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11 tips and tricks to give Windows 7 a speed boost

While Windows 7 made some notable speed improvements over its predecessor, Vista, it can't compare with the much faster Windows 8. And most people haven't experienced the 15-second boot that Microsoft engineers were shooting for in Windows 7 (and achieved in Windows 8 for many machines). There are certainly times when you'll still have to wait for that spinning blue doughnut in the earlier OS. If you're still timid about upgrading to Windows 8 despite the speed advantages, there are plenty of things you can do to speed up your installation of Windows 7.

The problem with most "speed-up Windows 7" stories is that they tell you to turn off some of the operating system's more charming visual features. The first eight of my eleven tips show you ways you can speed up your Windows 7 system without compromising its appearance. For those who need even more speed and don't care about eye candy, I've listed three at the end that boost system performance at the expense of some visual effects.

So, on with the tips…

Trim your programs

Uninstalling software you no longer use or need is a good idea to help keep your PC in shape. You can also uninstall any bloatware that came on your machine.

Head to Control Panel > Programs > Uninstall a program and take the hatchet to anything, such as unwanted games, that you’ll never need. Many programs will load processes at boot-up and take up valuable RAM and CPU cycles. While you're in here, you can also click "Turn Windows Features On or Off" and scan the list to see if there's anything you don’t use. You might also try software like PC Decrapifier.

Limit startup processes

In the Start button's search box, type MSCONFIG, then head to the Startup tab. You'll likely see a slew of apps, mostly for system support, but you'll be able to identify some that clearly aren't necessary. There's absolutely no need to have QuickTime running all the time, for example. Don't delete those that support your hardware or security, but anything blatantly non-productive can go. You may have to check the program names online with a site like to see what they are – they may even be malware. If you want to get more granular, run Microsoft's Autoruns utility.

Turn off search indexing

You can get a little boost with this move, but of course if you do a lot of searching, this won't appeal to you, as some searches will be slower. To turn off indexing, open the Indexing Options Control Panel window (if you just type "index" in the Start button search box, you'll see that choice at the top of the start menu), click "Modify" and remove locations being indexed and file types, too. If you want to leave search indexing on, but find that it occasionally slows you down, you can stop its process when you need extra speed. Right click on Computer either in the Start menu or on the desktop, and choose Manage. Then double click Services and Applications, then Services. Find Windows Search, and double click on that. From this properties dialog, you can choose a Startup type of Manual or Disabled to have the process silent by default.

Defragment your hard drive

Your disk stores data in chunks wherever there's space on disk, regardless of whether the space is contiguous for one file. Defragging tidies everything up and groups a program's bits together so that the reader heads don't have to shuttle back and forth to read a whole executable or data file. While this is less of a problem with today's huge hard drives and copious amounts of RAM, a slow system can still benefit from defragmenting the disk. Windows 7 comes with a built-in defragger that runs automatically at scheduled intervals. Mine was set by default to run Wednesdays at 1:00 AM, when my PC is usually turned off; so it never got defragged. If you're in a similar boat, you can either change the scheduled defrag, or defrag on demand. Just type "defrag" in the Windows Start Menu search bar, and click on "Disk Defragmenter."

Change power settings to maximum performance

Of course, this isn't a good choice if you want to save electricity, but it could boost your computing. Head to Control Panel > System and Security > Power Options. From here, click on the left-panel choice "Create a power option" and choose "High Performance."

Clean up your disk

From the Start menu, choose All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and Disk Cleanup. This finds unwanted junk and files such as temporary, offline web pages, and installer files on your PC and offers to delete them all at once. You may even find that your Recycle Bin is bulging at the seams: Mine had 1.47GB I didn't know was there! This will generally only have a noticeable effect on speed if your machine is getting close to full to the brim with files, however.

Check for viruses

You can run the built in Windows Defender, but you really should have a third-party security app installed. There’s no excuse not to, as there are plenty of excellent free options – and we point out a few in this feature: The best free apps versus top paid-for apps.

Use the Performance Troubleshooter

In the Control Panel's search box, type "troubleshooting" and under System and Security, you'll see the choice "Check for performance issues." Run the troubleshooter and it may find the root cause of your slowdown.

Turn off Desktop Gadgets

Now we come to the tips that require shutting down some of the operating system's bling. Windows 7 ditched the actual visual sidebar of previous OS Windows Vista, but there's still a sidebar process running. Turn it off by typing "gadgets" in the start menu search bar, choose "View list of running gadgets," then select each in turn and click Remove to shut any gadgets you can live without.

Don't use a beautiful desktop background

This will free up extra RAM and therefore boost speed slightly. Right click on the desktop and choose Personalise, then Desktop Background at the bottom of the resulting dialog window. Set it to a solid colour.

Turn off Aero effects

Head to the Control Panel's Performance Information and Tools section, and choose Adjust Visual Effects. Here you'll find a long list of effects, but simply choosing "Adjust for best performance" will turn everything off. The appearance of the Windows environment will make you feel like you’ve stepped back a decade in time, mind you – but everything will run faster.