Keep It Simple

Illustration by Michael Witte.
Illustration: Michael Witte

When something annoys you, you might choose to get mad, or to get even. But there is a third path: Simplification. Eliminate unnecessary programs, icons, and Windows services, and you'll rid yourself of many of the sources of your PC angst. You'll better see the way to enlightenment (and that file you're working on) because so much stuff won't block your view.

You already have most of the tools you need. Most of the fixes we prescribe involve tweaking Windows and your programs so they only do what you want, and no more. We also recommend simpler programs that can replace some common but bloated and expensive apps. And if you go too far and instead turn your PC into a simpleton, we'll help you back to the path.

Annoyances by the Numbers

51 Number of security advisories released in 2003 by Microsoft --Microsoft
49% Portion of Microsoft security advisories rated "Critical" in 2003 --Microsoft
5% Portion of instant messages received that are spam --IMLogic
48 Number of emoticons in Yahoo Instant Messenger (all are animated) --PC World Research
28 Average number of spyware applications on an infected computer --EarthLink and Webroot Software
92% Portion of IT managers who found spyware apps on company PCs --Websense and Harris Interactive

Streamline Startup and Shutdown

You don't boot and reboot your PC as frequently as you once did, thanks in part to Windows' greater stability in 2000 and XP. Nevertheless, those who seek the path of simplicity should start by closely examining the startup process. The fewer superfluous programs that load at startup, the faster the PC will boot and the more memory will be available for programs. As a side benefit, keeping tabs on startup programs will help you prevent problems caused by spyware apps or viruses.

Your first step to relieving the traffic jam at startup is to uninstall programs you never use, especially the ones that always put an icon in the system tray. Look first in the Start menu for an uninstall icon alongside the program's main icon. If no uninstall icon appears, launch Add or Remove Programs in Windows' Control Panel, highlight the unneeded program, and then click the Remove or Change/Remove button to start the process.

Once you've done that, you can take care of the programs that you probably want to keep installed but don't need to have running in the background all the time. One common example is Apple's QuickTime (which loads a file called qttask.exe at startup), or the QuickPlay component of Musicmatch Jukebox. Every time you watch a QuickTime movie, for example, the program puts itself back in the system tray. Get rid of such programs from your system tray, and you'll simplify your startup--but you can still use the programs when you want them. To do this, you must look in all the places Windows uses to launch programs at startup, and disable the unwanted ones.

Slim Down Your Startup

Give startup items the boot from the Start menu if you don't urgently need to run them the minute you boot Windows.
Give startup items the boot from the Start menu if you don't urgently need to run them the minute you boot Windows.
Windows can launch programs automatically at startup four ways: with a shortcut to a program in the Start menu's Startup folder (in Start, All Programs, Startup); an entry in the Windows Registry; a reference in one of Windows' old-school initialization files like system.ini or autoexec.bat; or (if the program falls into a special category called a service) in the Computer Management console. You'll need to go through each location and disable or remove references to programs you don't want to run every time you boot.

One easy way to accomplish the task is to use Windows' System Configuration Utility, a tool that can remove such references from all four places. (If you're running Windows 2000, get the tool and save it to the c:\winnt\system32 folder, first.)

Choose Start, Run, enter msconfig in the Open field, and click OK to launch the tool. Items listed under the Startup tab come from the Registry's startup path; though it's highly unlikely that a program might use the system.ini or win.ini file to start itself up, you can browse those tabs for a particular program if you can't find it anywhere else. You can manage services through Msconfig as well, but we'll get to a better way to turn them off in a minute.

To prevent a program from starting up, clear the check box next to it, click OK, and reboot. If problems occur as a result, just go back into the System Configuration Utility, and fill in the check box again to reenable the program.

Say bye-bye to the Windows services you don't need, like Messenger, above.
Say bye-bye to the Windows services you don't need, like Messenger, above.
You can save boot time and free some memory by stopping services you don't need, and then setting them so they don't start with Windows. Open the Services Console: Right-click My Computer, and select Manage. When the management console window opens, in the left pane double-click Services and Applications (or click its plus sign) to expand that item, and then select the Services item that appears beneath it.

The Services Console shows you which services are running (the ones that are listed as 'Started') and how a service is set up to start: Automatic (meaning it launches the service each time you boot up, whether you need it or not), Manual (it won't run at startup, but Windows may launch the service if the operating system needs it to do something), or Disabled (it can't run at all, even if Windows needs it).

Of course, disabling one or more services that Windows might need in order to function could cause some problems.

Standby to Speedup

No matter how many programs and services you prune away, starting up and shutting down will still consume time. There's a better way to put your computer to bed: Put your PC into Standby or Hibernate mode instead of shutting it down completely. Standby powers off the display and drives but maintains power to the CPU and memory, allowing you to wake your PC and get back to work in a few seconds. Hibernate writes the contents of memory to disk and then shuts the PC off completely; on rebooting, your PC reads back the session saved to disk so you can start up exactly where you left off.

Hibernation makes the most sense for notebooks (where you want to maximize battery life), while Standby suits desktop PCs. Double-click the Power Options applet in the Control Panel; select the Power Schemes tab; adjust the monitor, hard-disk, and standby options to your satisfaction; and then click OK. To enable hibernation, click the Hibernate tab, check Enable hibernation, and click OK. Some PCs, especially older ones, may not support Standby or Hibernate; if they don't, they won't have a Hibernate tab.

My Favorite Fix: Gamer Shuts Off Services

Thomas Sullivan,e-mail manager, Campbell, California.
Thomas Sullivan,e-mail manager, Campbell, California.
Photograph: Robert Holmgren
The Annoyance: I'm a gamer, so performance is very important to me. Unfortunately, when applications or services start running while I'm playing something, they can kick me out of the game and cause network lag.

The Fix: I use a batch file to turn off a bunch of services all at once that would cause interruptions. I stop services like Automatic Updates because it could search for or start downloading an update while I'm in the game, and that would affect my network performance. I also turn off my antivirus utility because sometimes the antivirus update will start up while I'm in a game, and if it does, it kicks me out of the game. But I need some of these services, like Computer Browser, in order to connect to my office VPN, so I have another batch file I use to turn those services back on when it's time to get back to work. (For a sample batch file that turns off unnecessary services, click here.)

Cut Desktop and Menu Clutter

Tidy your desktop's unused icons with Windows' Desktop Cleanup Wizard.
Tidy your desktop's unused icons with Windows' Desktop Cleanup Wizard.
Before you can get to work on any job, you need to organize your tools and materials. But sometimes Windows makes it hard to tell what tools you have. By removing icons duplicated in the Start menu, in the taskbar's Quick Launch toolbar, and on the desktop, you'll more easily find what you need. You may want to have some icons in multiple locations, but the simplest arrangement is to just choose the best launch location for each individual icon, and remove it from the others.

Icon See You From Here

Uninstalling the trial and feature-limited software that came with your PC is a good start, but it won't remove every pointless shortcut. Thankfully, Windows XP introduced a handy tool for cleaning up unused desktop icons. Right-click the desktop, choose Properties, click the Desktop tab, and click the Customize Desktop button. Click Clean Desktop Now to launch a wizard that finds the icons you haven't used recently and moves them to an Unused Desktop Shortcuts folder. If you have just a few items left on the desktop (such as the Recycle Bin), link them to your taskbar so you won't have to minimize your running applications just to get to them: Right-click the taskbar and choose Toolbars, Desktop. Then right-click the new toolbar's name. (If 'Lock the Taskbar' is checked, select it to uncheck it, and right-click the taskbar again to add the Desktop toolbar to the taskbar.) At the top of the right-click menu, you'll find options that change the size of the icons and turn on or off the display of the toolbar's title or its icons' names.

The Windows Start menu is highly configurable--right-click the Start button, click Properties, choose the Start Menu tab, pick either Start menu (which is XP's default) or Classic Start (which changes the menu to something resembling that in Windows 2000), and then click the corresponding Customize button to see the wealth of options. Most are a matter of personal taste, but you can get rid of two duplicated icons in the nonclassic Start menu by unchecking the Internet and E-mail options (links to those programs appear in your Quick Launch toolbar by default). Click the Advanced tab to see more streamlining options. If you seldom click the Start menu's Favorites, Search, Set Program Access and Defaults, Help and Support, or other links, you can make them go away by unchecking them in the 'Start menu items' list and clicking OK.

The Quick Launch toolbar, located to the right of the Start button, is the handiest way to launch oft-used applications--you can fire up your favorite programs with one click. (If your Quick Launch toolbar isn't visible, right-click the taskbar and select Toolbars, Quick Launch.)

Remove any seldom-used icons (right-click them and choose Delete). You can also resize the Quick Launch toolbar (drag the bar that appears on the toolbar's right when the taskbar is not locked), arrange the icons (drag each one), and hide the toolbar's title and icon names. Most programs, when you install them with default settings, plop their icons on the Desktop, in the Quick Launch area, and in the Start menu--it's overkill. To prevent future icon clutter, always choose the 'custom' option when you install a new application so that you can decide whether it should create Quick Launch or Desktop icons.

System Tray Surgery

Uninstalling superfluous applications will reduce the number of system tray icons competing for your attention, but you can probably streamline things even more. Windows, hardware devices, and system utilities install icons to offer instant access to settings or to display the status of one thing or another. Simplifying the system tray frees space on the taskbar for more important stuff (see "15 Icons You Can Dump"for some examples of the most common possibilities).

Tackling the system tray is easier when all of its icons are visible: In Windows XP, right-click the Start button, choose Properties, click the Taskbar tab, uncheck Hide inactive icons, and click OK (you may want to reenable this when you're done). Left- or right-clicking each icon may reveal configuration options (every icon behaves differently). Even if the software doesn't let you disable its system tray icon, Windows can hide it using a slick system tray customization feature (see the Outlook item in "15 Icons You Can Dump").

15 Icons You Can Dump (chart)

You can shut down these system tray applets, or delete or hide them, without fear of disabling a critical Windows function.

15 Icons You Can Dump (chart)

Whack Application Weeds

Like Windows itself, the applications you use daily get cluttered over time. You need liberation from your overstuffed inbox, from too-smart menus that hide the commands you want, and from layers of toolbars you never use. Here's how to clip or remove what you don't want.

Get Security Simply

Give yourself time to react to your screen saver kicking in by upping the "grace period" in Tweak UI.
Give yourself time to react to your screen saver kicking in by upping the "grace period" in Tweak UI.
PC security is crucial these days. Enabling every security feature on your PC, however, can handcuff your productivity. For example, enabling password protection on Windows XP's screen saver lets you walk away from your PC without worry that someone might view sensitive information. But during a phone call, say, you might have to enter your screen-saver password if your attention wanders from the computer. There's a grace period between when the screen saver kicks in and when it starts demanding a password; the default is 5 to 10 seconds.

If you find that you often miss the cutoff and have to enter your screen-saver password repeatedly, you can change this grace period to something more reasonable. Microsoft's free Tweak UI PowerToys for Windows XP can do the trick. Start Tweak UI, then click the plus sign next to Logon in the left pane, and click the Screen Saver category that appears beneath it. You'll be able to change the grace period to as long as 99999 seconds, but something in the range of 30 to 60 seconds is all you need.

Windows XP Service Pack 2 adds several cool security features you might not have seen before, most notably the Windows Firewall. When you install SP2, a small icon that looks like a shield appears in the system tray. It links to the Security Center Control Panel, which lets you manage settings that turn Automatic Updates and the Windows Firewall on and off. But if you use your own software firewall (which we recommend; see last month's "Windows XP's Big Fix" at for more on this point and about SP2), Microsoft recommends that you turn off its built-in one. If you do that, you'll get lots of confusing little balloon alerts from the system tray telling you to turn on the firewall. To end those alerts, double-click the icon to open the Security Center, click the link on the left that reads Change the way Security Center alerts me, and then uncheck the Firewall Alert check box.

This same tip can also save you from the weekly nag alert that Automatic Updates sends out. If you update Windows manually, and if you have disabled Automatic Updates, uncheck the Automatic Updates check box, as well.

Pare Application Menus

See everything clearly by eliminating personalized menus in Microsoft Office.
See everything clearly by eliminating personalized menus in Microsoft Office.
Documents and e-mail constitute only half the complicated-application problem. Microsoft Office and many other programs employ menus that hide infrequently used commands. Designed to help users simplify their experience of using the application, the feature ironically makes it more difficult to find menu commands you use less frequently. If this bothers you, you can just disable these so-called personalized menus in Outlook, Word, Excel, or Access by choosing Tools, Customize, checking Always show full menus, and clicking Close.

Sometimes you might not want to see the entire menu. Some applications, such as Internet Explorer and Outlook, let you drag and drop (or resize) toolbars to minimize the space they take up. Other programs, such as the Mozilla browser, allow you to collapse seldom-used elements. After you move or resize your Internet Explorer toolbars, lock them in place by right-clicking a toolbar or menu bar and selecting Lock the Toolbars.

Slim the 800-Pound Inbox

When your inbox contains hundreds--or thousands--of messages, you're less likely to act on those that need attention, and finding a particular e-mail takes forever. But you can take remedial action.

First, use good spam-filtering tools to cull the most egregious junk and virus-laden bombs. PC World's editors gave a World Class award to Cloudmark SpamNet (reviewed in this roundup). You might need to keep some messages for future reference, but they don't need to languish in your inbox. Move them to subfolders. Delete ruthlessly. And use your e-mail application's archive feature to transfer messages that are older than a certain date (say, six months ago) to an archive file.

Achieve Hardware Nirvana

In theory, any hardware installed and operating on your PC requires power, memory, and processor attention. Getting rid of the devices you don't use can speed things up. Some hardware devices, such as wireless network adapters, may also significantly shorten laptop battery life, even if you're not connected to a network, while exposing your notebook to security threats.

Hardware profiles let you disable hardware you don't need at boot time.
Hardware profiles let you disable hardware you don't need at boot time.
If you seldom use your modem, infrared connection, serial port, or parallel port, you can use hardware profiles to disable some or all of these as a group, saving battery power. The implications of this aren't minor: If you need to use your serial port in the future, you'll have to reboot with the hardware profile for that port enabled. But if the need is truly rare, disabling the function is worth the effort. To create a new hardware profile, right-click My Computer (on the desktop or in the Start menu), choose Properties, click the Hardware tab, and then click the Hardware Profiles button. Select an existing profile (you'll probably have just one), and click Copy, then OK. (Copying the existing profile is the easiest way to create a new one.) To make a particular profile the default, use the arrows at the right of the dialog box to move it to the top of the list. Windows will use it the next time it boots. To disable hardware within the current profile, right-click My Computer, choose Properties, click the Hardware tab, and then click the Device Manager button. Right-click the hardware item you want to disable in Device Manager's list (you may need to expand the list first), and choose Disable. (A word of advice: Don't disable any hardware listed under the System Devices category.)

You can also save some of your laptop's battery life (and simplify matters) by ejecting any of the myriad accessories you may have plugged into the laptop, such as PC Cards and flash memory cards; disconnect any USB and FireWire devices, as well. To avoid network complications and strengthen security, use just one network at a time--disable your wireless network connection if you're connected by wire (or if you don't want to use the Wi-Fi card). Most newer laptops with built-in Wi-Fi have a little on/off switch or button on the outside of the laptop's case. Use it.

Here's another important pull-the-plug suggestion: Not every PC needs to be connected to the Internet. If you have a second or third computer, dedicated to children's games or to other duties that don't require a connection, disconnect it from the Internet, literally--just pull out the phone or network cable, or disable the supporting hardware in the Device Manager as described above. If the PC isn't online, it can't catch most viruses.

Running out of free disk space affects performance and obviously prevents you from installing additional programs or creating new documents. You can usually free a significant amount of space by deleting junk files left behind by applications and Web browsers. To jettison the junk, open My Computer, right-click the drive that Windows is installed on, choose Properties, and then click Disk Cleanup. After scanning the drive, Windows will present a list of items, sometimes totaling hundreds of megabytes. Check the items in the list you want to delete, and then click OK.

Frag Your Defragger

And here's one last tip: Don't waste time defragging your hard drive. In the past, by rearranging the sectors of each file on your disk into contiguous and optimized locations, you could boost disk performance. Defragmenting will increase the amount of contiguous free space (which might help you install large programs, like games), but defragging provides minimal performance benefits on most typical PCs (see February's "Defraggers: No Longer Needed?"). Instead, save precious time and try something other than a defrag if you need a speed boost.

Stripped-Down Software Alternatives (chart)

If you don't need complex software suites with dozens of features you never plan to use, why buy them in the first place? Many free applications do the job without complications like product activation or digital rights management schemes. Here are a few.

Too Much of a Good Thing: The Pitfalls of Simplification

Turning off services is an easy simplification. But if you go too far, Windows might not be able to restart the next time.
Turning off services is an easy simplification. But if you go too far, Windows might not be able to restart the next time.
While it's good to eliminate unneeded services, applications, and other PC clutter, going too far can turn a PC that's merely annoying into a nonfunctioning one. If you run Windows XP, the System Restore tool can and will save your behind (and your system) if you ever cross the line that divides PC simplification from a PC lobotomy.

In general, if you're not sure whether uninstalling or disabling a program or service is a good idea, leave it be. Google is a great way to find out what a particular program is--just search for the file name. Be certain you know what a program or service does before you disable it, lest you turn off something Windows needs to boot.

To prepare for that possibility, make a bootable Windows XP emergency recovery CD (instructions here) before you start simplifying. Once you make the CD, test it, then put it somewhere safe and pray you'll never have to use it.

You're better off disabling those things you know are unnecessary, and then monitoring the PC for a day, just to make sure you haven't broken something. Always proceed with your simplification carefully, disabling one service or program at a time, and then rebooting to see if its absence causes a problem on startup.

If all is well, create a new restore point using Windows XP's System Restore tool, which takes snapshots of your system configuration and can restore a botched simplification effort with a few mouse clicks. Creating a restore point with this tool is easy: Choose Start, All Programs (or Programs), Accessories, System Tools, System Restore, select Create a restore point, click Next, enter a description of the restore point (such as 'right before starting simplification'), and then click Create.

System Restore also lets you create a restore point before you install new software, allowing you to back out of any unwanted changes the new program makes to your system. Thanks to System Restore and the emergency recovery CD, you can feel relatively free to simplify without much risk of turning your PC into a paperweight.

Internet Tips columnist Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.

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