How to boost Windows 8 performance

There's an unassailable rule of computing: No matter how fast your computer is, and no matter how well it runs, you want it to run better.

If you're looking to improve Windows 8, help is on the way. I've rounded up my favorite tips for doing system analysis, troubleshooting and fixing any problems you find, and in general speeding things up. No extra software is required; everything you need is built right into Windows 8.

If you've been around the Windows block a few times, you probably remember having to manually crank through an array of performance-oriented tasks: mucking around with page files, editing the Registry or using third-party tools such as disk cleaners. But over the years Windows has gotten much better at automating many of those tasks. In Windows 8, generally the best way to improve performance and know what's going on in your system is to use Windows' built-in tools, including the Resource Monitor, the Task Manager and the Reliability Monitor.

For some reason, however, several of the most useful administrative tools are hidden by default, so the first thing to do is unhide them: Press the Windows key + I to open the Settings charm, click the word Tiles, and then change the "Show administrative tools" slider to Yes.

With these hidden gems revealed, we can get started.

For more useful tips, see 10 Windows 8 tips, tricks and hacks. If you need help getting up to speed with Windows 8, see Windows 8 cheat sheet.

Troubleshoot sluggishness with the Resource Monitor

A little-known tool called the Resource Monitor does a very good job of tracking down performance problems and fixing them. Although it's not new -- it's been included in Windows since Vista -- it's still a great way to find out about the resources your system uses and to see what applications and services are making the most use of your system. Based on that, you can decide which apps and services to shut down and which to keep running.

To run it, type resmon at the Start screen and then click the resmon.exe icon that appears on the left side of the screen under Apps.

Note: If you're using a company-owned PC and don't have Administrator privileges, you may not be able to run the Resource Monitor. But never fear: You can still use the Task Manager and most other tools covered in this story to troubleshoot performance problems.

If you are able to get into the Resource Monitor, start on the Overview tab. It offers a snapshot of your system's resource usage, including CPU use, disk use, network use and memory use.

The screen is divided into two. On the left-hand side you'll see every process running on your system, by resource category (CPU, Disk, Network, and Memory), along with details about the usage of each process. (A process is any program that runs in Windows, from a tiny background task to a complex application such as a Web browser.)

On the right-hand side you'll see moving graphs of their cumulative use over time. You can see at a glance whether your CPU, disk, network or memory use is maxing out. If any are, you know you've got a problem, and you know the general category of problem.

For more details about any of those categories, click the appropriate tab across the top of the Resource Monitor. Each tab shows you what applications or services are making use of that particular resource, along with other useful information. For example, the CPU tab shows all the apps and services using the CPU, with a running average of CPU use for each app and service. Those that use the CPU the most are listed at the top; those that use it the least are listed at the bottom.

The display in each tab varies according to what's most useful. For example, the Memory tab shows, in addition to what programs and services are using memory, how much memory is currently used, cached, reserved for hardware and so on.

Once you've zeroed in on the problem, you can do something about it. If you've got apps and services overtaxing your CPU, for instance, you can close any of them by right-clicking it and selecting End Process from the drop-down menu. You might also consider looking for alternatives to those apps and services, and then using Resource Monitor later on to see whether those alternatives have lower resource usage.

Note that most of the information that the Resource Monitor displays is also shown in the Task Manager, another built-in performance tool we'll cover later in this article. Redone for Windows 8, the Task Manager has a more comprehensive set of tools and information than the Resource Monitor. That said, the Resource Monitor is still a useful tool for troubleshooting performance problems because it offers a quick at-a-glance look at your system, with in-depth information on each of its tabs.

Track stability and troubleshoot crashes with the Reliability Monitor

Another useful Windows tool is the Reliability Monitor, first introduced in Windows Vista. It offers a historical view of overall system stability and even includes detailed information about system crashes. Armed with this information, you can pinpoint the sources of problems and take steps to eliminate them.

To launch the Reliability Monitor, type reliability at the Start screen, click Settings, and click the "View reliability history" icon that appears on the left under Settings. The blue line running across the graph shows your system's stability over time. It's based on a number that Windows calculates to gauge your system's overall reliability. The maximum is 10 and the minimum is 1.

Every time there's a system failure, application failure or similar event, the index drops, sometimes sharply -- particularly if there's been more than one failure in a day. Each day your system doesn't have a failure, the index rises a little bit.

On days there are failures, you'll see red icons, divided into rows by type of failure -- application, Windows or miscellaneous (hardware, drivers, etc.). The chart also has icons for warnings about unsuccessful updates and for information about successful updates and installations.

Select any day with a failure or other event, and at the bottom of the screen you'll see details about those events, divided into categories. Pay attention to the details of each crash and failure. Look for patterns, such as if the same application frequently crashes. If so, uninstall it, or look for an update that fixes the problem.

Finally, down at the very bottom of the screen click "View all problem reports." Rather than seeing a chart over time, you'll instead see a list of all of your problems, including summaries. It lets you scroll through your problems more quickly than in the normal view, because they're in a long, vertical list.

Generate a detailed Performance Monitor report

Windows 8 includes a Performance Monitor tool that shows an immense amount of detail about a system's hardware and software. Unfortunately, its main interface is almost impossible to decipher. There is, however, one way to get some very useful information out of the Performance Monitor -- tell it to generate a detailed report for you that pinpoints system issues and suggests fixes.

You don't create the report directly from the Performance Monitor. Instead, from the Start screen type perfmon /report and click the "perfmn /report" icon that appears on the left. (Note that you might need Administrator rights to your PC to run the report.) A screen appears telling you that a report is generated, and after a minute or two, an interactive report appears onscreen. (Story continues below the screenshot.)

A Performance Monitor report: This PC's got troubles.

The report can be lengthy, and goes into mind-numbing detail about your system. (If you want to know about things such as your system's video classes and UDP information it's the place to go.) Most useful are reports of errors or problems. If it finds any, those will be at the very beginning of the report. For each error or problem, it describes the symptom and the cause, suggests how to fix it, and provides a link to other useful information.

Streamline startup

A common cause of system slowdowns is programs that load unnecessarily at startup and bog down your system. There are several ways to speed up startup.

A good place to start is the Task Manager. You've got several different ways to launch the Task Manager -- take your pick:

Press Ctrl-Shift-Esc.

Right-click the taskbar on the Desktop and choose Task Manager.

Type task manager on the Start screen, and click the Task Manager icon that appears on the left under Apps.

Press Ctrl-Alt-Del, then choose Task Manager from the screen that appears.

Right-click the lower-left corner of your screen and select Task Manager.

If you see the phrase "More details" at the bottom of the Task Manager screen, click it. If you see the phrase "Fewer details" at the bottom of the screen, you're already in the right place.

Now click the Startup tab. You'll see a list of programs and services that launch when you start Windows. For each one, you'll see its name, its publisher, whether it's enabled and the "startup impact" -- how much startup is slowed down by launching it. According to Microsoft's developer site, apps labeled as having high startup impact use more than 1 second of CPU time or more than 3MB of disk I/O at startup, medium-impact apps use 300 to 1000 milliseconds of CPU time or 300KB to 3MB of disk I/O, and low-impact apps use less than 300ms of CPU time and less than 300 KB of disk I/O.

If you'd like to stop any of the programs or services from launching at startup, right-click it and select Disable. This doesn't disable the program entirely; it simply prevents it from launching at startup. If you later decide you want it to launch at startup, get back here, right-click it and select Enable.

Some programs might have a small triangle next to them, indicating that they have multiple processes that run on startup. Click the triangle to see all the processes. It's not a good idea to disable some but not others, because that could cause instability in the program. So either disable all the processes or none.

You'll likely recognize some of the programs and services that run at startup, such as SkyDrive. But you'll also probably come across many that aren't familiar to you and whose purpose is almost impossible to discern. What to do about something called "persistence Module" or "hkcmd Module?" Should you turn them off or leave them on?

The Task Manager offers some solid help. Right-click an item and select Properties, and you'll see more detail about it, including its location, whether it has a digital signature from a company you know and other information such as the version number, its size and the last time it was modified.

Alternatively, when you right-click you can select "Open file location" and you'll open File Explorer to the folder where the file is located. That may give you a clue about the program's purpose.

Best of all, though, is to select "Search online" after you right-click. Bing launches and provides links to sites with information about the program or service. You'll usually very quickly find out information about the item, including its purpose and advice on whether it's safe.

Clean out the Startup folder

There's another place to go if you want to stop programs from launching when you start your system -- the Startup folder. You can run File Explorer in one of these ways:

Press the Windows key + E.

Click the File Explorer icon on the Desktop's taskbar.

Type file explorer on the Start screen and click the File Explorer icon that appears on the left.

Make sure you can view hidden files in File Explorer: Click the View tab and check the boxes next to "Hidden items" and "File name extensions" in the Ribbon at the top.

Next, click the Computer icon in the left pane and navigate to:

C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows

\Start Menu\Programs\Startup

where username is your Windows logon. Delete the shortcuts of any programs you don't want to run at startup. Don't worry; you won't delete the programs themselves, only their shortcuts.

Use Fast Startup

There's one last startup item to check: Make sure that Windows 8 uses a new mode called Fast Startup, a hybrid of a traditional shutdown/boot operation and hibernation. When you shut down your PC, all user sessions are closed but the Windows kernel session is saved to disk, or hibernated. Then when you start Windows again, it loads the hibernated system session from disk, cutting startup time.

By default, Fast Startup should be enabled on your system. But it's a good idea to make sure it's turned on, just in case your system wasn't set up correctly or Fast Startup was accidentally turned off.

On the Start screen, type power, click Settings and click the Power Options icon that appears on the left side of the screen under Settings. Click "Choose what the power buttons do" in the left pane, and under "Shutdown settings" at the bottom of the screen that appears, make sure that the box next to "Turn on fast startup" is checked.

Track and fine-tune performance with the Task Manager

You may know of the Task Manager as the go-to application for seeing programs and processes running on your PC, and for shutting down any you don't want to run any more. But over the years it's developed into a much more powerful tool. In Windows 8 it's gotten a major overhaul that makes it a great way to fine-tune system performance.

Launch the Task Manager by pressing Ctrl-Shift-Esc on your keyboard or whatever method you prefer. The Task Manager has two interfaces in Windows 8: a stripped-down simplified one that shows your currently running applications, and a much more detailed one that you'll use for troubleshooting and improving system performance. To switch between them, click the "More details" down arrow when you're in the simplified version, or click the "Fewer details" up arrow when you're in the more detailed version.

If you're having trouble with a particular program that's running, you can use the Task Manager's simple view to end it: Just select the application in the list of apps and click the End task button.

If you don't know the source of the slowdown of if you want to fine-tune your system's performance, switch to the Task Manager's detailed view. There are seven tabs here. We've already covered how to use the Startup tab to make your system boot up faster. For other system performance improvements, you'll generally use these four tabs: Processes, Performance, App history and Users.

This tab (shown above) reports on the apps, background processes and Windows system processes currently running on your PC. It reports on the percentage of CPU, memory, disk capacity and network resources each app or process is using. The right side of the screen is a heat map, with colors ranging from pale yellow for low resource use to red for critically high resource use.

If you're experiencing system slowdowns, head to this tab and see whether anything here is hogging your CPU or memory. If so, you can close it down. Right-click it and you get a menu that allows you to manage it in a variety of ways, including ending it and any related processes (if there are any).

When you right-click, you get a number of other options as well. If you select "Resource values," you can choose to have the memory, disk and network information about each process displayed as either a value (for example, 47.9MB) or a percentage of use (for example, 23%). Choosing "Open file location" launches File Explorer to the folder where the process's executable is found, with the process highlighted.

"Create dump file" will generate a file that contains a snapshot of the process at that moment in time, including which of its modules were loaded and what the process was doing. If you're having a problem with a process, a dump file can help programmers understand how to fix it.

You can also add more columns of information to the Processes tab. Right-click in the chart's header area and choose what columns you want to add, such as the process type (app, background process, etc.), name, publisher and more.

Performance tab

The Performance tab is even more useful for tracking system performance. You won't use it for fixing problems, but instead for uncovering them. On the left are thumbnail graphs showing real-time usage data for your system's CPU, memory and disk as well as Ethernet, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections.

Click any thumbnail, and the right side of the screen shows a larger, more detailed graph and additional information. For example, click Memory and you'll get information about your total memory, how much is in use, how much is available, how much is cached and so on.

Look at the thumbnail graphs to see whether utilization is too high for any resource. For example, if you've got CPU use of 80% or more, you might be experiencing system slowdowns. You can then go to the Processes tab, track down which apps have high CPU usage and close them down. Similarly, if you see high memory use on the Performance tab, you'll want to track down which apps are using too much memory and close them down.

You can troubleshoot using the other thumbnail graphs as well. For instance, Wi-Fi will show you your current throughput, among other details, so that you can tell whether you've got connection problems.

By default, Task Manager updates its data every two seconds; each vertical line on the graphs represents a two-second interval. To change the update frequency, from Task Manager's top menu choose View --> Update Speed and select High or Low instead of Normal. When you select High, updates take place twice a second. When you select Low, updates take place once every four seconds. To stop updating altogether, select Paused. To do an immediate update, select Refresh now.

App history tab

If you remember the pre-Windows 8 Task Manager, you'll notice that plenty has changed here. The old Applications tab displayed a list of every application currently running on your PC and reported on the status of each app.

In the Windows 8 Task Manager, you instead use check the Processes tab to get that information. The App history tab is for a very different purpose: to provide information about applications and how they've been used over time. By default, it shows information for Windows 8 native apps (a.k.a. Metro apps, Modern apps or Windows Store apps) only, but you can click Options --> "Show history for all processes" to reveal information about Desktop apps and other processes.

For each app, the tab shows the CPU time it's used over the last 30 days, the total amount of network bandwidth it's used over the last 30 days, the metered bandwidth it's used over the last 30 days, and the amount of data used by its Start screen tile updates over the last 30 days. (A metered network is one that charges you for data usage -- for example, your cellphone service provider.)

As with the Processes tab, right-click in the header area to choose more columns to display, such as Downloads and Uploads, which track the amount of data you've downloaded or uploaded over the last 30 days.

How can the App history tab help you? Perhaps its greatest use is in tracking down network bandwidth hogs. Check the Network, Metered network and Tile updates columns to see each app's bandwidth use. (You can click any column header to sort the apps from highest to lowest usage.)

If your Windows 8 device connects to a metered network, pay particular attention to the Metered network column. Examining which apps use a lot of metered network data and limiting their use can help you keep under your monthly data limits.

Also look for outliers. You'd expect an Internet-centric app like Internet Explorer to use a lot of bandwidth, so don't be surprised if it's your biggest bandwidth consumer. But if you see an app whose operation is not Internet-centric or network-centric taking up gobs of bandwidth, you might have a problem. What to do in those cases? Consider uninstalling the app and finding an alternative to it.

Users tab

This tab displays the currently logged-on users of your machine and shows how much CPU, memory, disk and network resources each one is consuming. If you see any currently logged-on user taking up too many resources, consider switching to that account and logging the user off using the "Switch user" and "Sign out" buttons at the bottom of the screen.

Even though the user named Joe isn't physically using the machine, his account is logged in and is using system resources.

For a less draconian approach, try clicking the triangle next to that user to see her running apps and processes. From there, you can identify and close down any resource-hogging apps or processes as a way to ease the stress on the system.

Give specific programs more of your CPU's attention

Windows gives what's called a base priority to every process running on your PC. This base priority determines the relative amount of CPU power the process gets compared to other programs. Windows uses these six levels, in ascending level of priority:

Low

Below normal

Normal

Above normal

High

Realtime

Most processes are assigned a Normal priority. But you might want to give a resource-intensive program like an image editor more of your CPU's attention. And if there are processes that normally run in the background or rarely need your CPU, you can give them less of your CPU's attention.

Use the Task Manager's Details tab to change the priority assigned to any process or program. On that tab, right-click the item whose priority you want to change, select "Set priority," and choose the priority for the program. Avoid assigning a Realtime priority to any program or task unless it will be the sole program or task running on the PC. (Of course, if it's the only program or task running, you really don't need to give it a high priority because it already has your CPU's complete attention.)

Be careful when using this feature because it can have unintended consequences and lead to system instability. If you find it causes problems, set the item's priority back to Normal. Or just close it down: When you assign a new priority to a process or program, that new priority sticks only as long as the program or process is running. Once the program or process ends and you restart it, it reverts to the default priority assigned to it by Windows.

Track CPU usage (and more) in real time

Here's a nifty Task Manager trick: You can use it to regularly check CPU use in real time. That way, you can correlate system slowdowns with CPU use and, armed with that information, try to take some strain off of your CPU.

Run Task Manager and, from the top menu, select Options --> "Hide when minimized." Next, find the small up arrow to the left of the system tray area of the taskbar on your Windows Desktop. Click the arrow, click Customize and then in the Behaviors drop-down next to Task Manager, change "Only show notifications" to "Show icon and notifications."

Now minimize the Task Manager. It will display as a small bar graph in the system tray that lights up green as you use your CPU.

To see your current CPU usage, hold your mouse cursor over the Task Manager's icon in the system tray. Try running different combinations of programs, and monitor your CPU use with each combination. If you find your CPU is overburdened by a particular combination, don't run that combination again.

Similarly, you can check for memory, disk and network usage. If you see any are overburdened, use a similar technique as with CPU use. So, for example, if you regularly see memory use too high, try closing programs to pinpoint the culprit.

Optimize your PC's drives

As you use your computer's hard disk drive, it can slow down over time. Files and applications are composed of many pieces, and when you save them, those pieces are stored all over your hard disk, or fragmented -- so opening them takes longer than need be. When you defragment your hard disk, the pieces are stored contiguously, and files and applications open more quickly.

Because solid-state drives store data differently than hard disks do, they should not be defragmented -- but they can benefit from something called trim optimization, which cleans up the detritus of deleted files to make way for new data. (Unlike mechanical hard disks, SSDs do not overwrite existing data, so creating empty space now speeds things up later when you're trying to write new data to the drive.)

Happily, Windows 8 automates both tasks with a built-in tool called Optimize Drives. By default, it performs once-a-week maintenance on your drives depending on their media type, defragmenting hard disks and running trim optimizations on SSDs. But there's a chance that on your machine those automated settings have been changed, or you might want to optimize more or less frequently -- or perhaps you want to optimize a drive right now.

To do any of that, on the Windows 8 Start screen type defragment, then click "Defragment and optimize your drives" on the left. The Optimize Drives screen appears. (Note that you might need Administrator rights to your PC to use this tool.)

You'll see a list of all of your drives, their media type and their current status -- whether they need to be optimized or not. If any of them requires optimization now, highlight it and click Optimize.

Depending on how large your drive is, how much data you have on it and the speed of your processor, it might take Windows 8 anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to finish optimizing. Most likely your PC's performance won't be affected while it optimizes, and you can keep working at you normally would. However, if you notice a performance hit, next time plan to optimize the drive overnight or at another time when you won't be working on your computer.

Look down at the bottom of the screen in the "Scheduled optimization" section. You'll see whether your drives are being automatically optimized and on what schedule.

If they're not being automatically optimized and you want them to be, or if you want to change the schedule, click "Change settings." On the screen that appears, check the box next to "Run on a schedule," then choose the frequency from the drop-down list. (Choices are daily, weekly and monthly.)

You can also choose which drives to automatically optimize on the schedule by clicking "Choose" at the bottom of the screen and selecting the drives. Click OK when you're done.

Do all this, and your Windows 8 machine should start feeling zippier. Dig deeper into the Windows 8 tools in this article, and you may find even more ways to speed it up.

This story, "How to boost Windows 8 performance" was originally published by Computerworld.

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