Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 150 / MARCH 1993 / PAGE 44

10 ways to supercharge Windows. (includes related articles and list of manufacturers)
by William Harrel

No doubt about it, Windows takes the doldrums out of PC computing. We no longer must stare at the boring, unforgiving DOS prompt. It's easier and more fun to launch and manage applications, and the impact of our work is enhanced by Windows' ability to display millions of colors and play sound. Even computer games are more exhilarating. However, on its own, Windows is still somewhat cranky and unexciting. If not configured properly, it can be excruciatingly slow. And you can't really get the full potential of many Windows applications without additional hardware.

Computer users (especially Windows enthusiasts) are on a constant quest to get more performance from their machines. To help you, here are ten fairly inexpensive ways to soup up Windows, making the ride more interesting. So, reach beyond the ordinary and give Windows some pizzaz.

Improving Performance

Because of the huge amounts of code required to run applications in a graphical environment, Windows encounters several bottlenecks while running on your computer. Your CPU spends a lot of time waiting for other parts of the computer. Most often, these clogs occur during hard disk accessing and while displaying data on your monitor. The first five ways you can soup up Windows are methods to speed up your system's performance.

1. Install additional RAM. On a system with only 1MB or 2MB of RAM, a surefire way to speed up Windows is to add more memory to your computer--which, nowadays, is quite inexpensive. On most machines you can add memory for well under $50 per megabyte if you shop around. While most software for Windows requires only 1MB-2MB RAM to run, many programs benefit greatly from having an additional 2MB-4MB to stretch out in. More of the program code can load into memory, resulting in less disk accessing. When you're working on large documents or graphics, it's faster if all of the file is in RAM. And you can use the extra memory to improve the performance of SmartDrive (the disk cache bundled with Windows) or to install a RAM drive.

2. Optimize SmartDrive. Before Windows 3.1, computer pundits almost unanimously recommended replacing SmartDrive with a third-party product. However, the latest version, 4.0, is as fast and proficient as most of the others. What SmartDrive does is to reserve a portion of system RAM as a temporary storage bank. When you execute a command from the hard disk, depending on the size of the cache, SmartDrive scoops up and loads not only the code needed to execute the command but also blocks of code on either side of the command. The theory is that the computer will probably soon be called on to use the surrounding code as well. And you'd be surprised how often the theory proves true. So, up to a certain point, the larger the cache, the less often your system has to call to the hard disk--your computer's slowest component--for information, thus causing your system to run faster.

When you installed Windows, SmartDrive was also installed to load from your AUTOEXEC.BAT file, on of the files DOS reads while the computer boots. SmartDrive configures itself according to available system memory. It also has the ability to make itself smaller when Windows is running, to provide more memory for your Windows applications. The default settings are shown below.

If you add more RAM to your system or you don't run a lot of programs simultaneously, you can cut down how much you access your hard disk by hard disk by changing the size of your cache. Do so by editing AUTOEXEC.BAT in a text editor or in Windows' SysEdit. To set the cache to 1MB while using either DOS or Windows, for example, the SmartDrive entry should read C:[unkeyable]WINDOWS-[unkeyable]SMARTDRV.EXE /e 1024 1024. In this example, SmartDrive loads into extended memory (/e) and is 1MB in size while in DOS and while in Windows. Keep in mind, though, that a cache bigger than 2MB does little good and in some cases can slow down your computer.

There are many other configuration options to enhance SmartDrive's performance. To get a list of them, type smartdrv /? at the DOS prompt. There is additional information on SmartDrive in chapter 14 of your Microsoft Windows User's Guide.

3. Install a RAM drive. If your computer has more than 4MB RAM, you can further reduce disk accessing by using part of the memory as a RAM drive. A RAM drive is a portion of system memory that DOS sets aside and treats as an additional fixed disk. Windows and many Windows applications create temporary files on your hard disk as you work. You can tell DOS to save temporary files to the RAM drive, which allows Windows to save and access the temporary files faster.

Use RAMDRIVE.SYS, which should be located in either your Windows or DOS subdirectory (or both), to create a RAM drive. Using a text editor or Windows' SysEdit, include the following line in the CONFIG.SYS file in the root directory on your hard disk: DEVICE=C:[unkeyable]WINDOWS[unkeyable]RAMDRIVE.SYS 2048 /e. This example creates a 2MB RAM drive in extended memory (use /a for expanded memory). The RAM drive is given the letter of the next drive on your system. If, for example, you have just one hard drive, drive C, the RAM drive will be drive D.

Now you need to tell DOS to use the RAM drive for temporary files. Do so by adding the following line to your AUTOEXEC.BAT file: SET TEMP=D: (or your RAM drive letter, if different). Note that if there is already a SET TEMP= statement in your AUTOEXEC.BAT, you need to be sure to delete it.

4. Install a graphics accelerator. Windows' graphics environment is both pretty and easy to work with, but it demands a lot of your computer to display all those windows, scroll bars, and icons on your monitor. If you spend too much time waiting for screen redraws, you can really supercharge Windows by adding a graphics accelerator, such as Diamond Computer Systems' SpeedStar 24X. Depending on your needs, graphics accelerators range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars--with the price usually determined by how many colors are available at which resolutions and the amount of RAM on the boards.

Graphics accelerators speed up your system by taking the actual processing of the graphics data (which when displaying 16.7 million colors at 1024 [unkeyable] 780 resolution, is substantial) from the CPU. This allows your computer's processor to work on other tasks, such as calculating a spreadsheet or doing a mail merge.

5. Install a data compression utility. If Windows and its applications are nothing else, they are disk hogs. Depending on your system and how you configure Windows, the environment itself can eat up the better part of 10MB. And many Windows applications require at least 5MB, with several using upward of 20MB. With appetites like that, it doesn't take many programs to devour a 40MB or 60MB fixed disk. Until recently, your only recourse was buying a new hard disk. But now, thanks to data compression utilities such as Stac Electronics' Stacker, Integrated Information Technology's XtraDrive, and Addstor's SuperStor Pro you can inexpensively double the storage capacity of your hard disk.

Data compression software works slightly differently from product to product. Some programs, such as Stacker, create a separate partition for compressed files; others, such as XtraDrive, do not. For slower machines, such as 80286s and slow 80386s, some companies also make compression boards that work with the software to speed up compression. However, if you use a fast 80386 or 80486, data compression software is sufficient. In most cases, you'll hardly notice the difference between the time it takes for these products to compress and decompress files and the time required for normal operation. And sometimes, such as in loading and decompressing executable program files, the process is actually faster than loading an uncompressed file from the hard disk.

Especially impressive is Stacker 3.0 for Windows and DOS, which allows you to control data compression from inside Windows. The Stackometer gives you up-to-the-second data on compression ratios and disk performance, allowing you to fine-tune Stacker to your machine and application.

Give Windows a New Face

While Windows' Program Manager, File Manager, and outline fonts offer definite advantages over computing in a DOS-only environment, they are by no means perfect. Depending on how you work, there are many options for making Windows (and your documents) better looking and more efficient. Try one or more of the next three options to make launching programs and loading documents easier, to automate tasks, and to improve on the standard-fare fonts (Times and Helvetica equivalents) that ship with Windows.

6. Install a new front end. The Windows application market is loaded with products that replace or enhance Program Manager. Some features that most of them have in common include the ability to launch a group of applications in various application window sizes and positions for performing specific tasks, memory and system resources management, macros, drag-and-drop printing and file loading, a way to change keyboard configurations, and even the option to select functions to assign to the right mouse button. Between shareware and commercial products, there may be as many as 50 of these utilities, and they vary in features and functionality. Five of the most popular are Hewlett-Packard's Dashboard and New Wave, hDC Computer's hDC Power Launcher, Symantec's Norton Desktop for Windows, and XSoft's Rooms.

All but New Wave let you decide whether to replace Program Manager or run the utility over it. For example, Dashboard (above) creates a strip that looks like a car dashboard, complete with instrument gauges, that you can place anywhere on your monitor. You can assign often-used programs to the dash for one-click access, and you can create layouts consisting of several applications--such as, say, graphics, DTP, and word processor--for a desktop publishing task. Memory and system resources permitting, you can have up to nine layouts open at one time. And there are, of course, many other features, such as a fuel gauge that constantly displays available memory, one-click printer configuration, and an alarm clock. Dashboard (and Power Launcher) can also be configured to run on top of other windows, even when, inactive, so that Windows' shell functions are always just a mouse click away.

Power Launcher offers many of the features of Dashboard and several others as well. You can, for example, reconfigure your keyboard and mouse and even create a separate set of tools for each of your programs. The program even helps take some of the confusion out of Windows' powerful OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) and DDE (Dynamic Data Exchange).

Rooms uses an office-building metaphor, allowing you to separate tasks into virtual desktops called rooms and suites. Norton Desktop is a group of utilities (such as a file viewer, an automatic backup utility, a scheduler, a data recovery utility, and an icon editor) that you can run from the Norton Desktop shell or from a Norton program group in Program Manager. New Wave, which requires a substantial commitment to install and use, actually changes the way Windows operates by giving your desktop a Macintosh-like feel--tasks separated into folders and a trash can for deleting files.

7. Install a macro utility. One thing Windows sorely lacks is a good macro language. Macros, of course, are small programs containing recorded keystrokes and programming commands that allow you to automate tasks, along the same lines as macros in your word processor. There are enormous benefits to universal macro language that works across all Windows applications. You can use them to merge data from one program to another, program timed events (such as data transfers in the middle of the night when long-distance rates are lower), and perform countless other tasks. Recorder, the utility currently shipping with Windows, is hardly adequate (hardly worth mentioning, for that matter). Microsoft plans to include a macro language in future Windows releases, but for now we must rely on third-party utilities. Luckily, most of the ones available are quite good.

Some of the shell utilities, such as Norton Desktop, Power Launcher, and New Wave, include macro languages, and they even allow you to play macros from the shell. These are the most efficient and the easiest to use. Two good stand-alone macro products are Publishing Technologies' BatchWorks and AutoSoft's AutoRun. While they have slightly different interfaces, the idea behind them is the same: recording and playing back actions in Windows.

8. Install True Type fonts. A truly notable addition to Windows 3.1 is the built-in True Type font rasterizer. (Version 3.0 users should install Type 1 fonts.) True Type fonts are easy to install and manage, and they print and display faster than fonts used in earlier versions of Windows. However, the program is shipped with only a few TrueType typefaces: Courier, Ariel, and Times New Roman. You can improve the appearance of your drawings, presentations, and documents by installing additional fonts.

TrueType font packages abound. When looking for one, consider collections that contain a variety of strictly business serif and sans-serif fonts, such as Bodini and Universe, as well as a few decorative fonts, such as Cooper Black or Old English. Decorative fonts work well in display ads and fliers. Beware, however: Not all TrueType fonts are created equal. Since the release of Windows 3.1, the market has been deluged with TrueType font collections. For best screen and printer reproduction, choose font collections from reputable type foundries, such as Bitstream and Agfa. Two good collections are AgfaType Desktop Styles and Microsoft's TrueType Font Pack for Windows.

If you're reluctant to switch to TrueType because you already have an extensive Type 1 collection, consider a font conversion utility, such as FontMonger from Ares or AllType from Atech. These programs handily convert Type 1, Type 3, and other formats to TrueType outlines, as well as vice versa--TrueType to other formats. FontMonger also lets you create your own font sets from EPS drawings, and you can even alter existing fonts to create your own unique collections. Or you can create a font made up of logos and symbols you use often.

Listen to Windows

The final two ways you can optimize Windows boost its multimedia capabilities. Perhaps frilly accessories to some, these improvements can enhance your enjoyment and thus your productivity.

9. Add a sound board. To take full advantage of Windows' multimedia capabilities, you should install a sound board. Once a niche market, PC sound is catching on like wildfire. Leading software vendors, such as Microsoft and Lotus, have released multimedia versions of some of their more popular products. Word for Windows & Bookshelf, for example, integrates WinWord with Microsoft's multimedia reference library, Bookshelf. Bookshelf's encyclopedia contains numerous narrated animations that demonstrate processes such as solar eclipses, continental drift, and others. Not only does the dictionary provide a word's spelling and definition, but it also pronounces it for you. The multimedia version of Lotus 1-2-3 has a complete automated help system that provides narrated examples of spreadsheet procedures. And a number of inexpensive presentation software packages--Asymetrix's MediaBlitz and Macromedia's Action!, to name two--allow you to create your own multimedia shows.

When buying a sound board, make sure that it meets Microsoft's MPC standards, and, if you want the best quality, make sure that it's a 16-bit card. It should also have jacks for CD-ROM output and a microphone. Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Pro is one of the most popular and least expensive; however, Computer Peripherals' Viva Maestro Pro 16 and Media Vision's Pro AudioSpectrum 16 are also quite good.

If you want to talk back to your computer, look for Computer Peripherals' Viva Maestro Pro 16VR voice recognition system, which should be released before you read this. This board comes complete with a headset and allows you to control your computer with voice commands such as "open," "cut," "paste," and so on. According to Computer Peripherals, you can train it to execute any commands your applications normally perform.

To hear the sound produced by your sound card, you'll also need speakers. Labtec makes several good pairs, ranging from $20 to $100. When buying speakers for your PC, make sure that they're shielded so that their magnets won't damage your monitor. And, since sound boards don't crank out a lot of wattage, your new speakers should also be self-amplified.

10. Add a microphone. Perhaps one of the least expensive ways to have fun with Windows--and enhance your multimedia prowess--is to install a microphone. Unlike almost everything else on your computer, this is the one peripheral that doesn't require its built into your sound card, and Windows' Sound Recorder utility is waiting, ready to capture your voice and whatever else you want to record.

Installing a microphone is almost too easy. You can get one at the neighborhood Radio Shack or other electronics stores for a little over $10. If you plan to do high-end multimedia presentations, you'll want a better microphone, but for most home and small business uses, the inexpensive ones are fine. I use an $11 Realistic microphone with my system. There are, of course, hundreds of other ways to soup up Windows, and the technology is changing all the time. I'm looking forward to the day when my computer will load and unload the dishwasher and feed my fish.