Is there a good, systematic way to repair Windows' slow and steady degradation other than periodic reinstall?
January 8, 2004 11:17 AM   Subscribe

scarabic's question brings up a more general question I have. Is there a good, systematic way to repair Windows' slow and steady degradation other than periodic reinstall? [more inside]

Every Windows machine I've ever used inexorably declines in performance over time in myriad ways, including things like scarabic's delayed right-click problem. Archiving data and resintalling Windows of course brings you back up to speed, but is there a better way? I've messed with various system diagnostic tools over time, but have never been terribly satisfied with any of them. Does anybody have a tool that they are in love with?
posted by badstone to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
you don't really need any tools, per se, but just a good sense about what you should allow on your computer. Don't install questionable or redundant apps and keep it lean. I find that I only need to reinstall when I change motherboards these days.
posted by Hackworth at 11:28 AM on January 8, 2004

Heck, I don't even reinstall when I switch mobos, with XP. 98 still needs an enema every six months or so even if you keep it clean.
And just so the /. crowd doesn't feel the need to say it, I will ... install linux. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 11:43 AM on January 8, 2004

Response by poster: I've wasted waaaay to much time trying to install (and resintall and reinstall and reinstall...) Linux. It's always driven me absolutely nuts and never works. You spend hours and hours reading docs and tweaking little variables in config files all over only to find 2-3 logins later, you suddenly have no fonts, or the sound doesn't work, or x doesn't work, or you just /can't/ login any more. I'd rather just reinstall Windows with no effort once a year, then go through that insanity again.
posted by badstone at 11:58 AM on January 8, 2004

My only guess at why this happens is that over time, core system files become more complex, as applications, installs, crashes, and manual tweaks scramble them, hack them back together, and enlarge them. I don't know a heck of a lot about Windows, but it seems to rely greatly on the Registry, which I imagine to be like a bowl of spaghetti going through a roller coaster: a tangled mess before long.

I have a feeling that any answer to this question would depend greatly on the machine at hand. It's kind of like saying "As life goes onward, I seem to have more health problems, what can I do?" There are answers, but probably not one for all. As with health, preventative medicine is probably very powerful, as Hackworth suggests. A conservatively managed PC can be stable for years, but you do have to be kind of a Nazi about things.
posted by scarabic at 11:59 AM on January 8, 2004

I would love a good answer to this too. XP has gone over a year without needing a reinstall (a record!), but it desperately needs one now, and I'd rather not.
posted by rushmc at 12:22 PM on January 8, 2004

As I read this I wondered about how much hassle the Windows XP Product Activation would cause after re-installs, and after Googling, found this useful article.
posted by mojohand at 12:25 PM on January 8, 2004

If I'm trying to speed up an older computer I usually start with defragging (try Diskeeper) and a thorough scan disk. Clearing out temporary files comes next. Then checking that the swap file is the right size for the memory which is ideally a fixed size of two and a half times the size of the physical memory.

After a few years of installing and uninstalling software all sorts of crap can end up starting with the system. Using Startup Control Panel is a handy way of keeping track of all the rubbish that slows your computer down on startup. I often remove things like Office Find Fast, the rubbish that comes with Real Player, and just anything that doesn't need to be there.

Checking in the Device Manager for hardware that isn't working properly and then sorting the issue out by looking through Microsoft Support or the hardware vendors website is good. And sometimes updating drivers for core hardware can help (video cards, network cards, etc).

Over time the registry can swell beyond the systems requirements, however whenever I've tried software to remove junk from it the speed benefits have been minimal.
posted by dodgygeezer at 12:28 PM on January 8, 2004

All excellent advice, dodgygeezer, but I do most of that on a semi-regular basis and the system still slows down significantly over time. There's something else going on that, in my experience, only a fresh install fixes.
posted by rushmc at 12:43 PM on January 8, 2004

Well, take a snapshot of your os's filesystem when it's stable/fresh, and then restore to that when it's not. Here's some free software to do that..

Keep your data and the stable os image on another partition. Might be worth reinstalling a stable version to take a good snapshot.
posted by holloway at 1:31 PM on January 8, 2004

Sorry, I got my bookmarks confused. I meant Ranish Partition which is part of XOSL (an OS bootloader). From there you can copy/delete your Windows partitions and then boot to them.
posted by holloway at 1:41 PM on January 8, 2004

Having just done a fresh install on my work machine, this is very cogent for me at the moment. For all it's simplicity, it had never occurred to me to make an image of the HDD and just restore everything back to new every now and again.

Would making a copy of the registry in good condition and regularly overwriting it with the saved copy help, or is it more complicated than that? Also, what effects would that have in terms of changes made on-the-fly by software updates etc?
posted by dg at 2:33 PM on January 8, 2004

What I've done recently, is, I've stopped using an account with administrator access, and I just use a normal user account for everyday work. And once the dreaded slowdown shows itself, I backup all my data, delete my user profile, and restore my stuff,... And everything is like new again, without the hassle of a complete reinstall.
posted by yeoz at 2:40 PM on January 8, 2004

There's a lot that goes wrong in the registry, but stuff breaks elsewhere too so you'd need to backup more than that. Typically people use Norton Ghost for backing up drive images but the software isn't free (sometimes it comes bundled with HDDs). I use XOSL at home and it works fine for restoring to the same hardware (Norton would be better if I wanted to compress the image, and restore it on slightly different hardware, etc.).

Deleting a profile works sometimes but for my use of Windows 2003 the problems are usually deeper than that. There are all kinds of common libraries and settings that users share-those can break.
posted by holloway at 2:57 PM on January 8, 2004

what effects would that have in terms of changes made on-the-fly by software updates etc?
Changes to the registry? Would depend on the software, I guess.
posted by holloway at 3:01 PM on January 8, 2004

Badstone, rushmc: what version of Windows are you using? Anything older than Windows 2000 (basically 95, 98, and ME) will eventually die of slowness and crashiness. I'm using a 2 year old WinXP install that's been through a couple of motherboards, and it's still plenty fast. I just make sure there's not a lot of stuff running in the background and it works fine. I've also installed/uninstalled tons of software so I can imagine that my registry is full of old junk.
posted by zsazsa at 5:54 PM on January 8, 2004

The best advice I was ever given about keeping NT from degrading in performance over time is this:

1. Keep the system itself in a separate partition from everything else: installed programs, scratch space, documents, download piles. Everything. The idea is to keep the number of times the system partition is written to for non-system reasons to a minimum. This is less about file fragmentation (which is reparable) than it is about the performance characteristics of the NTFS MFT (master file table), which steadily gets messier and slower to access as the disk "ages."

2. Ensure that your swap file is fixed in size and not set to grow and shrink dynamically, preventing swap fragmentation from happening. If the disk heads have to move around a lot just to get to a swap page, you're screwed. Diskkeeper fixes this but not always well. Better still would be to have swap on a separate disk spindle from everything else, but you probably don't want to dedicate an entire hard disk to it.


4. Move your user profiles to a separate partition, or better yet a separate disk, from the system. The profile gets written to a lot.

5. Set system and user temporary directories to, again, a separate partition or disk.

I have seen NT systems which have been configured this way run well (in terms of performance) for years.
posted by majick at 7:19 PM on January 8, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, OK... I'll reinstall one more time and go with all the preventive maintenance measures described here. majick's suggestions, in particular, sound good. dangit, I wanted a magic fix-it pill, and you people tell me the only real solution is to actually be proactive and preventive? I blame western medicine for my delusions. :)

zsazsa - the machine in question is a 4.5 y.o. Dell workstation (dual 500 MHz PIII's, 512MB RAM) that has been through NT, 2000, and now XP. XP has been installed for close to a year now. It was pretty zippy when I first upgraded to it, but then I saw the same degradation over time as I saw with NT and 2k.

The sad truth of my job is that I have to try out lots of different pieces of software over time, much of it beta, and much of it probably not created with the best installers/uninstallers. That certainly contributes to the degradation I see, for sure. It's also why I always need to be Admin, and am definitely not able to be a "Nazi". Defragging and ScanDisk is the only maintenance I do on any regular basis. I've tried other tools here and there, but none seem to offer any marked improvement in performance.

posted by badstone at 7:44 PM on January 8, 2004

If your job requires you try out software of questionable stability or quality, have you considered doing that part of your job under VMware? It offers lots of options for starting from a known-good state, runs very well under Windows (I'd argue it runs better under Windows than it does under Linux), and even if you don't use the fancy snapshotting and checkpointing features it still lets you sandbox questionable stuff for trial and analysis.

The hardware you describe is more than enough to run VMware, and for most work, you wouldn't even notice a performance hit -- you could spend most of your day on the VMware machine without it feeling sluggish.
posted by majick at 8:38 PM on January 8, 2004

Run Lavasoft Ad-Aware .. I've seen machines that were on deaths door turn around brand new after getting rid of all the junk that accumulates.
posted by stbalbach at 12:17 AM on January 9, 2004

Badstone, rushmc: what version of Windows are you using?

XP Pro. As I said, it lasted a lot longer than any of its predecessors, but now it's sick.

I also run Ad-Aware regularly, stbalbach, but that's more good advice for those who don't.
posted by rushmc at 9:20 AM on January 9, 2004

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