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How to speed up everything

Has your PC lost its pep? How about your network connection, your printer, or even your phone? Here's our guide to giving your gear new life. Follow our tips, and you can fire up your system and your other tech essentials.

Supercharge Your PC's Hardware

To get top performance from your PC, use high-performance hardware. No amount of tweaking inside Windows can give you the same kind of speed boost that a few judicious hardware upgrades can — the most effective way to soup up any computer is to start by updating the components inside. Here we'll explain how to upgrade the two most vital components: the RAM and the graphics card.

WARNING: Before you attempt any of these upgrades, take precautions against static electricity by moving your PC to a clean, uncarpeted workspace and using an antistatic wrist strap to discharge any static electricity from your body.

Upgrade Your RAM

Adding RAM is often the most cost-effective upgrade you can make to speed up a sluggish computer. When a system runs short of RAM, it must swap the overflow data to the hard drive, which can significantly slow performance. Here's how to add more memory to your desktop, laptop, or netbook.

RAM comes in many flavors, such as DDR2 and DDR3. Newer technologies offer faster performance, but most motherboards accept only one type of RAM. Check your PC's manual to find out what type of RAM modules you need and how you have to install them. RAM dealers such as Crucial and Kingston offer handy online tools that identify the appropriate RAM for many PCs and motherboards. Also, to take advantage of more than 4GB of RAM, your PC needs to run a 64-bit operating system; Windows 7 is available in a 64-bit version, and we highly recommend it.

To begin, open your PC's case and look for the memory slots. In laptops and netbooks the RAM slots are usually under a removable panel on the bottom of the machine. To remove existing RAM, release the clips at each end of the module so that it pops loose. With the slots clear, gently but firmly insert the new module.

On a desktop machine, it's often best to seat one corner of the module first and then press the other end into place. Once you've fully inserted the module, the clips should close to hold the memory securely. On a laptop or netbook, press the end with the metal leads into place first, and then press down until the clips snap tightly around the ends.

For a complete guide, see “How to Upgrade Your PC's RAM.”

Replace Your Graphics Board

Even if you're not a gamer, upgrading your graphics board can give your PC a serious boost, since Windows 7 and Windows Vista both feature fancy effects in their user interface. Though you can upgrade the graphics on some laptops, in this article we'll focus on desktop PCs.

When shopping for a new graphics board, select one that fits the slot on your PC. In most newer systems, it will be a PCI-Express slot; some older systems may have only PCI or AGP slots. Fortunately, graphics card makers still sell products to fit older slots, so an outdated motherboard need not be a total obstacle.

With your new board at the ready, open the PC's case and locate the existing graphics card. Before attempting to pull it loose, remove the screw holding it down and release any plastic clips on the motherboard that may be securing it. Once the old card is out of the way, slide the new board straight down into the slot until it is firmly seated and the plastic clip on the motherboard has snapped tightly around it.

Newer PCI-Express graphics boards often use so much juice that they require a special PCI-E power line from the computer's power supply. If you've installed such a card, connect this power line (the board may have two) before closing up the case. Then boot the PC and install the drivers from the disc the manufacturer provided.

For more advice on choosing a graphics board, check out “Geek 101: A Graphics Card Primer.”

Streamline Windows

Whether you run Windows XP, Vista, or 7, you have a few really good ways to cut out the fluff and make your OS run more smoothly, quickly, and efficiently. By turning off unnecessary features and disabling unwanted startup programs, you can get an instant speed boost.

Knock Out the Fat

Windows — yes, even Windows XP — is loaded with effects that take up system resources without delivering meaningful user benefits. If you turn some of these items off, Windows can divert the resources to more useful activities, such as running your programs.

In Windows XP, open the System control panel and click the Advanced tab. Click Settings and then select the radio button marked Adjust for best performance. This will turn off some of the frilly effects, such as drop shadows under your menus, and make Windows a little snappier.

In Vista, start by disabling the resource hog known as the Sidebar. In both Vista and Windows 7, turn off the Aero environment to reclaim some of your PC's lost memory and processor power. To do this, right-click the desktop and choose Personalize from the context menu. In Vista, click Window color and appearance, and then uncheck the box for Enable Transparency. In Windows 7, select the theme labeled Windows 7 Basic.

Shut Down Memory-Hogging Apps

Once you've installed a fair amount of programs on your PC — your “core base” of apps, as it were — you'll want to check that you don't have any unwanted applications running in the background that could slow down your PC. Such programs may be designed to launch when Windows starts up so that you can load their corresponding applications faster. The problem is that they run all the time, regardless of whether you intend to use the parent application.

In Windows 7 or Vista, click Start and type msconfig in the 'Search programs and files' field. Press Enter. In the System Configuration window, select the Startup tab. In the Command column, look for any programs that you don't want to wait for at boot-up time. For example, take iTunes: If you've installed this application, you'll find both iTunesHelper.exe and QTTask.exe. They're unnecessary additions — the former launches when you start iTunes anyway, and the latter merely places a QuickTime icon in the corner of your screen for easy program launching. Uncheck both. Once you've checked all of the programs you want to launch at startup and unchecked the programs you don't, click OK.

In addition to startup programs, you can find services on your PC; Microsoft recommends trimming them as well. Click Start, type services.msc into the search field, and press Enter. Up pops the Services window, a list of options and executables that's even more confusing than the Startup window.

To identify which services to turn off (and which to leave on), check out Black Viper's exhaustive list of Windows 7's services across all of its various editions, along with a list of which services you should modify and how you should set their parameters. Armed with this advice, just double-click on any listed service. You need concern yourself only with the 'Startup type' listing in the screen that appears next. By switching among the Automatic, Manual, and Disabled modes, depending on Black Viper's recommendations, you'll be able to control exactly how services launch — if at all — during the Windows startup process and during your general use of the operating system. Every little bit helps.

Maintain Top Performance

If you want to keep your system fast, clear out your C:\Windows\Temp folder on occasion. Do it as soon as you boot into the OS, or even through Safe Mode, to ensure that you wipe every last unused file from your drive. In the same vein, don't use Windows 7's uninstall function or a program's default uninstall executable to remove an application from your drive. Instead, use the free Revo Uninstaller utility; this awesome application removes programs using their default uninstall routines, but it also goes one step further by scanning your system and Registry to clean away all traces of the program from your hard drive.

Accelerate Your Network

Network slowdowns can be tricky to troubleshoot. Much depends on what you're actually doing across your network — copying files to another system, for example, might slow to a crawl if you're writing to a NAS device attached to a poky PC in the next room. But a few general tweaks and tricks can still boost your network performance in Windows.

Update Firmware and Drivers

The first step in getting your network up to speed is to install the latest Windows updates and to download the newest drivers for your PC's network cards. Second, install the current firmware for your router. All of these items are essential to optimal network speeds, and you can usually locate them on the manufacturer's Web sites. If the release date for a given driver is more recent than the last time you can remember updating, you should probably update again. Most new routers make updating easy if you log in to the Web administration panel; typically it will have an option for you to download and install the latest firmware with just a click or two.

Adjust Network Card Settings

Once you have the latest software and firmware installed, try adjusting your network card's auto-negotiating setting. In the Control Panel, click Network and Sharing Center. From there, click Change Adapter Settings, and then right-click on your Local Area Connection and select Properties. In the screen that appears, click the Configure button under the Connect Using field. Select the Advanced tab. Set 'Link Speed & Duplex' to its highest available setting, such as 100 Mbps Full Duplex or 1000 Mbps Full Duplex.

Make Windows Set You Free

Windows Vista has a wonderful habit of throttling down your network connection when you're playing multimedia files, to prevent movies from skipping during playback. You can adjust this throttling by editing the decimal value of the 'NetworkThrottlingIndex' key.

Press Windows-R, type regedit, and press Enter. In the Registry Editor, navigate to the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Multimedia\SystemProfile key. Raise the decimal value of the 'NetworkThrottlingIndex' key to a higher number. Setting it to 100 disables the service; Microsoft recommends that you go no higher than 70, but there's no harm in testing settings to see what works for you.

Route Traffic Intelligently

Online games, streaming-media programs, Internet phone services, and peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent consume a lot of network bandwidth due to the massive amounts data they transmit. To reduce the amount of strain such apps put on your router and to improve your overall network performance, manage them more efficiently with your router's port-forwarding feature.

Log in to your router's configuration screen. Search for an option that lets you specify port forwarding; it will be labeled slightly differently from one router to another. Once you've found it, type in your system's internal IP address (usually in the form of 192.*.*.*), and then input the preferred port found in your application's configuration screen (for instance, in Skype it's located under Tools, Options, Advanced, Connection). Pick both TCP and UDP protocols for forwarding, and save your settings.

To see if your chosen port actually has a clear tunnel through your network to the Internet, fire up the application and visit Input your port number and click the Check button — if you get a 'success' response, you're all set.

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