March 02, 2013, 7:45 AM — It's a dark day. Your shiny new laptop has arrived, but it doesn't deliver the performance or usability you expected. You've taken for granted all the tricks your desktop system has delivered on a daily basis, and now your new (and much more mobile) PC pales in comparison.
The display seems cramped, your games run slower than expected, and battery life isn't anywhere near what you were promised. But don't resign yourself to choosing between a desktop behemoth and a finger-smudged smartphone. Below are a handful of utilities that can help get your laptop up to speed--and bring that new-computer smile back on your face.
Extra screen space gives you room to roam
Unless you spring for the elusive built-in 1080p display, chances are your laptop is starved for desktop pixels. The more portable your system, the worse this problem gets. You don't have to lasso your laptop to a monitor with an HDMI cable to get more screen real estate, however. MaxiVista ($40, free demo) lets any display on your network act as an extra monitor or mirrored view.
You can also go the other way and use your laptop's screen to extend your desktop system's display or use MaxiVista as a virtual KVM switch, allowing up to four computers to be connected to a single keyboard, display and mouse. Although vendor Bartels Media has recently added iPad support to MaxiVista, laptop users with Mac-centric hardware should also take a look at Avatron's similar Air Display, which was designed from the ground up with Apple products in mind but includes Windows support.
MaxiVista comes in 32-bit and 64-bit editions. The Air Display Windows drivers are free, but you need one of Avatron's various Air Display editions to make Windows work with an iPad, Android device, Mac, or another PC. Neither MaxiVista nor Air Display currently works on Windows 8.
For those times when attaching to an external monitor is impossible, there's Dexpot. Dexpot (free for personal use, 25 Euros for business use) is a tiny virtual desktop manager that allows you to create multiple independent instances of Window's desktop work area and switch between them via hotkeys or on-screen buttons. This means you can configure each workspace to suit separate needs and optimize screen area for related groups of tasks. Various preview methods keep you abreast of what's happening on other desktops while you work, and swapping between them is nearly instantaneous.
You can combine Dexpot with MaxiVista to create multiple desktops for each wireless display, giving even the most demanding of us ample room to run our mice.
Find the truth behind the lies, and battery statistics
Perhaps the most extravagant claims about laptop performance involve battery life, many of which are outright fiction compared to real-life usage scenarios. Part of the problem arises from the battery meter applications found on most laptops. These utilities are rarely accurate, and few have features beyond the basic metered display. Without reliable feedback on battery usage, wear, temperature, and charging status, it's almost impossible to gauge efficient use of the power reserve you take with you when unplugged from the wall.
BatteryCare (free) provides this detailed information so you can make informed decisions about configuration and system status for the most efficient use of energy when you're off the grid.
BatteryCare's detailed breakdowns of power consumption provide highly accurate estimates of remaining operating time, and special modes allow you to halt energy-sapping background services when unplugged. Maximum charge values show the wear on your battery in direct terms; this will slowly erode over time and use, giving you a good idea of when you'll need to buy a replacement for that aging laptop.
I've got your hotspot right here
Your phone isn't the only piece of equipment able to share an Internet connection with other devices. Windows has done this for years; the problem is getting it accomplished quickly, easily, and wirelessly, especially on the go with a laptop system.
Connectify Hotspot provides the tools to do precisely this, acting as a software router between whatever Internet connection you provide and the other computers connected to your laptop.
The free Connectify Hotspot Lite is robust enough for most personal use and includes a simple firewall program to boot. The Pro version lets you use your laptop as a repeater and permits sharing of 3G/4G connections as well as ethernet and Wi-Fi. Connectify Hotspot Pro isn't cheap, however, with licenses starting at $30.
Faster for free
Laptops don't measure up performance-wise to desktop systems, but they are often further encumbered with OEM software and other junk that burdens general system overhead with extraneous services and tasks. While it's possible to take a fine-tooth comb through start-up options and the registry, there are tools that do this for you without permanently disabling services you might actually need to use at some point.
Piriform's CCleaner is a freeware utility that wipes leftover installation files, lingering cache fragments, dead-end registry entries, and other system messes without taking all afternoon or damaging complex pre-existing software installations. The disk savings can be significant, especially if you're on a strict SSD-induced low-gig diet. CCleaner also performs some system security functions, providing options to wipe sensitive data such as credit card info, stored passwords, usernames, and other personal information left behind during standard browser use.
If heavy system resource demands are a drag on your gaming, there's IObit's Razer Game Booster. Game Booster examines your operating environment and selectively shuts down services and programs not directly related to the game you're playing. The result is a noticeable increase in responsiveness and frame rate performance, especially in laptop systems where every clock cycle counts. Sporting ready-to-use profiles for many popular titles, Game Booster attempts to streamline the process many gamers manually perform to get the best numbers from their favorite titles, but reduces the strip-down procedure to a single button push. New features add screenshot and gameplay video capture modes to the toolbox. Although there has been talk of transition to a paid service, Razer Game Booster remains free.
Horses for courses
All this software is cool, but before you install, carefully consider your needs. Laptops aren't about stuffing every available gig with apps; they're about balanced computing and capable, lightweight software. Sometimes the best way to improve your laptop's performance is by removing something, rather than adding anything. That said, none of these utilities will steer you wrong.