Windows can do all sorts of amazing things, some of which you might actually want it to do. Unfortunately, the things you don't want it to do can slow it down. By turning off unnecessary programs, processes, and services, you can unburden Windows and help it live up to its full potential.
Some of the following suggestions may not produce a noticeable improvement in performance individually. But their cumulative effect can be to speed up your system significantly.
You don't have to turn off all of these features, mind you. Most of them are useful or at least aesthetically pleasing to some people, but pointless to others. I've tried to provide enough information to enable you to make an informed decision about which ones to keep.
To help you follow my suggestions more easily, I've organised the questionable features in my list by the Windows location where you must go to turn them off. That way, you won't have to visit the Windows Features dialog box, or Services, more than once.
The System Properties Dialog Box
You've almost certainly been here before. This is where you change your network ID, manage System Restore, and launch Device Manager. You can also shut off some unnecessary features here.
To get to the System Properties dialog box in Vista or Windows 7, click Start, right-click Computer, and select Properties. Then click one of three links--Remote settings, System protection, or Advanced system settings in the left pane.
Alternatively, click Start, type sysdm.cpl, and press Enter.
In XP, click Start, right-click My Computer, and select Properties. Or click Start, Run, type sysdm.cpl, and press Enter.
Unnecessary Cosmetic Features: XP, Vista, Windows 7
Windows doesn't have to look as pretty as it does to do its job. And some aesthetic compromises can free up precious processor clock cycles for real work.
To see your options for turning off these extras, click the System Properties dialog box's Advanced tab, and then click the Settings button inside the Performance box.
This brings up another dialog box, where you can select which visual effects to keep and which to lose. Select Adjust for best performance to turn off all of them, or individually uncheck the ones you don't care for.
Error Reporting: Windows XP
You've probably noticed that both Windows and the programs that run on it occasionally make mistakes. When that happens, the operating system attempts to send a report back to Microsoft. In theory, your report helps the company find bugs and improve future versions.
Whether that reporting system really helps is open to debate. It certainly doesn't help you in the short run.
If you'd rather get on with your work after something goes wrong, you can disable error reporting. To do so in XP, click the System Properties dialog box's Advanced tab, click the Error Reporting button in the lower-right corner, and select Disable error reporting. I recommend keeping 'But notify me when critical errors occur' checked.
You can also turn off error reporting in Vista and Windows 7, but not from this dialog box. I explain how to proceed in the Services section.
Remote Assistance: XP, Vista, Windows 7
If you're not providing or receiving long-distance support, or if you use a third-party tool to provide that support, there's no reason to leave the Remote Assistance feature on.
To turn it off, click the System Properties dialog box's Remote tab. Uncheck Allow Remote Assistance connections to this computer (in Vista or Windows 7) or Allow Remote Assistance invitations to be sent from this computer (in XP).
Windows Features Dialog Box
This handy box, semi-hidden in Vista and Windows 7, gives you on/off control over a multitude of features. You can control what games are available, turn on RIP Listener (which isn't nearly as macabre as it sounds), and turn off some resource-wasting services.
XP users can skip this section, entirely this dialog box was added with Vista.
To open the Windows Features dialog box, click Start, type programs and features, and press Enter. Once the 'Uninstall or change a program' application comes up, click Turn Windows features on or off in the left pane.
Windows 7 users can take a quicker alternative route: Click Start, type windows features, and select Turn Windows features on or off.
One warning: This dialog box takes a long time to load; and when you're done with it and click OK, it takes an even longer time to close. Then it usually reboots the PC. Consequently it's best to make all of these changes at one time.
Internet Printing Client: Vista, Windows 7
Do you ever print documents over the Internet? If not, you're unlikely to miss Windows' Internet Printing Client. To turn it off, first find and expand the Windows Features dialog box's Print Services (or Print and Document Services) listing. Then uncheck Internet Printing Client.
Windows Meeting Space: Vista
If you're working on collaborative projects with other Vista users, Meeting Space is a handy program to have around. It lets you share files across a network while editing them with a remote colleague. A lot of people were disappointed with Microsoft dropped Meeting Space from Windows 7.
But, if you're not working on collaborative projects with other Vista users, Meeting Space is just a waste of resources. To disable it, simply uncheck Windows Meeting Space in the Windows Features dialog box.
Tablet PC Extras, Part 1: Vista, Windows 7
In the long-ago days before the iPad, a tablet PC was a laptop with a touchscreen that could rotate 180 degrees and fold down over the keyboard. With those rather bulky and heavy tablets in mind, Windows offers some very good tools for touchscreen interfaces.
I'm actually writing this article on such a computer, and though I seldom fold it down into tablet mode, I wouldn't dream of turning off those enhancements. However, if your computer lacks a touchscreen, you have no reason to leave them on.
This is a two-step process that starts in the Windows Features dialog box. Start by unchecking Tablet PC Optional Components (Vista) or Tablet PC Components (Windows 7).
The first time you look at the Services window, you may feel that you're getting deeper into geekdom than you ever wanted to go. But calm down--it's really not that difficult.
To enter Services in Vista or Windows 7, click Start, type services, and press Enter.
In XP, select Start, choose Run, type services.msc, and press Enter.
The window that comes up can seem intimidating. It lists a great many services (nearly 200 on my PC) that various programs need to help them do their job. The problem is that some of the services that are running in the background could just as well be sleeping.
Double-click a service and up comes its Properties dialog box. One option on the General tab, 'Startup type', controls how the service starts. Select Automatic, and it loads when Windows boots. Select Manual, and it loads when a program needs it. Select Disabled, and it won't load at all.
Tablet PC Extras, Part 2: Vista, Windows 7
I've already discussed why you should or should not turn this set of features off, and I've described how to do the first part of the job. Now comes the second part. In Services, find and double-click the Tablet PC Input Service. In the 'Startup type' drop-down menu, select Disabled, and then click OK.
In theory, plugging a flash drive into your PC and letting ReadyBoost take control of it will speed up your PC. I have my doubts.
But if you aren't using ReadyBoost to speed up Windows, the feature is slowing it down. In that case, you'll be happier turning ReadyBoost off entirely.
In Services, find and double-click ReadyBoost. In the 'Startup type' drop-down menu, select Disabled, and then click OK.
XP doesn't have ReadyBoost, and Windows 7 doesn't allow you to turn it off.
Search Indexing: XP, Vista, Windows 7
Indexing speeds up Windows' searches considerably, especially in Vista and Windows 7: An indexed search can take seconds, while a nonindexed search can take minutes. But when you're not searching, indexing drags down performance.
If you almost never search for files, or if you use a third-party search tool like Copernic Desktop or Google Desktop, consider turning off search indexing. Otherwise, leave it on.
The service you want to turn off is called Windows Search in Vista and Windows 7, and Indexing Service in XP. To turn it off, select Disabled.
Error Reporting: Vista, Windows 7
I've already discussed how to do disable this feature in XP. To switch it off in Vista or Windows 7, you'll need to disable it in a different location.
Windows reports errors back to Microsoft, in order to gain information for later bug fixes. The trouble is that this reporting operation slows down your PC at the moment when you're most annoyed by it.
If you'd rather speed up your PC than help Microsoft debug software that it has already sold to you, find and double-click the Windows Error Reporting Service. In the 'Startup type' drop-down menu, select Disabled.
Fast User Switching: XP
No, I'm not suggesting that anyone switch you with a faster user.
This service helps Windows keep two or more users logged on and active at a time. That's useful and convenient...provided you're sharing the PC with another person.
If the PC is all yours, find and double-click the Fast User Switching Compatibility service, and set the Startup type to Disabled.
Help and Support: XP
You shouldn't turn this one off entirely. After all, if you need help for an XP component, the last thing you want is to get an error message instead.
But unless you constantly use Help, you won't want it to be running until you need it. So in Services, find and double-click Help and Support, and select the Startup type Manual. That way, Help and Support won't load until you ask for it.
Offline Files: Vista and Windows 7 (Business and Ultimate Editions Only)
If you work on files stored on a server whose availability you can't depend on, Offline Files makes your life easier by copying the files to your hard drive and keeping them synced.
But if you don't work on such files, there's no point in keeping the feature activated. Find and double-click the service Offline Files. In the 'Startup type' drop-down menu, select Disabled, and then click OK.
This feature isn't available in any of the Home editions of Vista or Windows 7.
The features that you can disable here are the easiest ones to turn off and switching them off is likely to yield the biggest improvements in performance, too.
Aero: Vista, Windows 7
With Vista, Microsoft gave Windows an attractive, transparent look that it dubbed Aero. With Aero on, the headers at the top of each window are slightly transparent. You can't see what's behind them clearly enough to read them, but it gives the desktop a nice, three-dimensional look.
But that look eats clock cycles, and depending on the speed of your PC and your willingness to trade performance for aesthetics, you might want to turn Aero off.
If you're using Vista, right-click the Windows desktop and select Personalise, Window Color and Appearance. Click the Open classic appearance properties for more color options link (if you don't see the link, Aero is already off).
In Windows 7, right-click the Windows desktop and select Personalize. Select one of the themes that are displayed under the 'Basic and High Contrast Themes' heading.
The Sidebar: Vista
That bar full of widgets on the right side of the Vista desktop must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Who wouldn't want a feature that distracts you when you need to concentrate, steals precious screen space, and slows system performance like an anvil chained to a swimmer's leg?
Someone must have complained, because Microsoft didn't include the Sidebar in Windows 7.
Unlike the other features in this article, this one has no possible redeeming value. I'm not suggesting that you consider turning this feature off; I'm urging you to turn it off without further consideration.
To remove the Sidebar, Right-click a blank space on the Sidebar and select Properties. Uncheck Start Sidebar when Windows starts.