Everybody's got an opinion on how to keep a Windows system running fast and smooth. Some tips are timeless, others are bunk but always recirculating. Here's a closer look at what really helps and hurts your Windows PC.
First up, here's the quick chart version, with the tips you're likely to hear floating around the net and from the mouths of casual IT types; each tip is plotted by its reputation and actual value. (More details for how we assigned these values below.) Click the image for a larger view.
And now a little finer explanation on those points.
Seems Bad, Is Good
These are those tips that seem like they actually kind of suck, but are in reality pretty good for your system.
Sleeping/Hibernating Instead of Shutting Down: Knowing that your laptop is drawing even just a trickle of power can freak out anyone who's had to pay for an expensive battery replacement, so a lot of people think it's always better to shut down your system when you're not using it. If we're talking PCs, the answer to the question of sleep or shutdown depends on how you feel about your electricity bill. For laptops, the issue of battery life and convenience is a sticky wicket. It takes some time and some vigorous hardware use to boot up your system, so if you know you're only stepping away from your system for, say, less than 3 hours, go ahead and close the lid and suspend it, or hibernate your system if you find it faster starting up. If you're going to be away for a solid bit, shut it down. Either way, don't plug it in if you don't have to, and spend more time getting things done than micro-managing your modern battery.
Windows Media Player: Windows Media Player used to be one of the first apps we'd replace on our system. Recently we learned to love the latest version of this built-in app, on the strengths of its performance (no, seriously), its built-in streaming and album art functions, and the fact that, now in its 12th edition, WMP is actually kind of good at what it's supposed to do.
Microsoft Security Essentials: Microsoft's security tools have never been that great—until they released Microsoft Security Essentials, that is. This anti-malware app is entirely free for Windows users, from initial install through every malware definition update. It's just as good at finding bad stuff as the leading commercial products, and it integrates well into your Windows system without adding a whole metric ton of toolbars, badged buttons, and other cruft. And if you follow some other basic security advice, you'll get by just fine, and never see a "reminder" that it's time to pony up for your protection fee.
Not having Windows "Ultimate": When you hear "ultimate", you can only assume it means "this version of Windows is a lot better". Early on, before Windows 7 was even released, Paul Thurrot did a little reverse-engineering of an early release and found that its main difference above "Professional" and cheaper versions was the inclusion of AppLocker, Federated Searches, and some virtual machine tools. Ed Bott summed it up succinctly: Windows 7 Ultimate, for all but the most corporate or IT-versed of users, is an "unnecessary luxury."
Not having "Admin" access: For the savvy user who does a lot of installing and tweaking, having Administrator privileges is just a means to an end. For users who are apt to click on "You've Just Won a Free iPad!", having administrator rights on their user account is a recipe for malware and other bad things. Granting admin access to bad stuff is the cause of up to 90 percent of security flaws, so on a shared desktkop, or a laptop you let your friends and family borrow, killing Administrator privileges might be worth the occasional verbal nagging.
Seems Good, Is Good
Let's call this the no-duh section of system maintenance: Those tips that seem like a good idea... and certainly are.
Automating backup to external drive: Because protection from drops, spills, hard drive failure, electrical shorts, accidental deletions, theft, forgetfulness, and other calamities is clearly a good thing. Luckily it's not that hard to automatically back up your hard drive.
Automating backup to a web location: Because protection from fires, floods, acts of God or infants, external hard drive failure, and forgetfulness across two different safety mechanisms is the best thing. Luckily the best online backup tools are easy to use and relatively inexpensive (at least where your important data is at stake).
Install more RAM: Whether in your desktop PC, or skirting Apple Store prices and doing it yourself with a MacBook, adding more RAM can breathe a lot of new life into an old computer. Installing more than 4 GB may not always be worth it, or even feasible in some older systems, but it never hurts to future-proof your system.
Physically clean your system and peripherals: Dust, noisy fans, keyboard crud and other symptoms of a well-used computer may not actually prevent you from doing work, but they do make using it much more annoying, and possibly less productive. Make your stuff look nicer, work better, and likely run more efficiently by giving it a spring cleaning.
Automating maintenance tools: Like a good backup, the tasks that keep your computer running clean and swift should be done without thinking. Whether it's a an automatic CCleaner run or dozens of night-time fix-it jobs, it's not that hard, and the time invested in setting up pays off exponentially in having a worry-free Windows.
Using Revo Uninstaller: Because Windows uninstall-alternative Revo digs deep, cleans out cruft, shows you more of the apps you have installed than Windows does, offers auto-starting application disabling, and can even be pointed, sniper-style, at the application you want to kill but don't quite know the name of.
Seems Good, Is Bad
These are the deceptive tips that keep us tweaking our systems, often to our detriment.
Disabling QoS in Windows XP: Rumour had it that Microsoft had permanently tied up 20 percent of your net bandwidth for Windows Update. They didn't, and those who disable QoS, or IPv6, in XP actually end up with some pretty harsh connectivity problems.
Running defragment apps: On Windows Vista and 7, and into the future, the actual need for defragmenting hard drives is almost non-existent, since it's already done automatically. With solid-state drives, there's no need at all, and doing so might actually be harmful to the flash-memory-based devices. Defragging your drive won't likely cause any major harm, but for most of us, at best it's a wash.
RAM/memory optimizers: The fact that there was a federal investigation, and an article dubbing SoftRAM (and, by extension, its ilk) the "Worst Tech Product of All Time," should say it all. But, heck, let's just say it again. There are smart ways to manage your memory use, but you can't get something (more RAM) out of nothing (colorful packaging).
"Trick" Vista into multi-core booting: It's easy to assume Microsoft has done something wrong, isn't it? Like design an entire operating system, even one with a 64-bit version, that doesn't know how to use multiple cores. Heck, we briefly believed it, as did Gizmodo, but it's a sham. You can change how many cores Vista boots up with, but only if you're looking to test single-core operation for your application—otherwise, Vista automatically boots up with what you've got.
Enable SuperFetch in XP: In newer Windows systems, SuperFetch speeds up load times for programs and files. Trying to enable it in XP isn't actually harmful, unless you consider false hope a long-lasting harm. There is no SuperFetch in XP, no matter what Registry setting you tweak.
Clean out Windows prefetching: Another seemingly helpful tip we regret posting, as cleaning out Windows own log of which data to queue up on boot-up does, at best, nothing, and at worst can cause serious delays and problems with booting.
Reinstall Windows regularly: If you were never going to die, spending hours every year re-installing Windows—and, more relevant to most of us, all your applications and settings—would be a harmless move toward efficiency. In reality, though, you don't need to reinstall Windows unless something's gone wrong, because you can automate your backups and maintenance tools to keep it at an even speed and usability, year after year. And tell your Windows-hating geek friends we said so.
Registry "Cleaning": No doubt, the Windows Registry—where Windows keeps track of applications' needs, file associations, and other settings—is a big, unwieldy beast, and it's easily stuffed with leftover crud. If you're having a particular problem with a certain app, a Registry fix can possibly help. But stepping in every so often to "clean" the unnecessary stuff isn't going to speed things up, because Windows is mostly looking for the things it needs on each run, and doesn't, despite your worst fears, spend an entire afternoon browsing the Dead Sea Scrolls of your application installation history. Clean when you need to, but don't spend much time thinking about it.
Disable Shadow Copy or System Restore: Don't do this. You might think it's not necessary, and that you're the Ultimate Backup Maker, but doing so won't speed Windows up, you'll potentially cause problems with certain Windows services, and you'll never know when you'll need System Restore. The other night, I thought uninstalling Bonjour and Apple Application Support was a minor thing—until my Wi-Fi failed to work at all the next morning. Keep System Restore around.
Disable unneeded services: It's one of those nefarious "It depends" deals. There might be some services running on your system that you absolutely don't need, and Microsoft itself recommends checking them out. Just don't kill a service unless you know, specifically, what it provides you and your daily workflow.
Seems Bad, Is Bad
Many of these are downright laughable, but hey—we're just covering our bases here.
Installing lots of alpha apps: One or two early releases of software with a killer new feature? Yeah, sure, go ahead, but try to find a portable, non-install version, if you can. Always picking the alpha/pre-release/dev version of your favourite apps and installing them? It's like having a house made of 1,000 pipes, and you'll have no idea where that hissing leak you hear is coming from, or where it begins.
Type rm -rf / in Cygwin: Actually, any terminal command you see on the internet that someone suggests? If you don't know exactly what it does, and you don't understand the syntax, you're better off skipping it.
"Would you like to install the X toolbar to make searching easier?" Don't be that person—the one keeping Ask.com in business. Always watch during software installation to see what it's asking you to install and "make searching easier".
Drinking while Registry editing: Drinking while near a keyboard in general, actually.
Uninstalling apps you don't recognize: As noted above, you might think your computer is cluttered with unnecessary applications, but it's often smarter to just let unnecessary apps age out, rather than find out a crucial network service was tied to a particular app.
Installing software from unverified torrents: Read the comments, think about the source, and run an MD5 checksum before installing anything from the public pool. Alternately: Don't install software from torrents.
Installing software from .ru sites: Would you rather spend 10 minutes finding a free, open-source alternative to what you're looking for, or an entire afternoon trying to recover files and restore your system?
Skipping updates from Adobe or Java: Even if it claims to be just bug fixes, install it. It feels like giving in, but you don't want to be part of a headline involving "exploit" tomorrow.
That's our take on the big field of Windows maintenance for the average user. What did we leave off? Where would you move these points on the chart? Tell us your take in the comments.