Date:31 March 2009
There’s no need to suffer through slow startups. PM’s special regimen of OS tweaks and software surgery can speed things up.
Why can’t a computer be more like a television? When you push the power button on a TV, it just turns on. Computers, on the other hand, boot – as in, they take so long to get started that you want to stick your boot into them.
You would think that the march of technological progress would have reduced boot times over the years, but newer operating systems can take longer – Microsoft Vista actually tends to boot more slowly than its predecessor, Windows XP. (Microsoft claims its next-generation operating system, Windows 7, should provide drastic improvements in boot time.) Additionally, boot times increase with a computer’s age. As you use your PC and more programs and devices are installed, the startup process gets even longer. And these slow boot times can lead to bad behaviour. Many users become so frustrated that they leave their computers on constantly, wasting electricity and delaying
valuable OS security updates. But take heart: there are steps you can take to speed things along. Depending on the configuration of your computer, many of the various system checks and processes that take place during boot-up may be unnecessary or irrelevant to you. A variety of tricks of varying sophistication can reclaim valuable minutes or seconds of get-up-and-go time. We tested expert tactics on three well-used computers in PM’s tech lab.
Ditch dusty programs
As a rule, an uncluttered computer is a fast computer. The easiest step to speed startup is to remove software that you no longer use. Many of these seemingly fallow programs are running active background processes that launch every time you push the power button. This doesn’t just slow down your startup, it chews up RAM and drags down the overall performance of your PC.
To get a full list of installed software, check Control Panel in Vista and select Remove Programs (in XP go to Add/ Remove Programs). If you find programs that you’re not using or that support equipment you no longer own, eliminate them.
One of our test computers, a 3-year-old XP machine, had more than two dozen programs that hadn’t been used in years. After we removed them, the machine’s boot time was reduced from 2 minutes 45 seconds to 2 minutes 21 seconds. Across all three of our computers, the biggest offender was AIM instant-messaging software. Removing it shaved an average of 8 seconds off boot time. Even brand-new PCs can be junked up with useless applications, known as trialware, that load processes at startup. Since these programs aren’t formally installed on your system, they may not show up in your Remove Programs list. That shouldn’t stop you from getting rid of them if you have no intention of using the software.
The easiest way to purge unwanted trialware is by using a program called, believe it or not, PC Decrapifier. This free, downloadable tool specifically targets trial software and puts it on a chopping block for you to eliminate. On a Dell laptop we analysed, Decrapifier found several programs imploring users to “Get High Speed Internet!” from service providers angling for new business. Delete!
Reconfigure pushy software
Some startup slowdowns come from software that you do use, but don’t necessarily need running in your system’s background. Many programs have components that load at startup, then monitor your OS constantly. That makes perfect sense for antivirus software that must continually watch for suspicious activity on your PC, but it’s probably not necessary to have the software that came with your digital camera always running so that it can instantly offload pictures. There are a few ways to check which programs are muscling into your startup sequence. In Vista, you can manage startup applications through Windows Defender, Microsoft’s built-in program that monitors for spyware, pop-ups and performance drags. Defender has an integrated tool called Software Explorer that lets you check programs that load at startup and disable anything unnecessary. You can also access the list of startup
applications in either Vista or XP through the Msconfig utility (type “msconfig” into the Run box in the Start menu). Select the Startup tab, then uncheck any applications you think might be slowing your startup.
Both options allow you to disable a program’s startup component without completely removing it. So if you disable something and then discover that it was vital to the operation of your PC, you can always turn it back on.
Inevitably, you’ll find programs in your startup configuration that you’ve never heard of before. To sort it all out, consult an online reference such as Sysinfo. This site categorises startup entries according to how necessary they are. On one of our test PCs we found avgtray.exe configured as a startup operation. This mini-program was a part of the AVG anti-virus software suite and was designed to launch AVG from an icon in the system tray at the bottom right of the Windows home DIYTECH screen. SysInfo categorised avgtray.exe as “User’s Choice,” meaning that it’s not imperative to the PC’s operation but could be useful, so we decided to keep it. Many of the items we found in the startup menus of our test PCs were software that could be started on an as-needed basis, but didn’t need to be launched at startup, so we disabled them.
Cut the splash screen
If you’re serious about shaving every last second of startup time, dip into the Boot tab in the Msconfig utility, which controls the settings for the boot initialisation/ configuration file. Generally, users should tread carefully when tinkering with boot. ini, but one easy edit is to check the “/noguiboot” option. This saves time by skipping the Windows startup animation.
Edit your BIOS
Before the operating system loads up on your computer, software on the motherboard known as the BIOS (Basic Input Output System) governs the configuration of the PC’s hardware. As with the boot. ini file, it’s advisable to tread carefully in the BIOS to avoid disabling something important, but a few well-placed tweaks can save valuable seconds when you boot.
The BIOS sets the boot sequence for your PC and makes sure all the components – such as the video card, memory and hard drive – function together. To get to the BIOS on most computers, you hit one of the function keys (usually F2, F10 or F12; your computer should prompt you on the screen during startup). The BIOS checks each drive attached to your computer for an operating system to boot from, but it doesn’t always check in the most logical order. On one of our test laptops, the BIOS was looking at the USB drive and optical drive before checking the hard drive where the OS is installed. I rearranged the boot order to check the hard drive first.
Most BIOSs scan the computer memory for errors at startup, but if you haven’t made any modifications to your RAM or noticed any errors, this can probably be skipped. If your BIOS has a Quick Boot or Skip Memory Check function, you can save a few extra seconds.
Clean up the registry
The registry is a database in both Windows Vista and XP that stores information about your hardware, software preferences and user profiles. Whenever you change something in Windows, it is logged in the registry. But when software is deleted or hardware is upgraded, the registry isn’t always updated properly, so it can end up full of outdated, useless entries.
Unlike the Msconfig utility and BIOS, casual deletions from the registry can cause irreversible damage, so it is no place for an inexperienced computer user to go tinkering on his own. But a good software solution can help clean it out for you. Free programs such as CCleaner and Glary Utilities, as well as more fully featured pay software such as System Mechanic (about R500), are available for download online and will scrub the registry for “keys” left over from old applications no longer resident on your machine. These may be delaying boot time by causing the computer to scan for nonexistent programs during startup. A clean registry makes the whole process more efficient.
How much time you’ll gain overall depends entirely on how messed up your computer was in the first place. Cleaning out all of the digital clutter won’t make your computer instant-on, but it should make the wait more bearable.
Macs need speed, too
In our tests, Mac OS X natively booted faster than Microsoft Vista, but Macs are susceptible to slow boot times too. And often, it’s because of the same problems. “If your Mac is taking a long time to boot, the main culprit is probably startup software,” says Mac technician Ben Casey. “Check for erroneous applications and delete what you don’t need launching every time.” If you have multiple accounts on one Mac, edit the list of startup programs for individual users by going to the Accounts panel of System Preferences and selecting Login Items. Also, look in the universal startup folder, which controls what loads for all users. (It is called Startup Items, in the Library folder on your hard drive). The shorter these lists, the quicker your machine will start up. If your computer is still taking too long to boot, try clearing your caches using a free piece of software called Onyx (titanium. free.fr/pgs/english.html). The first boot after purging your caches will take longer than usual, because the computer needs to reconstruct those caches from scratch, but the resulting up-to-date caches will allow for a faster boot time. – ES Macs need speed, too 58