Sweat Your Assets – Windows Pc Performance Troubleshooting and Optimisation
Times are Uncertain – do you really need that upgrade or new PC?
Our customers and prospective customers frequently come to us and ask that we suggest either upgrades or whole new PC’s that will solve their current non-performance nightmare with an aging PC. It’s quite amazing how sometimes as the conversation and understanding of requirements and problems experienced proceeds we discover that actually the PC they already have may just still have a few laps around the circuit left in its tired chassis. In this article we will explain how you can diagnose your performance woes, streamline and tune them up. You’d be surprised just how much more you can get out of what you have.
Tip! Before making any serious system changes such as some of these are its wise to take a backup or restore point of your system before each change. Then should you subsequently find something is ‘broken’ you can restore back to a previous working configuration.
Analyse the problem before implementing the solution…
Use monitoring tools regularly – get in the habit of watching Task Manager and lookout for tasks and processes that are hogging your system memory or CPU. Task manager displays both in the process view as you can see below, you can also sort by clicking on the column headings. Even if you only use the Internet and eMail both these applications are renowned for memory leaks and processor bound loops (see an explanation of these problems in the next section).
Monitor Free Disk Space – ensure you have at least 20% disk space, preferably 30% or more should be free. If you don’t the file system struggles to operate as it needs some space in order to allocate and deallocate files the operating system and applications require while in use. Imagine walking into a hall full of boxes and you need to order them all by colour, in a room 70% full you’ve got 30% free space to temporarily put things in while you move other stuff around, in a room 99% full you may have no room at all to use as a temporary store. Use our earlier tip for reducing disk space consumption by eliminating unused installed programs or disk space is cheap these days with 1TB at under £100, upgrade your disk.
New Software invariably uses more Memory – finally, if you need an upgrade the one that makes the biggest difference in 80% of cases is simply adding more memory. RAM is now fairly cheap and you should consider 2GB to be the minimum of practical RAM to have installed. Every time you upgrade it try to double it or you’re unlikely to really notice the difference. On 32-bit systems there is little advantage to having more than 3GB of memory but usually it makes sense to upgrade to 4GB due to the size of memory kits available. If you need more than 4GB you will also need to upgrade to a 64-bit operating system. You can see your memory utilisation by consulting the Task Manager, ctrl-alt-del presents you an option to start the task manager.
In a typical example 2GB of physical memory is installed, of which roughly 1GB is available, although windows is misleading us a bit here as it will always make sure some memory remains available or it will simply cease to function. So don’t look for 0 available free memory as an indicator that you need more, it never will be allowed to reach 0 as windows will swap a process out into the page file to free more memory up. There is 1.11GB of memory currently consumed (in the page file ‘PF Usage’, Commit Charge – Total). The page file is actually virtual memory on disk as tasks become active and inactive they may be swapped into and out of memory into the page file, hence that pause sometimes when you switch to another task as the disk is accessed to bring it back out of the page file. Activity in the page file and virtual memory is complex and I won’t go into any more of that here as it doesn’t help you with performance issues. The key point to remember is if Windows is swapping memory out to the page file on disk then your system will be going a lot slower as you can be sure however fast your disk is it’s an awful lot slower than physical memory.
What we care most about is activity in real physical memory and the point at which we might run out of it and the page file becomes more active hence slowing down the system. Crucially the Commit Charge Peak should balance the physical memory available otherwise it means an awful lot of page file swapping is going on (known as ‘Page Faults’). If it was the yellow line in Page File Usage history would be bouncing around, or worse just steadily increasing.
Adjust Total Page File size – following on from the point above if your system page file size is too small your system will slow down or even fail to start tasks (usually with a system message to tell you the computer is out of memory). You can check this by looking at the Page File Total versus Peak size. If they are close to each other then you need to increase your page file size. With most windows default configurations this will happen automatically.
The exotic world of Deadlocks, Infinite Loops and Cartesian products – are all programming jargon that essentially describe bugs (though not always). The programmer of an application or product you’re using (and that includes the ones you take for granted like Windows and Device drivers) has likely made an error in designing or implementing the code such that logically it can never get past a certain point in its execution. The consequence of this poorly designed code can be that the processor cycles used in this ‘loop’ consume all the available resources of your PC (check your task manager, which process is using 99-100% of the processor!? Or just ‘not responding’). You will notice this as your machine will suddenly lock-up, go dead slow, or the application in question will just hang. Thankfully with multi-core PC’s hanging is less of a problem as the other free cores can be used to KILL the task off and bring your PC back to life…
Run concurrently as few tasks as you need – each time you open up a task remember each one is using up a little more memory. If your memory or processing power is limited try to keep open only what you regularly need and close what you don’t it doesn’t take so long to reopen, and if it does it probably means you have too many open already! Also bear in mind just because you can’t see an application doesn’t mean it’s not using up any processing cycles, it will be. All applications process events which might be system activity, emails being sent/received, diary alarms going off, keyboard or mouse movements, activity from external devices like printers and USB drives. They also monitor activity in the background even when you aren’t doing anything with them. This consumes more of those valuable clock cycles…
Typical solutions to try or consider
De-install and delete any unused software – take a look at your control panel Add/Remove Software icon and go through the list of installed applications line by line. If you don’t need or use it remove it. It may be taking up valuable space or cycles on your machine.
Disable Windows Defender – For Vista users there are a number of new Windows ‘features’ that if you are an experienced PC User who understands how to roam the internet or email and download files safely you do not need. Windows Defender and Firewall are such services, if you have a third party or router firewall you more than likely just don’t need this services enabled. To disable windows defender, go to control panel->administrative tools -> services -> windows defender and stop the service, setting it to disabled or manual so that it does not restart on reboot.
Disable UAC (User Access
Control) – To experienced Windows XP users this feature has won a thousand polls as the most annoying new feature. Whenever you execute anything which affects system configuration or the filesystem (which is just about everything you might want to do that’s useful!), a modal popup asks whether you want the operation to proceed. Again use your judgement on your experience and competency with Windows, inexperienced users should probably leave it as is otherwise you will want to disable it. To disable user access control, go to control panel->user account->turn user account control off. You can also disable it using the msconfig.exe utility on the Tools tab, or directly in the registry.
Optmise the Windows GUI – Windows Vista Premium and above has by default the Aero user interface enabled, this uses the 3D capabilities of your graphics card and will use up some precious CPU cycles. Unless you love the new look interface feel free to reduce load on your processor and memory and turn it off. To optimise system configuration for maximum performance, go to control panel->performance information and tools-> advanced tools-> adjust the appearance and performance of windows-> Select Adjust for best performance radio button and hit Apply.
Remove Startup programs – A lot of applications helpfully install themselves on your machine to startup and drop into the System Tools tray as your machine boots or, or as you log in depending on how they are configured. Almost none of these programs will actually be required and they are only installed this way to save on the time taken for their first execution (as they are already in memory, in theory). Our recommendations are you remove all programs to