Windows Vista Tweaks

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2709, 2009-02-27, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 7-9) and their website.

Microsoft has had a fairly difficult time getting Windows XP users to spend the time and money upgrading to Windows Vista, and there are many reasons for this: Firstly, Windows XP had proven itself to be the best version of Windows, upon its introduction, especially in terms of stability and device driver inclusion. Happy XP users were quite right in asking, Why change? Secondly, upgrading to Vista requires time, which is always in short supply for busy individuals. Thirdly, there is the risk of rendering unusable any number of applications and hardware devices that are working fine. Fourthly, switching to Vista involves not only the expense of purchasing a new Windows license, but the cost of upgrading one's PC to match the significant increase in system memory and other components, as required by Vista.

Also, Windows Vista is quite similar to XP in some areas, and largely unchanged in others. Admittedly, User Access Control is a very noticeable difference, but in a negative sense, because it repeatedly asks for confirmation of common tasks — all of which becomes rather annoying (we will discuss a fix for that in a moment). Windows Vista has a new search field in the Start menu, but most people do not use it or even know that it is there. In Vista's Control Panel, the number of items has more than doubled, and they are now organized into ten categories. But many people — especially power users who have learned to perform administrative tasks as quickly as possible — much prefer the Classic interface with all cascading menus enabled, and thus will never see those categories. Most of the menu bars were removed, which is maddening for all users who came to rely upon menus for performing tasks.

Lastly, even though the very latest version of Vista and its service packs are causing fewer headaches than the initial version, there are still endless complaints about Vista updates causing PCs to freeze up, device driver incompatibility, memory overload while copying files, Web access problems, applications being impossible to uninstall, unpatched but known bugs, and programs running much slower. The firestorm of criticism was so intense that consumer advocacy groups in several countries strongly recommended that people not purchase Windows Vista. Consequently, so many organizations and individual computer users have opted to stick with Windows XP (or even Windows 2000!) and eschew Windows Vista entirely, that Microsoft has been under constant pressure to extend the availability of XP until the release of Windows 7.

Given all of the user interface and performance problems seen with Windows Vista, one would think that Microsoft would have tweaked it as much as possible, before releasing it to the public. But such was not the case. Fortunately, there are many known techniques for improving the Vista experience, and we will examine some of the better-regarded ones.

Services and Disservices

Windows Vista's User Access Control (UAC) is an ill-conceived attempt to reduce the chances of malware infection by popping up one dialog box after another, asking you to confirm a range of everyday operations that used to be performed automatically in Windows XP. While increased system security is always a laudable goal, this was clearly not the way to achieve it. It did not take long for this new "feature" to become the most common sore spot for Vista users. Fortunately, the UAC nag can be silenced with little difficulty: Click the Start button, choose Control Panel, and then choose User Accounts (or User Accounts and Family Safety, if you are not connected to a network domain). Select "Turn User Account Control on or off". If you are prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, provide it. Uncheck "Use User Account Control (UAC)", and then click OK.

There are other Windows Vista features, aside from UAC, that will largely do nothing more than slow down both you and your PC. They can be safely turned off manually. But you would have to do this every time you boot up your PC, because they start automatically when Windows Vista does. So it is best to completely disable them: Return to the Control Panel, choose Administrative Tools, then choose System Configuration, and then click the Services tab. Deselect the following services: Fax (unless you own and plan on using a fax modem), Offline Files (unless you plan on using Offline File Sync, which few people do), Tablet PC Input Service (unless you have a tablet PC), Terminal Services, and Windows Search.

Vista also has some unneeded features that are not listed as part of the automatic startup services. To turn them off, go to the Control Panel, select Program Features, and in the panel on the left choose "Turn Windows Features on or off". You can then disable the following items: Indexing Service, Remote Differential Compression, Tablet PC Optional Components, Windows DFS Replication Service, Windows Fax & Scan (unless you plan on using a modem for sending and receiving faxes, which few people still do), and Windows Meeting Space (unless you plan on using the Live Meeting Service). For those last two entries, if you are not sure at this time as to whether or not you intend to try them, it is best to disable them for now, because you can always re-enable them later if needed, and you may forget to return to this part of the Control Panel to disable them.

Resource Hogs

As new and modified files are written to a hard drive, they may be broken up into pieces, with each piece located in a separate area on the hard drive. This fragmentation increases the amount of time it takes to read each file's contents, because the drive's head has to move a lot more to read those separate pieces. Defragmentation is the process of bringing all of those separated pieces together, and thus improves file access speeds. Regardless of what operating system you are running, you should periodically defragment the hard drive. Do this anytime you are not using the computer, since it can be time-consuming. Unfortunately, Windows Vista does this continually, thus forcing you to endure the delays piecemeal. Click the Start button, and choose Computer. Right-click the C: Drive, and choose Properties. Select the Tools Tab, then choose Defragment Now, and uncheck Run on a Schedule. You should do this for all of your drives, if you have any other than the C: drive.

Do you frequently need to close your laptop temporarily, such as when using it when traveling? If so, then the hibernate feature of your operating system (Windows or any other) is a welcome method for avoiding the inconvenience and risk of shutting down all of your applications and then the operating system itself, only to have to reverse the whole process just to get back to where you were in your workflow. However, most people do not have a need for hibernation (at least for their computers; putting oneself into hibernation for a couple of years through the current economic crisis, may be a tempting thought!). Windows Vista has its hibernation capabilities enabled by default, and they do consume a nontrivial amount of system resources. To turn them off, go to the Control Panel, choose Power Options, click Change Plan Settings, and then click Change Advanced Power Settings. In the Sleep section, go into the Hibernate After section, move the selector down to zero, and click the Apply button.

There are many more ways to fine-tune your installation of Windows Vista, and they can be found by searching on the Web. No matter what changes you choose to make, be sure to first do a full backup of all of your important data (something you should be doing frequently anyway). If you are familiar with how to export a copy of the Windows Registry, do that as well.

With these system tweaks and any others, you can improve Windows Vista to the point where it is quite usable — almost as good as XP!

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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