Windows XP Game Optimization Tips


I find myself constantly giving out the same advice on optimizing Windows XP to play games. I thought it was about time that I put my game optimization tips together and post them up on the web. The following game optimization tips should help you get the most performance out of your PC with as little effort as possible.

This guide starts out with some very basic tips and then moves on to the more advanced ones. The advanced tips are not for the faint of heart as I recommend things like disabling various services for increased performance.

Note: The author assumes no responsibility for any damage or data loss that you might inflict on your PC as a result of following these tips.


Tip #1: Clean the adware and spyware off of your PC.

Some websites and many freeware programs will install a wide variety of programs onto your PC. None of these programs has any positive benefit and most will adversely affect your PC. Ridding your computer of this rubbish is the first logical step in improving the performance of your PC.

There are entire web sites devoted to helping people clean various spyware and adware programs off of their PCs. I feel it would be a tad redundant of me to try and include any meaningful tutorial on adware detection and removal in this guide.

What I will do it point you towards the program that most people use for detection and removal of these troublesome programs. The program that I recommend is Ad-Aware: http://www.lavasoft.com/

The Ad-Aware personal edition is free of charge. Most people run this on a regular basis and you should too.


Tip #2: Increase your physical RAM to epic proportions.

Most 3D games these days can benefit from the addition of more memory to your PC. A full 2 GB of RAM is not considered to be an unreasonable amount. Be sure to adjust your paging file if you do increase your RAM. (See Tip #5 below for details on paging file configuration.)

Whenever I suggest to peeps that they should get more RAM, they most often ask where they should buy it from and what type to get. I have a link for a website that answers both questions:
http://www.crucial.com/

I have purchased all of my RAM from these guys for the past seven years. The website has a "memory advisor" tool that will help you find the RAM you need. Their prices are competitive and the RAM is guaranteed to work in your system. It doesn't get much better than that.


Tip #3: Defragment your hard drive regularly.

As files are created and deleted on your hard drive they may be written to non-contiguous clusters. This is know as hard disk fragmentation and it can have a significantly detrimental effect on your computer's overall performance. Fortunately it is quite easy to correct this.

You can access the hard drive tools built into Windows XP by double clicking on the My Computer icon and then right clicking on the drive you wish to defragment and selecting it's Properties. On the hard drive properties page, select the Tools tab and then click on the Defragment Now button.

 

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Hard Drive Properties


This will bring up the Disk Defragmenter window. Select the drive that you wish to defragment and click on the Defragment button. The disk defragmenter will analyze the drive and tell you that you don't need to defragment your hard drive. It's lying, tell it to defragement your hard drive anyway.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Defragment


Depending on your hard drive size and the level of fragmentation, defragmentation may take several hours to complete. For most people it is probably best to leave the PC deframenting overnight.

One other item worth mentioning: You will need at least 15% of your hard space free in order for disk defragmenter to do it's thing. Personally I find this to be a rather high figure. If you get really desperate to free up space you can turn of your paging file completely before defragmenting. Be sure to set it up again when you are done!


Tip #4: Turn off unnecessary programs that run at start up.

Some people seem to have an almost endless list of programs that run at startup on their PCs. With all that crap running in the background, it is a wonder they can get their games to run at all. Stopping these programs from running in the first place is a good place to start.

From the start menu, click on the "Run..." menu choice. Type in "msconfig" (without the quotes) and press enter.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Run Dialog


This will bring up the System Configuration Utility. On the "General" tab, select the "Selective Startup" option.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - msconfig


Change the System Configuration Utility to the "Startup" tab. This will show you all the programs that are set to run as soon as Windows starts up. You should strive to keep this list as short as possible.

This is my current startup list:

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - My Startup


As you can see, I have just four items that run at startup. From top to bottom they are: mouse driver extensions, nVidia controll panel, Zone Alarm firewall and the Avast anti-virus service. Everything else has been turned off so it does not run at startup. (Note: My startup list used to be much longer. I went in and purged all the extraneous startup entries that were in the registry. The ones that you see in the image above are the ones that grew back in the last six months.)

To stop a program from running, clear the checkbox to the left of it's name. You can not harm anything by doing this. If you discover that you have turned off a program that you would rather have running, you can always change it back.

There may be programs in your startup list that are needed for various bits of hardware that you have connected (or occasionally connect) to your PC. (Digital cameras, scanners, etc.) These programs are only needed when you are actively using that hardware. I recommend shutting these off at startup and then running them manually as needed.

When you are done configuring the start up list, click OK to close the program and reboot your PC. After rebooting, Windows XP will display the following useless dialog:

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - msconfig spam


Be sure to check the "Don't show this message..." option before clicking OK. Otherwise the System Configuration Utility will be launched and on the next reboot you get the same dialog again.



Tip #5: Change your paging file to be permanent and the correct size.

Even if you have a huge amount of physical RAM, Windows XP needs a place to temporarily store excess data. That place is called the paging file. Setting up this file to be non-dynamic and unfragmented is another good way to increase your PC's gaming performance.

Straight out of the box, Windows XP has a dynamic paging file. The size of this file is suppose to grow and shrink as needed. There are several problems with a growing and shrinking paging file. I will attempt to explain these briefly without being too technical.

Expanding and contracting the page file takes up some of your limited computing resources. Windows XP will make the file larger or smaller quite often. This requires a certain amount of hard drive access and CPU cycles to accomplish. In theory, Windows is supposed to do this when the PC is "idle". In reality, Windows does this any old time it wants, application performance be damned.

The second issue with dynamic paging has to do with paging file and hard disk fragmentation. As you use your PC, files are created, expanded and delete frequently. This can lead to hard disk fragmentation. With a dynamic paging file, the paging file itself can become heavily fragmented as it expands and contracts around the various file fragments on your hard disk. The more fragmented your paging file is, the worse the performance will be when it is used. Even if you defragment your hard drive regularly, some paging file fragmentation will inevitably occur with a dynamic paging file.

The first step to creating a permanent, unfragmented swap file is to delete your current swap file and then defragment your hard drive. When you create your new swap file, you want it to be one large contiguous piece on your hard drive. The only way to accomplish this is to clean up the current mess.

You can get at the virtual memory settings through the System applet on the control panel. On the System Properties dialog, switch to the Advanced tab. Under performance on the Advanced tab, click on the settings button.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - System Properties


On the Performance Options dialog, switch to the Advanced tab. Under Virtual Memory on the Advanced tab, click on the change button.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Performance Options


On the Virtual Memory dialog, turn off the paging file for each drive that may have one (normally you should only have one, but you can span your page file across multiple drives). For each drive with a paging file, select the No Paging File option button and then click on the Set button to the right.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Vitual Memory


When you click on the OK button, you will get a stern warning about letting Windows manage virtual memory. Tell the warning to buzz off and reboot your PC.

Note: Your PC might very well run like crap with no paging file, especially if you have less than 1 GB of RAM. Don't worry about that for the time being as we will be creating a new swap file soon enough.

At this point you need to defragment the hard drive that you are going to be creating the paging file on. See tip #3 above for details on defragmenting your hard drive. Once your hard drive is defragmented, work your way back to the Virtual Memory dialog in the system applet as described above. This time we are going to be creating a new permanent swap file.

Select the drive that you just defragmented in the previous step. Under "Paging file for the selected drive", select the Custom Size option. Enter an initial size and a maximum size that are IDENTICAL. This is the key to creating a non-dynamic paging file.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Custome Paging File


How big should big paging file be? That is dependent on how much RAM you have and how much hard space you are willing to give up. Microsoft generally recommends that you have a paging file that is 1.5 times as large as your RAM. Most experts tend to think this is a tad on the low side. My advice is to create paging file that at least twice as large as your system's RAM. At the other extreme, I do not recommend creating a swap file that is larger than four times your systems RAM. (My current paging file is currently set at 4 gig and I have 1 gig of RAM. When I upgrade my RAM to 2GB I will not be increasing my paging file size.)

The numbers entered into the custom size files are in megabytes (MB) of hard drive space. The following table will help you convert from gigabytes (GB) to megabytes:

1 GB 1024 MB
1.5 GB 1536 MB
2 GB 2048 MB
2.5 GB 2560 MB
3 GB 3072 MB
3.5 GB 3584 MB
4 GB 4096 MB


EXAMPLE: If you have 1 GB of RAM, the minimum value you should enter into both boxes is 2048. This will give you a 2 GB permanent paging file.

One other note: The sizes entered into the custom size fields are usually a multiple of four (i.e. a number that can be divided by four evenly). I would not recommend using any values that are not a multiple of four.

After you have entered the minimum and maximum paging file sizes, click on the Set button and then click OK. Once you have rebooted you should have a non-dynamic paging file that won't get fragmented over time.


Tip #6: Turn off unnecessary services to free up system resources.

This is by far the most extreme tip on my game optimization page. Windows XP ships with a large number of services enabled by default. Many of these services are of absolutely no use to the home computer user. All they do is take up space and CPU cycles that could be put to better use by other applications.

I am going to start with a word of caution. Don't start disabling services at random. You can totally mess up the operation of your computer and possibly make Windows XP unusable in the process. There are many services that are critical to proper operation of Windows XP.

The first thing you need to do is bring up the services control panel applet. Using the Run option on the Start Menu, type in "services.msc" (without the quotes) and press enter.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Run Services


The services applet shows all of the services that are installed on your computer. We are going to be altering the Startup Type for some of the services in that list. This is most easily done by right clicking on a service and selecting the Properties menu choice. This will bring up the Service Proprties dialog.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Services


To disable a service from this dialog, select Disabled in the Starup Type drop down box and click Apply and then OK. That is all there is to it. The next time you start up Windows that service will not be started.

Windows XP Game Optimization Tips - Service Properties


The following is a list of services that I recommend disabling and the reasons why they aren't needed. All of these services are set to run automatically by default. I have had all of these disabled for over two years with no ill effects.


Clipbook

This service allows the Clipbook Viewer application to share information between computers. If you use Clipbook Viewer and like to cut and paste between computers, by all means leave it running. If you have no idea what Clipbook Viewer is and/or you have only one XP machine on your home network, this service is of absolutely no use to you.

Distributed Link Tracking Client

This service helps maintain distributed links to NTFS files across domains. Since I don't have a domain controller or any files with "distributed links", I could never find any use for this service. Disable it and you will never miss it.

Error Reporting Service

Pops up a dialog when a non-Microsoft application crashes, asking if you want to send a report to Microsoft. I can't see where there is any benefit in leaving this running. Note: Internet Explorer and other Microsoft applications have there own Error Report dialogs, so you will still see those even with this turned off.

IPSEC Services Service

Provides secure TCP/IP data transfer and encryption operations on a domain. Since I don't have a domain controller and I don't use secure/encrypted TCP/IP on my home network, I don't need this.

Messenger

This service allows messages to be sent to the user of a remote computer. It was responsible for much user annoyance when Windows XP first shipped. Spammers were using this to send popups messages to XP computers that were connected to the internet, even if they had no web browser running. I would hope that everyone has this disabled by now.

Note: This service is NOT related to the MSN messenger or Windows messenger chat programs. If you have windows XP professional with service pack 2 installed, the service should already be disabled.

Remote Registry Service (XP Pro)

Allows applications to access the registry on another computer. I have used this back when I was a Windows NT network administrator. I could make changes to the registries on other PCs in my domain remotely. I can't see any possible use for this at home however.

Themes

To be honest, I have no idea why themes required a service. I have this disabled because I consider themes to be fluff. If you use themes on your computer, then I guess you need this. If you aren't using themes then this isn't providing any benefit to you and it should be disabled.

Windows Time Service

Maintains date and time synchronization on all clients and servers in the network. The computers get this time from a network server, usually a domain controller. If you don't have a server on your network to get the time from, this service is of no use to you.

Wireless Zero Configuration Service

Provides automatic configuration for the 802.11wireless network adapters. If you don't have any wireless devices, this service isn't doing anything.

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