Performance-oriented Windows tweaking

Fresh Daemon

Senior member
Mar 16, 2005
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"Something is bunk, then it's de-bunked." -- Jerry Seinfeld

Black Viper (amongst others) runs a Windows tweaks page offers many changes and customizations that users can make to MS Windows in the name of greater performance. BV recommends that many active-by-default Windows services be set to manual activation or disabled altogether, to save on memory useage and CPU cycles.

I have taken three systems with clean installs of Windows XP and reviewed these tweaks. Well, the third isn't really a clean install, it has a bunch of software running which any typical user would run e.g. firewall, antivirus, speedfan, etc. The first two are lower-end systems that should theoretically benefit most from this treatment, neither has the prefix ?giga? in either its CPU speed or RAM capacity. The last one is a modern system (at the time of writing, anyway).

Part I: Low-end system

First up is the PII-300 system, in fact a PII-233 overclocked to 300MHz, with 160MB of RAM and an nVidia TNT2 PCI graphics card. This system is not really capable of being a useable XP box. We'll see if BV can help make it into one.

First I measure RAM utilization in Task Manager, then I run some components of PCMark 2004 since this system lacks the hardware capability to run portions of the test. As peak commit charge while running this suite is about twice the physical RAM, if performance can be improved it should show here. Each benchmark was run three times and the results averaged, with a reboot in-between to prevent caching skewing the results.

I also ran 3DMark 2001SE in the same average-of-three manner, although not all tests were completed since, again, the computer isn?t capable. Then I ran Quake II timedemos, best-of-three FPS on demo1.dm2. 3DMark and Quake II were run at 640x480x16 to avoid a possible graphics card bottleneck.

Before the results, a note on usability. The "Power User" level is a misnomer since it actually disables many services a power user might want or need, such as the IMAPI CD-burning service, the logical disk manager, the Themes (the pretty interface, which I happen to prefer to the mid-90s look), and the Windows firewall. This also poses a security risk. Since I was not running a 3rd-party firewall (didn?t want to waste the RAM), once I had gone to the Power User tweak level the computer was vulnerable. I simply unplugged the Ethernet cable from this point on, although it wasn?t necessary at the Barebones level because a computer thus configured isn?t actually capable of using any kind of network. Don?t imagine that the services BV disables to achieve his Power User and Barebones configurations are unnecessary or useless for the desktop user, they?re not, and memory savings here definitely come at the expense of functionality.

RAM useage

This shows RAM used on first booting the system and consulting Task Manager. The Manager does consume a little overhead, but it?s the same across the board. I also show the saved RAM, the percentage improvement, and the value of that saving, calculated at about 8.7 cents per MB (Newegg offers 1GB of Corsair value RAM for $89.75).

Fresh installation: 90.6MB Screenshot
Safe tweak level: 85.4MB (5.2MB saved or a 5.74% improvement, 7.5% more available, value: 45 cents) Screenshot
Power User tweak level: 66.1MB (24.5MB saved or a 27.04% improvement, 35.3% more available, value: $2.13) Screenshot
Barebones tweak level: 57.2MB (33.4MB saved or a 36.87% improvement, 48.1% more available, value: ($2.91) Screenshot

This does look good as a percentage. However, bear in mind that on a system with 2GB of RAM the absolute saving will be practically identical. On the 160MB box, getting 33.4MB back amounts to 20% of total physical RAM, but with 2GB, it?s a piddling 1.63%. At current prices, just buy more RAM, especially considering the massive loss in functionality to achieve that 1.63%.

PCMark results (File Compression & File Decompression in MB/s)

These types of operations tend to show performance increases with better latency and speed in benchmarks. Let?s see how the different configurations fare, along with percentile improvement over an untweaked system.

Fresh installation: 0.494/3.036 Screenshot
Safe tweak level: 0.482/3.025 (-2.43%/-0.36%)
Power User tweak level: 0.474/2.990 (-4.22%/-1.54%) Screenshot
Barebones tweak level: 0.486/3.011 (-1.65%/-0.83%) Screenshot

The tweaks are an abject failure here, yielding an extremely slight but across-the-board decrease in performance. It?s not for certain that it is the tweaks which have made the performance worse since the changes are so small and inconsistent, however, we can certainly say that they have made absolutely no improvements.

PCMark results (File Encryption & Virus Scanning in MB/s)

Fairly standard desktop tasks. Let?s see how the tweaks can help performance here.

Fresh installation: 3.521/181.629 Screenshot
Safe tweak level: 3.487/187.717 (-0.98%/+3.35%) Screenshot
Power User tweak level: 3.520/184.549 (-0.03%/+1.61%) Screenshot
Barebones tweak level: 3.486/179.930 (-1%/-0.94%) Screenshot


Again, we see absolutely infinitesimal changes, but not overly favourable to tweaking and unsupportive of the idea that freeing up more RAM automatically increases performance - the configuration with the most free memory was the worst performer.

PCMark results (Grammar Check in KB/s)

Another pretty standard task.

Fresh installation: 0.395 Screenshot
Safe tweak level: 0.385 (-2.6%) Screenshot
Power User tweak level: 0.383 (-3.13%) Screenshot
Barebones tweak level: 0.381 (-3.67%) Screenshot


More infinitesimal numbers that definitely wouldn?t be noticed by the end-user, however, here we actually have a trend: more tweaking makes performance progressively worse, although not in proportion to the RAM saved, so again the results don't really support any conclusion other than that services tweaking does not have a positive effect on performance.

PCMark results (Image Processing in MPixels/s)

Image processing tasks are supposed to like lots of RAM. Let?s see how freeing up a little more helps.

Fresh installation: 1.615 Screenshot
Safe tweak level: 1.616 (+0.06%) Screenshot
Power User tweak level: 1.570 (-2.87%) Screenshot
Barebones tweak level: 1.596 (-1.19%) Screenshot


Again, nothing noticeable. Tweaking proved to be a complete waste of time here as well.

3DMark results (Car Chase, Dragothic, Lobby)

Here are the recorded framerates, along with the average % change in performance (sum of the % changes/3).

Fresh installation: 4.0/3.1/10.1 Screenshot
SafeSafe tweak level: 3.9/2.9/10.0 (-3.49%) Screenshot
Power User tweak level: 3.9/3.0/10.2 (-1.63%) Screenshot
Barebones tweak level: 3.9/3.0/10.0 (-2.3%) Screenshot

Again, the tweaks seem to have a negative effect, but not a consistent one. The only clear messages here are that tweaking does not help, and also that this system seriously sucks at 3D graphics.

Quake II FPS

An old game, but within the capabilities of this system.

Fresh installation: 25.4
Safe tweak level: 25.7 (+1.18%)
Power User tweak level: 25.57 (+0.67%)
Barebones tweak level: 25.47 (+0.28%)

Although this may look like a triumph for tweaking, absolutely nobody, ever, is going to notice 0.3fps (the biggest increase). Nor are the results consistent. In fact, these kinds of results could very easily be caused by something else in the system and not tweaking at all.



The conclusion at this point is obvious: tweaking doesn't help real-world performance at all, at least, not in gaming or any of the common desktop tasks tested here. In fact, it seems to be an overall net loss. Don't bother, if you need more RAM, buy some.




Part II: Mid-range system

OK, so this system isn't exactly mid-range, but it can run XP comfortably. It's a PIII-667 with 640MB of RAM and a GeForce DDR card. It's a brand-new installation of XP SP2, untouched except for the 71.89 nVidia drivers and the installation of the required benchmarking suites and programs.

RAM useage

Fresh installation: 93.7MB
Safe level: 86.7MB (7MB saved, 7.5% reduction or 1.2% more available RAM, value: 61 cents)
Power user level: 70.0MB (13.7MB saved, 14.6% reduction or 2.5% more available, value: $1.19)
Bare-bones level: 61.7MB (22MB saved, 23.5% reduction or 4% more available, value: $1.91)

The absolute and percentile RAM savings here are even less than on the low-end system. The PIII box uses more memory because it has more attached hardware, but even so, it seems the more RAM you have (and the more peripheral hardware), the less these tweaks are worth.

Before I get into the benchmarks, I ran 5 tests on each one (with a reboot in between each) on the same system configured in the exact same way. This is to give you some idea of the margins of normal variation. They are listed as min/max/avg/% variable. Scores after tweaking within these rough boundaries cannot be ascribed to the tweaks, but rather to the anomalous behaviour of a highly complex system such as a modern computer.

PCMark 2004: 956/1023/987 -3.24/+3.65%. The PCMark scores show the greatest variation.
3DMark 2001SE: 2375/2414/2395 -0.84/+0.79%. 3DMark is a lot more consistent.
Quake III: 64.3/64.5/64.4 -0.16/+0.16%. This is the least variable of the benchmarks. A Quake III benchmark run should vary by more than 0.1-0.2 FPS before being ascribed to outside influence.

PCMark 2004

Fresh installation: 1019
Safe level: 1041 (+2.16%)
Power user level: 1044 (+2.45%)
Bare-bones level: Did not complete (system too crippled at this point), but the individual results are similar.

Tweaking appears to offer a performance increase here, but it is so slight that it falls well within the boundaries of normal variation. There is no conclusive proof that tweaking has helped performance at all.

3DMark 2001 SE

Fresh installation: 2363
Safe level: 2379 (+0.68%)
Power user level: 2414 (+2.16%)
Bare-bones level: 2409 (+1.95%)

The Power-user and Bare-bones configurations appear to offer some performance advantage outside of the normal tolerances. However, the inconsistency of these results suggests that it's not due to saving RAM and CPU cycles, or else the bare-bones system should have performed better than the power-user one, not worse.

Quake III Arena 1.32, OCAU's slayer demo

Fresh installation: 64.4
Safe level: 64.7 (+0.47%)
Power user level: 64.2 (-0.31%)
Bare-bones level: 63.9 (-0.78%)

Again, inconsistent and unnoticeable results. As before, nobody will ever notice 0.3fps, and the more services are disabled, the worse the performance gets, not the better.



In conclusion to Part II, the idea that services tweaking can actually produce useful and noticeable performance gains is proven wrong again. In no way are these tweaks worth the time or the sacrifice in functionality.



Part III: Modern system

This is my rig. We'll see if this makes any difference. I expect the absolute differences will be even less noticeable than before. Since BV's site is offline at the time of writing, I took the "Safe" and "Gaming" configs from Major Geeks. All graphics tests were run at 800x600x32 with all eye-candy off.

RAM useage

Default: 163MB Screenshot.
Safe: 170MB No, I don't know why this happened. Loss of 4.2% used, 0.34% of total physical RAM. Value: -$0.60 Screenshot.
Gaming: 142MB Gain of 14.7% of used, 1% of total physical RAM. Value: $1.82 Screenshot.

3DMark 2001SE

Default: 26516 3DMarks Screenshot.
Safe: 26485 3DMarks Screenshot. A loss of 0.1%. Unnoticeable and well within the margin of error.
Gaming: 26499 3DMarks Screenshot. A loss of 0.06%. Again, unnoticeable and within the margin of error. We can't even be certain that it was the tweaks which caused these incredibly infinitesimal variations.

PCMark 2004

Default: 4882 PCMarks Screenshot.
Safe: 4936 PCMarks Screenshot. A gain of 1.1%. However, we know that PCMark 2004 results can vary by over 3% above or below the baseline, so this doesn't mean anything, especially as the "safe" config somehow ended up using more RAM.
Gaming: 4915 PCMarks Screenshot. A gain of 0.68%. Again, inconsequential, within the margin of error, and inconsistent with the level of tweaking applied.

Quake 3 timedemo

Default: 407.3fps.
Safe: 405.9fps. A loss of 0.34%, which is totally unnoticeable anyway.
Gaming: 406.5fps. A loss of 0.2%.

Painkiller

This was not a demo, but a FRAPS measurement of framerate while I played 30 seconds of the "Catacombs" level. I attempted to do much the same thing in much the same order, so they should not vary that much, but obviously there will be much greater variation here. I included these because of the criticism of "artificial" benchmarks made against timedemos (which is invalid, but regardless, this is actual gameplay and not pre-recorded).

Default: 174fps.
Safe: 166.7fps. A loss of 4.38%, not especially noticeable (although 5% is not inconsequential), and we can't be certain that the tweaks caused this. Certainly the game felt no different, subjectively.
Gaming: 166.7fps. Coincidence? Maybe! In any case, definitely not an improvement.

FarCry

This was run with Hardware OC's FarCry Benchmarking Utility 1.4.1. I ran three passes of the included "PC Games Hardware Demo". The results between passes were virtually identical anyway.

Default: 145.05fps.
Safe: 138.05fps. A loss of 5%, close to what we saw in Painkiller.
Gaming: 145.07fps. A gain of 0.05%. You'd never notice this.

SuperPI 2M

Default: 1m 22.329s. Screenshot.
Safe: 1m 22.485s. Screenshot. A loss of 0.19%. Inconsequential.
Gaming: 1m 22.032s. Screenshot. A gain of 0.36%. Again, inconsequential.


Again, on a modern system, services tweaking fails to produce any useful or noticeable result.

As Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters would say, "it's busted."



Part IV: "Swap files" [sic], Themes and other miscellany

Now we come to BV's non-services recommendations.

First off, he discusses "swap files" (by which he means page files). His recommendations, from the worst performance to the best:

1) The Default: A dynamic swap file on the same partition and physical hard drive (usually C as Windows.)
2) A dynamic swap file on a separate partition, but on the same physical hard drive as Windows.
3) A static swap file on a separate partition, but on the same physical hard drive as Windows.
4) A dynamic swap file on a separate hard drive (and preferably, controller) from Windows and frequently accessed data.
5) A static swap file on a separate hard drive (and preferably, controller) from Windows and frequently accessed data.
6) No swap file at all. Some software may fail. You also need "much" memory to do this. Greater than 512 MB, but I recommend 2 GB.

He has actually run some benchmarks himself, and has noticed no difference in FPS. However, his methodology isn't that good. With the load he places on the system he can't even be certain that the pagefile is even being used, and if it's not being used, it's performance won't impact FPS at all.

I went back to System 1, because it's much easier to waste 160MB of RAM than 640MB. On bootup, I loaded Task Manager, 2 instances of Internet Explorer (Google home page), Windows Movie Maker (no file loaded), Outlook Express, and 4 instances of Paint, each with a 1152x864 24-bit BMP file loaded.

Total load is about 185MB, so we know for sure that we're hitting the pagefile. This is borne out in benchmarks. The same system without any extra load gets around 25FPS in a Quake II timedemo, at exactly the same settings with this load, it gets around 20.

On to the benchmarks. Three runs of each were run and the results averaged.

Test 1: Default (dynamic, Windows-managed pagefile on system partition

Quake II: 20.5FPS
3DMark 2001 SE: 279
PCMark 2002: 739 CPU, 416 Memory, 194 HDD

Test 2: Dynamic, Windows-managed pagefile on a different partition of the same disk

Quake II: 20.3 (-1%)
3DMark 2001 SE: 279 (0%)
PCMark 2002: 738/416/193 (-0.1%/0%/-0.5%)

Distinctly underwhelming. Nothing that could be perceived.

Test 3: Static pagefile (1000MB, as recommended by BV) on a different partition of the same disk

Quake II: 20.1 (-2%)
3DMark 2001 SE: 279 (0%)
PCMark 2002: 737/421/189 (-0.3%/+1.2%/-2.6%)

Absolutely nothing noticeable again.

Test 4: Dynamic pagefile on a different hard drive

Quake II: 20.2 (-1.5%)
3DMark 2001 SE: 279 (0%)
PCMark 2002: 737/409/195 (-0.3%/-1.7%/+0.5%)

On this supposedly higher-performance configuration, the memory gain and HDD loss of the last configuration are both gone. This would seem to indicate that we're seeing variations within the benchmark's margins of error rather than actual performance differences. Anyway, there's still nothing noticeable.

Test 5: Static pagefile (1000MB) on a different drive, using a different controller channel

Quake II: 20.1 (-2%)
3DMark 2001 SE: 279 (0%)
PCMark 2002: 737/421/189 (-0.3%/+1.2%/-2.6%)

Results absolutely identical to (3). Nothing worthwhile.

I didn't test configuration (6). Windows is not supposed to run without a pagefile, and even BV acknowledges that he encounters glitches, crashes, sound problems, programs refusing to load and so on. If it's not useable, what's the point?

Anyway, pagefile tuning for performance is useless. There are no gains to be had here. About the only thing it may be worth doing is to move the file to another partition, but that's to lessen fragmentation, not for performance.

To those who don't believe me, maybe you'll believe Anand Lal Shimpi (and you should, since bothering to read his website). He recently reviewed Gigabyte's i-RAM and tested it as a pagefile drive here.

Some excerpts that reflect his impressions:

There was no real tangible performance difference between putting more memory in the system and using the hard disk for the pagefile or putting less memory in the system and using the i-RAM for the pagefile.
...for the most part, our system was slower when we had less memory and stored the swapfile in it than when we had more memory and less swap file.
For most people, you're much better off just tossing more memory in your system.
Bear in mind that the i-RAM is a solid-state device that tests as having 3-6.75x the I/O performance of a WD Raptor, and the results of putting the pagefile on it were so underwhelming compared to just adding more RAM, how big do you possibly think the results of putting the pagefile on another hard drive, or on another partition of the same hard drive, could be?

If the i-RAM is not really a good replacement for more memory, there is no possible way that pagefile tweaking could be.



Passwords

From BV's site:

This is only valid for Windows XP Home: Do this NOW!! Everyone on XP Home, by default, has Administrator privileges and the User name is "Owner." If I know that, so does everyone else on the planet. Change the name and / or password your account. If anything, password it. NEVER have an account unprotected! EVER!


From STaSh, AT forum member:

Passwords are fine, but since most people will probably use a password like 'password' this tidbit actually LOWERS the security of the system. Why? Because BY DEFAULT, accounts with no passwords are not allowed to connect over the network. Only to the console. If you are not worried about physical access (like most people who use XP Home), an account with no password is very secure.
Clear enough?


Get rid of System Restore Service and Indexing Service.

System Restore Service can be invaluable, if you like to use the latest drivers, change hardware, try out new software and so on. Yes, it will use hard disk space. Hard disk space costs about 50 cents per gigabyte. What do you care? Even if it uses a full gigabyte (which I doubt), I'd pay 50 cents for peace of mind.

Indexing Service is not started automatically anymore. If you don't like it and don't need it, don't use it, and it will never bother you.


Automatic Updates

From BV himself:

quote:
I turn off Automatic Updates... I highly recommend you DO NOT disable this function.

Alright?


Themes

BV recommends disabling them. As Parts I and II show, there's no performance gain to be had from disabling them. When I installed XP on System I, Windows automatically disabled all but three of the visual enhancements. System II ran fully enabled and I did not notice any decrease in speed. Based on the specs of these systems I would say that if you cannot run all of XP's visual enhancements without suffering noticeable slowdowns then the computer is simply not fast enough, and you would be better to stick with 2K. In any case, deviating from the Windows defaults is simply not necessary or worthwhile.
 

Sunner

Elite Member
Oct 9, 1999
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I'm just waiting for a bunch of people to come in and say that no matter what benchmarks you throw at them, their systems "feel so much faster".

Oh well, :thumbsup: anyway.
 

Raduque

Lifer
Aug 22, 2004
13,135
135
106
Excellent article, hopefully, less and less people will start listening to Black Viper.
 

MrChad

Lifer
Aug 22, 2001
13,507
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81
Outstanding work. I especially like the monetary values you assigned to the memory usage changes ;).
 

InlineFive

Diamond Member
Sep 20, 2003
9,599
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I stopped using that guide a while ago but it wasn't as a result of thorough testing. Kudos to you!

Now I just disable the services that pose an annoyance or risk such as Messenger, Telnet, Remote Registry, etc...
 

Fresh Daemon

Senior member
Mar 16, 2005
493
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Thanks for the comments, guys. You're an inspiration. I'm about half-way through Part II right now, should have it ready sometime tomorrow. I'm biased since it's my own work, but anyone think this should be a sticky? Maybe we can stop some people castrating their Windows installations for non-existent performance gains before it happens and they post here. :)
 

n0cmonkey

Elite Member
Jun 10, 2001
42,936
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Originally posted by: Fresh Daemon
Thanks for the comments, guys. You're an inspiration. I'm about half-way through Part II right now, should have it ready sometime tomorrow. I'm biased since it's my own work, but anyone think this should be a sticky? Maybe we can stop some people castrating their Windows installations for non-existent performance gains before it happens and they post here. :)
Here.
 

BigToque

Lifer
Oct 10, 1999
11,700
0
76
I've never thought that the guide really helped much in terms of performance, but it does help me understand what exactly is running and what I can turn off.

If there are things that can pose some kind of security risk or something annoying and I have no use for the service anyway, why not disable it?
 

stash

Diamond Member
Jun 22, 2000
5,468
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If there are things that can pose some kind of security risk or something annoying and I have no use for the service anyway, why not disable it?
That's fine, just don't use anything written by BV to secure your box. There is plenty of documentation on microsoft.com on what every service does and what the security risks are.
 

BW86

Lifer
Jul 20, 2004
13,113
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:thumbsup: nice! Although, I do disable any service I don't use. :eek:
 

Fresh Daemon

Senior member
Mar 16, 2005
493
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Part II should be more revealing. The methodology is better and the system can actually complete test suites. In the meantime:

There is plenty of documentation on microsoft.com on what every service does and what the security risks are.
It's my view that after - what - twenty years of experience, MS knows how to design an operating system. One can disable unused services, but with the performance impact I've seen, why even bother? Maybe it's superfluous to requirements, but why go to the trouble of removing it if it doesn't do any harm? It's like removing non-malignant moles that aren't in a visible area. Just leave them. Spend your time on something important.

If there are things that can pose some kind of security risk or something annoying
What's annoying? Messenger? It isn't there by default anymore. Security center? It's easy to ignore without going into the services. Indexing? I looked on both default installations before I'd done anything and it wasn't even running. Automatic updates? If you don't like it, just say "no" when it asks you. You don't need to be disabling services for that.

As to security, I'm pretty sure that Zonelabs, Norton, McAfee, Sygate et al can block access to any services quite competently. Run a firewall, an antivirus program and some anti-spyware programs, and you don't have anything to worry about whether you disable certain services or not.

As has been pointed out, it's not realistic to assume that an amateur enthusiast or some "electronics technician" (probably a technician at Best Buy or Radioshack, I'm sure if it was anything more presitigious he'd have pointed it out) who does not even claim to have any qualifications in the subject - not even an A+, let alone an MCSE or an actual BSc in software engineering - would know more about MS Windows than people who have spent years creating MS Windows.

I mean, good lord, it's a site devoted to Windows configuration and he thought the most pertinent biographical information he could provide about himself was his height, weight, gender, year of birth (and he put "AD", which is so very witty and refreshing, never been done before, nope), music he likes, videogames he enjoys playing, favourite movies, and musicians, favourite restaurant and all sorts of other info which makes him sound much less like a competent IT specialist than some desperate chump on Lavalife.

Rant over. Just please stop listening to this clown. More hard data will follow.
 

n0cmonkey

Elite Member
Jun 10, 2001
42,936
1
0
Wow, interesting. So far, the bigger the machine the better the benchmark improvements, but the less memory saved. :confused:
 

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