Power User: Is start-up a drag? Windows has the tools to help

John McCormick, the Power User

Ever notice how slowly your PC starts up? Does it seem less stable now than when you first turned it on?

Don't bother answering. I already know the answer is yes. But don't just blame Microsoft Corp. or mythical bit-rot. If you run Windows, use Microsoft tools to make things better.

There are two basic reasons why your system gets progressively slower and less stable. The first is disk fragmentation. Have you bothered to run a defrag utility lately?

The other problem is that there are always more applications and services today than there were last week. Lots of software programs add little startup utilities most users don't even know are there.

Start cleaning up by removing any programs you don't use Go to the Control Panel, Add or Remove Programs. Next delete any desktop icons you seldom click. Instead, access those programs from the Start, Programs menu.

Finally, get rid of any programs or services that load automatically but aren't really needed. Microsoft makes it easy in some operating system versions'Win98, Win98 Special Edition, Millennium Edition and XP'but not in Win95, NT or 2000.

Run MSConfig, a good basic troubleshooting tool. See the Microsoft Knowledge Base Article 310560 at www.microsoft.com for details about the system configuration utility. MSConfig may well have been downloaded to systems that don't have it installed by default, so go to Start, Run, MSConfig to bring it up if it's present. It lets you select from several boot configurations, including a diagnostic startup.

What you want is the last tab, Startup, which lists much of what loads when you boot up. XP users have an easy time because virtually everything under XP's Startup is optional. Other OS versions place a lot more items on this list, and many of them shouldn't be disabled.

If you have trouble identifying some entries, remember that you can expand individual columns to figure them out.

Literally thousands of programs might be included in your startup operation. You can find a list of 4,517 at www.sysinfo.org.

On some systems you might even notice a significant performance improvement by reducing the screen resolution.

Now we've arrived at the point where you should run a defrag utility. The built-in one from Microsoft isn't the best but it's pretty good. I also use Norton System Doctor from Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif., to monitor and tweak my systems.

If you have both disk cleanup and defrag utilities on your Start, Program, System menu, run cleanup first because it removes files. There's no percentage in defragmenting before you clean out as much as you can.

If you run XP, in addition to the disk fragmentation and an overloaded startup sequence, you have a unique OS bug that can really slow things down.

For an IDE drive interface'the one on most computers these days'the fastest way to load files into memory is direct memory access. Unfortunately, XP will sooner or later boot with DMA disabled, and when it does, every bit of data has to go through the CPU, which slows everything down.

To learn whether this is a problem for you, go to Start, Settings, Control Panel, System Properties, Hardware, Device Manager, IDE/ATAPI controllers. Click on the Primary or Secondary IDE Channel, Advanced Settings. If it isn't already set for DMA, select 'DMA if available.' There's no harm in confirming that the DMA setting is correct for other OS versions, but you need to repeat it periodically with XP because the setting might change without warning.

You've heard horror stories about the Windows Registry, and they're all true. Make even a tiny mistake changing things with RegEdit and you've got real trouble. It should be disabled on user systems.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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