Do More with Less: Lighten up Windows 9x's workload

Learn what adjustments to make that will make Windows 9x run more efficiently.

A Windows 9x machine that has been around for a while runs much more slowly than it did when it was originally installed. As time goes on and you install new applications, you might notice that Windows gradually slows to a crawl. While some of the slowing is related to things like hard disk fragmentation, a bigger portion is related to the way Windows, and the applications you’ve installed, use your system’s memory and processing power. I’ll explain how to take a closer look at your system’s configuration, remove unnecessary programs, and make some adjustments that will make Windows 9x run more efficiently.

Why remove background programs?
The trick to speeding up Windows is to determine which programs are constantly running in the background and, of those programs, which are necessary and which aren’t. Once you’ve figured out which programs are running but shouldn’t be, you can prevent those programs from causing your system to slow down.

You might be curious as to why removing unseen and obscure programs has such a dramatic impact on your system’s performance. After all, such programs tend to be rather small and seemingly insignificant.

First, remember that no matter how small a program is, it’s using some amount of memory. If a particular memory block of addresses is being used for a background program that isn’t necessary, that memory range isn’t available to your system for other things. As your system’s memory fills up, it will begin to depend heavily on virtual memory. Virtual memory is a technique in which hard disk space is used in place of physical RAM. Rather than being written to RAM, data is written to the hard disk. Whenever Windows needs to access the data that’s residing in virtual memory, some of the data that exists in RAM is removed and written to the hard disk. The desired information is then moved from the hard disk into the area of RAM that’s just been freed up. This process is called swapping. Although swapping works well in low-memory situations, the hard disk is a lot slower than RAM. Memory access is measured in nanoseconds (billionths of a second), while hard disk access time is measured in milliseconds (thousandths of a second). You want to keep virtual memory use to a minimum to avoid swapping.

The other reason that removing unnecessary background programs boosts your system’s performance is related to the way Windows’ multitasking works. Remember that the processor physically can’t run most applications simultaneously. Instead, Windows assigns a little bit of processor time to each application in a round-robin style that gives the illusion that your applications are running simultaneously. The more applications that are running, the less processor time each application is given within a period of time. Therefore, if you remove unnecessary programs, the processor time that would normally be used to service the rogue application can be used to service other programs, making them run faster.

Removing unnecessary background programs can also free up processor time in swapping, which requires processor time because the processor must be able to move data between the system’s memory and the hard disk. The less swapping that occurs, the less processor time is required for that task.

Check out what’s running in the background
Now that you understand why it’s important to remove unnecessary background programs, it’s time to figure out what’s actually running on your system. The most obvious way is to check the taskbar. Normally, applications that appear on the taskbar are ones you’ve manually started. Even so, it’s important to close these applications before you begin hunting for background programs.

Once you’ve closed all of the applications that you know about, press [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] to display the Task Manager. The Task Manager displays most of the programs that are running on your system. You may be surprised to see how many programs are actually running after you’ve closed all known applications. Some of the programs that you see are actually part of Windows (although often unnecessary parts), while the rest are programs installed as a part of some application.

Now that you have the list in front of you, write it all down. In most cases, you’ll want to keep some items and deactivate others. In either case, it’s helpful to have a checklist in front of you so you can check off each program as you decide what you want to do with it.

Next, make a full system backup. By now, you’ve probably noticed that many of the items on the list are a bit cryptic. As you work through the various deactivation techniques I’m going to explain, you can usually use a program’s path to help you to figure out what the program is. For example, if you just see a program called HJKOIJ, you may not know what it is. However, if you locate the place where the program is being called from (say, the BOGUSPROGRAM directory), you can be sure the mystery program is a part of whatever application you’ve installed in that directory.

Even though you can typically figure out what each program is, I still recommend making a backup before changing anything. Last year, I decided to perform this process on one of my PCs. I made an incorrect assumption about a program. Unfortunately, the program was something that my scanner couldn’t function without. Reinstalling the scanner software did not replace the call to the program. The only way that I was able to make my scanner work again was to format my hard disk and reload the PC from scratch. If I had made a backup, I could have saved myself a lot of work.

The system tray
The most likely place for background programs to hide is in the system tray, the group of icons that appears on the taskbar next to the clock. Each icon represents a program that’s running in the background. Many times, you can temporarily disable such programs by right-clicking on them and selecting the Close command from the resulting context menu. By doing so, you can get a feeling for the consequence of disabling the various programs before you make the change permanent. If you temporarily close a program and find that doing so produces some undesirable result, simply reboot the system and the program will be running once again.

The registry
The vast majority of the background programs that are running on your system are called from within your system’s registry. This includes the programs that are running on the system tray.

Before I show you how to remove background applications from the registry, I’ll give you the standard disclaimer. Messing with the registry can be dangerous. Making a mistake in the registry can destroy Windows and/or your applications. Make sure to have a backup on hand before attempting any registry modification. Also keep in mind that the Registry Editor saves changes instantly. Think before you modify anything.

Open the Registry Editor by entering the REGEDIT command at the Run prompt. Navigate through the registry tree to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE | Software | Microsoft | Windows | CurrentVersion. Beneath this key are a couple of keys that contain references to programs that are running in the background: Run and Run Services. You can see an example of the Run subkey in Figure A.

Figure A
The HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE | Software | Microsoft | Windows | CurrentVersion | Run registry key contains references to programs that are running in the background.

You can see that a lot of programs are running in the background on my machine. Some of the listed programs are part of Windows, while others are related to applications. Some that are related to Windows are the LoadPowerProfile, ScanRegistry, SystemTray, and TaskMonitor. It’s safe to disable any of these programs, but keep in mind that doing so has consequences. For example, if you disable the system tray, you won’t be able to run programs on the system tray. Likewise, if you disable the power profile, your system won’t be able to go into standby when idle. Although it’s technically safe to disable the ScanRegistry program, I recommend leaving it running since it’s designed to help you recover from various types of registry damage. TaskMonitor is handy as well because it keeps tabs on background programs. You can delete any of the registry keys by right-clicking on them and selecting the Delete command from the resulting context menu.

Other locations
The registry isn’t the only place that background programs can be started. Let’s not forget that programs can also be launched from the Startup folder. You can remove programs from the Startup folder by selecting Settings | Taskbar And Start Menu from the Start menu. On the Taskbar And Start Menu Properties sheet, select the Start Menu tab and click the Advanced button. Now, navigate to the Startup folder and delete the offending program.

If you’ve installed older applications, it’s possible that background programs are being launched from the Win.ini file. The Win.ini file contains two lines that can launch background programs: RUN= and LOAD=. You can see an example of this in Figure B.

Figure B
The LOAD= and RUN= lines of Win.ini can launch background programs.

By now, you should have found everything on your list. However, the Config.sys and Autoexec.bat files could still be loading programs. I recently wrote a series on real mode and protected mode drivers, in which I explained the methods of clearing out these configuration files. If you find that you have programs called from these files, I recommend reading the series.

Windows 9x runs quite a bit slower than it should because of the way memory and processing power are distributed. From useless programs that take up valuable memory space to processor-intensive applications, you must contend with several issues to regain your system's original speed. In this Daily Drill Down, I explained several techniques you can try in order to see what’s really running on your system so you can remove the unnecessary programs.

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