Tweak Windows XP For Optimum Performance
When youíre troubleshooting
performance problems with network-based applications running on Windows XP
Professional, youíll want to begin with the settings found in the Performance
Options dialog box. These settings, which are hidden deep within Windows XPís
System Properties, provide a host of options that allow you to fine-tune the
operating systemís overall performance and, thus, its interaction with various
applications. These options allow you to adjust Windows XPís processor
scheduling, memory usage, and virtual memory, as well as its use of visual
effects. Iíll show you in detail how to explore the settings in the Performance Options dialog box affect
Windows XPís overall performance, and how you can boost performance by changing
these settings to suit your systemís needs.
Once youíve identified a performance-related problem, you can launch your
troubleshooting expedition in the Performance Options dialog box. To access this
dialog box, open the Control Panel and select the Performance and Maintenance
category. Next, click the System icon to open the System Properties dialog box
(if youíre using the Control Panelís Classic view, youíll just have to click the
System icon). Select the Advanced tab, and then click the Settings button in the
Performance panel. Youíll then see the Performance Options dialog box shown in
|The Performance Options dialog box provides access to
settings that can enhance Windows XPís performance.
As you can see, the first tab in the Performance Options dialog box is titled
Visual Effects, and itís here that you can adjust almost all of Windows XPís
visual features. If you click the Advanced tab, as shown in Figure B,
youíll see additional settings from three categoriesóprocessor scheduling,
memory usage, and virtual memoryóthat you can adjust to fine-tune operating
|The Advanced tab gives you access to some heavy-duty
performance tuning options.
Adjusting the visual effects
As youíve probably noticed, by default Windows XP enables almost all of its
fancy visual effects, such as fading menus and shadows. These visual effects can
take a toll on performance. When an application running in Windows XP appears to
bog down, you can often trace the problem to an overload of visual effects.
Fortunately, the Visual Effects tab offers several ways to adjust Windows XPís
use of these effects.
On most of the Windows XP systems that Iíve worked with, the default setting for
visual effects is Let Windows Choose Whatís Best For My Computer. Under this
setting, Windows XP analyzes your video subsystem and determines which of the
numerous visual effects your system is capable of handling. In most cases, the
operating system enables almost all of the visual effects. However, whatís good
for the operating system may not be good for the applications.
Selecting the Adjust For Best Performance option clears all of the check boxes
in the list box, thus disabling all of the visual effects. While this may seem
like a drastic approach, sometimes itís just what you need to improve
performance. Should you prefer something a little less drastic, you can select
the Custom option. You can then choose from the various visual effects until you
find a compatible mixture that provides a speedy yet visually appealing
environment. As you scroll through the list of the various visual effects,
youíll find that each one is aptly titled to let you know exactly what the
setting enables or disables. The effects are:
- Animate windows when minimizing and maximizing.
- Fade or slide menus into view.
- Fade or slide ToolTips into view.
- Fade out menus after clicking.
- Show shadows under menus.
- Show shadows under mouse pointer.
- Show translucent selection rectangle.
- Show window contents while dragging.
- Slide open combo boxes.
- Slide taskbar buttons.
- Smooth edges of screen fonts.
- Smooth-scroll list boxes.
- Use a background images for each folder type.
- Use common tasks in folders.
- Use drop shadows for icon labels on the desktop.
- Use visual styles on windows and buttons.
Another access point
You can also access an abridged version of the visual effects settings from the
Appearance tab of the Display Properties dialog box. When you click the Effects
button youíll see the Effects dialog box, as shown in Figure C.
|The Effects dialog box provides access to some of the
most common visual effects.
As you can see, the Effects dialog box combines some of the most common visual
effects and provides access to a few others. For example, you can enable and
disable the use of large icons on the desktop and on the Start menu.
The two options in the Processor scheduling panel allow you to control how
Windows XP allocates processing power. As you saw in Figure B, the default
setting in the Processor Scheduling panel is Programs, which basically
configures Windows XP to focus the bulk of the processing power on the task, or
program, that is running in the foreground. The Programs setting configures
Windows XP to distribute processing power time slices among all running
applications in short, variable-length bursts, and the program or task that is
running in the foreground gets bigger time slices than those programs or tasks
running in the background.
Now, if you have an application that primarily runs unattended and performs the
bulk of its operations in the background, you can improve its overall
performance by configuring Windows XP to evenly distribute the processing power
between the foreground and background tasks. To do so, select the Background
Services option. Windows XP will distribute processing power among all running
applications in long, fixed-length time slices.
The two options in the Memory usage panel allow you to control how Windows XP
manages the use of available memory and system/disk caching. Here, the default
setting of Programs makes more of the actual RAM in your system available to
your applications by setting aside only 4 MB of RAM for disk caching.
For most situations, the default setting will be sufficient. However, if you
discover that your applications are running sluggishly and you have at least 256
MB of RAM, you may want to experiment with the System Cache setting.
When you choose the System Cache setting, Windows XP allocates all but 4 MB of
the available RAM to the system cache. The big performance gain here is brought
on by the fact that this setting allows the operating system kernel to
completely run in memory. Furthermore, having a larger system cache can, in many
cases, improve the performance of an application by providing quicker access to
Itís important to note that while the System Cache setting initially grabs a
majority of RAM for the cache, itís designed to dynamically manage the memory.
So if another application needs some of the memory allocated to the system
cache, Windows XP will make the needed memory available to the application.
A note on the System Cache setting
Enabling the System Cache setting actually enables
the Large System Cache setting in the Windows XP registry. Thus, you donít need
to manually change this setting by editing the registry, as you may have done in
Windows NT or Windows 2000.
Of all the settings in the Performance Options dialog box, Windows XP gives you
the most control over virtual memory. To help you understand the options that
Windows XP makes available in the Virtual Memory dialog box, Iíll go into the
virtual memory concept in a bit more detail.
Some background on virtual memory
Windows XP uses virtual memory to simulate more RAM than physically exists in
your system. When you launch an application, Windows XP loads that application
into RAM. If you load several applications at the same time, all the running
applications must share the same RAM. However, as you can imagine, running all
those applications together will require more RAM than is actually in your
In order to manage this situation, Windows XP monitors each applicationís use of
the available RAM and locates sections of memory that are allocated to an
application but arenít currently being used. Windows XP then moves, or swaps,
these inactive sections from RAM and temporarily stores them on the hard drive
in a file called the paging file.
When those sections of memory are needed by their applications, Windows XP
retrieves them from the paging file and places them back in RAM. Of course, to
do this, Windows XP will most likely need to move other memory sections of other
applications from RAM to the paging file. As you can imagine, this swapping
process is continuous when you use several applications at the same time, and it
can be a big drag on overall system performance.
Page pooled memory
Itís important to note that Windows XP uses a new
virtual memory scheme in which it divides the physical RAM in your system in two
sectionsópage pooled and nonpage pooled. In this scheme, the nonpage-pooled
section contains crucial operating system and application files and is never
sent to the paging file. Of course, anything in the page-pooled section can be
swapped out to the paging file as needed.
Altering virtual memory settings
The Virtual Memory panel displays the size of the current paging file. To make
changes to the paging file, click the Change button to display the Virtual
Memory dialog box shown in Figure D.
|Of all the performance settings, Windows XP gives you
most control over virtual memory.
In the Total Paging File Size For All Drives panel of the Virtual Memory dialog
box, the Recommended size for the paging file is based on a formula that
multiplies the total amount of physical RAM in your system by 1.5. As you can
see on this example system, which has 512 MB of RAM, the Recommended size for
the paging file is 766 MB.
Paging file size
Simple math will tell you that this value should be
766 MB, which is indeed the amount being allocated, but due to the way that
Windows allocates memory, only 511 MB is actually available to the system. Thus,
766 MB is listed as the recommended size. Youíll also notice that Windows XP
specifies a minimum value of 2 MBóMicrosoft strongly recommends that you not set
the initial size lower than that value.
To improve system performance by adjusting virtual memory settings, you can
increase the size of the paging file, or you can move, or spread out, the paging
to other physical hard disks.
Increasing the size of the paging file is easy: Simply enter a larger number in
the Initial Size text box. Then, double that figure and enter it into the
Maximum Size text box. To enable the new paging file, just click the Set button.
The best performance increase will come from moving the paging file from the C
drive to another hard disk. Of course, this requires more than one hard disk in
the system. Keep in mind that you wonít boost performance by placing the paging
file on another drive partition on the same hard disk.
The performance boost from moving the paging file to another hard disk comes
from the fact that while one hard disk is handling operating system functions,
the other hard disk can simultaneously handle paging file requests. To move the
paging file, select the C drive in the Drive list. Then, select the No Paging
File option and click Set. Next, select the other hard disk in the Drive list.
Then, select the Custom Size option, type the appropriate values in the Initial
and Maximum size text boxes, and click Set. When you click OK, youíll be
prompted to restart your system.
Use an old hard disk for your paging file
Finally, if youíre like me and most other IT folks, you probably have a bunch of old hard
disks sitting in a box in the back room. These old hard disks arenít viable for
todayís operating system and software disk requirements, but theyíre perfect for
a paging file. Just add the hard disk to your system as a slave, format it, and
configure Windows XP to use it for the paging file.
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