Restore Your Computer's Performance with Windows XP

If your computer seems slower than it used to be, it probably is. My one-year old Dell laptop is much slower now than when it was new. Over time, computers get slower for a variety of reasons: files become disorganized, unnecessary software consumes resources, unused network drives slow startup, or too many programs automatically run at startup. Larger, serious issues can dramatically slow your computer's performance too. You may have a virus or need to troubleshoot problems by clean booting.

Fortunately, Windows XP includes tools to clean your computer and restore its performance. As I write this column, I'll be cleaning up my own computer and explaining how its performance improves. I'll cover Backup, Disk Cleanup, Disk Defragmenter, Add or Remove Programs, and the System Configuration tool.

Back Up First

Back up your computer before you run any system tools or do any troubleshooting. This is not just an over-cautious warning. Some of the steps I recommend in this column can cause pre-existing but hidden problems to surface, which may keep your computer from starting. Windows XP includes Backup, a tool that helps you protect your data.

To open the Backup or Restore Wizard

Click Start, point to All Programs, point to Accessories, point to System Tools, and then click Backup.

For information on how to use this tool, see Ed Bott's column, Backup Made Easy and the Microsoft Knowledge Base article, How to Use Backup to Restore Files and Folders on Your Computer in Windows XP.

Before I make any changes, I'm going to time my computer to see how long it takes to restart. That way I know which of the changes helps the most. My computer took about three minutes to shut down, restart, and then open my e-mail client and browser. Of course, I hope to improve the computer's overall performance, but the time it takes to restart is easiest to measure.

Clear Out Forgotten Programs

The first step in tuning up your computer's performance is to remove any unnecessary programs. I install new programs all the time. Sometimes I'm thrilled with the new program and I continue to use it. Other times, it doesn't do what I hoped, and the program sits on my computer consuming resources and hurting performance.

Follow these steps to remove unneeded programs:


Click Start, and then click Control Panel.


Click Add or Remove Programs.


Scroll through the list and examine each program. Windows XP lists how often you use a program and what day you last started it. As shown in Figure 1, the Age of Mythology Trial is a good candidate for removal from my computer. Though I liked the game, I haven't used it recently and it's consuming a lot of disk space. You shouldn't remove anything labeled as an Update or Hotfix, however, because they improve the security of your computer.

Figure 1: The Add or Remove Programs window

Figure 1: The Add or Remove Programs window.


Click each program you no longer need, click the Remove button, and then follow the prompts to uninstall it.

You may have to restart your computer after removing a program. After your computer restarts, repeat the steps above to remove more programs.

Free Up Wasted Space

Removing unused programs is a great way to free up disk space, which will speed up your computer. Another way to find wasted disk space is to use the Disk Cleanup tool by following these steps:


Open My Computer, right-click Local Disk, and then click Properties.


On the General tab, click the Disk Cleanup button. Disk Cleanup will spend a few minutes examining your disk.


The Disk Cleanup dialog box opens. As you can see in Figure 2, it found almost three gigs of space on my computer that it could free up!

Figure 2: The Disk Cleanup tool

Figure 2: The Disk Cleanup tool.


Select the desired check boxes in the Files to Delete list, and then click OK. Disk Cleanup will spend several minutes clearing space.


If you have more than one hard disk, repeat this process for each hard disk listed in My Computer.

You can save yourself some time by automating the disk cleanup process. For more information, read the Microsoft Knowledge Basic article, How to Automate the Disk Cleanup Tool in Windows XP.

Defragment Your Computer

I hate newspaper articles that start on the front page but continue somewhere in the middle of the newspaper. I could get through the article much faster if it was printed on consecutive pages like a magazine article. Files on your computer can either be fragmented like a newspaper, or unfragmented like a magazine. Over time, more and more files become fragmented. When a file is fragmented, it takes longer for the computer to read it because it has to skip to different sections of the hard disk—just like it takes me a few seconds to find a page in the middle of a newspaper. Figure 3 compares how a computer reads unfragmented and fragmented files.

Figure 3: Fragmented and unfragmented files compared

Figure 3: Fragmented and unfragmented files compared.

You need administrator privileges to defragment a drive or volume. Although fragmentation is complicated, it's easy to defragment your computer by following these steps:


Open My Computer, right-click Local Disk, and then click Properties.


On the Tools tab, click Defragment Now. The Disk Defragmenter opens.


Click your first hard disk, and then click Defragment. As shown in Figure 4, Disk Defragmenter will work for at least several minutes, though it may take several hours.

Figure 4: The Disk Defragmenter tool

Figure 4: The Disk Defragmenter tool.