System Optimization Guide 2003

So you finally saved up enough money for a top of the line multimedia computer. It has that super fast Pentium IV processor, enough memory for a super computer and an ultra fast video card. Problem is you’ve noticed that it is slowing down; month by month the performance seems to be getting worse. Your DVDs start skipping; your MPEG3 files are halting in the middle of a song. Its frustrating isn’t it? The fault is not yours, its how the Microsoft operating systems were designed. Over time they get clogged up and the performance takes a nose dive. What we are going to discuss here is what you can do to keep your home computer working at the best level possible. While this is important for any Microsoft based computer those machines that are expected to play audio and video files are especially susceptible to the slow downs.

The Problem

Three factors that result in a degrading performance are the build up of temporary files on your machine; your memory becomes cluttered and fragmented by opening and closing files and unnecessary entries in the registry. Files are created on your hard drive whose purpose it to hold data while your application is running. Multimedia use creates huge temporary files. Each page you visit on the internet creates these files. Before the current day fast internet connections browsers would cache or save frequently visited pages, using the locally stored page when ever possible to increase access time. Most systems still have these caches even though a fresh download is faster than ever. The operating system tries to shove these temporary files where ever there is space on the hard drive. The result is your hard drive becomes fragmented. A file is not stored in one contiguous area of the drive but is split up in several locations. This means the head that reads the data from the hard drive has to physically move all around the drive to piece together a file.  A similar thing happens in the memory of your computer. When you close a program the memory it uses is often not reclaimed for general use right away. The computer has to search for a place to put new programs that you open. Then there is the ever popular registry. This is a table or database that controls almost every aspect of how your machine works. In it is stored the settings for every program. Every time you install, uninstall, use or change a program an entry is made in the registry. Needless to say this file becomes huge and searching through takes an increasing amount of time. Since this file is used for almost every thing you do on your machine the amount of time it takes builds up rapidly.

Fortunately, with computers for every need someone out there has worked out a solution. There are many programs that promise an increase in performance. I have examined dozens of such programs in a search to better my own machine’s performance. What follows here are the results of my testing, these programs are among the best around to keep your machine running as good if not better than the day you first brought it home. There are several categories that we will consider; disk utilities, memory utilities, registry utilities and back up solutions. While the cumulative cost of these programs may run a couple of hundred dollars consider it against the price of a new computer. Consider it a worth while investment.

Hard Drive Optimizers

Two things are necessary to keep your hard drive in good shape, remove the unneeded temporary files and defragment the files that reside on the drive. There are a couple of tools provided by Microsoft to clean up your hard drive. You can go to the Tools->Internet Options->Temporary Internet Files menu. There are two options there, delete temporary files and delete cookies. Be careful with getting rid of the cookies. Many are used to remember IDs and passwords for sites you frequently visit. You can prevent a build up by shutting off cookie acceptance and add only those sites you approve of. This keeps all those sites and HTML emails from clogging up the cookie directory on your hard drive. You can delete the temporary internet files with little or no affect on your browsing. If you go to the Accessory menu and select System Tools there is also a drive cleanup program there. If you go to the second tab, More Options, at the bottom is the option to remove all system check points except the most recent. Usually you can get a lot of drive space back by accepting this option. The more modern versions of Windows keep check points of your settings so you can roll back in case something happens. Usually you only need the last one anyway.

So much for the free programs, while the tools provided by Microsoft are good, a little investment will get you a much cleaner hard drive. Symantec (http://www.symantec.com) has a suite of programs called the Norton Utilities. Norton has been around almost as long as the Microsoft operating system. Among the tools provided are a disk clean and most importantly one of the best defragmenters around. Unlike the defragmenter provided by Microsoft the Norton one permits you to decide where specific files go. By placing files that are not modified at the end of the drive you prevent fragmentation and keep your hard drive in better shape. Include .com, .exe, .dll and .hlp files in this category. If you defragment your hard drive about once a week the task takes less time with each run and your hard drive will run at peak performance. Norton also has something called Disk Doctor. This program search for physical and logical problems with your drives and can repair many of these problems. It goes beyond the Microsoft program DSKCHK (disk check) program. Run this utility about once a month or when you notice any problems with your boot up.

There is also a disk cleanup program with the Tune-Up (http://www.tune-up.com//) utility set. This set of programs is going to pop up a lot in this article. They are incredible. The Tune-Up disk cleanup is pretty much like the others but there is a backup and restore feature for what you delete just in case you go a little bit too far and remove something you need. Only the Microsoft disk cleanup has the ability to remove the system check points so no matter what utility you decide on you will still want to use the MS cleanup on a regular basis.

Memory Optimizers

While we have come a long way from the old 64K limits,  multimedia computer eats up a lot of you memory. Not only are today’s operating systems more memory intensive than ever the memory used to cache your video and audio files will eat into the largest memory possible. Like the hard drive your memory can become cluttered and fragmented. This is caused by programs being started and stopped, cache files and other routine operations. Like the hard drive this will result in a drastic reduction in the performance of your computer. Your DVDs will pause; MPEG3 files will stutter or stop altogether. These utilities will help you reclaim loss memory and restore it to full system use.

First there is MemoKit by Software Benefits Inc. (http://www.memokit4all.com/). This program resides in your system memory and monitors it. It will detect and prevent crashes, optimize memory use, detect so called memory leaks and reclaim used and fragmented memory. A memory leak is something common to many programs but just not often discussed by programmers. This is when a program exits and does not reclaim the memory it uses on its own. Internet Explorer is one of the biggest culprits in this area. When memory is not reclaimed properly the operating system can become unstable and your computer will get very upset and show its dismay by crashing. No one wants a mentally unstable computer. MemoKit will scan the memory, the period for this is adjustable by you, and look for memory blocks associated with programs that are no longer running. It then marks the memory as being available for use. The newer, multimedia ready operating systems like Windows ME, Windows 2000 and Windows XP are very susceptible to memory problems. The fancier and more graphically oriented interfaces have their price and a program like MemoKit helps you control how and when your memory is used and cleaned. With this program you can set automatic cleanup criteria. When your memory dips below this point the program will act to reclaim what ever memory it can. You can also manually force a cleanup at any time, although this will take about a minute during which time you can not realistically use any programs. It’s a small price to pay for the gain in performance and the protection from crashes. While using this program I noticed that I could avoid rebooting and all my programs ran faster than ever.

Tune-Up also provides a memory optimizer. The features are basically the same as MemoKit; it resides in memory, monitors the usage of your memory and frees up memory from programs you recently exited. You can set the memory levels that will trigger an automatic reclaim or start the reclamation process any time you wish. MemoKit was a little more aggressive in reclaiming memory than Tune-Up. With similar settings MemoKit provided a bit more free memory on average. The real advantage of Tune-Up is it is part of a suite of programs for about the same price as MemoKit alone. Both did avoid freeze ups and forced re-boots nicely. The operating system was a lot more stable with either of these programs running. 

Registry Optimizers

This is really the category that is more difficult to find. The registry controls almost every aspect of how your machine performs. There are literally thousands of entries, cryptic names and mysterious values that will decide how your operating system and programs function. While the knowledge of such things is beyond most of us mere mortals some inventive programs have done their research and created programs to help. The problem is that with every new program, changed option or even common use of any application entries to the registry are made or modified. In a relatively short amount of time this database gets bogged down with the overwhelming amount of data which needs to be search when you run a program. You need to clean things up but the question is how. A small mistake can ruin your machine. Once again, Tune-Up comes to the rescue. Among the many utilities in this package is one that will search the registry for entries that no longer are associated with a valid program. It looks for potential problems that can slow your system down. Most importantly, it saves the old values for you and provides an option to roll back in case you accidentally do any damage. The first time you run this program you will see a lot of problems to automatically correct. Subsequent uses, once a week or once a month, will provide the needed maintenance to keep your all important registry clean and fast. Symantec’s Norton Utilities comes with a registry cleanup but for those people with Windows XP, the feature is disabled. Both Norton and Tune-Up provide a registry editor to replace the operating system provided and infamous RegEdit. RegEdit is perhaps the most dangerous program on your system; you can do a lot of harm with only a few key strokes. The editors provided by Tune-Up and Norton allow you to save the changes and literally un-apply them. Unless you really know what you are doing, avoid these programs.

Miscellaneous

Tune-Up (seeing a trend here?) also has several automatic optimizers included in the package. You can tell it what speed your internet connection is and it will automatically apply the settings to achieve the best performance. I tried it and was amazed at the increase in throughput I saw. There is also a general system optimizer that examines your system and recommends automatic changes to make. You can select best performance or balance best visuals with best performance. The quick maintenance section shows you exactly where your system is slowing down and will let you improve things with a click. As with everything in this package you can revert easily back to the old settings.

You should also consider a good backup and restore utility. When I build a new machine I immediately install two programs, always, no exceptions. Partition Magic, which allows you to create and manage hard drive partitions and Drive Image, which creates and restores binary images of your whole drive. Both are from PowerQuest, (http://www.powerquest.com/) and are worth the price. You create a FAT32 partition to hold the binary images and if everything crashes you can boot from a floppy the program creates and restore things back to exactly how they where before the disaster. I take a binary image after my new machine has all the programs the way I want them and periodically back up the data and settings and restore back to this point. It’s like having a brand new machine whenever you want. You should also create am image periodically and before any major changes to your system, this way if things don’t work out right in about 30 minutes or so you are back in business. This is also great if a virus get to you.

Summary

While the complete set of these programs will run you a couple of hundred dollars it is worth it compared to the price you paid for that fast new multimedia computer. If you have to choose go with Tune-Up for overall best performance and the PowerQuest programs for routine backup. With these programs not only will you avoid the certain slow down of your system but in most cases you will actual improve the performance you had the first day you used the machine. Think of these programs as an investment, a small amount of money used to protect your larger investment.

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