA Drives
ReadyBoost (using USB flash drives as a secondary memory cache for Windows) turned out to be a joke for systems with at least 1GB of RAM, but write caching can still be beneficial. In some situations, write caching for a given drive can yield drive performance improvements of 5 to 10%. In Computer, right-click the volume you want to cache and select Properties. Go to the Hardware tab, highlight your desired drive, and click the Properties button. Under the resulting General tab, click Change Settings. Next, under the Policies tab, make sure that the Enable Write-Caching On The Device box is checked.
Shut Down . . . Now!
Had enough of instructing Windows to restart, walking away, and then returning later only to find that some app refused to close and you're still waiting for a reboot? This Windows glitch has driven us nuts for years. Fortunately, there's a Registry hack you can apply to shorten the process kill time. This hack also existed under WinXP/Vista but has been altered and simplified under Win7. Click Start and type regedit in the Start search field. Click the Regedit.exe link and click Yes at the UAC prompt. Within the Registry, navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CURRENTCONTROLSET\Control. Right-click the WaitToKillServiceTimout item and select Modify... Our Win7 installation defaults to a value of 12000, which is 12 seconds. You can dial this down all the way to 2000, or two seconds. Close the Registry Editor; the changes will take effect when you reboot.
You know how Windows bogs down over time, burdened with all of those background crapplets that load during startup? Some of those you need, but some just take up unnecessary boot seconds and are never used during an average Windows session. Type msconfig in the Start search field, select Msconfig.exe, and go to the System Configuration window's Startup tab. Uncheck anything that doesn't look useful or necessary. Some entries are pretty cryptic and require Web searching to figure out. (For example, would you know that "SBSV 2010/02/19-11:02:07" by Adobe Systems is actually a SwitchBoard process and that Switch-Board is now a retired project? We didn't. Why on earth does CS5 load this?)
Take Back Your Reboots
Nothing irks us more than walking into the office in the morning and discovering that Windows has downloaded a patch during the night and unilaterally decided to issue an "automatic restart" regardless of whether all open work was saved. Whose system is this, anyway?
Well, no more. Rerun the Registry Editor and browse to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\POLICIES\MICROSOFT\Windows. Right-click Windows, point to New, and select Key. Name the key "Windows Update." Now create a new key under Windows Update called "AU." Create a new DWORD value for AU called "NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers." Right-click this DWORD, select Modify, and give it a value of 1. After you reboot, you will no more face the morning restart surprise.
Possibly the best productivity hack of all time, this gem will prohibit Windows from auto-rebooting and taking out your open files in the process. Just remember to reboot on your own occasionally.
Data can be like sand. Try as you might to gather it into neat piles, it has a tendency to spill and leak through your fingers. This is why Windows Search is often so useful, especially with the relatively recent indexing functions added by Microsoft to combat Google Desktop. The trouble is that because data changes over time, particularly through the addition of new files, your old searches are no longer valid, so you have to burn time running them again and again . . . unless you create a saved search. Say you have a thing for Beluga caviar and you collect recipes, photos, PowerPoint files, and who knows what else about Beluga. To search your Win7 system for all things Beluga, you would press WinKey+F and type Beluga. To narrow your search down to only JPEG images, you could click in the search field and select Kind from the list of four search filters (Kind, Date Modified, Size, and Name). Your string in the search field to find all Beluga JPEGs between 1 and 16MB would be "size:large type:=.jpg Beluga." Just keep adding filters until you've narrowed as far as you want. Assume this string returns 74 Beluga JPEGs. Having to create this search string every time you want to find those pictures is a time-waster, so save the search by clicking the Save Search link. By default, this saves in your User Account>Searches area, but you can change this to be wherever you like. Note that the saved search also appears in the Explorer Navigation pane under Favorites. Just open the saved item to automatically run the search again.
Keep in mind that Win7 searches only span across indexed locations. By default, these include locations such as the Documents, Pictures, and Music libraries. If you keep most of your data off of your C: drive, your searching with these defaults won't be very effective. Click Start, then type indexing options in the search field. Within the Indexing Options window, click Modify to add additional indexing locations. Click Advanced and use the File Types tab to make sure you're including the file extension types you want, as well as including file contents by selecting the Index Properties And File Contents radio button. For example, we had thousands of old WordPerfect files that weren't generating search hits because not only had we failed to include the drive on which those files were located, but we also weren't indexing the file contents of our WPD files. Note that the more files you index, the slower your Windows indexing will run. It's a trade-off, but one that is more palatable if your index is located on an SSD.
Use The Reliability Monitor
Buried within the Control Panel's Action Center is the Reliability Monitor. (While in the Action Center, expand Maintenance and click View Reliability History.) As the name implies, the monitor itself won't improve Windows performance, but it will give you clues to help troubleshoot Windows application problems and find a remedy so Windows can perform better in the future. Windows ranks overall reliability on a scale from 1 (lowest reliability) to 10. Take a picture of the 10 rating after your clean Windows 7 installation, because it's probably the last time you'll see it. The line graph and numerical ratings don't give you much information, apart from confirming your worst fears. ("I knew this system was falling apart!") More useful is being able to corroborate informational events, shown with an "i" in a blue circle with subsequent increases in application failures. For instance, if you see that Windows installed a security update on Monday followed by a significant increase in app crashes, you can probably guess that the update is to blame and then roll back the software change.
Tweak The Virtual Memory
Remember virtual memory, that large swap file on your hard drive used for overflow needs when your system didn't have enough RAM for the jobs at hand? Maybe you haven't thought about virtual memory in years - probably since memory got cheap enough to buy by the handful. Well, Win7 is a memory pig, and some older systems might be stuck with a mere 2GB. This is a recipe for paging file performance problems, because Windows must constantly work to resize the paging, a performance-sapping process. As a rule of thumb, it's good to have a swap file that's 2.5 times the size of your system memory. (Win7 defaults to recommending a 1.5X value.) So for 2GB of RAM, you'd have a 5,120KB swap file, and you'd keep that size constant so Windows won't have to work at dynamically resizing it. In the Start search bar, type adjust perf. In the resulting Performance Options window, click the Advanced tab, then click the Change button, and uncheck Automatically Manage Paging File For All Drives. Select a custom size and make sure the initial and maximum sizes are identical to prevent any resizing. Click Set and OK.
Because drive performance is so key to virtual memory performance, this is part of why SSDs can deliver such a massive performance boost on netbooks, which tend to be relatively low on system memory.
Allocate More RAM For Windows XP Mode
Remember when we said that WinXP Mode was slow as drying paint in January? Well, no wonder! As you might be able to see in our screen shot, WinXP Mode defaults to only using 512MB of our system's 6GB of system memory. Let's fix that. First, make sure your virtual machine is closed down. When it is, open Computer and navigate to C:\Users\User Name\Virtual Machines. Right-click the virtual machine that needs more memory (chances are you only have one option called Windows XP Mode.vmcx) and select Settings. Click the Memory setting and apply whatever size value you like. Just make sure you leave plenty of memory for Win7 running outside of XP Mode.
You probably know that increasing the size of your browser's temp file space can improve browser performance by having more content already precached on your system. (In IE8, go to Tools, Internet Options, General tab, Browsing History Settings button, and change the disk space to use.) Assuming you're not strapped for disk capacity, this is probably a good idea.
You can also save time when surfing by using IE8's Accelerators. The first time you ran IE8, the browser probably prompted you to look at Accelerators, whereupon you blew the request off as another frivolous timesink. Look again. Accelerators are browsing shortcuts available through a right-click menu when you highlight a block of text within the browser window. While search Accelerators are the most common, options span from blogging to weather tools. If you find yourself constantly doing copy-and-pasting into different Web services, look into Accelerators to cut down your work. Right-click a selection and pick All Accelerators, Find More Accelerators, and see what you find.
Improve Your Image
If you really want to kill your Windows performance, try having a drive crash and then reinstall your system. We sit here worrying about saving seconds while rebuilding a system image can take days. First you install the OS, then the drivers, apps, updates, and patches. Then you redo all of your preferences, cookies, and so on. Finally, you bring back your (hopefully) backed up data. It's a nightmare. In the business world, "bare metal backup" options solved this problem by backing up every bit of the system image, OS files and settings included.
Win7 delivers the same functionality in its Backup And Restore routine, located in the Control Panel. Find an NTFS-formatted drive target with plenty of capacity and use the Change Settings link to create your backup set. Be sure to check the box next to Include A System Image Of Drives: (C
. We recommend scheduling at least a weekly system image backup, perhaps on Friday night. To restore an image, you may need to create a system repair disc, and you'll find a link for this process on the left navigation bar.
Like Fine Wine
Give credit where it's due. It's actually getting harder to write these tuning tips stories as the years go by because, much as we may like to grumble otherwise, Windows is getting better over time. Add to this the relative improvement in hardware components, especially when jumping from hard disks to SSDs, and what it does for OS performance. There's still a lot of value to be had in optimizing Windows 7 - you will save minutes and hours over time. But the bang you get for your tweaking time seems to be eroding. Honestly, we wouldn't want it any other way.
by William Van Winkle