Ways to speed up an aging laptop

Yesterday Lifehacker did a feature on laptop tweaks and upgrades, that basically came down to reinstalling the OS, adding memory, and upgrading to an SSD. All of those are good things to do of course, but there’s more you can do. I posted a response there; I’ll elaborate a bit here, where I have more room to do so.

There are tons of links here to previous content I’ve written; optimizing aging machines is a recurring theme for me. I’ve been writing on that topic for 11 years now.

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Optimizing Windows’ startup sequence

In days of yore, it was possible to go by one simple rule. When several minutes passed between the time your desktop appeared and the time you could actually do something, you could just run MSConfig and disable anything you don’t recognize. Back when a typical PC started up maybe a half-dozen things and a sick PC started up 12-18, that was manageable.

Not so much today. Not when there are 22,528 known things (as of 30 Nov 2010) that insert themselves into system startup.

I didn’t make that 22,528 number up. How did I know?

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Best public DNS – finding the best for you

Best public DNS – finding the best for you

If your Internet connection is slow, it almost always helps if you optimize your DNS. But there’s more to the best public DNS than just speed. I’ll tell you how to find the fastest DNS, but using a DNS that offers improved security gives your computer protection beyond what your antivirus and firewall provide.

Sometimes it’s enough, and it’s definitely cheaper than buying a new router. Even if you do get a new router, using fast DNS helps. Here’s how to find the best public DNS to use, to improve your speed and your security.

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Slimming down Windows XP for SSDs and nettops

I found a very long and comprehensive guide for using Nlite to reduce the size of a Windows installation.

The guide is geared towards an Asus Eee. But it should work well on pretty much anything that has an Intel CPU in it.A couple of tweaks to his settings will make it suitable for AMD-based systems. Just remove anything Intel-specific, and add back in anything specific to AMD, and there you go.

And if you have a multi-core or hyperthreaded CPU, leave multi-processor support in.

I also recommend slipstreaming SP3 and all the hotfixes you can. Then you don’t have to run Windows Update, them, and you don’t have to clean up after it either. I haven’t investigated all of the whys and wherefores, but I’ve noticed that the more you slipstream ahead of time, the smaller your Windows directory ends up being. I have some systems at work that are constantly bursting at the seams on their system partitions. Other systems, which were built later from a copy of Windows with more stuff slipstreamed in, have a lot more breathing room.

Using the i64x.com instructions, you can pretty much count on getting a Windows XP installation under half a gig in size. That makes life with a small SSD much more bearable, since a typical installation tends to take a couple of gigs these days.

I’ll add some tips of my own. Inside the Windows directory, there are some subdirectories named inf, repair, and servicepackfiles. Compress those. That’ll free up some more space–at least a couple dozen megabytes in most cases.

If you’re really cramped, compress the whole Windows directory. Boot time actually decreased by a couple of seconds when I did this (down to 12 seconds from about 14), but software installations slowed considerably. But for everyday operation, you could almost consider NTFS compression a performance trick. It makes sense; an SSD can sometimes saturate the bus it’s connected to, so data compression lets it shove 20-50% more data through that saturated bus.

The downside is that when you install something that lives in the Windows directory, it has to not only copy the data into place, but also compress it. Installing the .NET Framework on a system with a compressed Windows directory takes a while.

A good compromise is to install pretty much everything you think you’ll need on the system, then start compressing.

It’s difficult to make a case for compressing the entire drive, however. Most modern data file formats are compressed–including all modern media formats and Office 2007 documents–so turning on NTFS compression on directories storing that kind of data gives no benefit, while introducing overhead.

Psst… Wanna compete with Best Buy?

Best Bait-n-Switch is offering a service where they’ll remove crapware from a PC for 30 bucks.

You can offer to do the same thing for 30 bucks, but do a better job. Here’s how.Of course, the first thing you do is go into Add/Remove Programs and remove everything in sight, unless it’s something the client actually wants. That’ll take about 20 minutes, tops, and it’s probably the extent of what Best Buy does. That’ll help, but it doesn’t bring back all of the new PC peppiness.

Next, you need to install and run a couple of utilities. Start out with CCleaner to remove any stray registry entries that may linger behind. Hopefully there won’t be too much. Then grab the unbeatable Donn Edwards bundle of JK-Defrag, NTREGOPT, and Pagedefrag.

Run NTREGOPT to remove the slack space from the registry, then run Pagedefrag and reboot. You’ll end up with a defragmented pagefile and a fresh-as-a-new-install registry.

Finally, run JK-Defrag to move all the useless data to the end of the drive, and all the stuff people actually use to the front. It’ll do a much better job than Microsoft’s built-in defragmenter, even on a new system.

The tuneup should take less than an hour, and most of it is time you can just walk away from the system and let it do its thing. You can advertise your service as better than Best Buy’s and compete solely on that, or beat them on price by a few bucks while providing a better and more worthwhile service.

If you’re feeling really industrious, you can even consult the appropriate Black Viper services list and disable unnecessary services to free up a little RAM and CPU time. If you don’t want to do a lot of reading, Computer Browser and Remote Registry are two services that always make sense to disable in home environments. My personal list used to be a lot longer, but Windows’ defaults are a lot more optimal than they were 5-8 years ago. The other stuff I always used to disable is disabled by default now.

And here’s one last piece of valuable advice you can give your clients. Rather than buy the Norton or McAfee antivirus product that’s probably installed on their computer as trialware, delete it and have your client buy NOD32 instead. The price is comparable to the other products, but it consumes a lot less CPU time and memory than the rest. So if you want antivirus protection but also want the computer to stay peppy, that’s the best choice in town.

Windows 2000 in 32 megs of RAM

I can’t remember if I linked this before or not, so here’s Windows 2000 on 32 MB of RAM.

Of course I find this interesting. And his advice is pretty good. My first choice for an OS in 32 megs of RAM would be Windows 95, and probably Windows 95a at that (and gee, some idiot wrote a book about that), but if you need better reliability and stability, Windows 2000 is a good second choice.

One piece of advice worth mentioning that he didn’t mention: If there’s a modem on the system, lose it, especially if it’s a Winmodem. That’ll save lots of precious RAM and CPU cycles.

This author says used book sales don\’t hurt authors or publishers

In case you didn’t know it, Amazon.com sells used books as well as new books. This New York Times story (via News.com) says authors and publishers still don’t like used book sales because they say it hurts new book sales.

I happen to be a published author. I say they need to quit whining.In case you didn’t know it, here’s how authors are generally paid. Authors get a royalty on each copy of the book sold. The royalty varies. On a typical Dummies book, the royalty is about 25 cents. Other publishers pay closer to 10 percent of the cover price. When you buy a book for $25, the author will probably see $1.50-$3 of it.

When the publisher agrees to take the book, the author gets an advance, usually of a few thousand dollars. Celebrities might get half a million or more. A first-time author might get less than $10,000. Generally the advance is determined based on expected sales. So I’ll always get a fraction of what a marketing machine like Phil McGraw gets, since he can essentially turn his daily TV show into an hour-long commercial for his book until he’s happy with the sales.

The advance is paid back by withholding royalties. So, if I were to get a $6,000 advance to write a book and got a royalty of $1 per copy, I would start seeing royalties after 6,000 books were sold.

Some people say used book sales hurt authors and publishers because these books exist and are bought and sold outside of this royalty structure. If you buy a used copy of Optimizing Windows, I don’t see a penny of it. Unfair, right?

Wrong. I got my royalty on that copy when the copy sold the first time.

The only time that a used book sale truly hurts the author or the publisher is when a copy that was sent to a reviewer or an otherwise free copy ends up on the used book market. This happens, even when the free copy is stamped “Not for resale” or something similar. But even then, the harm is minimal. Optimizing Windows got a huge burst in sales when Sandy McMurray reviewed it. Thanks to him, the book made Amazon’s Top 10 in Canada and even hit #1 a couple of times. He made me thousands sales. I don’t give a rip if he resold his review copy–it’s still a huge gain for me. As far as I’m concerned, if a review results in two book sales–which it inevitably will–that free copy did its job.

And, sadly, books go out of print. Once that happens, the only way to get a copy is to buy a used one.

I have no problem at all with used books. It keeps books circulating, and I believe that people who buy used books also buy new books. They’re also more likely to talk about books, which will result in more sales of both used and new books.

Besides, if you buy a book and you don’t think enough of it to keep it, shouldn’t you be able to get some of your money back out of it?

Finally! A $60 RAMdisk on a PCI card

PC World: Taiwanese hardware maker Gigabyte Technology has stumbled upon a faster way to boot up PCs based on Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system.

Please allow me to quote something I penned back in 1999: “I’d love to see someone design and release a battery-backed hardware RAM disk for PCs… Such devices existed in the early 1990s for the Commodore 64/128 and the Apple IIgs and permitted these systems to boot their graphical operating systems before the PCs of their day had managed to bring up a C: prompt. A similar device for today’s PCs would do more to boost system performance than any other innovation I see coming down the pipeline any time soon.”You can find the paragraph, in context, on page 214 of Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia.

Enough self-congratulation. I’m glad someone finally made this device, which is called the Gigabyte i-Ram PCI ramdisk. And here’s the great news: The device is going to cost about $60 without RAM. 512-meg DIMMs can be expensive or cheap. A quick scan turns up some that I’d be willing to trust for $41 from Newegg.com.

It plugs into a PCI slot but it only uses the slot for power. Data itself is transferred via a serial ATA cable. This improves compatibility, I suppose, but I would have liked to have seen the serial ATA hardware integrated onto the board. But that would have increased costs, and arguably most of the people who will want this already have serial ATA. At least the target market does. I don’t know if this is going to prove more popular with people who want to hot rod their Pentium 4s, or people who want to increase the life expectancy of an older PC. This thing would do wonders for Mom’s PC, or my sister’s PC, and their primary interests are word processing and e-mail. They would love the speed and the quiet.

I’ve got all sorts of ideas for this thing. The article says it’ll be out in July. I want one BAD.

What kinds of ideas? For one, I’d love to eliminate the biggest source of latency in my PCs. I tend not to hit the CPU all that hard most of the time, but I sure do hit my disks hard. I’d love to eliminate the last mechanical piece in the system. Let’s face it: Hard drives crash. This thing gets wiped out if it loses power for 12 hours, but how often does that really happen? And if you’ve got a UPS and you shut the system down, shouldn’t it last indefinitely? Backing the data up to a real hard drive on the network somewhere, or onto a memory stick will solve that issue. Between that and a Ghost image of the system partition, you can recover from a power outage fast.

And who doesn’t want an ultra-quiet PC? Get a cool-running CPU and video card, and maybe, just maybe, your PC can survive on its case fan alone again. With this on a mini-ITX board with an external power supply, a completely fanless, ultra-quick PC might be possible.

And I can see all sorts of applications for this thing for my new employer.

I’m as excited as a puppy when company comes over bearing dog biscuits.

Squeezing some life out of an aging Windows 2000 PC

I can safely say I really did write the book on Windows optimization (Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia, O’Reilly, 1999, ISBN 1565926773) but that was five years ago and covered Windows 95 and 98.

Windows 2000 and XP are a different animal, and are as similar to the obscure OS/2 operating system from IBM as they are to Windows 95/98.

Here’s what I did when my work computer slowed to the point that I could no longer do much work.Clear some disk space. This is a biggie. NTFS, Windows’ file system, really doesn’t like it if the amount of free space on a disk drops below 15 percent. That’s stupid, but it’s reality, and since I don’t have Mr. Gates’ phone number I can’t do much but live with it. I went to Start, Search, picked Files and Folders, typed *.* in the name field and Drive C in the Look in: field, then hit Search Now. When it finished, I clicked on the field that says Size, and scrolled all the way down. I found lots of big files I didn’t need. I found a mystery file that was 600 megs in size. A Google search revealed that some obscure application I had used once had created that file. That was nice of it. After five minutes’ work, I had freed almost a gigabyte of disk space.

Uninstall old printer drivers. I had a bunch of printer drivers installed for printers I don’t use anymore. They were taking up disk space and memory. I only have 192 megs of RAM and most of it was in use by the time the computer booted, before I’d even loaded any programs. That’s no good. So I removed the drivers for my girlfriend’s Epson color printer (in the Add/Remove Programs control panel) and then I went into Printers and deleted the network printers of old clients and other printers I can’t remember ever using (in most cases you can just delete the printer and it will offer to remove the drivers).

Stop unnecessary services. If you right-click on My Computer and hit Manage, then double-click on Services and Applications and then on Services, you’ll find all sorts of stuff that Windows runs just in case you need it. Most of it is necessary, but for me, several were just chewing up more RAM than I could afford.

Computer Browser. This service, despite what you hear elsewhere, has nothing to do with web browsing, My Network Places, or anything else useful. All it does is permit your computer to participate in browser elections. What are those? It’s a long story, but the gist of it is that on a Windows network, one computer gets to keep the list of computers on the network, and every time you turn a computer on, the computers running the Computer Browser service fight over who gets to keep that list. Sound useless? Unless you’re in an office network with a file server and a very small number of computers, it’s very useless. Most of the time it’s just chewing up between 2 and 8 megabytes of your precious RAM. Forget that.

HID Input Service. I plugged a USB mouse into this computer once and it loaded this. Next thing I knew, my available memory had dropped by 6 megabytes. Six megabytes! For a stupid mouse? I use a USB mouse occasionally, but not every day, and certainly not often enough to be able to afford dedicating 6 megs to something that sits there waiting for me to plug one in. I’d leave it if I had 512 megs of RAM but I didn’t, so I disabled it.

Automatic Updates and Background Intelligent Transfer Service. I keep Automatic Updates turned off because it doesn’t work with our firewall, but whether the option is turned on or off, these services are loaded and chewing up memory. So I disabled these services. I have mixed feelings on Automatic Update. If you can’t remember to visit the Windows Update site once a month, you should leave it turned on. But since it won’t work for me anyway, I have to leave it turned off, so I might as well recover the memory.

Remote Registry Service. This allows a network administrator to connect to your computer and make changes. In a home environment you won’t use this. At work you’ll probably get your hand slapped if you disable it. It uses about a meg.

By trimming some of this dead wood, I was able to gain almost 32 megs of RAM.

Uninstall programs you’re not using anymore. I had several programs that I hadn’t used since Clinton was president that were taking up space on my drive, and some of them had been so nice as to install services that were running all the time and chomping some of my very scarce system RAM. Clearing those out gained me a couple hundred megs’ worth of disk space and nearly 20 megs of RAM.

Clear the browser cache. Internet Explorer keeps pieces of web sites on disk in case you ever visit them again, because it’s much faster than downloading them again. The problem is it does a terrible job of cleaning these up, so the result is you have, in all likelihood, tens of thousands of tiny files, if not hundreds of thousands, that you’ll never use again. Right-click your IE icon on the desktop, hit properties, and click Delete Files. You’ll save yourself some disk space, but more importantly, you’ll make this next step a lot faster and more effective.

Defrag. I used to be really good about defragmenting my drives but it looks like I’ve been lax lately because my C drive was in bad, bad shape. Go to Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools and pick Disk Defragmenter. Run it once a month.

My drive, as it turned out, was hopelessly fragmented. The system was much peppier after I ran it.

I hope these steps will be helpful. It’s not as good as getting a new computer, but it’s much easier to live with now. If your system is bogged down, and like mine, it’s an old laptop that uses scarce and expensive memory and is out of slots anyway, this will make it easier to live with.