How to boost Windows 8 performance

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

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Track and fine-tune performance with the Task Manager

You may know of the Task Manager as the go-to application for seeing programs and processes running on your PC, and for shutting down any you don't want to run any more. But over the years it's developed into a much more powerful tool. In Windows 8 it's gotten a major overhaul that makes it a great way to fine-tune system performance.

Windows 8 Task Manager - small
The stripped-down version of Task Manager.

Launch the Task Manager by pressing Ctrl-Shift-Esc on your keyboard or whatever method you prefer. The Task Manager has two interfaces in Windows 8: a stripped-down simplified one that shows your currently running applications, and a much more detailed one that you'll use for troubleshooting and improving system performance. To switch between them, click the "More details" down arrow when you're in the simplified version, or click the "Fewer details" up arrow when you're in the more detailed version.

If you're having trouble with a particular program that's running, you can use the Task Manager's simple view to end it: Just select the application in the list of apps and click the End task button.

If you don't know the source of the slowdown of if you want to fine-tune your system's performance, switch to the Task Manager's detailed view. There are seven tabs here. We've already covered how to use the Startup tab to make your system boot up faster. For other system performance improvements, you'll generally use these four tabs: Processes, Performance, App history and Users.

Windows 8 Task Manager - Processes tab
The full-blown Task Manager, in all of its detailed glory.

Processes tab

This tab (shown above) reports on the apps, background processes and Windows system processes currently running on your PC. It reports on the percentage of CPU, memory, disk capacity and network resources each app or process is using. The right side of the screen is a heat map, with colors ranging from pale yellow for low resource use to red for critically high resource use.

If you're experiencing system slowdowns, head to this tab and see whether anything here is hogging your CPU or memory. If so, you can close it down. Right-click it and you get a menu that allows you to manage it in a variety of ways, including ending it and any related processes (if there are any).

When you right-click, you get a number of other options as well. If you select "Resource values," you can choose to have the memory, disk and network information about each process displayed as either a value (for example, 47.9MB) or a percentage of use (for example, 23%). Choosing "Open file location" launches File Explorer to the folder where the process's executable is found, with the process highlighted.

"Create dump file" will generate a file that contains a snapshot of the process at that moment in time, including which of its modules were loaded and what the process was doing. If you're having a problem with a process, a dump file can help programmers understand how to fix it.

You can also add more columns of information to the Processes tab. Right-click in the chart's header area and choose what columns you want to add, such as the process type (app, background process, etc.), name, publisher and more.

Performance tab

The Performance tab is even more useful for tracking system performance. You won't use it for fixing problems, but instead for uncovering them. On the left are thumbnail graphs showing real-time usage data for your system's CPU, memory and disk as well as Ethernet, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections.

Click any thumbnail, and the right side of the screen shows a larger, more detailed graph and additional information. For example, click Memory and you'll get information about your total memory, how much is in use, how much is available, how much is cached and so on.

Windows 8 Task Manager - performance tab
The Task Manager's Performance tab shows real-time usage data.

Look at the thumbnail graphs to see whether utilization is too high for any resource. For example, if you've got CPU use of 80% or more, you might be experiencing system slowdowns. You can then go to the Processes tab, track down which apps have high CPU usage and close them down. Similarly, if you see high memory use on the Performance tab, you'll want to track down which apps are using too much memory and close them down.

You can troubleshoot using the other thumbnail graphs as well. For instance, Wi-Fi will show you your current throughput, among other details, so that you can tell whether you've got connection problems.

By default, Task Manager updates its data every two seconds; each vertical line on the graphs represents a two-second interval. To change the update frequency, from Task Manager's top menu choose View --> Update Speed and select High or Low instead of Normal. When you select High, updates take place twice a second. When you select Low, updates take place once every four seconds. To stop updating altogether, select Paused. To do an immediate update, select Refresh now.

App history tab

If you remember the pre-Windows 8 Task Manager, you'll notice that plenty has changed here. The old Applications tab displayed a list of every application currently running on your PC and reported on the status of each app.

In the Windows 8 Task Manager, you instead use check the Processes tab to get that information. The App history tab is for a very different purpose: to provide information about applications and how they've been used over time. By default, it shows information for Windows 8 native apps (a.k.a. Metro apps, Modern apps or Windows Store apps) only, but you can click Options --> "Show history for all processes" to reveal information about Desktop apps and other processes.

Windows 8 Task Manager - App history tab
The App history tab can help you track down bandwidth-hogging apps.

For each app, the tab shows the CPU time it's used over the last 30 days, the total amount of network bandwidth it's used over the last 30 days, the metered bandwidth it's used over the last 30 days, and the amount of data used by its Start screen tile updates over the last 30 days. (A metered network is one that charges you for data usage -- for example, your cellphone service provider.)

As with the Processes tab, right-click in the header area to choose more columns to display, such as Downloads and Uploads, which track the amount of data you've downloaded or uploaded over the last 30 days.

How can the App history tab help you? Perhaps its greatest use is in tracking down network bandwidth hogs. Check the Network, Metered network and Tile updates columns to see each app's bandwidth use. (You can click any column header to sort the apps from highest to lowest usage.)

If your Windows 8 device connects to a metered network, pay particular attention to the Metered network column. Examining which apps use a lot of metered network data and limiting their use can help you keep under your monthly data limits.

Also look for outliers. You'd expect an Internet-centric app like Internet Explorer to use a lot of bandwidth, so don't be surprised if it's your biggest bandwidth consumer. But if you see an app whose operation is not Internet-centric or network-centric taking up gobs of bandwidth, you might have a problem. What to do in those cases? Consider uninstalling the app and finding an alternative to it.

Users tab

This tab displays the currently logged-on users of your machine and shows how much CPU, memory, disk and network resources each one is consuming. If you see any currently logged-on user taking up too many resources, consider switching to that account and logging the user off using the "Switch user" and "Sign out" buttons at the bottom of the screen.

Windows 8 Task Manager - Users tab
Even though the user named Joe isn't physically using the machine, his account is logged in and is using system resources.

For a less draconian approach, try clicking the triangle next to that user to see her running apps and processes. From there, you can identify and close down any resource-hogging apps or processes as a way to ease the stress on the system.

Give specific programs more of your CPU's attention

Windows gives what's called a base priority to every process running on your PC. This base priority determines the relative amount of CPU power the process gets compared to other programs. Windows uses these six levels, in ascending level of priority:

Most processes are assigned a Normal priority. But you might want to give a resource-intensive program like an image editor more of your CPU's attention. And if there are processes that normally run in the background or rarely need your CPU, you can give them less of your CPU's attention.

Use the Task Manager's Details tab to change the priority assigned to any process or program. On that tab, right-click the item whose priority you want to change, select "Set priority," and choose the priority for the program. Avoid assigning a Realtime priority to any program or task unless it will be the sole program or task running on the PC. (Of course, if it's the only program or task running, you really don't need to give it a high priority because it already has your CPU's complete attention.)

Windows 8 Task Manager - Details tab
You can temporarily assign a higher or lower priority to individual apps and processes.

Be careful when using this feature because it can have unintended consequences and lead to system instability. If you find it causes problems, set the item's priority back to Normal. Or just close it down: When you assign a new priority to a process or program, that new priority sticks only as long as the program or process is running. Once the program or process ends and you restart it, it reverts to the default priority assigned to it by Windows.

Track CPU usage (and more) in real time

Here's a nifty Task Manager trick: You can use it to regularly check CPU use in real time. That way, you can correlate system slowdowns with CPU use and, armed with that information, try to take some strain off of your CPU.

Run Task Manager and, from the top menu, select Options --> "Hide when minimized." Next, find the small up arrow to the left of the system tray area of the taskbar on your Windows Desktop. Click the arrow, click Customize and then in the Behaviors drop-down next to Task Manager, change "Only show notifications" to "Show icon and notifications."

Now minimize the Task Manager. It will display as a small bar graph in the system tray that lights up green as you use your CPU.

Windows 8 Task Manager - system usage taskbar pop-up
Display your CPU, memory, disk and network usage from the taskbar.

To see your current CPU usage, hold your mouse cursor over the Task Manager's icon in the system tray. Try running different combinations of programs, and monitor your CPU use with each combination. If you find your CPU is overburdened by a particular combination, don't run that combination again.

Similarly, you can check for memory, disk and network usage. If you see any are overburdened, use a similar technique as with CPU use. So, for example, if you regularly see memory use too high, try closing programs to pinpoint the culprit.

Optimize your PC's drives

As you use your computer's hard disk drive, it can slow down over time. Files and applications are composed of many pieces, and when you save them, those pieces are stored all over your hard disk, or fragmented -- so opening them takes longer than need be. When you defragment your hard disk, the pieces are stored contiguously, and files and applications open more quickly.

Because solid-state drives store data differently than hard disks do, they should not be defragmented -- but they can benefit from something called trim optimization, which cleans up the detritus of deleted files to make way for new data. (Unlike mechanical hard disks, SSDs do not overwrite existing data, so creating empty space now speeds things up later when you're trying to write new data to the drive.)

Happily, Windows 8 automates both tasks with a built-in tool called Optimize Drives. By default, it performs once-a-week maintenance on your drives depending on their media type, defragmenting hard disks and running trim optimizations on SSDs. But there's a chance that on your machine those automated settings have been changed, or you might want to optimize more or less frequently -- or perhaps you want to optimize a drive right now.

To do any of that, on the Windows 8 Start screen type defragment, then click "Defragment and optimize your drives" on the left. The Optimize Drives screen appears. (Note that you might need Administrator rights to your PC to use this tool.)

You'll see a list of all of your drives, their media type and their current status -- whether they need to be optimized or not. If any of them requires optimization now, highlight it and click Optimize.

Depending on how large your drive is, how much data you have on it and the speed of your processor, it might take Windows 8 anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to finish optimizing. Most likely your PC's performance won't be affected while it optimizes, and you can keep working at you normally would. However, if you notice a performance hit, next time plan to optimize the drive overnight or at another time when you won't be working on your computer.

Look down at the bottom of the screen in the "Scheduled optimization" section. You'll see whether your drives are being automatically optimized and on what schedule.

If they're not being automatically optimized and you want them to be, or if you want to change the schedule, click "Change settings." On the screen that appears, check the box next to "Run on a schedule," then choose the frequency from the drop-down list. (Choices are daily, weekly and monthly.)

Windows 8 Optimize Drives
Here's where to change the schedule for optimizing your drives.

You can also choose which drives to automatically optimize on the schedule by clicking "Choose" at the bottom of the screen and selecting the drives. Click OK when you're done.

Do all this, and your Windows 8 machine should start feeling zippier. Dig deeper into the Windows 8 tools in this article, and you may find even more ways to speed it up.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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