NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2006
Utilize Windows XP Components to Improve Performance
By Ira Wilsker,
APCUG Director; Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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Many of us are plagued by what appears to be a sluggish computer with an overstuffed hard drive. Others are frustrated alleging that their computers crashed because it appears not to boot. Fortunately for the users of Windows XP, there are several integral utilities built into XP that can be used to improve the performance of the computer, and recover from apparent crashes.

Since earlier versions of Windows, Microsoft has included a utility with the operating system that can check the hard drive for most errors, and actually repair many of the errors found. In these earlier versions of Windows the utility was referred to as “Scandisk” or “Check Disk”, but in XP the utility has the more generic moniker “Error Checking”. The hard drive Error Checking utility can be accessed by clicking on the “My Computer” icon and right-clicking on the “C:” drive or other installed hard drive. This will open a window with many options; scroll to the bottom of the window and left-click on “Properties”, and then left-click on the tab “Tools”. Two options will be displayed, “Error Checking” and “Defragmentation.” The “Error Checking” choice states that, “This option will check the volume for errors.” Clicking on the “Check Now” button will start the utility. When opened, two more options are displayed under the heading “Check disk” which are “Automatically fix file system errors” and “Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors.” The “fix file system error” selection will check the hard drive file system for defects, and attempt to repair any errors that are found. The “bad sectors” choice will digitally check the surfaces of the platters (discs) in the hard drive itself looking for defective sectors. If any bad sectors are found, the software will attempt to relocate any data found in those sectors, and block those sectors from future use. It should be noted that it is common for some bad sectors to be occasionally found, and is not in itself an indication of pending hard drive failure unless the number of bad sectors is excessive.

The other utility shown under the “Tools” tab, which has been referred to as “defrag” will reorganize the data on the hard drive in an orderly fashion. This reorganization of the data will allow the hard drive to work more efficiently. By simply clicking on the “Defragment Now” button the program will execute. Defragmentation is one of the simplest tasks that the user can easily perform that will improve apparent performance, because when defragmented, the hard drive can read and write data much more quickly. If the user had previously installed a third-party defragmenting utility, such as Executive Software’s Diskeeper, that utility may load by default rather than Microsoft’s integral utility. Many users who do a lot of work on their computers may find that a weekly defragmentation can promote improved performance.

Sometimes we may think that our system has crashed, because it does not boot properly. Sometimes we do things on our computers, like tweak the registry or install new software only to find that we regret the action because now our computer is not working properly. We may say to ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I can undo what I did?” Fortunately Microsoft reinstated a feature previously available in Windows ME that allows us to go back to an earlier state on our computer, that service is called “System Restore”. System Restore replaces the current registry and key system files with earlier versions that had been automatically or manually saved by the program. If the computer boots, System restore can be found by clicking on START – ALL PROGRAMS – ACCESSORIES – SYSTEM TOOLS – SYSTEM RESTORE. There are three choices in the System restore Window; “System Restore Settings” (left center of the window), “Restore my computer to an earlier time”, and “Create a restore point”.

Microsoft somewhat arbitrarily decided that 12% of our total hard drive capacity should be reserved for the system backups created by System Restore. On older computers with small hard drives this amount may be reasonable, but on newer computers, with gargantuan hard drives, this is a crass waste of storage space. By clicking on the “System Restore Settings”, the hard drive can be selected, and “Settings” will open a small window with a slider. The maximum setting is 12% of the hard drive, but any lesser amount may be selected. Some pundits recommend that about 4 to 6 gigabytes is a reasonable amount of space to dedicate for restore data.

The selection “Restore my computer to an earlier time” will open a calendar showing previous restore points, the available dates being in a bold font. By rule of thumb, XP makes a restore point after about every 10 hours of use, and before any major software products or Windows updates are installed. Clicking on the latest date in bold, when the computer last functioned well, should restore the computer to its earlier state. Several provisos should be noted here. First, system restore only replaces the registry and key system files, but does not harm any or delete any data files, which are typically unaltered by the process. Second, is that if there were any viruses, worms, Trojans, or other malware previously infecting system files, restoring to that date will likely re-infect the computer.

If the computer fails to fully boot, it may be possible to boot the computer in “Safe Mode”, which will display a user selectable choice when thus booted, giving the user the option of running System Restore. To boot into safe mode (on most PCs), tap the F8 key several times immediately after turning on the computer. This should open a screen giving the user the choice to boot normally, in safe mode, and other options; select safe mode. Upon loading a minimal operating system and drivers a window will appear offering to continue into safe mode or allowing the system restore utility to be run. Running System Restore will restore the computer to a user selectable earlier date, often allowing the computer to boot and function normally, but without whatever caused it to crash initially.

If the user is considering making some software changes to the computer, such as installing new software or cleaning the registry, it would be a wise choice to select “Create a restore point” from the System Restore window. This will do as it says, create a restore point, which will allow the user to undo any changes made if desired.

These are but a few of the useful tools integral with XP. Future columns will cover additional tools in XP as well as the utilities included with Vista, the upcoming replacement for XP.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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