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Boosting the power of your Windows desktops

In this article, resident SearchWin2000 expert Laura Hunter will show you how to improve the performance of every kind of Windows desktop operating system.

With every Windows desktop operating system, there are tricks you can use to optimize system performance. There are also tips that are fairly universal. In this article, we'll take a look at ways you can improve the performance of any Windows desktop, and then touch on ideas that are specific to particular versions of the OS.

In today's cost-conscious IT environments, maximizing the performance of Windows desktops is paramount. True, you can't always afford to equip your desktop with the latest and greatest hardware, but there are key hardware elements that you don't need to skimp on, especially given that pricing on many components has come down drastically in recent months.

Any Windows operating system is going to live and die by the amount of RAM it has installed. Sufficient RAM will allow your users to multitask and run intensive business applications without that dreaded "chug-chug-chug" of information being moved back and forth from the hard drive. If you're supporting users who work with graphics-heavy programs, make sure to provide them with a powerful video card that contains its own supply of RAM. This will allow the video card to focus on rendering graphics on screen and increase performance by freeing the desktop's main supply of RAM.

These hardware considerations will deliver a great performance boost for your Windows desktop for a comparatively small cost. For example, a budget Windows PC from a well-known OEM manufacturer comes standard with 128 MB of RAM. Upgrading to 256 MB of RAM at purchase time will run you all of $70, while upgrading even further to 512 MB will cost somewhere in the region of $150.

Older machines can benefit from RAM upgrades just as much as newer ones. Just this year, I breathed new life into a 6-year-old PII 450 MHz Compaq by upgrading the on-board RAM from 64 MB to 256 MB for about $100. Afterward, it was as if I was working with a brand new machine.

The golden rule of tuning

Now let's look at the Windows operating system itself. Whether you're still running Windows 98 or ME or have upgraded to Windows 2000 or XP, there is a "golden rule of performance tuning" that will apply across the board: Only run what you need.

Microsoft's powerful desktop operating systems provide you with a multitude of optional services and components that you can load. Inexperienced users and administrators are often tempted to install everything. Where performance is concerned, though, this will create an unnecessary drain on your desktop computer.

The first things to check are your networking components, generally found under the "Networking" or "Network Connections" applet in the Windows Control Panel. Make sure that you're only running the components that you need for your office environment. Typically, this will include the Client for Microsoft Networks, TCP/IP protocol and maybe File & Print Sharing. If you have protocols loaded that you're not using -- like IPX/SPX, DLC or NetBEUI -- disable or uninstall them. You might also want to try disabling File & Print Sharing if you're not in a peer-to-peer file-sharing environment. This will not only increase the performance of your Windows desktop but will also improve its security.

Just say no to services

In Windows NT4, 2000 and XP, some optional software components load in the form of services -- processes that are running all the time, whether you're actually using them or not. Just like MS Word uses up resources when you double-click on it, a Windows service will take up RAM and processor cycles whenever it starts up.

Most services are configured to start up automatically, but you can reconfigure them to either use "Manual" startup (these services will only run if you actually start them by hand), or you can disable them entirely. You reconfigure services using the "Services" Control Panel applet in NT4 Workstation, or the Computer Management console under Administrative Tools in 2000 and XP. Some common services that you can consider disabling are:

  • Alerter
  • Indexing Service
  • Messenger
  • NetMeeting Remote Desktop Sharing
  • Remote Registry
  • Server

As with any system configuration change, be sure to have a working backup of your system and data files before you make any major alterations to your operating system. Your best bet will be to make changes one at a time and reboot your desktop between each change. The newer desktop operating systems don't always require rebooting, but you should still manually restart your computer to test for any adverse effects. Otherwise, you might go for weeks thinking that everything is fine, only to discover that your wonderfully fine-tuned machine won't start up properly the next time you're forced to reboot. These preventative steps will keep your blood pressure down, boost the performance of the Windows desktops in your enterprise and make your users' lives much happier.

About the author: Laura Hunter is a network administrator and technical trainer who has spent many years working in the trenches of network design, administration and user support. She has a myriad of certifications, including MCSE, MCT, CNE and CCNA. Laura serves as's Ask the Expert advisor for the Network Management category and is a regular contributor to the site.


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