Hassle-Free PC: Clean House on a Junk-Filled System Tray

Illustration: Richard Downs
Want to see the winner of the most bloated system tray award? It weighs in with 30 icons and counting. This month I'll tell you how to shake the system tray free of worthless items while retaining the essential ones.

The Hassle: Every time I boot up my Windows XP Home system (which takes forever), heaps of icons appear in my system tray. I checked my Startup folder and, except for two items, it's empty. Where are these programs coming from, and do I need to keep them all?

The Fix: Your computer's definitely stressed. There are two issues. First, every time you boot, Windows has to load the programs or processes represented by some of those icons. Second, and more significantly, they're gobbling up resources and CPU cycles, slowing down your system. It's a safe bet (I'll even give you odds) that plenty of the items are useless, can be dumped, and won't be missed.

Removing the junk from your system tray can be an exciting adventure. (Stop laughing. It's better than emptying the dishwasher, right?) Determining what applications are loading behind the scenes is the easy part; figuring out which ones you can safely remove is harder.

My cohort, Woody Leonhard, scratched the surface of the system tray in January's "Gunk Busters" feature. I've got more to say, and it's summed up in two words: WinPatrol Pro. The latest version, 9.8, is a must-have tool.

WinPatrol works in two ways. First, when you install a program and it tries to add an icon to the tray at boot-up, you'll get a WinPatrol warning--and a way to nip it in the bud (or kill and remove it afterward). That's important for programs such as AOL, Apple's QuickTime, and RealPlayer, all notorious for adding junk icons. WinPatrol also enables you to stop programs such as Adobe Acrobat that insist on running useless, daily version-update checks; and it prevents programs from changing file extensions willy-nilly.

Second, WinPatrol gives you an easy way to comb through existing background-loading programs; its 'info' button provides basic details, including the company name, version, and startup location--enough to help you figure out which entries are removable. The free version is good, but I strongly urge you to spend $25 for the Pro version. Its comprehensive database gives you more details and specific recommendations for which programs to keep and which to remove. I promise you'll get that money back by eliminating your system tray headaches.

Quick tip: Rather than remove an entry, I use WinPatrol's Disable feature until I am sure the entry is unnecessary.

WinPatrol also removes tracking cookies, monitors services, watches Internet Explorer helpers, and blocks Sony's annoying rootkit-like DRM scheme.

By the way, if you want lots of programs running from the system tray, don't mind the clutter, and are willing to spend some bucks, you can improve your PC's startup speed simply by adding more RAM. I maxed out my computer with 2GB and rarely experience resource issues.

Tool of the Month: Unclutter Your Desktop

I preach neatness, but my notebook's desktop is an unholy mess, with icons everywhere. That's fine with me--until I have to do a presentation and everyone gets a look at my disorderly desktop. My trick is to use an obscure feature built right into Windows to temporarily hide my desktop icons. Right-click your desktop and uncheck Show Desktop Icons under Arrange Icons By. This tactic is also ideal when I need to capture a screen shot of a dialog box and want a blank background.

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