Okay, you may be in the same boat as me: long on computer hardware requirements, but short on cash. Although many older systems (+2 years) have no issue running many modern apps, they frequently run into issues running more than one of these applications at one time (namely your favorite eight year old game and Skype). Here's a brief run down of different tasks I usually perform in order to optimize older systems that are running Windows XP. As a note, most of this guide is geared towards short term optimizations, you may not want to permanently set your system up in this condition.
I'll go over some little things in a moment, but there are two huge things that can usually be dealt with. The first is to disable/exit your virus scanner while executing your intense apps. The biggest issue with this is remembering to turn it back on. Typically this is can be accomplished by right-clicking on your virus scanner's icon in the lower right and left-clicking 'exit' or 'disable'. Keep an eye on it as some scanners will turn themselves back on automatically after a few minutes and you may have to disable them in the 'Services' control program.
Speaking of which, here are a couple pictures showing you how to get into the Services program (you'll need this for the next step). First, go into your Control Panel (Start->Control Panel), then:
The second big optimization step is to turn off the Windows XP firewall ("Windows Firewall/Internet Connection Sharing (ICS)" in the Services screen). This is easy to turn off if you have a hardware firewall/router between your PC and your Internet connection. If your Internet connection comes off your cable/dsl modem and goes right into the back of your computer, this is not an option for you. If you do happen to be using a hardware firewall (typically from Netgear, D-Link or Linksys), you can safely turn off this service for short periods (though I'd not recommend leaving it off on a permanent basis). Here's a shot of it in the services program:
You can see the little VCR controls in the top left that allow you to stop and start the service. The window below lists the services, their current status, and some other helpful information. Just click on the service and click the little stop button to stop it. My experience has been that an XP system with the firewall enabled needs more than 256 MB of RAM to run properly (512MB would be an ideal minimum). If you have 256 MB of RAM, a memory upgrade may help alleviate system trashing while the firewall is enabled (if you have less than 256MB, you're boned). (Note: you may or may not be using a third party utility (such as Norton System Works) that has it's own firewall. These are typically even worse resource hogs than the canned MS firewall. You'll definitely want to look at turning this off during periods when you need every resource that your box has to offer; but the same caveat applies: if you do not have a hardware firewall, you must leave this on less your system be exposed to all manner of viruses and probing attacks).
Here's a few more particular things you can do that may, or may not apply to your situation. These tasks will typically help a little, though if you're unable to do either of the two easy things above, they'll probably be of negligible help. Some of these services may or may not be on your system depending on your version of Windows XP and how it was installed. Again, working from the services program, I usually work over the following:
An easy way to control these services outside of the Services screen is to use to go to the command prompt and type "net start <service name>". To that end, I've written up some batch files as an example. Give them a read through (right click->edit), it's not high science; they can be easily modified to control your desired services. Just put them both on your desktop so that you can stop and start those bad boys at will. Like wise, you can create a desktop shortcut to the 'Services' program from the "Administrative Tools" window you had previously opened.
If you were able to perform all the above steps your system is probably feeling pretty groovy now; that's a lot of overhead. However, there's always the threat that some bone-headed company has installed some flavor of bloat on your system. Firstly, if you haven't done so in a while, download Ad-Aware and run a FULL SCAN on your system (it will probably take like three hours) and nuke the stuff it finds.
As well, I typically exit out of extraneous software that loads at launch and puts itself in the 'Tray' (the area by the clock). Typically these can just be right clicked and exit'd. Quicktime and Realplayer come immediately to mind as offenders of this (if possible, uninstall the bloated Quicktime and Realplayer clients and use the Quicktime Alternative and RealPlayer Alternative non-adware players).
Another good reminder is not to run e-mail/Internet clients or other unrelated high resource usage apps while running your intense app. There's been a couple times when I was experiencing poor performance only to discover that I was running Outlook in the background.
-Last updated on November 17, 2006