Windows 7 comes as a significant performance improvement over its predecessor, Windows Vista. But if you want to get the very best performance possible, you should make a few system tweaks to eliminate resource-hogging programs and features. In this guide, I'll show you a few good ways to boost your PC's performance without upgrading your hardware.
First, one warning: A quick Internet search will lead you to treasure troves of advice for making the most of your OS, but beware — many of those suggestions are fool's gold, myths inherited from Vista and XP optimization guides that could actually do more harm than good for your Windows 7 system's performance.
The tweaks and suggestions I offer here won't transform your rusty old junker into a screaming new Porsche, but they will help you squeeze some extra speed and space out of your native Windows 7 installation. If you intend to perform additional modifications to Windows 7 beyond the options I describe here, be sure to run a quick search for "Windows 7 performance myths." Don't be fooled by the more outlandish tweaking claims and tutorials you'll find on the Internet. Investigate the changes you intend to make to your system before you do anything, or you might find yourself in an undesirable (or even irreparable) situation.
Speed up a fresh Windows 7 upgrade
When you reach the first, fresh desktop after completing a successful Windows 7 installation, you might be stunned to find your components in perfect working order. For the most part Windows 7 is quite good about setting up drivers for networking, video, input devices, and other elements — good, that is, but not great.
To maximize your PC's performance, first hunt down and install Windows 7 drivers for all of the critical components attached to your system. Motherboard drivers are the most important consideration, especially if your system's video and sound are integrated onto the system board. If those components aren't integrated in your PC, add drivers for your video card and sound card to the list, followed by your input devices and any additional parts you've attached to your system in some capacity (including, but not limited to, a Wi-Fi card, any PCI-based devices, and printers). If you're not sure what components you have, grab the free program DriverMax and use it to scan your system for components and for potential driver updates.
Can't find Windows 7 drivers for a product? Try using Windows Vista drivers instead. If you run into trouble, try right-clicking on the executable file and left-clicking Troubleshoot Compatibility. Run through the wizard and select the option that refers to the program's running fine in an earlier version of Windows but not in Windows 7. Select Windows Vista as the subsequent operating system, click Next through the offered prompts, and then run the installation executable again.
Finally, though it might sound odd, don't use the Windows Updater to install drivers for your machine — Microsoft is notorious for releasing old and/or incompatible drivers through this service.
Optimize your storage
If you installed Windows 7 as an upgrade from Windows Vista, you'll find a folder labeled C:\Windows.old. This folder, as you might expect, holds the full contents of your old Windows Vista system. It's huge, and it's a waste of space. Scroll through the folders for any files that you want to save in your new Windows 7 OS, and then delete the entire folder from your drive. Space saved.
If your PC has multiple hard drives, you can boost performance by moving the location of the system's paging file from the drive containing the C:\ partition to a separate hard drive. To do that, open Control Panel and choose System. From there, click Advanced System Settings. Select the Advanced tab, and then click the Settings button under the Performance category. On the new window that pops up, choose the Advanced tab. Finally, click Change. Uncheck the box labeled Automatically manage paging file size for all drives. Select C: from the Drive box and switch it to the No paging file option. Next, select a different hard drive and choose System managed size. Click OK and restart your computer.
Pushing your performance
To create a faster Windows 7 experience, start by modifying the amount of time that mouse-over boxes and clicked menus take to appear. Click on the Windows Start button and type regedit into the "Search programs and files" box. Welcome to the Windows 7 Registry — don't touch or modify anything without good reason.
Left-click on the expandable arrow next to HKEY_CURRENT_USER. Expand the Control Panel folder, and then click directly on Desktop in the hierarchy. In the right pane, look for and double-click MenuShowDelay. Change the value from 400 to any lesser number that's 1 or greater; this figure represents the milliseconds of delay between your click and a menu's display. Restart the computer to apply the changes immediately, or continue to the next tweak.
See the folder labeled Mouse (below Desktop)? Click that, and then search for and select the MouseHoverTime Registry key. Just as before, change this value to any lesser number that's 1 or greater. Close the Registry Editor, restart the computer, and you'll have faster mouseovers.
If you're willing to sacrifice looks for speed, you can modify the visual settings of the Windows 7 interface to emphasize performance over presentation. Go back to the System section of Control Panel and click on Advanced System Settings again. On the System Properties window that appears, choose the Advanced tab and then click on the Settings box underneath the Performance category. The Performance Options window will pop up. There, you'll see a list of checked boxes that correspond to all of the window dressing in the operating system.
If you don't mind transforming your OS into a clone of Windows 2000, click the button that tells Windows to adjust its visual settings for best performance. It's a harsh step to take, though — if you'd prefer a piecemeal approach, uncheck only the boxes that relate to Windows Aero (such as Aero peek and transparent glass). You'll retain a semblance of a pretty desktop while still improving performance a teeny bit.
Once you've installed a fair amount of programs on your PC — your "core base" of apps, as it were — you'll want to check that your system doesn't have any unwanted applications running in the background that could otherwise impede the machine's general performance. These programs launch themselves during the operating system's startup process, and are often designed to help you load their corresponding applications faster. The problem is that they run every time, regardless of whether you intend to use the application during a given session.
Click Start and type "msconfig" into the "Search programs and file" field. Press Enter. In the System Configuration window that appears, select the Startup tab. Move your mouse between the headers of the Manufacturer and Command columns, and shrink the Manufacturer column down; the Command column is the one you care about.
A number of the startup applications that launch on your machine sit in the background, consuming resources. For example, take iTunes: If you've installed this application, you'll find iTunes and QuickTime listings in the Startup tab. Both iTunesHelper.exe and QTTask.exe are unnecessary additions to your system — the former launches when you start iTunes anyway, and the latter places a QuickTime icon in the corner of your system for easy program launching. Uncheck them both.
As for the other programs on your list, try running a quick Web search of each application's executable-file name to find out if the program is worth keeping or removing. Once you've checked the programs you want to launch at startup and unchecked the programs you don't, click OK.
In addition to startup programs, you'll find services on your PC; Microsoft recommends trimming both to squeeze the most performance out of your system. For the services, click Start, type "services.msc" into the search field, and press Enter. Up pops the Services window, a list of options and executables that's even more confusing than the startup window.
You can't identify which services to turn off (and which to leave on) without taking a close look at how each one affects your system's overall performance. Thankfully, someone has been doing that exact task since Windows XP: Charles Sparks, under the alias Black Viper, has listed every single permutation of Windows 7's services across all of its versions, along with a "safe" and "tweaked" list of which services you should modify and how you should set their parameters.
To follow his advice, just double-click on any listed service. You need concern yourself only with the 'Startup type' listing in the screen that appears next. By switching among the Automatic, Manual, and Disabled modes, depending on his recommendations, you'll be able to control exactly how services launch — if at all — during the Windows startup process and during your general use of the operating system. Every little bit helps.
Maintain top performance
If you want to keep your system fast, be sure to clear out your C:\Windows\Temp folder on occasion. Do it as soon as you boot into the OS, or even through Safe Mode, to ensure that you wipe every last unused file from your drive.
In the same vein, don't use Windows 7's uninstall function or a program's default uninstall executable to remove the application from your drive. Instead, use the free Revo Uninstaller utility; this awesome application removes programs using their default uninstall routines, but it also goes one step further by scanning your system and Registry to clean away any and all traces of the program from your hard drive.
Tweaking the operating system to increase its performance helps you achieve better results with the equipment you have, but the surest way to boost your PC's prowess is to upgrade the hardware. Once you've done that, remember to keep your system free from clutter — what good is a performance boost on a messy system anyhow?