Tuning up Windows 98: Nine often overlooked tips

If you're using Windows 98's default setup, then your PC may not be performing at its optimal level. In this Daily Drill Down, Talainia Posey offers nine steps that you can take to optimize Windows 98.

Windows 98 is quite possibly the most elaborate operating system ever created for home and small business use. Due to its complexity and the fact that Windows 98 tries to be all things to all people, Windows 98’s default setup may not represent the optimal configuration for your PC. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll discuss nine ways you can optimize Windows 98.

1. Reduce the number of programs that are running
Let’s get started by looking at the most basic and most effective method of making Windows 98 run faster. The Windows 98 environment isn’t composed of just a single program. Instead, it’s a collection of many smaller programs that work together to accomplish the monumental task of providing a truly diverse operating system. Although most of these programs are required, some aren’t. Programs that aren’t required to keep the operating system functional eat up valuable system resources (such as processor cycles and memory) that other programs need. To see how many programs are running within your system, press [Ctrl][Alt][Delete]. The Windows Task Manager will appear. As you can see in Figure A, the Task Manager lists all of the programs that are running on top of Windows 98.

Figure A
The Task Manager lists programs that run on top of Windows 98.

This list can become lengthy. Some of the items on this list might be programs that you ran intentionally, such as Microsoft Word or Excel, but other programs start automatically at boot. You may or may not want these programs to run. If you want to disable these programs, you need to check out the Startup menu, which contains programs that load automatically at boot. To access the Startup menu, click the Start button and navigate to Settings | Taskbar & Start Menu. Next, you’ll see the Taskbar properties sheet. Select the Start Menu Programs tab and click Advanced. Now, navigate to Start Menu | Programs | Startup. The column on the right will show you the items in the Startup folder, as shown in Figure B. These items will run automatically when Windows loads. You can remove any undesirable items by selecting them and clicking Delete. Exercise caution, though. Avoid deleting anything with which you’re unfamiliar and avoid damaging any applications that depend on a specific component.

Figure B
Items in the Startup folder will run automatically.

You may have noticed that there were many items in Figure A that didn’t show up in Figure B. Generally, such items are set up by application programs or by Windows 98 itself. The references to these programs are often buried within the Windows 98 registry. You can remove these calls from the registry very easily. First, however, I should point out that modifying the registry is dangerous. Failure to follow my steps exactly can destroy Windows 98 and/or your programs. Removing references to programs with which you’re unfamiliar can lead to problems with the operating system or with other programs. Therefore, remove only those programs that you know and make sure that you have a good backup of the entire system before you attempt this procedure.

Begin by opening the Registry Editor. There’s no icon for the Registry Editor (which protects it), so you’ll have to access the Registry Editor from the Run prompt. Select Start | Run and enter the REGEDIT command. When the Registry Editor loads, navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE | Software | Microsoft | Windows | Current Version | run. There are many programs under this key that are set to run at startup. You may find similar programs under HKEY_LOAL_MACHINE | Software | Microsoft | Windows | CurrentVersion | RunServices; however, you should exercise extreme caution if you remove entries from this key. This key may contain services that the operating system depends on.

You should look in one more location for programs that execute at startup: the Win.ini file, which can be found in the Windows directory. This file may launch files at startup, particularly if you upgraded from a legacy version of Windows. The Win.ini file contains two lines that may be used to launch programs: LOAD= and RUN=. Again, avoid deleting anything with which you’re unfamiliar. (Just in case you’re wondering why there are so many locations to check, the Startup folder is designed to allow the end user to set programs to run automatically. The registry is designed to allow programs to launch automatically in an environment where they’re safe from end-user tampering.) The Win.ini file is a leftover from Windows 3.1. It’s only included in Windows 98 for purposes of backward compatibility.

You might be interested in a particular tool that makes these changes very easy to perform: Msconfig.exe. To use it, go to Start | Run and type Msconfig in the box. A dialog box, called the System Configuration Utility, will open. The Startup tab lists all of the programs that will start when Windows 98 is loaded, as shown in Figure C. Removing a checkmark from a box will prevent an individual program from starting automatically. Other tabs let you view the contents of Win.ini, System.ini, Autoexec.bat, Config.sys, and General Options. One benefit of using this utility is that removing a checkmark doesn’t remove a choice—it simply disables the associated program. You can enable it later, if you like. Just as with the other methods that I’ve mentioned, the same words of caution apply. Don’t disable programs unless you’re positive that you don’t need them.

Figure C
The Msconfig tool lets you disable any programs, including all Startup options.

2. Check for DOS configuration changes
I’ve discussed programs that load on top of Windows, but there’s a chance that your system also contains programs that load before Windows, especially if you upgraded to Windows 98 from a previous operating system, such as DOS, or from an older version of Windows. For instance, Windows 98 is designed to run without the Congif.sys or Autoexec.bat files. These files are provided for backward compatibility, but Windows 98 won’t need them unless some legacy program requires a specific setting or you don’t have a Windows device driver for some piece of hardware. Since these situations are rare, you may want to examine the Config.sys and Autoexec.bat files to see what is and what isn’t needed.

The Config.sys file is responsible for loading device drivers. Any device driver that’s loaded in Config.sys would be a 16-bit driver; a Windows-based driver would be a 32-bit driver. Thus, you should always load your device drivers in Windows 98 and not in Config.sys, if possible.

The Autoexec.bat file loads programs that are needed to prepare the legacy operating system for use. For example, the Autoexec.bat file might load a mouse driver or the MSCDEX file, which the CD-ROM drive uses. Such files are unnecessary in Windows 98, and you may remove them unless you have a specific reason for keeping them.

As always, you can use the Msconfig utility to view the contents of Autoexec.bat and Config.sys. Just select the appropriate tabs. To disable a setting, remove the checkmark from the appropriate box.

3. Boost system performance
Windows 98 offers many tuning mechanisms that will help you boost the performance of your system. You can use many of these mechanisms by going to the Control Panel and selecting the System icon. When you do, you’ll see the System Properties sheet. Select the Performance tab, and you’ll see a summary of your system’s free memory and other resources. There are three basic ways in which you can tune from this screen. First, check out the file system by clicking File System. When you click this button, you’ll see the File System Properties sheet. Take a look at the Hard Disk tab. Now, set the typical role of the computer to Network Server—even if the system isn’t networked. Doing so increases the number of cache buffers and increases the system’s performance in some areas. You also should set the read ahead optimization to Full.

Second, take a look at the CD-ROM tab. Set the Supplemental Cache Size to Large and set the Optimize Access Pattern for Quad Speed or Higher. These settings make a huge difference to your file system. You can test the settings on other tabs, but I recommend that you not enable the Write Behind Caching On Removable Drives—doing so can lead to data loss. Stay away from the Troubleshooting tab, too. Items on this tab can slow Windows down drastically; in some cases, playing with these items can indirectly lead to data loss.

The last place to examine is the Graphics button on the System Properties sheet’s Performance tab. Click this button and display the Advanced Graphics Settings dialog box. Unless you have a really old graphics card, set the Hardware Acceleration to Full. That way, you’ll gain the full potential of your graphics card.

4. Change your drive to FAT 32
Another way you can improve Windows 98’s performance is to convert your hard disk partitions to FAT 32. FAT 32 reduces the cluster size by using a 32-bit file system instead of the 16-bit file system that FAT partitions normally use. Doing so results in more free disk space because less space will be wasted within individual clusters. FAT 32 also allows you to increase partition sizes beyond 2 GB. You can convert a partition to FAT 32 by selecting the Programs | Accessories | System Tools | Drive Converter (FAT 32) command from the Start menu. Before you convert a partition, however, you should understand that Windows 98 (and Windows 95 OSR2) and Windows 2000 are the only operating systems that can use FAT 32 partitions. Thus, if you’re dual booting with an operating system that I haven’t mentioned, then FAT 32 isn’t a feasible option for you. If you convert the boot drive, then converting a partition to FAT 32 on such a system would make your second operating system completely inaccessible. Even converting other partitions would make the individual partitions inaccessible to alternate operating systems.

5. Turn off Windows wallpaper and screen savers
You may never have thought about it, but several very basic Windows 98 components consume resources and slow down your system. For example, Windows wallpaper is a resource hog. Using Windows wallpaper, especially a large photograph, can slow down the video updates on your screen dramatically. Likewise, screen savers can bog down your system. Keep in mind that Windows 98 is a multitasking environment. Often, Windows uses idle processor time to perform various types of system maintenance. A screen saver can slow down these tasks or even prevent them from running at all. When a screen saver isn’t active, there’s always a counter that runs in the background and starts keeping track of elapsed time after a key is pressed or the mouse is moved. This counter also consumes system resources.

6. Remove extra fonts
One surprising waste of system resources is the Fonts folder. Windows 98 works well with the built-in fonts and a dozen or so extra fonts. However, Windows 98 requires resources to support each installed font. As you add more fonts, Windows runs more slowly. To see for yourself, just add a few hundred fonts to the system and watch how slowly Windows runs. You should remove any fonts that you don’t use regularly. Start by opening the Fonts applet in the Control Panel. Next, select a font and choose the Delete command from the File menu. If you want to weed out the fonts that are similar to one another, you can select the List Fonts by Similarity command from the View menu. Then, you can select any given font from a drop-down list, and Windows will tell you how similar the other fonts on the system are to the one that you’ve selected.

7. Empty your trash
Another resource hog is the Recycle Bin. Windows 98 depends on having ample hard disk space. When you delete a file through Windows Explorer, the file is copied to the Recycle Bin and encapsulated into a package that helps Windows know how to restore the file (if necessary). Ironically, however, the deleted file consumes more disk space in this encapsulated form than it did before you deleted it. For example, if you were running low on hard disk space, you might decide to delete some old files. Unless you clean out the recycle bin after you’re finished, you’ll lose even more hard disk space by deleting the files. So, clean out the Recycle Bin regularly and keep Windows running properly. Do you want to keep your Recycle Bin empty? If you’re sure that you want to delete a file, hold down the [Shift] key and press [Delete]. Doing so permanently removes the file instead of storing it in the Recycle Bin.

8. Update the drivers
Some devices, such as the system board, work well with the drivers that are built into Windows 98. Other devices, such as your network card or your video card, work better with third-party drivers. I recommend that you use third-party drivers for such devices whenever possible. Drivers for most of the devices in your system probably shipped with your system. However, these drivers are probably not the newest ones that are available, especially if you’ve had your system for very long. You can download the latest drivers for most hardware devices from the Internet, and you should do so periodically. New drivers usually perform better than old drivers, and they often contain bug fixes. The Driver Guide is a good place to find any drivers that you need.

9. Get rid of that Internet cache
Have you ever watched your disk space slowly disappear, and you didn’t know where it went? If so, then there’s a good chance that the Internet Explorer cache is using a really big chunk of hard disk real estate. Most Web pages are made up of multiple files, including the HTML file that creates the page and various graphic, sound, and script files that display on the page. Before Internet Explorer can display a page, these files must be stored on your hard disk. The location to which these files are copied is called the Internet Explorer cache. Imagine how much disk space gets used when you surf thousands of Web pages!

Fortunately, there’s a way of getting some of that lost disk space back. First, select the Internet Options command from Internet Explorer’s Tools menu. Next, you’ll see the Internet Options properties sheet. Select the General tab. As you can see in Figure D, there’s a button that allows you to delete files. This button refers to all of the cached Web pages that are stored on your system. Although clicking this button will clear the cache, you still need to prevent it from filling back up. So, click the Settings button. As you can see in Figure E, you can control the Maximum amount of hard disk space that the Internet Explorer cache is allowed to use. If the current number is too high, lower this number to meet your needs. You also can use the Move Folder button to relocate the cache to a hard disk with more free space.

Figure D
Under Internet Options, you can clear the Internet Explorer cache folder.

Figure E
The Settings dialog box allows you to control the Internet Explorer cache.

With only a few tweaks here and there, you can force Windows 98 to perform better. Of course, these nine tips are only a starting point. There are other actions that you can take to create a faster, more efficient system. If you have any tips that you’d like to share, you can post a response below, or you can send an e-mail.

Talainia Posey learned to handle PCs the old-fashioned way: by reading manuals and doing on-the-job troubleshooting. Her experience also includes installing networks for several small companies. When she's not working on computers, Talainia loves to shop for toys and watch cartoons—or spend time with her cat, Beavis.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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