How to speed up Windows 7

9th May 2010 | 09:00

How to speed up Windows 7

Easy ways to fix Windows 7 slow startup and running

How to speed up Windows 7: What needs to be done?

There's a lot to like about Windows 7, not least its many improvements over Vista: the new OS is faster, less demanding on resources, has better designed security and contains many new productivity-boosting features.

If you were an early Windows 7 adopter, though, you may already have noticed that one old problem still remains. The more you use your PC, adding and removing applications, the more junk builds up throughout your system, and the slower and more unstable it eventually becomes.

You need to treat the problem, detoxing your PC on a regular basis to remove the leftovers – but how, exactly? Which areas of Windows 7 are most susceptible to this gradual degradation? Are there any tools or benchmarks you can use to reveal problem areas? How much can all this clutter slow you down, anyway, and what's the best way to remove it all and restore your system to its optimum performance?

As we researched this article, one point was clear. Windows 7 is very different internally to Windows XP, and we couldn't simply assume that old tricks, like optimising services, would work in the same way. What we needed to do was design a test, something that would reveal exactly why Windows 7 systems slowed down over time, and help uncover the best way to restore that initial new PC performance. And so that's exactly what we did.

Designing the test

We started our trial by obtaining a powerful new 3XS Intel X58 Core i7 PC from Scan Computers. The machine featured a quad-core Intel Core i7 920 (which was overclocked by 20 per cent), 6GB of RAM and a speedy SATA 300 Samsung hard drive. It was an excellent performer that we knew wouldn't choke unless it was faced with a set of major performance problems.

When the 3XS PC arrived, we installed the latest Windows 7 (Ultimate Edition, 32-bit) and driver updates and then set about establishing baseline measurements of our PC's performance. The best Windows boot time – which we're defining as the time that elapses between the 'Starting Windows' message and the desktop appearing – was 22 seconds.

boot screen

Seeing the desktop means nothing if you can't use it, so we also measured the time between the 'Starting Windows' message appearing and the point that we were able to launch IE and have it display our Google homepage (28 seconds). We also used Task Manager to collect data on free memory and system activity (processes, threads, and so on).

Finally we checked how long it took to launch apps, including Firefox and Outlook (both around four seconds). With the performance of our clean system safely defined, we set about abusing it.

We installed Windows Live tools, iTunes, Adobe Reader, browsers, antivirus apps, Microsoft Office, DVD-burning suites, video-editing tools, a large Outlook inbox, hundreds of fonts and more. We accepted every extra that was on offer, then reinstalled and updated the apps before moving plenty of files around to ensure hard drive fragmentation. And what did this do to the benchmarks?

The plain Windows boot time increased by around a third, from 22 to 30 seconds. Our system was unusable after that for a long time, though, with IE not displaying Google for 140 seconds. Task Manager showed that system activity had more than doubled. Outlook now took five times as long to launch (21 seconds), and shutdown time increased by 50 per cent to 18 seconds.

So even a powerhouse like our 3XS system can be seriously affected by clutter. Now our really important tests began: discovering how to reverse this slowdown.

Defrag options

The hard drive is a big bottleneck on most PCs, and defragging has traditionally been one way to boost performance. Windows 7's own defrag tool completed the task in a little over 20 minutes, confidently reporting that there was now 0 per cent fragmentation. But this had little effect on our PC, shaving one second off boot time and leaving other benchmarks unaffected.

Auslogics

We weren't convinced, and ran Auslogics Disk Defrag immediately afterwards. This produced some interesting information: it thought our drive was still 16 per cent fragmented. We told the program to optimise our file layout (go to 'Settings | Program Settings | Algorithms | Move system files to the beginning of the disk') and set it to work.

This delivered real benefits. Boot time fell from 29 to 26 seconds; IE was usable after 107 seconds, a 23 per cent improvement; and launch time for Outlook fell by a third.

We can't guarantee you'll see similar results, as every defrag situation is different, but it's clear that Windows 7's defrag tool alone won't necessarily do the job. We advise you click Start, type defrag, click 'Disk Defragmenter' and make sure that scheduled defrags are turned off for the moment.

Then install Auslogics Disk Defrag, turn on the option to relocate your system files, click 'Settings | Program Settings | Schedule' and set it to run every few days to keep your drive running optimally.

How to speed up Windows 7: Services and boot

Windows 7 slow startup

A near two-minute wait before we could access the web was far too long. To cut this down we needed to reduce the work that Windows had to do during the boot process, and one effective way to do this was to work on our Windows services.

Launching the Services applet ('services.msc') revealed the many changes that could be made. For instance, the Distributed Link Tracking Client maintains links between NTFS files across a network and is started by default. We don't use the service, though, and you probably don't either: double-clicking it and setting the Startup Type to 'Disabled' will turn it off.

Sevices

IP Helper is similarly pointless unless you have access to an IP6 network, and the Windows Media Player Network Sharing and Media Center Extender services can go unless you're using them to share your music and videos.

Other services can be configured to start with a delay, giving priority to other tasks and helping your PC to become usable more quickly.

The Background Intelligent Transfer Service is important when downloading Windows Updates, but it doesn't have to be available when you start your PC. Doubleclick this and set its Startup Type to 'Automatic (Delayed Start)'. Try the same with Disk Defragmenter, Windows Backup, Windows Search and Windows Update.

We noticed many unnecessary third-party services. Installing Nero 9 got us a Nero BackItUp Scheduler 4.0 service, for example; a LightScribe service assists when labelling discs; and a Visual Studio 2008 Remote Debugger had appeared from somewhere. We weren't using any of these, so we disabled them all.

Many more could safely have their start-up type set to 'Automatic (Delayed Start)': Apple Mobile Device (bundled with iTunes), seven SQL Server services and five from VMware (part of VMware Workstation) all got this treatment. (Don't choose anything security related, though: vital services relating to firewalls or antivirus tools must be allowed to start as quickly as possible.)

Process library

These changes worked well, cutting our raw boot time from 26 to 24 seconds, while the 'IE-usable' time plummeted from 107 to 81 seconds: a significant improvement. But there was more to come.

Startup simplifications

Filling up a PC with numerous start-up programs will really slow it down, yet software authors continue to do this by default, so it's a good idea to prune your start-up tasks on a regular basis.

Start by quickly browsing your 'Start | All Programs' menu. Is there anything you no longer need? Uninstall it now.

Next, we launched msconfig on our test PC, clicked the Startup tab and found 29 programs listed, many of them unnecessary. QuickTime, iTunes, Adobe Reader, Adobe Acrobat, Orbit Downloader, PowerDVD and RealPlayer are all very useful tools, but we didn't want any of them to launch at boot time.

iTunes

Other applications install some components that may or may not be useful to you. Google ToolbarNotifier protects your Google toolbar search settings from unauthorised changes, for instance: that might be handy in some cases, but you may already have antivirus software that does something similar.

Magix Movie Editor had added an application called Trayserver that appeared to be unnecessary, and our Cyberlink software had installed a host of tools that seemed less than essential, including 'cyberlink brs' (something to do with Blu-ray, apparently), Cyberlink MediaLibrary Service, the Language Application, the StartMen Application and the MUI StartMenu Application.

There may be a few redundant start-up programs that have been there since your PC arrived. Ours included LightScribe, a disc labelling tool that we weren't using, and CTXfiHlp, a Creative tool that apparently assists with providing Help functionality, but as we've yet to need that, the program felt like something we could do without.

Another we found was LG Firmware Update, which checks online for new DVD drive firmware. That's handy, but we don't need to run it every boot. However, if you turn this off, make sure that you run it manually regularly.

firmware

The precise results of all this tweaking will depend on how your PC is configured, but we saw immediate benefits. There was less disk thrashing at boot time, IE was now usable in only 71 seconds, and we'd freed up more than 100MB of RAM for the rest of our system.

How to speed up Windows 7: Optimise your apps

We've concentrated on cleaning up Windows clutter, but your apps can also collect pointless add-ons. Take Internet Explorer, for instance. While installing software, we accepted every offer of a shiny new IE add-on, with the result being that we now had four extra toolbars.

Clicking 'Tools | Manage Add-ons' and disabling these freed up a surprisingly high 28 to 36MB of RAM, cut four seconds off the time it took for IE to load and then shaved half a second off every subsequent relaunch. Typical Microsoft inefficiency? Apparently not.

We had also accumulated eight Firefox extensions – AdBlock Plus, DownloadThemAll and so on – and uninstalling those halved the browser's relaunch time and saved us around 26MB of RAM. So by all means keep the extensions you use, but remember that they come at a price – get rid of any that are surplus to requirements.

It's a similar story with Microsoft Office. Outlook 2007, for instance, comes with many unnecessary add-ons, and programs like iTunes will install more (without even asking). Disabling all but the key search add-on saved 19MB of RAM on our test system (see the 'Optimising Outlook' box for the details), and while the initial launch appeared little different, subsequent launches now required only around 0.4 seconds.

Clear unwanted emails out of your inbox for a further speed boost, then check Word, Excel and other Office components for further unnecessary add-ons (though don't remove anything unless you're sure you don't need it).

Clean up your system

Congratulations, you've done the hard work – it's time to clean up. Click Start, type cleanmgr and press [Enter] to launch Disk Cleanup. Follow the instructions and clean up as much of the junk that it finds as you can.

You can get more thorough clean-up help from a tool like CCleaner. It's not a magic solution – we tried it, and cleaning our Registry made no difference at all to any benchmarks – but it does give you a central place to clean up your browser's temporary files. That really did help, cutting another five seconds off the time it took IE to load and become usable.

After one further defrag to take advantage of our additional free hard drive space, that was it. So what had our efforts achieved?

Boot time, originally 22 seconds, had initially risen to 30, but we'd brought it back down to 24. The time it took IE to load and display Google, first 28 and at its height a horrible 140 seconds, was now 35. Initial launch times for Outlook and Firefox were 25 per cent faster.

Task Manager showed that system activity had fallen by 30 per cent. We had 300MB more RAM available, and our applications had been tuned to require less than they previously did. Our work had got us close to the goal of brand-new PC performance.

Now it was time to take the next step and make our system go faster than it had ever gone before.

How to speed up Windows 7: PC on steroids

Turbocharge your PC with a low-power, high-speed solid-state drive

There's no doubt that software-based PC clean-up tweaks can deliver impressive results. Our tests proved that: we managed to make the test PC usable in around 25 per cent of its cluttered time.

But there's a problem. Drive defragmentation, software clutter, unwanted addons and more will all creep back, slowing us down again. Maintaining PC performance becomes a constant fight to hold back the inevitable. Perhaps there's a better way.

As we said several pages ago, the bottleneck in most PCs is the hard drive, so what if we replaced – or at least supplemented – this with a solid-state drive (SSD)? These use solid-state memory to hold data, so there's no wait for drives to spin up, and there are no drive heads that must zoom over to the right area: instead, the data is accessible almost instantly.

SSD

This all sounds very promising, but SSDs have received decidedly mixed reviews. Drive capacities are low, prices are often high and driver and design problems mean that performance can sometimes be little more than a regular HDD.

As ever, the only way to find out for sure whether an SSD would help pump up your system is to try the technology for ourselves. And so we added a top consumer SSD – Intel's 2.5in X-25M 80GB SATA300 – to our trial PC, and set about finding out just how fast it really was.

Working out well

The initial signs were mixed. PassMark PerformanceTest benchmarked our regular hard drive at 128.9MB/s for sequential reads and 84.9MB/s for writes; our SSD then jumped to a speedy 182.9MB/s for reads but fell fractionally to 84.1MB/s for writes.

Synthetic benchmarks never tell the whole story, though, so next we set up a few real-life tests. If you've only got a very small SSD then one option is to use it to hold your Windows 7 paging file. This is frowned upon by some: SSDs effectively wear out over time, and the concern is that the paging file will generate too much activity.

In reality, paging files require far more reads than writes, so this shouldn't be a problem. However, whether you'll want to bother is another matter. A fast paging file is only a significant benefit if you do lots of multitasking or are short of RAM. Boot times and app launches won't be that different: when we switched our paging file to the SSD we saw no significant change.

The real performance advantage comes when you install Windows on your SSD and use your regular hard drive for programs and data. When we did this, boot time dropped from 24 to 18 seconds. More impressively, IE loaded and displayed Google almost immediately afterwards, giving a total of just 20 seconds.

Remember, this was a 28-second delay out of the box, and it ballooned to 140 seconds after we'd spent some time cluttering our PC: our cleanups, tweaks and the SSD produced an impressive 85 per cent speed increase on the worst benchmark. Other results will vary depending on how you confi gure your system.

If you install all your programs on the hard drive then you'll probably see only minimal improvement on benchmarks like application load times. Install core apps on the SSD, though, and they'll fly too. We found that Outlook and Firefox both loaded in less than half the previous time, and they felt more responsive when we used them.

Things to consider

Intel's 80GB X-25M SSD is actually the slower of the chipmaker's two models of SSD. It's rated as capable of 70MB/s during sustained sequential writes, while the 160GB model can achieve up to 100MB/s. Sounds great, right?

Well, if there's a problem here, it's the price. As we write, the cheapest 80GB drive costs a rather steep £160, and the 160GB SSD is at least £327, enough for an entire budget PC.

There are cheaper alternatives around: we found a 40GB Kingston SSDNow drive available for only £67. But how do such drives compare? It makes sense to check the specifications to find out more.

There are two competing SSD technologies: SLC (single-level cell) and MLC (multilevel cell). SLC is faster and more reliable, but MLC is cheaper, and clever design can boost its speed (our test drive used Intel MLC NAND Flash memory). If you do wish to go down this route, make sure that your drive is compatible with SATA 3 Gbps, and has comparable performance to the Intel test system we used in this article (up to 250MB/s read, 70-100MB/s write, 65ms read latency, 85ms write latency).

SSD speed

Also keep in mind that SSDs do wear out over time, so pay attention to the warranty and mean time before failure (MTBF) figures. Our Intel drive is warranted for three years and has an MTBF of 1.2 million hours – a reasonable figure.

If you're buying an SSD for a laptop then take a look at the power consumption too. An Intel X18-M (1.8in form factor) uses 150mW when active, typically dropping to 75mW when idle. Those are both impressively low figures that could make a real difference to your battery life when on the move.

Finally, be wary of cheap older drives. The latest SSD technology is much faster and more reliable than earlier versions. As a result, that low-priced first-generation SSD you've spotted on Ebay may not be the bargain it appears.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 294

Liked this? Then check out 10 Windows speed tips that don't work

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