How to tweak Windows for better performance. (Software Review) (Compute's Getting Started with Windows Utilities) (Evaluation)
by Mark Minasi
There's a group of Windows utilities that has no name, but you'll find them essential. They're the small utilities that let you run Windows a bit faster or let you make it a bit prettier. Let's just call them tweaks.
As nice as Windows programs are, I find that hardly an hour goes by without my having to go to the DOS prompt. The people at Firefly Software recognized that there are a lot of people around like me, so they made Enhanced DOS for Windows--EDOS for short. EDOS (Firefly Software Systems, 1594 SW Fifth, Gresham, Oregon 97080; 800-248-0809; $43.95) is a feature-packed replacement for the command.com command-line interface. Here are just a few of EDOS's features.
EDOS lets you measure the percentage of processor time a particular DOS program is getting. It will let you print the contents of the Clipboard with just a single command--a utility worth the price of the package. Its exclusive, prib, and slice commands let you change your program's priorities and adjust how Windows multi-tasks without having to go back to the Windows desktop. The alarm and systime commands let you set alarms that inform you when it's time to feed the baby, see the boss, or take the cake out of the oven..
Even better, EDOS extends the information that you get from DOS'S MEM command. It disables CHKDSK /f while Windows is running. And it fixes that annoying tendency for Windows to keep the PrtSc key from working, ordinarily requiring an adjustment of a DOS session's PIF. If you find that you can't break yourself of that commandline habit, pick up EDOS.
Cache and Carry
We Windows speed freaks will do anything to minimize the time we wait for video, disk, and printing to happen. That's why our second tweaker, SpeedCache+ (Future Systems Solutions, 0420 South 500 East, Bluffton, Indiana 46714; 219-447-8204; $129.95) is a real performance plus. Viewed simply, it's just a replacement for SmartDrive 4.0, the disk cache that ships with Windows 3.1 and, no doubt, the upcoming DOS .6.0. But there's more to SpeedCache+, as you'll see.
SpeedCache+ comes with two Windows utilities: a disk performance benchmark and a program similar to SMARTDrive monitor (see the accompanying article on diagnostic programs) that lets you configure the disk cache without having to read the manual. Like SmartDrive, Speed-Cache+ offers the option of caching writes as well as reads. This makes your system a bit less reliable but a lot faster. I generally don't enable write caching, and recommend that you don't either, but every vendor these days does its benchmarks with write caching enabled, so I tested SmartCache+ and SMARTDrive with and without write caching enabled. Write caching is apparently SmartCache+'s speciality, because with write caching enabled, SmartCache+ was 2.1 times faster than SMARTDrive. With write caching disabled, SmartCache+ was still faster than SmartDrive, but only 1.1 times faster--a mere 10 percent improvement--but then every little bit helps.
SmartDrive 4.0 is a high-quality disk-cache program, so merely beating SmartDrive is an accomplishment for any program. But SpeedCache+ does more than that. The makers of SpeedCache+ realized that the disk that really needs speeding up in the Windows world isn't your hard disk or, for that matter,your floppy.The slowest disk that many of us will ever encounter in the Windows world is our CD-ROM drive.
One measure of a disk's speed is its access time, measured in milliseconds (thousandths of a second). On a typical hard disk today, you'll find a seek time of about 12 to 17 milliseconds. Floppies are in the 200 ms range. CD-ROMs, on the other hand, can be as slow as 650 milliseconds! The best CD-ROMs on the market, the NEC CDR74 and CDR84 (the 74 is external, the 84 is internal), have an average seek time of 280 ms, and they're the speed demons of the CD-ROM world. So Future Systems Solutions built support for CD-ROMs into SpeedCache+ idea so good I'm sure it'll be imitated around the industry.
I tried out SpeedCache+ on a very slow drive that I sometimes use to access Microsoft Bookshelf for Windows, and I was amazed at the improved speed.
Next on my list of tweaks is a program that makes your wallpaper prettier. JAG is a program that analyzes bitmaps of all kinds (a bitmap is a file with the TIF, PCX, or BMP extension, such as Windows wallpaper or scanned images) and makes them look better through a process called anti-aliasing.
To see what anti-aliasing is, draw a curve or diagonal line on your VGA screen with a program such as Paintbrush, then look at a curve or diagonal line on your television set. The TV's lines and curves look much smoother, don't they? You almost never see the jagged stairstep look that's so prevalent in computer graphics. Now, that's odd, when you consider that the PC has a higher-resolution screen than your TV does.
The TV accomplishes this feat with a minor optical illusion whereby it almost never shows two radically different colors next to each other; instead, it spends a few pixels gradually changing from one color to another--that's anti-aliasing. Good TV computer-graphic generators have anti-aliasing hardware, something that's a mite expensive for PC owners. So JAG (Ray Dream, 1804 North Shoreline Boulevard, Mountain View, California 94043,415-960-0765; $99.95) does the anti-aliasing in software.
The way JAG works is simple. You give it a bitmap image of some kind and tell it to do its work. There are options that you can tweak to make the outcome look better or worse, but when you compare the before image with the after image, JAG's Work seems like magic.
I've used Micrografx Designer to create a colorful logo, exported the logo to a PCX file, and then turned JAG loose. The dang thing makes me look like a pro! Well worth picking up. And if you want to do some truly weird stuff with images, pick up Fractal Design Painter... but that's another story.
Before I leave the topic of massaging bitmaps, let me mention two excellent shareware programs. WinGIF, from SuperSet Software, is a $15 shareware bitmap viewer that I use all the time, it will do timed slide shows and knows how to read several bitmap formats--TIFF is the only major one that WinGIF can't do.
Even better, it will convert files between different formats, and can do color dithering, allowing you to convert a 256-color image to a 16-color image, or a color image to a monochrome image. It will let you trim images, adjust the palette, and do a host of other things. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is probably the Windows shareware program. For those who want to do even more than simple cropping, trimming, and converting, there's the shareware program PaintShop Pro, which is what Windows Paintbrush should have been.
Windows shares with many other programs the fact that it's hard to exit. You've got to find the Program Manager, click File and Exit, and respond to the Are you sure? prompt. It's easier to get out of some contracts than it is to get out of some programs. That's why I like WinExit. It's just a little icon that sits at the bottom of your screen. You click it once, and zap! you're out of Windows. Of course, if you have open files in an application such as a word processor or a spreadsheet program, then that application may ask if you want to save the file before exiting. But it still saves me a click or two, and that makes WinExit useful. You can find winexit.zip in the WinADV forum on Compuserve.
Tiny Square Pictures
I suppose no discussion of Windows tweaks would be complete without a mention or two of the myriad icon utilities. Icon Manager (Impact Software, 12140 Central Avenue, Suite 133, Chino, California 91710; 714-590-8522; $26.95) can extract icons from Windows programs with the EXE extension, or read the more standard ICO format that developers use to create program icons. You can use Paintbrush or whatever paint program you like best to create your icons. Then attach them as you normally do to your \programs.
The five great Windows time wasters are fooling around with icons, playing with wallpaper, installing new program launchers that promise to be better than Program Manager, adjusting screen savers, and finding amusing new WAVE sound files to put on a multimedia-equipped Windows PC; so I'm loath to discuss icons at length. Icon Manager, however, is so comprehensive in its control of icons that it's tempting to succumb and spend the day making colorful icons. Hey, maybe if I changed that blue pixel to a light blue, it would look better. It'll just take a minute to try it out...