18 simple, free fixes for your Vista or XP PC

Your ultimate PC repair kit

Startup: lose lingerers

You can free up memory and recover processor cycles by clearing out the clutter that starts each time you log in to Windows. Some programs do little more than flattering their maker's vanity by launching every time you start Windows. Kick these into touch immediately by knocking them from the 'run at startup' list. Click Start, Run, type 'msconfig' and press Enter. Click on the Startup tab and untick unwanted programs.

To distinguish useful startup programs from useless ones, consult Autoruns' research tools or the Startup Applications List.

Shut down instantly

As well as making you wait around at the start of the day while it readies itself for use, your Windows PC takes its time shutting down. It's possible to reprogram its power button to exit Windows, without any prompts (except to save unsaved work) needed.

In XP, open Control Panel. In the 'Performance and Maintenance' category, launch Power Options and click the Advanced tab. Under 'When I press the power button on my computer', select Shut down. Then click ok.

In Vista, click the Start button, type power options and press Enter. Click 'Choose what the power button does' and, next to 'When I press the power button', select Shut down. Finally, click Save Changes.

Mind your memory

Poor performance may signal problems with your system RAM. Windows Vista will prompt you to use its Memory Diagnostic Tool if it detects a problem, but you can run this utility whenever you want.

Choose Start, All Programs, Administrative Tools, Memory Diagnostic Tool. Click Continue if prompted by User Account Control. To check your system, click the first option, Restart now and check for problems (recommended).

The tool will reboot your PC, and you'll see a text-based screen. Press F1 for more options. You can choose from three types of tests: Basic, Standard or Extended. Highlight your choice to select it and then press Tab to move to the next section. This should be the Cache settings and the Pass Count, or the number of times you want the test repeated.

If your PC gives no indication of problems, we recommend the Basic test with the defaults for the Cache and Pass Count. Press F10 to start the test with these settings.

The memory test can take several minutes. After it reboots your PC, Vista displays the results; if no problems are found, Windows will start and show a pop-up in the system tray to report that fact. If it reports errors, replace the memory modules.

Vista performance tool

Vista comes with a diagnostic tool to show you just how poorly it's performing. Head to Start, Control Panel and click on System and Maintenance. Choose to 'Check your computer's Windows Experience Index base score' or check on the details it lists.

The scores that Vista assigns your hardware will be within the range of 1 to 5.9 (based on the hardware configurations Microsoft envisaged when it coded Vista). Even our well-specified dual-core dual-SLI gaming PC built three months ago achieved just 5.3, while our 2.4GHz Athlon 3800+ with 1GB RAM scored a paltry 2.6.

While the Performance Index does a good job of showing up underperforming system components, there's also the option to invoke Vista's system tweaks by clicking on the Performance Information and Tools option in the System and Maintenance screen.

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