A Jolt of Caffeine for the Sluggish PC
HRISTINA CORNISH-LAURIA was perplexed by a gradual but noticeable decline in her computer's performance. Ms. Cornish-Lauria, the executive director of a nonprofit group, regularly ran one utility that defragmented the hard drive and another that updated her antivirus software. Nonetheless, over the course of six months the PC's performance continued to deteriorate. It was taking longer to boot, and applications ran with a serene indifference to her deadlines. Finally, when Web pages with information that she needed to do her job failed to load completely, Ms. Cornish-Lauria started searching for the cause of her PC's misbehavior.
What she discovered was that her PC, which had 128 megabytes of random access memory, or RAM, was suffering from "RAM cram." The malady arises from the installation of software that brings with it background utilities, called applets, designed to make the main program more convenient or reliable, to help it load faster, or to enable it to link to the vendor's Web site.
Background applets are routinely installed by software drivers and adapters for printers, cameras, scanners, graphic and sound cards, and hand-held organizers. Many software programs, including those from Intuit, Symantec and Microsoft, also contain background utilities.
Individually, these applets are too tiny to be much of a problem. Collectively, though, they can slow a PC's processing speed while contributing to spontaneous lockups.
As it reads and writes data, the Windows operating system creates large temporary files that are ordinarily stored on the PC's RAM. When RAM runs low, as it can when it is consumed by background applets, Windows must create "swap" or "paging" files on the hard drive in which to store the temporary data it needs. But it takes the system much longer to communicate with the hard drive than with RAM.
Dana Gardner, a technology analyst with the Yankee Group, said that many consumers, when confronted with degraded or unreliable PC performance, mistakenly suppose that the answer is to add more memory or even to buy a new computer. "What they really need," he said, "is to optimize the PC's memory and configuration."
Optimization reduces the drain on system resources by disabling unnecessary applets. Many of these applets are not always necessary for the proper functioning of the software or peripheral device with which they are associated, and the software or device will activate them if they are required.
You can get an idea which applets are running by looking at the right side of the task bar at the bottom of the Windows screen. Most of the icons there represent applets running in the background. Many others do not display a task bar icon.
Information technology professionals know how to prevent resource-reducing applets from loading automatically by editing the Windows Registry, but for many others this can be a perilous endeavor because a single false step can corrupt a hard drive.
Fortunately, casual users can optimize their PC's without risking that by using Msconfig or a commercially available utility program like Ace Utilities or System Mechanic. Msconfig is included with Windows 98, ME and XP but not with Windows 2000 and Windows NT. Users of those systems must seek out a separate utility program.
Using Msconfig to edit many Windows components is not a task for novices. However, when used to manage start-up applets, Msconfig is straightforward: click on Start, Run, then type "msconfig" in the Open field and click on O.K. When the System Configuration dialog box opens, click on the Startup tab on the upper right to see the list of applets that start when you boot Windows.
Each entry in the list will have a box to the left of its name. To prevent an applet from starting up the next time you boot up your PC, uncheck its box. Bear in mind that unchecking the box does not halt applets that are already running; to do that, you need to reboot. In addition, unchecking the box does not delete the applet or the application it is associated with.
To delete an application altogether, you should use its uninstall option or the Windows Add or Remove Programs utility, which can be found in the Control Panel. But uninstalling a program can leave fragments of it behind, and often what is left behind are the applets you want to prevent from loading. That happens because applets that are active cannot be deleted; Msconfig or another utility can help avoid the problem.
Often, the start-up list of applets contains a dozen entries or more. Determining which applets you should allow to run requires some investigating. Look at the columns to the right of the description for more information. If the applet's name and location relate to a program or product you no longer use, uncheck its box.
Some computer experts recommend unchecking applets that have been added by third-party vendors unless they provide antivirus, Internet security or encryption services. Other applets that you should not uncheck are those that are part of the Windows operating system, including Explorer, PCHealth, ScanRegistry, StateMgr, TaskMonitor, Systray and Load PowerProfile. If you use a Palm, leave the HotSync box checked. A comprehensive list and descriptions of many start-up applets can be found at www.pacs-portal.co.uk/startup_pages /startups_short.htm.
When you reboot after unchecking any of the applets, Windows will display a Selective Startup mode notification. This gives you the opportunity to undo changes you have made. If you want to restore an applet, reopen Msconfig and check the applet's box to reactivate it. Although it can take more time, you may want to uncheck applets one or two at a time. That will make it easier to figure out what to restore if your computer's performance is affected.
Once you are confident that the changes you have made are acceptable, check the box in the notification window that prevents the Selective Startup notice from reappearing in the future.
It is possible to uncheck an applet that is necessary for the computer to boot, which would keep you from getting back into Msconfig, or the notification box, to restore the applet. If that happens, you can start Windows in Safe mode by tapping F8 or the Control key as Windows starts to load, then follow the usual steps to launch Msconfig.
After clearing out unnecessary background applets, you should notice an increase in performance, but your PC may need more RAM. Computers running Windows 98 or ME that are used mainly for e-mail, Web surfing and word processing can function satisfactorily with as little as 64 megabytes of RAM. But if your computer is used for multimedia activities like viewing photos or video, editing audio or video, or playing games, you will need at least 128 megabytes (256 megabytes for 3-D games). One thing to keep in mind, however, is that more than 512 megabytes of RAM on a PC running Windows 98 and ME can cause instability.
Windows 2000 and Windows XP have higher minimum RAM requirements. Microsoft recommends 128 megabytes; it sanctions using as little as 64 megabytes but warns that performance will be marginal. Most computer experts agree that 256 megabytes is the minimum for general use, and that is what most new systems contain. Multimedia functions like photo or audio editing or playing 3-D games, however, push the RAM minimum up to 512 megabytes.
Apple ships most Power Mac G4's and low-end G5's with 256 megabytes. But many users, especially those who use their Macs for multimedia activities or desktop publishing, upgrade to 512 megabytes or even 1 gigabyte. Mid- to high-end Power Mac G5's are shipped with 512 megabytes installed.
Once you have removed unwanted applets, you can take steps to prevent the problem from occurring when you add new software. The setup utilities for most programs offer a choice between a Custom or Typical installation. If you chose Custom you can decline an option that offers to automatically start features that are not essential to the application's functioning (antivirus, Internet security and encryption programs typically require background processes).
But no matter how vigilant you are, some applications will manage to install start-up applets. You should consider running Msconfig or one of its commercial counterparts once a month to keep your PC in tune. It requires vigilance, but chances are good that you will avoid the frustration of having your PC run at a snail's pace.