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Tune your desktops for max performance

Memory size, fragmented disks, file swap sizes all affect performance.

David Gabel

You know that one of the biggest gripes you'll get as an IT administrator at ANY level is that the users' computers are too slow. Performance is a drag. It takes too long to load files, run programs, access a Web page, get e-mail, or …

You've heard them all. But there is something you can do about some of those gripes. You can tune up your users' desktop (or notebook) machines to give the best performance possible. This tip will talk about tuning up Windows desktop computers because the vast majority of systems in the corporate world are Windows desktops.

Of course, this is an exercise in dealing with what you have. The best way to improve performance is to get the latest whiz-bang computer. But budgets being what they are, it isn't likely that you'll be able to upgrade very many user machines to the latest and greatest.

Still, you can do some hardware enhancements that will help.

First, consider your memory requirements. A memory upgrade is the simplest way to improve performance for desktop PCs. Without enough memory your users will find that their systems are constantly swapping programs into and out of memory as the user changes the focus of his work. Too little memory will find users drumming their fingers on their (real) desktop as they wait for their computer to finish some (apparently mysterious) task.

Today, memory prices have fallen to points that would have been ridiculous in just the very recent past. According to PCPitstop, which performs online tests of PCs for free, individuals can get as much as 256M bytes of memory for about $80. That is truly an astonishing number, so if you do have users complaining of slow performance, then a memory upgrade should certainly be something to consider.

Next, think about the disk drive. Notebook computers generally have drives that are slower than those in desktop machines. Slow drives mean longer times loading applications and data. And that means users drumming fingers on their desktops again. But it's more than that. If you have a computer that's memory starved (today that's a computer with less than 256M bytes of memory) AND a slow drive, the swapping will take even longer.

But whether you have a good memory size or not, or whether you have a fast disk or not, there are a couple other things you can do to help users drive their machines faster. For example, the easiest thing is to make sure that the drive doesn't have a lot of junk files lying around. Those files take up space that can be used for other essential functions, and they can lead to fragmentation of the drive, which slows performance.

To get rid of junk files, make sure that you clear your Internet browser cache files, including saved Web pages, and set your browser options so you don't keep pages that are over a couple days old. (By the way, you can help users out a lot by caching frequently viewed Web pages on a local server. That will remove the time it takes for a browser to query the local DNS server and go out to the Web page and back. Instead it can load the Web page from local cache on your network, which will make the desktop operate more quickly and reduce your network traffic.)

In addition to cleaning junk files from the browser, also go to your temp files folder and delete anything that's over a couple days old. This will free up an amazing amount of space.

Now, get hold of a defrag program and defragment the disk. You'll be amazed how much this will speed up disk drive access and, hence, overall system performance.

Finally, you need to set the swap file size on the disk. This is also called the page file, and it is the area on the disk where the operating system stores program files or data files that will not fit into main memory. When you install Windows on a desktop, the operating system sets the page file size to 1.5 times the amount of physical memory in the system. So for a system with a physical memory of 256M bytes, the page file size would be 256 + 128, or 384M bytes. But if you are using a lot of programs simultaneously, or if you're using large datasets and programs, you may need a larger file.

You can set this file size by right-clicking on My Computer and selecting properties from the context menu. Then go to the advanced tab and click the performance options button. That will take you to a dialog that shows a Virtual Memory dialog, with a min and max size for the paging file. Don't set the minimum size to smaller than the recommended size. You can experiment with the max size. But remember that increasing the size of the page file will reduce the disk space available for programs and data.

If you do these things, you're on your way to a desktop that's running well. There are other things you can do as well, but those are the subjects of future tips.

About the author: David Gabel is the executive technology editor for TechTarget.

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