With Vista, thedue next year, Microsoft is addressing what's become a sad truth for most people: PCs run more slowly over time.
Vista will automatically de-fragment hard disks, make better use of memory to more quickly load programs, and include a new performance control panel that will identify performance bottlenecks, according to the company.
The forthcoming Windows Vista will be primed to keep PCs from slowing down over time, Microsoft says.
With existing versions of Windows, many PCs run into performance hazards such as fragmented hard disks and slow-loading programs. Microsoft plans to offer ways around those roadblocks.
The goal is to keep PCs running like new long after they're purchased. "Certainly a year after a user gets a Vista system, if they do the sort of standard things we encourage users to do (install Windows updates, etc.), it should run the same as when they initially got it, said Gabriel Aul, a group program manager in Microsoft's Windows division.
If your PC is like most, it was at its optimal performance the day you turned it on and has slowed down ever since. It's not your imagination, either, nor is it the phenomenon that occurs on crowded freeways in which it seems everyone else is going faster.
"The difference is dramatic, especially among people who have no idea what the gunk hazards are," said technology author Jeff Duntemann, who is the co-author of a book on the subject, "Degunking Windows."
Microsoft says there are several culprits for slow-running PCs. Programs and files that were once neatly arranged on a hard drive eventually get spliced up all over the place, increasing the time it takes to find and load information. In addition, each program that loads itself into the system tray adds its own speed penalty. Microsoft even has an article on its Web site outlining the problem.
A Vista-based PC might even be faster a few weeks after it's installed, thanks to one new feature called SuperFetch. SuperFetch basically studies the programs that an individual user frequently runs and loads them into memory automatically.
For example, if a user works with Outlook and PowerPoint every day, Windows Vista will try to load those applications at start-up, provided there is enough memory. However, if another user frequents Excel and Adobe Photoshop on their machine, then Windows will load those programs.
"That out-of-the-box experience really extends," Aul said. "You'll see the applications that you use just...feeling fast."
Suse Linux kernel developer Andrea Arcangeli said he was skeptical about how much of a performance boost SuperFetch would provide.
"It might help on a 128MB system that flushes the cache away very fast, but on a 1GB system I doubt it can make a significant difference, and at first glance, it doesn't seem to be worth the complexity it would introduce," the Imola, Italy-based developer said in an e-mail interview.
Arcangeli said it was important to note that, in many cases, preloading new memory means flushing away an existing cache. "So it's not like it's a "risk-free" operation," he said. "It may be a good trade-off but it can actually slowdown the system instead of making it faster."
The general idea of loading things into memory before they are needed is not new. Windows XP already does this with some generic system resources that it believes most users are likely to need. Linux loads additional pages when one page is requested.
What is new is the personalization aspect. And Aul said Microsoft doesn't plan for Vista to be rigid either. If a person usually runs SAP and Oracle on a work laptop, but goes on vacation for two weeks, Windows Vista will quickly notice the changes and start loading the games and DVD player into memory instead.
The start-up tray is another culprit for slow machines. Microsoft did a study of 5,000 users and found that they had, on average, 29 different programs that loaded themselves at startup. "They just sort of accumulate," Aul said. "Many users had significantly more."
Loading programs more quickly is something that Microsoft has been working on for years, dating back to the time of .
With Vista, Microsoft plans to have a control panel that lets people check up on system performance. There will be a particular focus on start-up items, which are a key threat to a computer's "nice out-of-box experience," Aul said.
"Some of those things are things that users legitimately wanted to have," said Aul. "Many of them are things that either they don't expect to be loaded...or even worse, it's malware or spyware that has snuck its way on."
Vista won't go as far as to automatically notify users that their system is getting slower, Aul said. However, those who take a peek will get information on how much their system has declined as well as suggestions as to which start-up items might be to blame.
"What performance diagnostics can do is look at your average boot time," Aul said. "When it sees...a big change, it can diagnose what caused that by looking at a number of different factors in the system. It will either identify a specific application if it's a new application or it will present you with a list of start-up apps."
Not all of the capabilities that Microsoft is planning for Vista are evident in the initial beta version that. For example, the tools for monitoring the performance decline are in Beta 1, but the means for alerting users and being able to take action won't come until later test versions. The SuperFetch feature is in Beta 1, but Microsoft plans to improve on it by the next test version.
Indeed, analysts say it remains to be seen how much real world improvement will be delivered by the Vista changes
"On paper they all look really good," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. But, he said: "You have to run for a period of time under normal conditions to see if it is really going to make a difference."