Cleanup Utilities: Can They Speed Up Your PC?

Boot-Time Results

Testing boot times can be tricky, because it's hard to know exactly when all background processes and services have loaded into memory--even if you get to the Windows desktop quickly, your PC might still be loading tasks, so it isn't fully responsive yet. William Wang in the PCWorld Labs tested boot times by setting each PC to open a Notepad document on startup, and stopping the stopwatch when he saw it appear on screen. He tested each setup ten times. (Click the chart below to see it at full size.)

Each utility managed to speed startup slightly, though typically by no more than a few seconds. Oddly, System Mechanic 10 caused a negligible increase in startup time in the Dell D520 and the Toshiba M645-S4055, but the difference fell within the margin of error. The Lenovo ThinkPad Edge, meanwhile, enjoyed faster boot times across the board; CCleaner came in first with a 10-second improvement (19 percent faster), followed by System Mechanic 10 (9 seconds), WinOptimizer 7 (6 seconds), and System Speedup (4 seconds).

When we approached the utility vendors about our findings, Iolo Labs (maker of System Mechanic) requested that we try a tool the company uses for its own boot-time tests: Microsoft's Windows Performance Toolkit. The tool wouldn't work on our XP and Vista PCs, but the two Windows 7 systems reported a boot-time improvement of 14 seconds for the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge (29 percent) and 17 seconds for the Toshiba M645-S4055 (25 percent).

Net-Connection Speed Boost?

While all of the utilities made claims about improving overall performance, System Mechanic 10 also touted its NetBooster and Internet Connection Repair tools: "By adjusting the settings that affect network and Internet connection speeds, NetBooster fine-tunes your configurations so that more data can be transferred."

There are too many fluctuations in bandwidth on the open Internet to test such a claim fairly. Instead, we decided to look around and figure out exactly what System Mechanic was doing in its attempt to fix network-speed issues. We compared the Windows Registry before and after installing and running System Mechanic 10 on the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge. The only Registry adjustment we found was a change in the Maximum Transmission Unit setting. Old-school PC gurus will recognize this particular tweak, as it's something of a classic--we ran an article about changing the MTU 13 years ago, for instance.

Unfortunately, no sophisticated Windows magic seems to be going on here. The optimal MTU for your PC depends on whether you're using an always-on Internet connection (such as standard DSL/cable), a PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet) broadband connection (if you have DSL/cable service that requires you to log in at every boot-up, you're probably using PPPoE), or a 56-kbps dial-up connection. System Mechanic simply asks you which type of connection you have during the setup process, and adjusts the MTU accordingly (1500 for a standard always-on connection, 1492 for PPPoE, or 576 for dial-up). You don't need System Mechanic to do this task, though: The oldie-but-goodie Dr. TCP will help you change your MTU for free.

Our Advice

Cleanup utilities are a compelling sell to Windows users. We all want to believe that our PC is still the same snappy spring chicken it was when we bought it, and that it just needs the light touch of a cleanup tool to start sprinting again.

The reality is a bit different: You might feel better after running a utility--but judging from our testing, your PC's overall performance is unlikely to change much. Instead of investing in a cleanup utility, uninstall old programs for a short-term speed boost, and save your cash for a hardware upgrade.

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