If you’ve been working with Windows XP Professional for some time and you’ve noticed a decline in system performance from when you first started using XP, you may be at a loss to explain the problem. As a Windows power user, you most likely keep an eye on your system’s performance with the Task Manager. And you probably run Disk Defragmenter frequently as well as the Disk Cleanup utility. Yet none of these practices seem to be doing the trick.

Before you throw in the towel and place a call to your IT department, I have discovered several built-in XP options you can tweak to adjust your visual effects, memory usage, virtual memory, and processor scheduling, each of which has a direct bearing on how well your system performs. Don’t fret if these terms sound to you like the name of a secret mission. We’ll explore each of them in detail as I can show you how to optimize the way your system runs and how to prevent a degradation in performance from occurring in the future.

To optimize XP’s performance and keep your workday running smoothly, I’ll show you how to adjust several of your operating system’s settings so you can get the most out of XP. We’ll begin by showing you how to configure XP’s visual effects to troubleshoot performance issues. Next, we’ll delve a little deeper by exploring processor slowdowns, and how you can make some adjustments to memory usage to improve performance. Finally, we’ll explore several quick and easy tweaks you can implement to jump-start your sluggish system.

Windows XP Professional’s visual effects encompass such enhancements as animated menus; fade effects, cursor shadows, menu shadows, and more. While these effects are pleasing to the eye and can add to your overall XP sensory experience, they also have a negative effect on how quickly your operating system responds to your requests. The more visual effects you have activated, the slower your system performance. Let’s begin by taking a look at how you can adjust XP’s visual effects settings to improve performance without losing all of the effects that make XP cool.

To access your visual effects, click the Start button and then choose Control Panel. In Classic view, double-click on the System icon, and then in the System Properties dialog box, select the Advanced tab. Then, under Performance, click the Settings button to display the Performance Settings dialog box; the Visual Effects tab allows you to fine-tune your operating system to suit your taste and preferences.

Note: If you’re using Classic view, open Control Panel, click on the Performance And Maintenance link, and then click on the Adjust Visual Settings link.

Now that you’ve located this area, you can allow Windows XP Professional to choose what’s best for your computer, manually adjust these settings for best appearance, manually adjust them for best performance, or choose Custom and pick and choose your own settings. As you can see, you can turn on and off visual effects by selecting or deselecting the appropriate check boxes.

So which options should you choose? For computers that are a few years old and are running with XP’s minimum system requirements, we recommend choosing the Custom setting—which gives you the most control over your system—and deselecting all of visual effect options. Next, use Windows XP as you normally would over the next 24 hours to see if your system performance is improving. Slowly re-enable your favorite visual features and see how your system performs. By conducting this experiment, you should be able to determine exactly how many enabled effects your system can tolerate without experiencing performance problems.

If you find, however, that your system doesn’t respond well to restoring the visual effects, you might want to consider turning off all the visual effects for good. You’ll lose most of the effects of XP’s cool new interface, windows won’t slide into place, and the desktop won’t have its 3-D appearance, but you’ll get some added power and performance. And the loss of the visual effects is a small price to pay to save you the price of a costly upgrade.

  • Addressing processor problems-Now that you’ve seen how adjusting XP’s visual settings can help you improve your system performance, it’s time to delve a little deeper into XP and explore how memory settings can play a role in performance degradation. Over time, if you don’t tweak or manage your memory settings, you’ll begin to notice your computer’s response time gets slower and slower, until it virtually crawls. Let’s take a look at how you can take control of your memory settings by using the Advanced tab of the Performing Options dialog box to prevent this from happening.
  • Adjusting processor scheduling– Processor Scheduling is the setting that tells XP how to handle your system’s processor. By default, XP is configured to devote more processor time to the running of your programs than to the running of background services (such as Plug and Play and the print spooler, which loads your print jobs into memory for printing), so your programs respond more quickly to your requests. However, if you find that you’d like to change this default priority level to improve the performance of the services running on your system, select the Background Services option button.
  • Tweaking memory usage-The Memory Usage section allows you to optimize or tweak your settings for running programs. By default, Windows XP optimizes your memory to run your programs effectively and without problems. However, if you frequently run database-intensive applications on your system, or if you often edit large video or MPEG files, you might want to consider selecting the System Cache option to allocate a larger space of memory to cache. We recommend only selecting this setting if you see performance degradation when you run your database or video-editing application.
  • What is the system cache?-The system cache is responsible for the system performance of your computer. The cache acts as a buffer between your computer’s processor and the memory that serves it. The presence of the cache allows the processor to do its work while waiting much less time for available memory than it otherwise would.
  • Changing paging file size-The final memory setting we’ll explore is Virtual Memory. As you may already know, virtual memory is a method used to trick your operating system into thinking it has more RAM for use by its applications than is physically present in the computer. The file used to simulate RAM is called the page file (also referred to as the swap file). Your computer uses the page file in conjunction with physical RAM to run your operating system and store programs and information.

Note: By default you can’t see the page file on your operating system. If you’re interested in seeing the actual file, open Windows Explorer and then choose Tools | Folder Options. Next, select the View tab and select the Show Hidden Files And Folders option button and deselect the Hide Protected Operating System Files option. You can then use Windows Explorer to view your page file, which is located at the root of your hard drive.

When Windows XP is first installed, the operating system creates your page file on the root folder of the drive that holds all of your system files. Windows XP Professional determines the minimal page file size by using the simple formula of 1.5 times the amount of physical RAM on your particular system, and the maximum page file size is three times that value. To see your current configuration, click the Change button located in the Virtual Memory section.

The first thing you’ll see is the drive letter and the current size range for the Paging File Size (MB) option. Next you can see that you have the following three options available when working with the page file:

  • Custom Size
  • System Managed Size
  • No Paging File

In almost all cases, setting Windows XP to use the System Managed size will suffice. Selecting this setting allows Windows XP to automatically manage the size of the page file. Next, you could choose No Paging File if you have two drives and you only want the page file on one drive. Furthermore, you’d choose Custom Size if you wanted to choose a custom size of your page file for testing. This is the option to choose if you want to reclaim some of the hard drive space your page file is using in order to gain better system performance. You might set the Initial Size to 2 MB and the Maximum size to a number that is three times the amount of memory you have. This causes the page file to grow only to the amount of space that’s needed, instead of claiming all of that space for the page file at once.

As with the visual effects settings, we recommend decreasing the size of your page file slightly, and then working with your system as you normally would for 24 hours. Then, return to this dialog box, and make the necessary adjustments to the page file size—increasing it slightly if your performance is improved and decreasing it slightly if it isn’t, until you find the optimum level for your system. Keep in mind that whenever you make a change, you’ll need to click the Set button, click OK, and then reboot your system.

For additional enhancements, see my blog posting on additional Windows XP Tweaks.