MICRO CENTER: COMPUTERS AND ELECTRONICS
Random Access   chris, kp & rob
In The Lab
System Performance
by chris

My system at home has been acting a bit sluggish lately, but only in certain tasks. I have some ideas about what is causing it, but have not bothered to isolate the offending program since I will probably be swapping the system shortly. I say offending program in this case, because I know it is one of a handful of programs that have been installed in the last six months or so. Another way I know it is software related is that if I restart under a "clean" operating system version (the system is configured to multiboot between XP Professional and XP Media Center), there are no issues at all.

But what if you don't have a multiboot configuration and are experiencing system slowdown issues? What can you do to resolve the problem? To start with, think about whether your system has been been getting slower. If it has always been slow but you never noticed until you saw that quad-core gaming system? If the system has always been slow, there still might be a few things you can do, but if it has been slowing down more and more, it is a sign that something has changed.

Listed in order from most common to least common, are some of the reasons a system might be getting slower include:

  1. Lack of system resources
  2. Clutter and storage issues
  3. System settings
  4. Disk errors or file corruption
  5. Overheating

I have listed these in order of the most common to the least common. It just happens that the most common cause "lack of resources" also includes your greatest threat - a virus, advertising, or spyware, also known as "malware" (malicious software). If you have been experiencing system performance issues, start your troubleshooting by making sure that your antivirus and anti-spyware are active and up to date. If you have limited system memory, avoid using the all-inclusive security suites and select a few good core programs. Resident anti-spyware applications are good, but running regular scans using a non-resident product should be reasonably safe. Changing your antivirus application to one that has a smaller resource footprint like ESET NOD32 can also help. The direct method of increasing system resources is by adding additional memory, but I will save that until later in this article.

Why does memory impact system performance so much? When you start your computer, the hardware (BIOS) loads the operating system from the hard drive storage into memory (RAM) and then turns control over to the OS. Additional applications must be copied from the hard drive to the RAM before they can be executed. If you run out of RAM to hold everything, most operating systems can use part of the hard drive as temporary memory, but only to move portions of the active programs or OS to the hard drive until the next time it is needed. Under Windows, this is identified as the "Swap File" or "Virtual Memory." The negative impact of using virtual memory is that the hard drive is much slower than the RAM when it comes to access speed. The program still has to be moved to RAM to run, but this takes time, forcing your system to "wait" during the copy process. When your system resorts to using virtual memory, you will see lots of hard drive activity even when not starting a program, or when opening or saving files.

Malware is just one of the reasons you could be running low on available RAM, but it is probably more likely that you have too many other programs or accessories running, causing the "bloat." If you see lots of little program icons sitting down in the system tray, it might just be the reason things are getting slower. Some of these programs may have been there when you bought the computer, but some probably got installed as you blindly clicked on an "accept" checkbox when installing some update. For example, do you have the Google Toolbar installed? How about the Yahoo Toolbar, the Adobe Album, Adobe Update Manager, QuickTime launcher, Instant Messenger, Office Language Toolbar? Do any of these sound familiar? Now, how many of these do you actually use? A good place to start reducing the load on system resources is in Add/Remove programs. Services and startup programs all reside in memory. As you run low on memory, it forces the system to start using the hard drive as virtual memory. Disabling or removing unnecessary programs or services may be a quick fix.

But, wait! If you don't want to jump into things by uninstalling them, and if you aren't really sure of what is or is not important, then start by using the System Configuration Utility "MSCONFIG." MSCONFIG allows you to disable, without removing, many startup programs or even services. To use MSCONFIG, click Start, Run, enter "MSCONFIG" (without the quotes) in the "Open:" box, and click OK. Click on the Startup tab to see a list of programs that start when Windows does. Use the item name or location detail to try and identify the "good" programs like your antivirus or anti-spyware program. By removing the checkmark, you can temporarily disable the application at the next start up. If you computer starts to run faster, then you probably found one of the causes. Replacing the checkmark re-activates the program at the next restart.

MSCONFIG can also be used to disable services. Services may be a complete program, but are just as likely to be a portion of a program that is used as needed. Caution: Be very careful when disabling Microsoft services; some of these are necessary for Windows to run or for you to perform certain actions -- such as accessing the network or Internet. To avoid disabling something needed by Windows, add a checkmark to "Hide all Microsoft Services", what's left are services installed by other programs. As with the startup items, removing a checkmark disables an item at the next system start. If you can still run everything else with an item disabled, you may be able to use that information to permanently uninstall an application that put it there in the first place.

MSCONFIG provides a simple way to test for troublesome applications or to identify programs or services that can be disabled or safely removed to free up memory.

Other minor causes of slowdowns can be system clutter or storage issues. Cleanup here may be as simple as opening "My Computer," right clicking on a drive letter and selecting "Properties," and then clicking the "Disk Cleanup" button. Disk Cleanup provides a list of areas that tend to accumulate files as you use your computer. Some files are supposed to go away automatically, but some won't until you force a cleanup. Deleting a file typically just marks it for deletion and moves the file or folder to the "Recycle Bin" You must empty the trash before the space is actually released for reuse. Regularly clear out the temporary files to avoid slowdowns, such as when programs create or access a temporary work file.

One problem with disk clutter (other than the waste of your storage space), is having too many files in one location. A subdirectory (folder) is just a special file on the drive. The default directory structure is created at the same time the folder is, and typically has only a limited number of entries to store the names and locations of your data placed there. But because it is a special file, once that original space has been filled, it can just reserve another block on the drive to track more entries, usually at a different location on the drive. Just as with files that are changed regularly, the directory can become fragmented, adding additional delays while the drive jumps around to access your data. Disk Cleanup and Disk Defragmenter are both available in your "System Tools" folder under programs or from the disk properties window. If you have the properties window open to run disk cleanup, just click on the "Tools" tab to access the defragmentation utility. Fragmented drives are not a big cause of slowdowns, but they may contribute to the problem.

Disk errors, corrupt drives or system files could cause slowdowns, but are almost always accompanied with some sort of error or warning message. One exception might be if your system files have somehow ended up with mismatched system file versions. This might occur with installations of older programs or utilities that include system files but don't check the version before replacing. This is actually unlikely to have happened, since most critical system files are "protected" from this type of activity, and you should get a warning before overwriting a new file with an older version. The check and repair method here is to use the System File Checker from inside a command prompt window. Open a command prompt window from Start, Run, enter "CMD," and click OK. At the command prompt you can type "SFC" to get a list of startup options, or enter "SFC /SCANNOW" to start the check. NOTE: SFC requires Windows install media for this process to work; if all you have are Emergency Recover disks, you may not be able to complete the process.

System File Checker will compare critical system file versions against the originals on your install media.

Overheating is probably the least likely cause for performance issues, but if you have a Pentium 4 processor, there is a very slight possibility that performance slowdowns are a result of the CPU getting too hot and "throttling back" its core speed to reduce heat production. However unlikely, heat is never good for the components, no matter what CPU or system you are running. To minimize this risk, open the case and look for dust buildup on the fans and heat sinks. Use canned air to blow the dust off of the surfaces and out of the fans and power supply. If fans are stopped or running very slow with the computer on, they may be failing and need to be replaced. Check that the heat sink is securely attached to the CPU. If it is loose, you may need to replace it or at least remove it, clean it and apply a new layer of heat transfer compound before you attach it securely again.

Select "Adjust for best performance" to disable the special effects that use time and resources on an already-slow system.
If you have done everything in terms of cleanup and removing unnecessary programs and services, one of the few things left is common performance settings in Windows itself. Windows XP added multiple "enhancements" over earlier versions of Windows including subtle effects like shadows under the icons and text on the desktop, showing contents of windows as you drag them around, nice rounded edges and shaded bars on the windows, etc. On a system that has very low resources and no way to upgrade (like a laptop with 256MB of RAM for example), turning off these effects can make a difference in how fast things start and open, and give you a slight boost overall. Right click on "My Computer" and select "Properties," click on the "Advanced" tab and click "Settings" under the Performance section. Select the option to "Adjust for best performance" to disable all of the special effects that take time to display and do use some of the resources. In addition, if your system has integrated video, it probably is reserving some of the system RAM for Video RAM use. Changing the desktop background from a picture to "none" and choosing a solid color instead may also help. On the Performance Options window, select the "Advanced" tab and make sure both the processor and memory options are set for "Programs."

The last thing you can do to improve performance of most systems is to upgrade the slower components or increase the amount of RAM. As I indicated at the beginning of the article, RAM has the biggest impact on system performance, but only if you are low to begin with. Windows XP lists 128MB as the minimum requirement to install (yes, it will install, but it will also be very slow). With 128MB, the hard drive is going to run almost constantly because of the virtual memory swap file activity, and especially so after installing an antivirus program and trying to load any regular application. With Windows XP, 256MB of RAM is more practical, but even that will run slow if you have a normal suite of background applications and actually try to run an application like Microsoft Office. You will see a noticeable performance boost just going from 256MB to 512MB of RAM. Windows Vista might install on 512MB of RAM, but recommends 1GB as the minimum.

Windows Vista has an additional feature that can help you identify which components will yield the greatest boost with their "Experience Index." The Vista Performance tool should show up from Computer Properties as one of the tasks you can run. The focus is definitely biased toward gaming and graphics, but it illustrates the impact that various hardware components may have on overall system performance. The Experience Index is always the lowest value of the items tested. The tool examines the CPU and how fast it can execute instructions; it examines memory access speed and how much is available; it examines your graphics card, both for amount of video memory and graphics processor speed, and advanced graphics capabilities that might be used in games, 3D geometry, shading, and transparency effects, etc. The last item the Experience Index checks is the hard drive and how fast you can read and write information to the storage device.

To illustrate the impact of hardware choices on the Vista Experience Index, I built a test system using older components like a PCI video card and a PATA (Parallel ATA) hard drive and I only used the minimum recommended 1GB of memory. The CPU was a middle-of-the-road Intel Core 2 6600 running at the default 2.4GHz speed.

The first result of the Experience Index is 1.0 - only because Vista does not appear to support any PCI video cards and installed the default "VGA display adapter" drivers. To address that first, I replaced the video card with a PCI Express nVidia 8800 graphics card (until Vista receives the first batch of critical updates, it will use VGA drivers for this card as well). After replacing the card, I ran the Index again with a much better result of 4.3, with the lowest score now being memory and the IDE hard drive.


By adding another 1GB of memory and bringing the system up to 2GB total, the memory score was improved to a 5.1, but obviously had no impact on the hard drive performance which is the remaining bottleneck in the list. By replacing the old IDE drive with a SATA (Serial ATA) drive, the hard drive performance is better, but is still one of the lower scores. You will also note that memory once again became the poorest performer in the Index. So ignoring the 1.0 score because of unsupported hardware, I still managed to improve my Experience Index from 4.3 to 5.1. Does this mean the system performs 20-25% faster? No, but there is a noticeable boost in how fast Windows Vista starts, and how long it takes to open applications and do some common tasks.

To illustrate the impact of overclocking, I took some before and after screen shots of the Nouveau Mod system.

Memory and CPU performance can be increased by replacing memory with faster versions or by overclocking. The Nouveau Mod system had 3GB of RAM and an Intel Core 2 6300 CPU (1.86GHz) with and Experience Index of 5.0.

By overclocking the CPU from 1.86 GHz to 2.8 GHz, I managed to boost the Index to 5.3, leaving the hard drive as the poor performer.

Other ways to boost drive performance would include using faster a access drive or a RAID drive configuration. Early SATA drives have transfer speeds up to 150 mb/s, compared to the fastest PATA drive transfer speeds of 133 mb/s. SATA 300 drives have transfer bursts of data up to 300 mb/s. A striped (RAID 0) disk array may be faster yet by splitting the access between two or more drives (resulting in an increase in the apparent access speed). The drive access speed does not change, but the system alternates read and write activity evenly between the drives.

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