How to speed up Windows Vista: official and unofficial tips

Microsoft has published an article on speeding up Vista, aimed at general users.

It’s not too bad. Here’s the summary:

  • Delete programs you never use
  • Limit how many programs load at startup
  • Defragment your hard drive
  • Clean up your hard disk
  • Run fewer programs at the same time
  • Turn off visual effects
  • Restart regularly
  • Add more memory
  • Check for viruses and spyware
  • Disable services you don’t need

Still, it’s a bit scattergun. I prefer a two-stage approach to improving performance (same applies to a single application):

  1. Find out what is slow
  2. Speed it up, or leave it out

For example, the benefits of adding memory tail off after a certain point. Task Manager will tell you to what extent RAM is slowing down Vista. Further, adding memory beyond 3GB is pretty much wasted on 32-bit Vista, since the system can only address 4GB, and the BIOS plus devices will use a lot of the 4th GB address space. That said, a system that is critically short of RAM (in other words, constantly swapping out memory to the hard drive) is in my opinion broken and unusable. Adding RAM in such cases delivers huge rewards.

Uninstalling programs gives little performance benefit if they are not running (unless disk space is limited). The aim is to reduce the number of running processes, not entries in the Start menu.

Vista defragments your drive regularly, by default. The benefits are often rather small, so it would be equally valid to suggest removing it from the schedule, or scheduling it to run less frequently.

The advice to restart regularly needs examination. Yes, a reboot can fix a sluggish machine. But it shouldn’t be necessary, and I recall that keeping Vista always-on was intended to be a benefit of the OS. Yes, here’s a quote from Power Management in Windows Vista [ppt]:

  • Windows Vista promotes the use of sleep as the default off state

In the right circumstances, Vista can run for ages without any problem. I’ve actually had Media Center (Vista Ultimate) run for several months without any issues; though this kind of thing is not very green so that’s another reason to do regular switch-offs. Still, to my mind “restart regularly” is a symptom of some problem that should be fixed.

Turning off visual effects is reasonable advice, though once again it may not yield much benefit. I tried it on my system and was surprised how little difference it made. Reason: I am running with Aero and a decent-ish graphics card, and hardware acceleration seems to handle the visual effects rather easily. Once again, if it’s not the thing slowing you down, then removing it won’t speed you up. You can test this quite simply, though it is tedious. Try it both ways. Did it make a difference? Measure it if possible.

It really is worth using the built-in tools, like Task Manager and the Reliability and Performance Monitor, to see which processes are grabbing lots of RAM and CPU. One of the good things about Vista is that such tools are easy to find. Click Start, type “reliability”, and click the link.

I’d also like to see mention of some favourite candidates for slowing down Vista:

1. Outlook 2007

2. The indexing service

3. Anti-virus software

4. Windows Defender

Hmmm, at least three of these are from Microsoft. Perhaps they are too embarrassing to mention.

Finally, I suspect disk performance is a big factor in real-world Vista speed. The reason is that many apps are very talkative when it comes to disk access. Here’s something to try. Go along to the Systernals site and download process monitor. This gives a good picture of what the actual processes on your Vista box are up to. Note how many events are occurring, how many of them involve file i/o, and which processes are responsible. You will also discover a large part of the reason why Outlook 2007 is so slow.

PS Another article, also just published, has good coverage of swap files and ReadyBoost.

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6 comments to How to speed up Windows Vista: official and unofficial tips

  • Umpteeners

    I had a lot of problems with my Vista initially, adding RAM didnt help speed up things and my drives get fragmented like crap due to the amount of file editing i do. Since i use this only for my photography work, i stripped it of all unnecessary programs, deleted lots of unwanted files and installed an automatic defragger with a GUI (so that I’d get an idea of whats happening!)and things are much better now.

  • Quicksilver

    I have 2 GB of RAM, taking up both the notebook RAM slots; and I am in no mood to buy bigger RAM sticks to up the memory. I too faced quite a bit of fragmentation due to frequent modification/deletion and creation of hundreds of PEF and DNG files. The lousy Vista defragmenter did not help one bit, so I chose Diskeeper 2008 Pro, which was recommended to me as the No.1 defragmenter on various internet fora. Diskeeper works very well with my Vista Home Premium, and my drive is in excellent shape!

  • I wasn’t aware that Microsoft was so innovative and creative when it came to helping us speed up our Vista machines. Their list is something that could easily apply to just about all of their older versions of Windows.

    Thanks for the simple two step breakdown and then a review of some of the things Microsoft is suggesting Tim. I do agree with your thoughts on the slow programs and just about all on this post.

    - John F. Jones III

  • Great post. I purchased new notebook computer over a month ago loaded with Vista and what a huge disaster! It would not load any of my real estate software and would not totally load Office 2003. Also, every time I tried to do a system restore the computer would crash! This happened on the 1st notebook and also on the replacement notebook. I have been very hesitant to buy another computer with Windows Vista installed and when I am brave enough I will refer to your post. Thanks.

  • I had to completely get Vista off my machine and go back to XP Pro. I could not even run certain programs regardless of how much I cleaned things up. No love lost there….

  • Bob Ball

    My computer runs fast in the morning but in the afternoon when you try to pull up a web page it says website found waiting for reply that is as far as it will go.Can you help?