How to start Windows 7 faster

If Windows 7 takes more than a minute to start, it may have too many programs that open automatically with the operating system. Longer delays are an indication of a more serious conflict with a piece of hardware, a network, or other software.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

High-performance PC hardware doesn't always deliver the speed users expect. But you probably shouldn't blame the hardware. The slowdown may be due to a software conflict.

A reader named Abe Ibrahim contacted me last week to ask about his slow Windows 7 PC:

My system: Asus Rampage III Extreme MB, Intel i7 980x CPU, 12GB Tri-Bus Memory, 128GB SSD (OS), and 9TB RAID-5 storage. One would think no matter what you ran, the system would scream through it. That is not the case with my system: Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit boots in 51 seconds... [When] I use it to zip and unzip files, video or photo editing, the system crawls.... Low system performance while in low CPU and memory usage! Why?

One of the greatest challenges PC users face is figuring out why the machines run so slowly. You can easily spend more time trying to fix the problem than the problem causes you to lose in the first place.

Windows 7's built-in diagnostic tools can help you find the source of startup and other performance woes. I've had mixed results with the operating system's troubleshooting utilities, which I described in a post from last June, "Handy Windows 7 utilities you may not know about."

TechRepublic's Greg Shultz explains how to use Windows 7's Event Viewer to root out the source of slow startups. Sandro Villinger of IT Expert Voice goes into even more detail on snooping through Windows 7's performance and troubleshooting utilities to hunt down the causes of startup delays.

Another option is to use Microsoft's free Process Monitor utility to find slow-loading startup items and figure out whether you need the laggards to start automatically. Martin Brinkmann steps you through the process on Ghacks.net.

If you use the Ultimate, Professional, or Enterprise editions of Windows 7, you have access to the Group Policy Editor, which lets you track down startup slowpokes. More information on the diagnostic tools in Group Policy Editor is available on the Guiding Tech Network.

Most likely causes of Win7 startup delays
The first thing most people do to speed up Windows' boot times is to trim the list of programs that start automatically. Microsoft's free Autoruns utility simplifies the process by categorizing the programs that start with Windows. You can set the program to hide Windows' own entries to minimize the chances of unchecking an entry that needs to autostart.

Your PC's slow bootup could be due to a malware infection. Make sure your antivirus definitions are up-to-date and your real-time protection and firewall are active. Then perform a full-system malware scan. To make doubly sure your system isn't infected, scan again with a different antivirus program, such as the free Malwarebytes Anti-Malware.

Sometimes the slowdown is caused by your system creating too many restore points. The Microsoft Support site describes that problem and offers a hotfix. Another Microsoft hotfix addresses delays resulting from displays being changed from the default 96 dots per inch.

Unfortunately, the source of your PC's slow start could be relatively obscure, such as a faulty hard-drive power connector (switching the drive to a different power connector solved the problem) or use of a solid-color background (start times improved after using a photo as a background).

Free Windows diagnostic utility shaves seconds off startups
It seems counterintuitive that you can improve your system's performance by adding yet another program. In addition to the time required to download and install the software, there's the chunk of system resources the new program uses itself. That's why I was skeptical of the performance benefits promised by Kingsoft's free PC Doctor, one of which was faster starts.

I tested the program on a 5-year-old PC running Windows 7 Ultimate. During installation, the program offered to install the Maxthon browser--in fact, the option was prechecked. Be sure to uncheck this option to avoid installing more software than you bargained for.

PC Doctor installation routine's option to install unsolicited software
The PC Doctor installer preselects the option to add the Maxthon browser, so uncheck the setting to prevent the unsolicited addition. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

After restarting the PC to complete the installation, PC Doctor generated a pop-up alerting me to six potential hazards.

PC Doctor vulnerability alert
PC Doctor identified 6 potential security risks the first time the program ran after installation. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

The test system is set to download and install required Windows updates automatically, so the notice of pending updates was a surprise. (To prevent PC Doctor from starting automatically, click Settings > General and uncheck the option under Boot Configuration at the bottom of the window.)

PC Doctor Settings dialog box
Uncheck the option under Boot Configuration in PC Doctor's Settings to prevent the program from starting with Windows. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

PC Doctor includes many security, diagnostic, and troubleshooting tools, but my focus was on the program's Startup Booster. Initially, PC Doctor timed my test system's start at 57 seconds, which garnered a Good rating. The utility suggested that I disable several of the 85 startup items it identified.

PC Doctor Startup Booster scan results
PC Doctor's Startup Booster tool recommended that I disable several of the autostart programs on my test PC. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

The My Startup tab lists the PC's autostart apps and shows the number of seconds each requires to get going.

PC Doctor My Startup list of autostart programs
See a list of your system's autostart apps on PC Doctor's My Startup tab. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

After I ran PC Doctor's System Optimizer, the program reported that it had shaved 9 seconds off Windows' start, which still rated as Good. According to my own unscientific timing, the test machine's starts were reduced from 72 seconds to 64 seconds.

PC Doctor Startup Booster results after optimization
After running PC Doctor's System Optimizer, the utility reported that Windows' start time dropped from 57 seconds to 48 seconds. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

In the course of its optimization, PC Doctor knocked out the driver for the machine's Wacom tablet. The time it took to reinstall the tablet driver and restart the system likely wiped out any performance gain resulting from the optimization--not to mention the time the optimization itself required.

So I was left pondering once again whether the time lost by installing and running the optimizing utility will ever translate into time saved by faster Windows 7 starts and enhanced performance generally. Chances are it's a wash, but there is some comfort in knowing your software isn't slowing down your hardware unnecessarily.