Summary: Has your system been running a little sluggish in Windows XP lately? Perhaps you'd like to disable WinXP Service Pack 2's Security Center? If you find yourself wishing you could disable certain aspects within XP but don't know how, than perhaps Stathi's Windows XP optimization guide is for you! In this article you'll find tips, tricks, and tweaks for Windows XP and Microsoft's SP2 release. From install to optimizing the system tray, it's all inside!
Windows XP = Xtra Performance
First thing we need to discuss is what you have now. Do you have a store-bought bundled computer system or did you build it from scratch? Below are the options you have with each, and what we recommend for fastest performance post-operating system install. Keep in mind these are our recommendations, you may follow them as you wish.
Retail Store Bought Bundled PC
Systems bought off the retail store shelf are the worst to try and maximize performance with. They come loaded with an operating system, a plethora of software and games, and out of the box are only running at around 65-75% of their capabilities. Recommendations are tough with these computers only because Microsoft does not give you access to a Windows XP disc with most of them, which means if you reformat you are only going to load all of that stuff again. We highly recommend building your own systems, that way you get only what you need, minus the extra stuff which ends up being clutter. Skip right to the Windows XP optimizations page and use those resources to speed up your system to make it run close to its potential.
Aftermarket and Home Built Systems (No operating system)
These are the best machines in terms of system performance. Maybe you went to Falcon Northwest, Alienware, or your local shop and had them piece one together with the latest and greatest. Maybe you built it by yourself at home. Either way, these systems are the best for getting Windows running great pre-gaming. You have all options available in terms of installation of Windows and only what you actually need in terms of software will be loaded. For these systems, follow the whole guide, as these systems most accurately follow the blueprint for what a gamer would go out and buy.
Operating System Used and Machine Used
First let’s talk about boot sequences. I would imagine that most of you have your BIOS set to boot from the hard drive first as this yields the fastest bootup times. Therefore, you’ll first need to adjust your boot sequence in BIOS to load off the CDROM first, then to FLOPPY, then to Hard Drive or RAID. Once this is done, start your computer with the Windows XP CD (Home or Pro) in your optical drive and when you are prompted, press any button to boot off your Windows XP CD. You will then be prompted to “Press F6 if you need to install a 3rd Party SCSI or RAID driver.” Follow the directions to install your SCSI or RAID device and have the floppy available to load the drivers for it. After loading them, make sure you specify that there are no additional devices to load and continue with the setup process.
You will then get to the Windows XP Setup screen. From the Windows XP (Pro or Home) setup screen press Enter to continue to the Windows XP Licensing Agreement screen or if you are unsure about something you can press F3 to exit the setup process. Once you are finished reading the End-User Agreement, press F8 to continue. The next page in the process will allow you, if you have a corrupted or damaged operating system, to repair the problem. Since we are installing Windows XP from scratch, choose the option “To continue to install a fresh copy of Windows XP, press ESC.”
Now you are at the point where you will be essentially creating a fixed disk to store your operating system.
If you are formatting an older drive for use with Windows XP:
-Press “D” to delete the current partition
-The press “Enter” to let setup know that you understand that you are attempting to delete a system partition with an operating system on it.
-From here you will be prompted once more that all data will be lost. Press “L” to delete all data from this partition. Continue to next step for format information.
If your Hard Drive is empty or you just deleted your partition:
-Press “C” to create a partition in the unpartitioned space.
-Then set the size of your partition. The maximum and minimum allowable sizes are shown. Set the size to the maximum allowable, then press “Enter”.
-Back to the partition screen we see that a partition has been created as Drive “C:”. Press “Enter” to get to the format screen.
The format screen gives us the opportunity to choose which file system Windows XP will utilize. Our options are Fat32 (Windows 9x native, short for File Allocation Table 32 bit) or NTFS (Windows NT, 2000, and XP native). Since Windows XP is native to NTFS (New Technology File System), choose “Format the partition using the NTFS File System”. Once you press “Enter” WinXP setup will format your Hard Drive using NTFS. Once that finishes, the setup resumes by loading all of the setup files to a temp directory on your hard drive to begin the setup process.
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Look what we have here… We’re almost halfway home to actually being able to use our operating system. We are at the beginning of the Windows Setup. This is the first of many screens we will go through on our way to fully customizing your Windows Operating System Setup. The Regional and Language Settings screen allows you to tailor keyboard layouts, currencies, and date formats. Since most of us live in North America, we will click on Next to continue and leave the settings as is.
The next page is the owner’s input page. This page allows you to input your name and group or company name and to let Windows store it for future reference. You can access this information in Windows by right clicking on “My Computer” and clicking properties. Another easy way to access this information is by holding the Windows Key down and pressing Pause/Break. Type your full name and company name and press continue.
Once you proceed you end up at the Product Key input page. This page is pretty self-explanatory. Type in the product key found with your Microsoft Windows XP Operating System CD and continue to the next screen.
Here we will be naming our computer system i.e. “MONSTERPC”, “BIGRIG2005”, or “IBM 5150PC”. We can also setup an administrator’s password to keep unwanted people out of our personal files. This is good if you have kids or pesky friends. Once you are finished, proceed to the Date and Time Zone Setting screen.
Since your date and time are set by the stored in your computer’s internal clock (CMOS battery) this page will only be used for setting your time Zone. So hopefully your BIOS displays correct time settings or this page will also show incorrect time. Set your time zone and continue.
Network Setup, Copying Files, Completing Install
Now that we’ve installed Windows XP on our hard drives it is time to optimize it. Microsoft by default will set options that they think is best for you as an everyday user. But for those of us who want complete control and performance from our operating system, there are a few steps we need to take to make sure our system is running at its peak. In the following pages we will go through each of the essential steps needed to make our Windows gaming ready.
Since the version of Windows installed on our test machine was Version 2002, the first task to tackle is to download all available updates from Microsoft. First install your network card drivers to allow access to the internet and then download up to and everything available after Service Pack 2. That should always be the first step. Service Pack 2 from Microsoft has many features that not only help Windows XP run more efficiently, but it also helps keep your computer safe. If you are worried about Security Center conflicting with your favorite choice of antivirus software or firewall software, read on and I will show you how to disable it to prevent problems.
Now that we have Windows updated through Service Pack 2, it’s time to start tweaking. For each tweak and tip, I will explain the steps to take and the information will be followed by pictures to help you better understand everything outlined. The first step we will take is loading up the “System Properties” page. Press “Windows Key + Pause/Break” to enter the screen. System Properties holds many options that you can set to customize your Windows XPerience.
As you see from the picture above, all of the information that we entered during Windows Setup has been saved and is displaying. You should also see the mention of Service Pack 2 on this page. If everything looks correct, navigate to the Hardware Tab. Click on Driver Signing. Driver signing is Microsoft’s way of telling you that the driver you are loading has not passed WHQL standards, but that doesn’t mean that the driver isn’t going to work. When you download new drivers and the like for your hardware, you may come across a point during installation that Windows may give you a popup saying “This driver is not digitally signed: Ignore or Abort?”. To eliminate this annoyance, click on the “Ignore” option in the screen you are currently in, then check the box underneath that says “Make this action the system default”. Click ok to exit the driver signing option screen.
Next we will click on the “Advanced” tab. The only thing we need to worry about here is the performance options. Under the performance category, click on settings to enter the options screen. Windows XP out of the box has many visual enhancements, shadows, fade effects etc. to make your XPerience more pleasing to the eye at the cost of performance. To keep the appearance of XP but to minimize the performance hit, click “Adjust for best performance”. Then scroll down the list of enhancements available and fill in the last three. This will keep the Windows XP look, and maximize the navigation speed. The picture below will aid you in setting the option. When you finish setting these options, click “Apply” and then “Ok” to exit to the system properties screen.
Now lets take a look at the System Restore tab. System Restore gives the end user the ability to restore the Operating System to an earlier date to fix any problems it may be having presently. Problem is, if you don’t have your programs on disc, you will lose everything that you have installed since the Restore Point was created. Keep in mind also that your System Restore program is also using up a great deal of space on your Hard Drives (yes I said drives), and is usually never utilized. Most people find System Restore a bit pointless in that aspect, so for this article we will disable it on all drives. Check the box that says “Turn off System restore on all drives”. Click “Yes” in the popup box, then click “Apply” and “Ok” to return to the System Properties Screen.
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Microsoft implemented Windows Update starting with the 98 version of the operating system. The basic principle was to allow the user to update their operating system as Microsoft found vulnerabilities and corrected them through patches and various downloads. Since the inception of Windows XP, Microsoft has put forth an enormous effort to keep the end user’s computer running stable with releases almost every other week. Since there is no more product support for Windows 98 (and since Windows Millenium Edition was the worst version to date), WinXP has been the main focus since it is used on ~75% of all computers in the United States. But herein lies the problem.
Many avid gamers and computer enthusiasts like to have complete control of their gaming and their systems. With Service Pack 2 installed, Windows gives you a few options to set to allow for automatic updates. One is for a set time (daily) that windows will use to download updates whenever there is a download available. The other is to allow it to download at any time and ask for your permission to install once received. The other option is to turn it off and visit the Update site manually.
Here’s the problem: You find yourself playing CounterStrike until the wee hours of the morning or you play online games on weekends throughout the day. If you have your Automatic Updates set to download at 3:00am daily, then it will start chewing up your bandwidth while you are online fraggin’ away. This can become a burden and, as I mentioned before, you can access the updates with one move and click of the mouse manually. That’s why Automatic Updates is best to set to manual, or off. Below are the pictures representing the method to shut off automatic updates.
After you set automatic updates to “off”, you will notice that a yellow shield pops up in your system tray. This shield basically tells you that your computer is at risk. This can get annoying, and I will show you how to get rid of this and the pesky Security Center feature of Service Pack 2 later in the article. Continue on to the section on disabling Remote Desktop/Remote Assistance.
Remote assistance and remote desktop are to aid the end user in controlling his computer from another location or to have someone help take control of his computer to fix a problem. Surely, this can help with professionals whom need control of their files when away from home, but for the most part this can be a major security threat. These are definitely best set to off and the average gamer will lose no functionality by disabling these features.
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In determining the best mix of performance and ease of use we have come up with the perfect desktop setup. This will give you all the functionality you expect from your desktop while minimizing clutter. Since the desktop is your key to exploring and navigating through the world of Windows, why not have the most important things right where you would expect them. Having said this, the next three pages will be dedicated to grooming Windows to meet the demands of an everyday gamer, with visuals all along the way.
Icons on the desktop
To enable the common desktop icons like “My Computer”, “My Documents”, and “Internet Explorer” follow these steps. Right click on the desktop and then click properties. Click over to the Desktop Tab and once more on “Customize Desktop”.
Power Schemes and Hibernate
These two features allow our computer to put itself into a sleep mode. Unfortunately, they are rarely used by anyone and really present no significant advantage with their use. Since most gamers are not worried about saving power, especially with their 1000W power supplies and mammoth video cards, using this feature is of no use. First we need to disable the automatic shutoff feature of our hard disk drives and monitors. Navigate back into display properties and click on the “Screen Saver” tab. Use the pull down bars to change the settings for “Turn off Monitor”, “Turn off Hard Disk”, and “System Standby” to “Never”. Click “Apply” and then navigate over to the “Hibernate” tab. Uncheck the box that enables hibernation, click “Apply”, then click “Ok”. That’s it for display changes. The pictures below will help guide you through the steps we have just discussed.
Recycle Bin has Properties
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The Start Menu is something that has traveled with us through the years and even as Microsoft has introduced new and technologically advanced Operating Systems, the Start Menu has been the same… Until Windows XP. The normal Start Menu that we were used to that had a minimum set of navigable options has blossomed into an undeniably screen wasting all-in-one options center. Truth be told, more than half of the options available to us even on a clean install of Windows are unnecessary. The next couple of pages will help everyone build a static Start Menu that has exactly what you need, minus all the clutter and screen size that Windows automatically sets for you.
As you can see from the above picture, the Start Menu takes up almost half of the screen. There are six program shortcuts on here, along with Internet Explorer and Outlook Express directly above them. On the other side of the Start Menu you have links to My Documents, My Music, My Pictures, and a few more. This becomes a waste since My Pictures and My Music are located directly beneath My Documents in the file path. The shortcut to My Recent Documents is completely unnecessary since all your documents are stored in My Documents. Little things like this make the Start Menu’s state after first boot a waste. First things first, lets navigate to the Start Menu’s properties screen. Right click on the Windows task bar and click on [roperties as shown in the first screenshot below. Then you will be at the taskbar and Start Menu Properties screen. Set the options shown in the picture, then click “Apply”. Then click on the start menu tab, click customize, and continue.
What we want to do here is set the start menu to have only three programs listed as shortcuts. Then go ahead and uncheck Internet Explorer as an option to list above the three programs. Since we have Internet Explorer on the desktop, it is unneeded in the Start Menu. The picture below shows you exactly what options to set in the menu. From here click on the advanced tab and continue to the next page.
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Since this screen has a long list of settings it will be easier to tell you what settings to check and uncheck rather than posting multiple pictures. You will see the options as you scroll down, and select them as I explain each. To make sure you are in the right spot, look at the picture below.
Under “Start Menu Settings”, check the first options and deselect the option to highlight newly installed programs. That specific option helps novice users find the program they have just installed, but to expert users is useless. At the very bottom, deselect the options to list your most recent documents. This will get rid of that space wasting “My recent Documents” menu under the start menu.
Now we can move on to the scrolling list of options and set them properly. First on the list is the control panel. Since this is the only spot in which you can access the control panel from, select the “Display as a link” option. Below this there are three options to set with a selection box. Since we will always use dragging and dropping, select this option. The favorites menu is better to be left when in Internet Explorer, so leave this option unchecked. Help and Support is obviously an option we as “Hardcore Gamers” will probably never use, so leave in deselected.
My Computer is an option left up to you the reader. It is probably best to leave it on there in case you need to access your hard drive quickly while in Internet Explorer by pressing the Windows Key. Select the option to display My Computer as a menu and continue.
My Documents should definitely be displayed as a link also for quick access to all of your music and your files. My Pictures and My Music can be set to “Don’t display this item” for both since we can easily get to these folder by entering the “My Documents” folder.
For those of you that have your computers in your house networked and share files between them I would recommend setting “My Network Places” to “Display as a link”. This will allow you to pull files off the networked computers simply by entering into this option from the Start Menu.
Since your network has probably already been set up by now, you can set “Network Connections” to “Don’t display this item”. Right below this uncheck “Printers and Faxes”, “Scroll Programs”, and “Set Program Access and Defaults”. These options are highly unneeded and you lose no real functionality by removing these from your start menu.
Finally, you are given the option to have administrative options be placed on the start menu. Since we will almost never use this option other than FDISKing and formatting a storage hard drive from within Windows, we will choose to not display this item. Below is a shot from the Windows desktop showing you the much improved start menu after the settings we have just applied. Click ok and continue on to the next page for more tweaks.
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With the introduction of Service Pack 2, Microsoft set out to implement extensive protection against security threats. By installing a built in Security Center, Windows XP can determine if you have the correct protection in terms of a firewall, an antivirus solution, and having your automatic updates set to “On”. There are a few problems with this practice. First off, if you don’t have any anti-virus software or your automatic updates are off you have to deal with the annoying popup in your system tray telling you about it. Yes, you can shut this off, and I will show you how to do this.
Navigate to your control panel now located on your start menu and then double click on Security Center. You will see the screen below once you disable automatic updates. If you don’t have an antivirus solution, you will continue to get the popup telling you about it until you navigate to the option under Virus Protection and click on Recommendations. Put a check in the box that says “I will monitor this solution myself”. The same can be done with the firewall if have your own to use. You can follow this procedure to disable Windows from monitoring your security software, but automatic updates, unless set to “On”, will always popup in the system tray. If this seems like a burden to you, than read on. Many people have chosen the option to disable security center completely, thus eliminating the problem once and for all.
From here scroll down to where you see “Security Center” under the name column. Right click on the row for security center and click “Stop” to terminate this service from running in the background. The next step is to actually disable it from starting up with Windows. Double click on the security center row to enter the security center properties screen. Towards the middle of the screen you will see a drop down box that is labeled “Startup Type”. Use the pulldown box to select “Disable”. Make sure to click apply and ok to finish this step. You have now finished disabling security center for Windows XP. Continue on to the next page to learn about disabling other programs from starting up when Windows start up.
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The system tray is located next to your clock in the windows desktop. Here resides programs that are set to work in the background. These programs are set in the tray as an option when installing a piece of software, drivers for hardware, or even utilities like Valve Software’s Steam. Unfortunately, these programs, except for background utilities that have to do with your antivirus, firewall, and a couple others, don’t really need to be sitting here while your computer is idling. These programs and utilities are essentially using up your system memory, thus giving you less memory to allocate towards your game when you are ready to play.
What should be done first is to navigate to the system tray programs and right click on them. See if they have a properties option where you may be able to set them to not sit in the system tray. It may also give you the option to have it not startup when your system boots to Windows.
The Microsoft system configuration utility gives power users the ability to change the way their computer boots in terms of programs and services. Since your computer has all of the boot info stored here (win.ini, system.ini, and boot.ini), this is the place to go to change your settings. Follow your start menu to the “Run” command. Type in “msconfig” and click “Ok”. The screen below will pop up.
This is the System Configuration Utility screen. This is where we will eliminate these unneeded pieces of software. On most computers you can expect a big boost in performance by configuring the variables on the two tabs: “Services” and “Startup”. In the Services tab, make sure you check the box towards the bottom that says “Hide all Microsoft services”. This will hide all critical services, thus not allowing you to turn something off that will make your computer run abnormally. As you go down the list, make sure you only keep programs that are important like antivirus software, firewall software, and any other programs and utilities that you deem important to you. The Service and Manufacturer brackets should give you some hints as to what these specific services are linked to, giving you the ability to make a more informed choice. Uncheck anything that is not needed and continue on to the “Startup” tab.
The startup tab is pretty much the same thing in terms of background processes, but you should have more entries here. The same thing goes for this screen in terms of removal. Look at the “Startup” and “Command” brackets to help aid you in making an informed decision in which items to keep and which to eliminate. If you are still unsure about which programs to keep and which to get rid of, a quick Google search with the startup name will give you some critical info as to the importance of the specific item you are asking about. The same can be done with the items located under the “Services” tab. Click “Apply” and then “Ok” when finished here. Your computer should reboot now. You should notice right off the bat a decrease in time Windows will take to startup. When you get to the desktop, put a checkbox in the popup and click “Ok” to let Windows know that you confirm the changes to the system configuration utility. That’s pretty much it, navigate to the next page for some more quick tips…
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Since we are talking about system optimization, we can’t leave out the built-in utilities that you should use to speed up your computer from time to time. These methods listed below, along with the aforementioned tips and tweaks, will keep your operating system in good shape for a while.
The first thing is to use Microsoft’s built in “Disk Cleanup Utility”. This program will scan your hard drive for most unnecessary objects and give you the option afterwards to remove them. This is a very good tool to use along with some sort of Spyware remover to keep your computer running clean and popup free. You can access this from the Start Menu by going to Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools, then to Disk Cleanup.
The next step in the maintenance of your computer is to run Disk Defragmenter.
Disk Defragmenter will take all of your files which may become spread out over your hard drives disk space and allocate them all into one organized bunch. This allows your system to access the files faster, thus making your operating system speed up a bit. You can access this from the Start Menu by going to Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools, then to Disk Defragmenter.
The final thing needing to be mentioned relates to all of the services we have disabled. Keep in mind that these programs (Automatic Updates, Firewall, Security Center, etc) can still be used independently without a problem. So make sure that once a week you check Windows Update for any new fixes, and make sure you have a firewall and antivirus solution available. This, along with a spyware remover utility and the new built in popup blocker, will ensure system stability and quickness.
Last thing to keep in mind is organization. When trying to maintain a fast and functional desktop, we need to make sure we take certain steps. Besides the steps listed above, try to maintain a clean desktop with only shortcuts and important links. If you have files stored on your desktop that are too big in size or too many in quantity your desktop will start to lose space and finding things will become more difficult. Try storing your shortcuts on your “QuickLaunch” tray because it is always in the same spot and it is single click access to your favorite programs. This way, all of the programs and features you need and use are all located by accessing the Windows taskbar and Start Menu, leaving your desktop clean and neat.
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Windows XP is a great operating system that has all the tools and options that a power user needs to make the most of his time spent working or gaming. Microsoft has put forth an enormous effort through patches and updates to make sure that this operating system works for all types of users. Since it is a universally used product, the support for Windows XP will continue for many more years. This is why it is important to make sure that we take certain steps ourselves to get the most functionality and performance out of it.
This guide is meant to be used as a blueprint for installing Windows XP as your main operating system, and to show you the various performance enhancements available post-install. Following the guide is as simple as printing it out and following it step-by-step as it is laid out. Certain features or options that you may see as necessity may also be chosen in addition to the ones we have recommended. This all depends on what you are using your operating system for. Also make sure that you stay informed and if you have any questions about anything related to this article, you can discuss it in the forums.
When used properly, this guide will give you peak performance and make your rig gaming-ready. By using tools like MSCONFIG, the System Properties screen, and by changing the way your Start Menu is used, we have made Windows clutter free and perfectly functional. Also, with the use of Windows Update you can keep you system safe from viruses, and you will download critical patches to make your system safer. These steps along with using the built in tools like Disk Cleanup and Disk Defragmenter will make sure your system stays this way for a long time.
Hopefully you, the readers, have enjoyed this article as much as we did making it. It brings us great honor to have posted an article which may help expert gamers as well as beginners make the most of their Windows XPerience. Until next time, be smart and game away!
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