Over the past few months my favourite Windows XP-based portable PC got slower and slower until I was finally forced into action when it took more than three minutes to fire up in an airport lounge – by which time my flight was called.

If your machine also takes a long time to start up and shut down and programs are slow to load and error messages are increasingly frequent, you should consider performing some basic maintenance before checking out upgrades or a new machine. Don’t be put off if some of the technology and terms sound geekish.

One option is to increase the Ram (random access memory), particularly if you like to run heavy-duty applications – especially graphics-intensive software programs – simultaneously.

Within limits, increasing the available Ram (especially if the machine has only 256MB) delivers the most cost-effective performance boost and is a better bet than upgrading a desktop CPU.

There are plenty of further reasons why your PC may have turned slothful. The most likely explanation is that normal activities such as creating new files, downloading material from the web and installing or uninstalling software can clutter up the hard drive and introduce corrupt files.

Most PC maintenance utility programs offer to clean your hard drive by removing little-used software or deleting temporary files – such as the remnants of web browsing sessions and those created when a new program is installed.

Also, because of the way data is written, over-written and erased from a hard drive, the files on a PC are eventually spread or “fragmented” across the surface of the drive platter, lengthening the time it takes a program to find the data.

The other big consideration is the state of the Windows “registry” – part of the operating system that controls many basic functions. Over time, the registry becomes cluttered with unnecessary data, such as “pointers” to programs that have been deleted or corrupted.

PC users can choose from a growing number of free or reasonably priced tools to fix these problems and improve PC performance without requiring full reload.

Windows XP, like previous Windows versions, comes with some basic disk clean-up tools including a defragmentation program found under System Tools.

I prefer a stand-alone “defragger” such as Diskeeper 10 from Diskeeper (www.diskeepereurope.com), which does a more effective and thorough job and is easy to use. Diskeeper comes in several versions. The home version costs $30 to download, while a Professional edition with a few extra features costs $50.

Diskeeper can run automatically in the background in “set and forget” mode and probably should be in every PC owner’s tool chest.

The next challenge is the Windows registry. Microsoft provides, but does not support, a set of additional free utilities including a registry editor as part of a package called TweakUI. Unless you feel comfortable changing registry settings yourself, a better bet is to select a dedicated registry editor package. These tend to be much easier to use.

My favourite stand-alone registry editors include Registry Mechanic 5.2, a $30 download from PC Tools Software (www.pctools.com), and RegCure (www.regcure.com), a $20 package from Pareto Logic.
Both are easy to use, come with clean and clear interfaces and offer safety features such as restore points. I prefer RegCure because it has additional features including the ability to manage the programs that launch when Windows fires up.

Another approach to performance optimisation is to choose a software suite. These packages – including Neurosoft’s PC Doc Pro 3.5 (www.neurosoftcorp.com/), WinXP Manager 5.0 (www.yamicsoft.com), which costs $40 to download, and Super Utilities 6.0 (www.superlogix.net), a $47 package – all pull together a large number of clean-up and optimisation tools.

Among them, my favourite is the Super Utilities suite, which includes 27 tools divided into four modules designed to do everything from cleaning the Windows registry to removing spyware infestations and more generally keeping the computer running smoothly.

But I would still recommend running specialised disk defragmentation and registry editing tools.


Paul Taylor tackles your high-tech problems and queries at www.ft.com/gadgetguru

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