How to make Windows XP last for the next seven years

Vista, schmista. Follow our tips for keeping your XP setup humming happily for a long, long time

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Limit Windows' junk-file caches.

Disk performance is a serious limiting factor for the performance of most systems. As the drive fills, it becomes slower due to the additional disk head motion required to access the files that are spread across the disk. A full drive is a slow drive, so the best way to increase performance is to uninstall unneeded applications and delete the junk files that Windows keeps around long after they have served their purpose.

By default, XP's System Restore feature uses 12% of the total space on every partition to save restore point files and settings. For example, with a 200GB disk broken into two 100GB partitions, it will use 12GB on each partition to hold system-restore files. With its standard settings, XP creates a restore point every day. The actual size of a restore point varies, but they are typically something less than 50MB. That means the default settings allow for about 200 days of restore points, which is much more than anyone needs.

There are quite a few System Restore settings you can adjust through Windows Registry edits, but one simple change through the user interface provides most of the benefits. Go to Control Panel --> System --> System Restore tab. Move the slider until it shows that about 1,000MB (1GB) of disk space will be used for restore points; the exact number is not critical, and it's hard to get a precise number since it's expressed as a percentage of the total disk space.

System Restore slider
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Reduce the disk space System Restore uses.

(Click for larger view.)

On today's large drives, you'll often need to move the slider to just 1% or 2%. As soon as you click the OK button, XP will delete old restore points to bring the size down to your requested disk space setting -- and it'll stay there, continually swapping out old restore points as it adds new ones but staying under the size you've set.

The Recycle Bin is another space hog; by default, it uses 10% of the drive, up to a maximum of 4GB. It's handy to have the Recycle Bin to recover accidentally deleted files, but 4GB is overkill on most systems. If you're a compulsive desktop cleaner and tend to empty the Recycle Bin regularly, you can leave the setting as is. Otherwise, it's best to reduce the size a bit. Right-click the Recycle Bin and select Properties, then adjust the size to suit your garbage-retention needs, for example, something around 1 GB.

Recycle Bin slider
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Rein in the Recycle Bin too. (Click for larger view.)

Unlike System Restore, the Recycle Bin Properties dialog doesn't make it easy to do the math. The slider is shown in percent of the size of the drive, but it doesn't show the actual size. Once you have selected a size with the slider, you can click on the individual drive tabs to see the actual amount of disk space that will be used. Don't get too aggressive, though; if you delete a file that's larger than the size of the Recycle Bin in the future, it will be permanently deleted rather than recycled (though you will receive a warning before it disappears).

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Perform weekly maintenance for smooth operation

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A typical Windows XP setup will be awash in junk -- and noticeably slower -- just a few months after it's taken out of the box. Many people reformat and reinstall Windows, or even buy new computers, in search of their original level of performance. But just a bit of regular maintenance can keep a system performing at a near-new level. We recommend performing the following steps once a week. 1. Back up important data.

Inexpensive USB flash drives and external hard drives have removed any excuse that it's too difficult or expensive to do backups. For the best data protection, use an image backup program such as Acronis True Image. It lets you selectively retrieve files from the backup image, or you can restore the entire data set to a new drive in case of a catastrophic drive failure. For quick drag-and-drop backups of critical files, keep a USB flash drive near the computer.

2. Do a full virus and spyware scan.

Most antivirus and antispyware software provides some real-time protection, but problems can still fall through the cracks. Many of these programs let you schedule an automatic scan on a weekly basis, but if yours doesn't scan automatically, do a manual scan as part of your weekly maintenance. If the scan detects problems, they should be fixed before trying any of the update and cleanup steps below.

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