How to boost Windows 8 performance

Get to know Windows 8's built-in tools for troubleshooting and speeding up your PC

There's an unassailable rule of computing: No matter how fast your computer is, and no matter how well it runs, you want it to run better.

If you're looking to improve Windows 8, help is on the way. I've rounded up my favorite tips for doing system analysis, troubleshooting and fixing any problems you find, and in general speeding things up. No extra software is required; everything you need is built right into Windows 8.

If you've been around the Windows block a few times, you probably remember having to manually crank through an array of performance-oriented tasks: mucking around with page files, editing the Registry or using third-party tools such as disk cleaners. But over the years Windows has gotten much better at automating many of those tasks. In Windows 8, generally the best way to improve performance and know what's going on in your system is to use Windows' built-in tools, including the Resource Monitor, the Task Manager and the Reliability Monitor.

For some reason, however, several of the most useful administrative tools are hidden by default, so the first thing to do is unhide them: Press the Windows key + I to open the Settings charm, click the word Tiles, and then change the "Show administrative tools" slider to Yes.

With these hidden gems revealed, we can get started.

For more useful tips, see 10 Windows 8 tips, tricks and hacks. If you need help getting up to speed with Windows 8, see Windows 8 cheat sheet.

Troubleshoot sluggishness with the Resource Monitor

A little-known tool called the Resource Monitor does a very good job of tracking down performance problems and fixing them. Although it's not new -- it's been included in Windows since Vista -- it's still a great way to find out about the resources your system uses and to see what applications and services are making the most use of your system. Based on that, you can decide which apps and services to shut down and which to keep running.

To run it, type resmon at the Start screen and then click the resmon.exe icon that appears on the left side of the screen under Apps.

Note: If you're using a company-owned PC and don't have Administrator privileges, you may not be able to run the Resource Monitor. But never fear: You can still use the Task Manager and most other tools covered in this story to troubleshoot performance problems.

If you are able to get into the Resource Monitor, start on the Overview tab. It offers a snapshot of your system's resource usage, including CPU use, disk use, network use and memory use.

Windows 8 Resource Monitor
The Resource Monitor can help track down causes of sluggish performance.

The screen is divided into two. On the left-hand side you'll see every process running on your system, by resource category (CPU, Disk, Network, and Memory), along with details about the usage of each process. (A process is any program that runs in Windows, from a tiny background task to a complex application such as a Web browser.)

On the right-hand side you'll see moving graphs of their cumulative use over time. You can see at a glance whether your CPU, disk, network or memory use is maxing out. If any are, you know you've got a problem, and you know the general category of problem.

For more details about any of those categories, click the appropriate tab across the top of the Resource Monitor. Each tab shows you what applications or services are making use of that particular resource, along with other useful information. For example, the CPU tab shows all the apps and services using the CPU, with a running average of CPU use for each app and service. Those that use the CPU the most are listed at the top; those that use it the least are listed at the bottom.

The display in each tab varies according to what's most useful. For example, the Memory tab shows, in addition to what programs and services are using memory, how much memory is currently used, cached, reserved for hardware and so on.

Once you've zeroed in on the problem, you can do something about it. If you've got apps and services overtaxing your CPU, for instance, you can close any of them by right-clicking it and selecting End Process from the drop-down menu. You might also consider looking for alternatives to those apps and services, and then using Resource Monitor later on to see whether those alternatives have lower resource usage.

Note that most of the information that the Resource Monitor displays is also shown in the Task Manager, another built-in performance tool we'll cover later in this article. Redone for Windows 8, the Task Manager has a more comprehensive set of tools and information than the Resource Monitor. That said, the Resource Monitor is still a useful tool for troubleshooting performance problems because it offers a quick at-a-glance look at your system, with in-depth information on each of its tabs.

Track stability and troubleshoot crashes with the Reliability Monitor

Another useful Windows tool is the Reliability Monitor, first introduced in Windows Vista. It offers a historical view of overall system stability and even includes detailed information about system crashes. Armed with this information, you can pinpoint the sources of problems and take steps to eliminate them.

To launch the Reliability Monitor, type reliability at the Start screen, click Settings, and click the "View reliability history" icon that appears on the left under Settings. The blue line running across the graph shows your system's stability over time. It's based on a number that Windows calculates to gauge your system's overall reliability. The maximum is 10 and the minimum is 1.

Every time there's a system failure, application failure or similar event, the index drops, sometimes sharply -- particularly if there's been more than one failure in a day. Each day your system doesn't have a failure, the index rises a little bit.

On days there are failures, you'll see red icons, divided into rows by type of failure -- application, Windows or miscellaneous (hardware, drivers, etc.). The chart also has icons for warnings about unsuccessful updates and for information about successful updates and installations.

Windows 8 Reliability Monitor
Windows 8's Reliability Monitor gives you insight into system and application crashes, update info and more.

Select any day with a failure or other event, and at the bottom of the screen you'll see details about those events, divided into categories. Pay attention to the details of each crash and failure. Look for patterns, such as if the same application frequently crashes. If so, uninstall it, or look for an update that fixes the problem.

Finally, down at the very bottom of the screen click "View all problem reports." Rather than seeing a chart over time, you'll instead see a list of all of your problems, including summaries. It lets you scroll through your problems more quickly than in the normal view, because they're in a long, vertical list.

Generate a detailed Performance Monitor report

Windows 8 includes a Performance Monitor tool that shows an immense amount of detail about a system's hardware and software. Unfortunately, its main interface is almost impossible to decipher. There is, however, one way to get some very useful information out of the Performance Monitor -- tell it to generate a detailed report for you that pinpoints system issues and suggests fixes.

You don't create the report directly from the Performance Monitor. Instead, from the Start screen type perfmon /report and click the "perfmn /report" icon that appears on the left. (Note that you might need Administrator rights to your PC to run the report.) A screen appears telling you that a report is generated, and after a minute or two, an interactive report appears onscreen.

Windows 8 Performance Monitor report
A Performance Monitor report: This PC's got troubles.

The report can be lengthy, and goes into mind-numbing detail about your system. (If you want to know about things such as your system's video classes and UDP information it's the place to go.) Most useful are reports of errors or problems. If it finds any, those will be at the very beginning of the report. For each error or problem, it describes the symptom and the cause, suggests how to fix it, and provides a link to other useful information.

Streamline startup

A common cause of system slowdowns is programs that load unnecessarily at startup and bog down your system. There are several ways to speed up startup.

A good place to start is the Task Manager. You've got several different ways to launch the Task Manager -- take your pick:

If you see the phrase "More details" at the bottom of the Task Manager screen, click it. If you see the phrase "Fewer details" at the bottom of the screen, you're already in the right place.

Now click the Startup tab. You'll see a list of programs and services that launch when you start Windows. For each one, you'll see its name, its publisher, whether it's enabled and the "startup impact" -- how much startup is slowed down by launching it. According to Microsoft's developer site, apps labeled as having high startup impact use more than 1 second of CPU time or more than 3MB of disk I/O at startup, medium-impact apps use 300 to 1000 milliseconds of CPU time or 300KB to 3MB of disk I/O, and low-impact apps use less than 300ms of CPU time and less than 300 KB of disk I/O.

Windows 8 Task Manager - Startup tab
Using the Task Manager's Startup tab, you can prevent programs from launching when Windows starts up.

If you'd like to stop any of the programs or services from launching at startup, right-click it and select Disable. This doesn't disable the program entirely; it simply prevents it from launching at startup. If you later decide you want it to launch at startup, get back here, right-click it and select Enable.

Some programs might have a small triangle next to them, indicating that they have multiple processes that run on startup. Click the triangle to see all the processes. It's not a good idea to disable some but not others, because that could cause instability in the program. So either disable all the processes or none.

You'll likely recognize some of the programs and services that run at startup, such as SkyDrive. But you'll also probably come across many that aren't familiar to you and whose purpose is almost impossible to discern. What to do about something called "persistence Module" or "hkcmd Module?" Should you turn them off or leave them on?

The Task Manager offers some solid help. Right-click an item and select Properties, and you'll see more detail about it, including its location, whether it has a digital signature from a company you know and other information such as the version number, its size and the last time it was modified.

Alternatively, when you right-click you can select "Open file location" and you'll open File Explorer to the folder where the file is located. That may give you a clue about the program's purpose.

Best of all, though, is to select "Search online" after you right-click. Bing launches and provides links to sites with information about the program or service. You'll usually very quickly find out information about the item, including its purpose and advice on whether it's safe.

For more ways to use the Task Manager to speed up your system, see "Track and fine-tune performance with the Task Manager" later in this article.

Clean out the Startup folder

There's another place to go if you want to stop programs from launching when you start your system -- the Startup folder. You can run File Explorer in one of these ways:

Make sure you can view hidden files in File Explorer: Click the View tab and check the boxes next to "Hidden items" and "File name extensions" in the Ribbon at the top.

Next, click the Computer icon in the left pane and navigate to:

C:\Users\<em>username</em>\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows<br>\Start Menu\Programs\Startup

where username is your Windows logon. Delete the shortcuts of any programs you don't want to run at startup. Don't worry; you won't delete the programs themselves, only their shortcuts.

Use Fast Startup

There's one last startup item to check: Make sure that Windows 8 uses a new mode called Fast Startup, a hybrid of a traditional shutdown/boot operation and hibernation. When you shut down your PC, all user sessions are closed but the Windows kernel session is saved to disk, or hibernated. Then when you start Windows again, it loads the hibernated system session from disk, cutting startup time.

By default, Fast Startup should be enabled on your system. But it's a good idea to make sure it's turned on, just in case your system wasn't set up correctly or Fast Startup was accidentally turned off.

On the Start screen, type power, click Settings and click the Power Options icon that appears on the left side of the screen under Settings. Click "Choose what the power buttons do" in the left pane, and under "Shutdown settings" at the bottom of the screen that appears, make sure that the box next to "Turn on fast startup" is checked.

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