Windows Vista : Trim the Fat (part 1) - Tame Mindless Animation and Display Effects

6/8/2012 11:44:02 AM
Surprise: Windows Vista is not configured for optimal performance right out of the box. Rather, it was built to showcase all the features Microsoft included with the product to help sell it.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of things you can do right now to speed things up without spending a dime.

1. Tame Mindless Animation and Display Effects

Windows Vista animates almost every visual component that makes up its sparkling new interface. While these affectations may be cute, they create two performance problems. For one, they slow down the motion, causing windows, menus, and listboxes to take longer to open and close, all of which makes your PC feel sluggish. Second, they consume CPU cycles that would otherwise be used to handle processor-intensive tasks like virtual memory and gameplay.

There are settings that affect performance scattered throughout Windows, but the ones that control display effects are the easiest to change, and go the furthest to make Vista feel faster and more responsive.

In Control Panel, open System, and click the Advanced system settings link on the left side (or run SystemPropertiesAdvanced.exe). In the Performance section, click Settings. The Visual Effects tab, shown in Figure 1, contains 20 settings, all explained later.

Figure 1. The Performance Options window is a good place to start looking for fat to trim

Unfortunately, the four selections above the list are a bit misleading. For example, the Let Windows choose what's best for my computer option reverts all settings to the defaults chosen by a marketing committee at Microsoft to best showcase Vista's features. The Adjust for best appearance option simply enables all features in the list, while the Adjust for best performance option just disables them.

Now, depending on the prowess of your video hardware, some of these settings may make more of a difference than others. And of course, some options may not be present in your edition of Vista.

Animate controls and elements inside windows.

Turn this off to nix the slow-fade effect on buttons and tabs in dialog boxes, the cyclic pulsating effect on the default button, and the fading scrollbar arrows. Buttons will still glow blue as you roll over them with the mouse, but they'll do it sans the delay.

Animate windows when minimizing and maximizing.

This controls the squeezing and stretching that happens to windows when you minimize, restore, and maximize them. Leave it on to see where a window went when you minimize it, or turn it off to minimize windows without the wait.

This option also affects the disappearing/reappearing taskbar if you have both the Auto-hide the taskbar setting in Taskbar and Start Menu Properties and the Show window contents while dragging option (described later) enabled.

Enable desktop composition.

This vaguely named option is probably the biggest performance drain you can adjust here, but it's required if you want the glass effect (described next). Desktop composition is the behind-the-scenes scheme—run by the Desktop Window Manager (DWM)—that keeps a snapshot of each open window in memory. Turn it off, and Vista draws each window directly to the screen just like XP and earlier versions did. Without it, you can't have the Glass interface or the thumbnail previews on the taskbar and the Alt-Tab window, but the Windows interface will feel snappier and more responsive.

Enable transparent glass.

One of the few self-explanatory options here.

Fade or slide menus/ToolTips into view.

Turn this off to have menus and tool tips "snap" open.

By default, there's a short delay between the instant you click a menu and the moment the menu actually opens.

Show shadows under menus/mouse pointer.

This feature has a negligible effect on the performance of most Vista-class PCs, particularly those with fast video cards.

Show thumbnails instead of icons.

It takes a lot of processor power to open all the media files in a folder and generate thumbnail images, so this option can potentially have a big effect on your PC's performance (at least while you're using Windows Explorer). Among other things, thumbnail generation is usually responsible for the slowly moving green progress bar in Windows Explorer's address bar, so you should definitely turn this off if you don't care about thumbnails for your images, videos, and PDF files.

If an installer window appears briefly or if Windows Explorer crashes each time you view a folder full of video files, it means that one of your video codecs is damaged. Turn off the Show thumbnails instead of icons option to bypass the problem.

Show translucent selection rectangle.

The translucent selection rectangle — is what you see when you drag the mouse and make a box to select multiple files in Windows Explorer and on your desktop. It should have no discernable effect on performance, but since it uses alpha channels (an advanced function provided by your display driver), you may want to turn this off if you have any problems using the feature on your PC.

Show window contents while dragging.

Turn off this option to show only window outlines when moving and resizing windows; consider it a throwback to the early days of Windows. You probably won't notice much of a performance hit with this feature turned on, unless you're using the Glass interface on a PC with a weak graphics engine (display card). In fact, Vista may seem more responsive with this feature enabled, as windows will appear to respond immediately to dragging, as opposed to sitting still until you let go of the mouse button.

Slide open combo boxes.

This option controls the animation of drop-down listboxes, similar to the Fade or slide menus option described earlier.

Slide taskbar buttons.

When you close a window, its button disappears from the taskbar, and the adjacent buttons on the right slide to the left to close the gap. Since this animation doesn't cause any delays, you're unlikely to achieve any performance gains by disabling it. However, I find the taskbar animation rather annoying, and personally prefer to have this one turned off.

Smooth edges of screen fonts.

Using a process called anti-aliasing, Windows fills in the jagged edges of larger text on the screen with gray pixels, making the edges appear smooth. Turn off this option to slightly improve the speed at which larger fonts are drawn on the screen, although the speed difference shouldn't be noticeable on faster PCs.

If you're using a flat-panel display (laptop or otherwise), you may find text slightly more difficult to read if font smoothing is turned on. But before you simply turn it off, try the alternate anti-aliasing method. In Control Panel, open the Personalization page, click Window Color and Appearance, and then click Open classic appearance properties for more color options. Click Effects and then choose between the Standard and Clear Type smoothing methods; experiment with this setting to see which one looks best on your display.

Smooth-scroll list boxes.

Despite the fact that they don't open or close, ordinary listboxes are animated, too. If you've ever noticed a listbox that scrolls slowly, this option is the reason; turn it off to make listboxes scroll faster.

There's a nearly identical option in Internet Explorer that makes web pages scroll more slowly. In IE, click the Tools drop-down, select Internet Options, and then choose the Advanced tab. At the end of the Browsing section, turn off the Use smooth scrolling option and click OK.

Use a background image for each folder type.

Get rid of the watermark picture shown behind certain system folders like Control Panel and Pictures, and those folders will open a little more quickly (and the text will likely be more readable, to boot). Strangely, this feature doesn't seem to be present in Vista at all, making this option totally pointless, although your experience may differ.

Use drop shadows for icon labels on the desktop.

This setting affects more than just the shadows behind icon captions; it makes the text background transparent. If you're using desktop wallpaper (as opposed to a solid color background), and you turn off this option, small swaths of the current solid background color will show through the captions of your desktop icons.

Use visual styles on windows and buttons.

Turn off this setting to make Vista's interface look more or less like Windows 98/2000. It's the same as selecting Windows Classic style in the Window Color and Appearance page in Control Panel.

That's it for this window; click Apply to test your changes, and then OK when you're done.

Next, if you've noticed that Windows has been slow to update desktop icons, and you have a lot of them, there is a setting that may help. Right-click an empty area of the desktop, select View, and then select Classic Icons. Your desktop icons will shrink somewhat, returned to the standard 32×32 pixel size used in earlier versions of Windows. When Windows draws larger icons—Medium Icons, the default in Vista—it has to stretch most application icons to the new size, and this can take a little time on slower PCs. (Note that the icons included with Vista all come in larger sizes and don't need stretching.)

1.1. Fine-tune video settings

If you're interested in tinkering further with display settings that can affect performance, right-click an empty area of your desktop, select Personalize, and then click the Display Settings link.

In the Display Settings window, click Advanced Settings and then choose the Troubleshoot tab. Here, the Change settings button lets you fine-tune some of the performance features of your display driver, all of which vary with the make, model, and driver version. If the Change settings button is grayed-out, look for extra tabs in this window; any tab to the right of Color Management is a special feature of your display driver, and can be used to change video settings.Now, most high-end video cards allow you to modify or disable certain 3D features, such as 8-bit palletized textures, gamma adjustment, zbuffer, and bilinear filter. In most cases, these settings won't have any effect on Windows outside 3D games, with the possible exception of the Flip 3D application (Winkey+Tab). But look for other features you can turn off, such as custom shortcut menus, special effects for your windows, or a virtual desktop feature, all of which may slow down your PC when enabled.
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