Optimizing Windows

Before you start

Objectives: Learn about some less known methods to improve performance of Windows machine.

Prerequisites: no prerequisites.

Key terms: performance, visual effects, write caching, paging file

Performance Settings

We can impact the performance of our machine by choosing different options on our computer. One thing that can influence performance are the visual effects used by our system. Visual effects include things like window shadows, borders, transparency, fading effects, etc. We can optimize how Windows looks and feels by modifying visual effects settings which are available in advanced system settings in the system properties. In the Visual Effects tab in this tool we can choose to let Windows decide what is best for our computer as far as performance. We can also choose to adjust settings for best appearance, or to adjust for best performance. We can even select custom settings where we can specify settings manually. This way we can choose which visual effects to turn off (shadows, fade effects, etc.).  The more visual effects that are enabled, the more CPU and graphics processing is required.

On the Advanced tab we can adjust for the best performance for programs or background services. If we are running a workstation computer, we should choose to adjust for best performance for programs. On the server machine we would specify to adjust for best performance of background services.

Paging File

On the same tab we can adjust paging file settings. A page file is an area of disk space that is used as virtual memory when running memory intensive operations, or when there is not enough RAM. The paging file is used to move unused data in RAM to the hard disk, thereby making more space available in memory for other running applications or data. The process of moving data from RAM to disk (and back) is known as swapping or paging.

We can allow Windows to manage memory paging, which is the default. We can also manually specify virtual memory allocation. We can also specify to save the page file to another volume instead of the system volume, to improve performance. If we have a separate disk, it is recommended to store a page file on other physical disk than the operating system disk. When it comes to the amount of virtual memory, we should dedicate 1.5 or 2 times of the amount of RAM available on our computer. So, if we have 4 GB of RAM, we should dedicate 6 GB to virtual memory.

Write Caching

Write Caching is the process in which small amount of data is stored in RAM until the slower storage device (physical disk or flash memory disk) can deal with it. We can manage write caching on the Policies tab of the physical disk or flash drive properties in Device Manager. For USB flash memory devices it’s recommended to use the quick removal option as it is the best choice for devices that are likely to be removed from the system frequently. Those are USB flash drives, memory cards or other externally attached storage devices.

When we select a Quick Removal option, Windows manages the commands sent to the device using a write-through caching method. This means that it writes to the device as if there was no cache. The cache may provide performance benefit, but the emphasis is on the protection of data. The main benefit of this is that we can remove the storage device from the system quickly without risking data loss. If we have a flash drive that is accidently pulled out of the port, the data being written is much less likely to be lost if the quick removal option is set. Otherwise we might have data sitting in the write cache, which would be lost if we pulled the flash drive out.

Another option available in the disk device properties is the Better Performance option. This option is recommended for devices that are infrequently removed from the system, such as internal hard disks. This option is not recommended for devices such as USB drives. Additionally, we can select to enable write caching on this device, which is the default for hard disks. It will improve our system performance, but a power outage or system failure might result in data loss. By default, Windows has a mechanism called cache flushing, which periodically instructs the storage device to transfer all data waiting in the cache to the storage media. We should use the Use the Safely Remove Hardware feature before removing the device to avoid data loss or corruption caused by write caching. As a general best practice, it’s good to use safe removal tool in the Taskbar before we remove any external storage device from our system.