I read a statement on Bob Thompson’s website about Windows optimization, where he basically told a reader not to bother trying to squeeze more speed out of his Pentium-200, to spend a few hundred bucks on a hardware upgrade instead.
That’s flawed thinking. One of the site’s more regular readers responded and mentioned my book (thanks, Clark E. Myers). I remember talking at work after upgrading a hard drive in one of the servers last week. I said I ought to put my 10,000-rpm SCSI hard drive in a Pentium-133, then go find someone. “You think your Pentium 4 is pretty hot stuff, huh? Wanna race? Let’s see who can load Word faster.” And I’d win by a large margin. For that matter, if I were a betting man I’d be willing to bet a Pentium-200 or 233 with that drive would be faster than a typical P4 for everything but encoding MP3 audio and MP4 video.

Granted, I’ve just played into Thompson’s argument that a hardware upgrade is the best way to get more performance. An 18-gig 10K drive will run at least $180 at Hyper Microsystems, and the cheapest SCSI controller that will do it justice will run you $110 (don’t plug it into anything less than an Ultra Wide SCSI controller or the controller will be the bottleneck), so that’s not exactly a cheap upgrade. It might be marginally cheaper than buying a new case, motherboard, CPU and memory. Marginally. And even if you do that, you’re still stuck with a cruddy old hard drive and video card (unless the board has integrated video).

On the other hand, just a couple weekends ago I ripped out a 5400-rpm drive from a friend’s GW2K P2-350 and replaced it with a $149 Maxtor 7200-rpm IDE drive and it felt like a new computer. So you can cheaply increase a computer’s performance as well, without the pain of a new motherboard.

But I completely and totally reject the hypothesis that there’s nothing you can do in software to speed up a computer.

I was working on a computer at church on Sunday, trying to quickly burn the sermon onto CD. We’re going to start recording the sermon at the 8:00 service so that people can buy a CD after the 10:45 service if they want a copy of it. Since quality CDs can be had for a buck in quantity, we’ll probably sell discs for $2, considering the inevitable wear and tear on the drives. Today was the pilot day. The gain was set too high on the audio at 8:00, so I gave it another go at 10:45.

That computer was a Pentium 4, but that Pentium 4 made my Celeron-400 look like a pretty hot machine. I’m serious. And my Celeron-400 has a three-year-old 5400-rpm hard drive in it, and a six-year-old Diamond video card of some sort, maybe with the S3 ViRGE chipset? Whatever it is, it was one of the very first cards to advertise 3D acceleration, but the card originally sold for $149. In 1996, for 149 bucks you weren’t getting much 3D acceleration. As for its 2D performance, well, it was better than the Trident card it replaced.

There’s nothing in that Celeron-400 worth bragging about. Well, maybe the 256 megs of RAM. Except all the l337 h4xx0r5 bought 1.5 gigs of memory back in the summer when they were giving away 512-meg sticks in cereal boxes because they were cheaper than mini-frisbees and baseball cards (then they wondered why Windows wouldn’t load anymore), so 256 megs makes me look pretty lame these days. Forget I mentioned it.

So. My cruddy three-year-old Celeron-400, which was the cheapest computer on the market when I bought it, was outperforming this brand-new HP Pentium 4. Hmm.

Thompson says if there were any settings you could tweak to make Windows run faster, they’d be defaults.

Bull puckey.

Microsoft doesn’t give a rip about performance. Microsoft cares about selling operating systems. It’s in Microsoft’s best interest to sell slow operating systems. People go buy the latest and worst greatest, find it runs like a 1986 Yugo on their year-old PC, so then they go buy a Pentium 4 and Microsoft sells the operating system twice. Nice, isn’t it? After doing something like that once, people just buy a new computer when Microsoft releases a new operating system. Or, more likely, they buy a new computer every second time Microsoft releases a new operating system.

Microsoft counts on this. Intel counts on this. PC makers count on this. Best Bait-n-Switch counts on this. You should have seen those guys salivating over the Windows 95 launch. (It was pretty gross, really, and I didn’t just think that because I was running OS/2 at the time and wasn’t interested in downgrading.)

I’ve never had the privilege of working for an employer who had any money. Everywhere I’ve worked, we’ve bought equipment, then run it until it breaks, then re-treaded it and run it until it breaks again. Some of the people I work with have 486s on their desks. Not many (fortunately), but there are some. I’ve had to learn how to squeeze the last drop of performance out of some computers that never really had anything to offer in the first place. And I haven’t learned much in the past since I started my professional career in Feb. 1997, but I have learned one thing.

There’s a lot you can do to increase performance without changing any hardware. Even on an old Pentium.

First things first. Clean up that root directory. You’ve probably got dozens of backup copies of autoexec.bat and config.sys there. Get them gone. If you (or someone else) saved a bunch of stuff in the root directory, move it into C:My Documents where it belongs. Then defrag the drive, so the computer gets rid of the phantom directory entries. You’ll think you’ve got a new computer. I know, it’s stupid. Microsoft doesn’t know how to write a decent filesystem, and that’s why that trick works. Cleaning up a crowded root directory has a bigger effect on system performance than anything else you can do. Including changing your motherboard.

2. Uninstall any ancient programs you’re not running. Defrag afterward.

3. Right-click your desktop. See that Active Desktop crap? Turn it off. You’ll think you’ve got a new computer.

4. I am not making this up. (This trick isn’t in the book. Bonus.) Double-click My Computer. Go to Tools, Folder Options. Go to Web View. Select “Use Windows Classic Folders.” This makes a huge difference.

5. Turn off the custom mouse pointers you’re using. They’re slowing you down. Terribly.

6. Download and run Ad Aware. Spyware DLLs kill your system stability and speed. If you’ve got some spyware (you never know until you run it), Ad Aware could speed you up considerably. I’ve seen it make no difference. And I’ve seen it make all the difference in the world. It won’t cost you anything to find out.

7. Remove Internet Explorer. It’s a security risk. It slows down your computer something fierce. It’s not even the best browser on the market. You’re much better off without it. Download IEradicator from 98lite.net. It’ll remove IE from Win95, 98, ME, NT, and 2K SP1 or lower. If you run Windows 2000, reinstall, then run IEradicator, then install SP2 (or SP3 if it’s out by the time you read this). Then install Mozilla, or the lightweight, Mozilla-based K-Meleon instead. Need a lightweight mail client to replace Outlook Express? Give these a look. Run Defrag after you remove IE. You won’t believe how much faster your computer runs. Trust me. An Infoworld article several years back found that removing IE sped up the OS by as much as 15 percent. That’s more than you gain by moving your CPU up one speed grade, folks.

8. Reinstall your OS. OSs accumulate a lot of gunk, and sometimes the best thing to do is to back up your My Documents folder, format your hard drive, and reinstall your OS and the current versions of the apps you use. Then do all this other stuff. Sure, it takes a while. But you’ll have to do it anyway if you upgrade your motherboard.

9. Get a utilities suite. Norton Speed Disk does a much better job of defragmenting your hard drive than Windows’ built-in tool. It’s worth the price of Norton Utilities. Good thing too, because 90% of the stuff Norton Utilities installs is crap. Speed Disk, properly run, increases your disk performance enough to make your head spin. (The tricks are in the book. Sorry, I can’t give away everything.)

10. Get my book. Hey, I had to plug it somewhere, didn’t I? There are 3,000 unsold copies sitting in a warehouse in Tennessee. (O’Reilly’s going to get mad at me for saying that, so I’ll say it again.) Since there are 3,000 unsold copies sitting in a warehouse in Tennessee, that means there are about 3,000 people who don’t need to buy a new computer and may not know it. I don’t like that. Will there be an updated version? If those 3,000 copies sell and I can go to a publisher and tell them there’s a market for this kind of book based on the 2002 sales figures for my last one, maybe. Yes, there are things that book doesn’t tell you. I just told you those things. There are plenty of things that book tells you that this doesn’t. It’s 260 pages long for a reason.

Recent Microsoft OSs are high on marketing and low on substance. If Microsoft can use your computing resources to promote Internet Explorer, MSN, or anything else, they’ll do it. Yes, Optimizing Windows is dated. Spyware wasn’t known to exist when I wrote it, for instance. Will it help? Absolutely. I stated in that book that no computer made in 1996 or later is truly obsolete. I stand by that statement, even though I wrote it nearly three years ago. Unless gaming is your thang, you can make any older PC run better, and probably make it adequate for the apps you want to run. Maybe even for the OS you want to run. And even if you have a brand-new PC, there’s a lot you can do.

Like I said, I’d rather use my crusty old Celeron-400 than that brand-new P4. It’s a pile of junk, but it’s the better computer. And that’s entirely because I was willing to spend an hour or two cleaning it up.