Sunday, May 07, 2006

Windows Memory minimalism

There's no getting away from Microsoft Windows. Even though I use Linux at home, the OS everyone loves to have is on my work computer, and in the homes of most other people. I helped two of them yesterday, my eldest sister, Vanessa and the youngest, Kim. (My third sister, Sue, hasn't asked for computer doctoring just yet). Both complained of the familiar "Windows Slows" -- the computer starts acting very slow and things that happened quickly just drag out.

Kim's computer, a Windows 98 machine, was fairly typical of the breed. It had accumulated a number of programs that autostarted, taking up precious memory. Windows 98 is also cursed with poor memory management, a remnant of its DOS heritage that later versions of Windows doesn't have. So I did the obvious things. (1) I added more memory, and (2) I disabled some of the unnecessary autostarting programs by running MSconfig and selectiving unchecking programs that didn't need to run at bootup. Result: More free memory and faster performance.


Vanessa's computer woes were much more of a surprise. She's got a relatively new Sony VAIO laptop running Windows XP with a gigabyte of memory. But it had slowed down in recent months. For example, it crawled in displaying thumbnails of the numerous photos Vanessa takes.

So I did a scan for spyware, and then performed the familiar three-fingered salute to bring up the list of running processes. I ranked them in order of memory consumption, and saw some unfamiliar names. One of the was vzfw.exe, which to me seemed to be an abbreviation for "Verizon Firewire", but upon Googling turned out to be part of Sony's GigaPocket Multimedia Entertainment Center. That alone was taking up 40 megabytes. My sister was not running GigaPocket, so I reset this apparently useless process and a few others to start manually instead of automatically.

Upon rebooting, the VAIO was much snappier at opening folders and displaying photo thumbnails and running multimedia.

There are two morals to this story. One, computer users need to know what's on their machines. Microsoft and the computer manufacturer have their own agendas, which may not always coincide with their customers. In this case, my working hypothesis is that Sony enabled GigaPocket software on the VAIO by default (my sister certainly didn't). That makes sense if Sony wants to promote its entertainment products. But if it's not being used, it's a performance drain. In this case, the extra burden wasn't noticeable until Norton Antivirus was added. Since antivirus software is indispensable on a Windows machine, the sensible thing to do was disable GigaPocket software that wasn't functional.

Two, be a memory minimalist. Don't load up your PC with more memory-hogging applications than you need, especially those that autostart. You do have to be careful not to disable essential programs and processes. One way to do that is to Google the name of the process in question, as I did with vzfw.exe, to see if it's essential. And don't erase it, all you have to do is prevent it from autoloading.

Newly installed Windows software will often take up memory with such nonessential tricks as loading itself in the quickstart section of the taskbar. Do this often, and you've got a serious memory drain. This is once again traceable to differing agendas. The maker of computer software wants it to be used often, and doesn't shy away from taking up some of your memory to make this easier. When you install numerous programs that act in this selfish manner, you and your computer are the loser.

Later in the day, I'll update this post with a list of Web sites and books with memory management advice.

UPDATE:
Tech columnist Dwight Silverman has written about his own experience with what he calls "junkware" preloaded on Dell computers.

This junkware is often little more than advertisements that bring in money for Dell but weigh down computer performance. It's just one more example of how computer companies can act against your own interests if they can profit from it. To its credit, Dell has listened to complains and now offers junkware-free computers if you ask for them.



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