Despite years of refinement and the collective experience of millions of users, Windows remains as buggy, enigmatic, and failure-prone as ever. Each new release of the operating system adds a little glitz and a handful of new features, but also just as many new headaches. Sometimes Vista's new features and improved functions seem to be more trouble than they're worth, and older sibling XP certainly isn't getting any easier to live with as it ages.
Fortunately, you don't have to spend hours researching the cures for Windows' ills. We've distilled the most important fixes, and slick improvements, into steps that you can implement in mere minutes. These tips will accelerate your startups and shutdowns, automate your system maintenance, and even get you browsing at full throttle.
Put Some Sizzle in Your Startups
Problem: Windows never seems to start fast enough
Fast Fix 1: Your computer could be loading device drivers for hardware you no longer use. To save on system resources, uninstall those drivers. Since a careless choice can cause your machine to lose an important function, however, create a restore point in System Restore before proceeding.
By default, Device Manager doesn't show devices that aren't currently connected to your system. To make them visible, press Windows-R to open the Run box, type cmd, and press Enter. At the command prompt, type set devmgr_show_nonpresent_devices=1 and press Enter. Leave the command-prompt window open.
Now press Windows-R again, type devmgmt.msc, and press Enter. In the Device Manager window, choose View, Show Hidden Devices. Click the plus sign (+) next to each of the branches to examine all of the drivers on your system. Devices that are not currently connected appear with a pale version of the icon. If you come across a device that you're sure you no longer use, right-click it and choose Uninstall. Then follow the prompts shown on screen to complete the process. When you're done, close the command-prompt window to re-hide your unconnected devices.
Fast Fix 2: Once you have mapped a network drive to a letter on your computer, Windows will automatically restore that connection by default whenever you log on. Since resuming network connections takes time, you can speed your startups by dropping the connections you aren't using.
Press Windows-E to launch Windows Explorer, and type Alt-T, D to open the Disconnect Network Drives dialog box. Pick the drives to disconnect, and click OK.
In the future, if you connect a drive only for the current session, simply enter its UNC path (this appears in the address bar when you select the drive in Explorer, and in the Run box). Or, if you use the Tools, Map Network Drive command in Explorer, make sure Reconnect at logon is unchecked before you click Finish.
Fast Fix 3: You'll free your system's memory and recover processor cycles by clearing out the clutter that starts each time you log in to Windows - and you may even discover some malware in the process. Check out the free Autoruns program from Microsoft-owned Sysinternals.
How do you distinguish the useful startup programs from the useless ones? You can consult Autoruns' built-in research tools, or you can visit Paul Collins's Startup Applications List. This searchable and downloadable list of common startup items provides a description and rating for each one, indicating how likely the item is to be required on a typical system.