24 ways to get more from your laptop
Whether your laptop is fresh from the box or a few years old, to get the most from it you need to treat it with a little care and attention. A new laptop that's set up properly from the start will run smoothly for years, but older models that are starting to show their age can be given a new lease of life with a few simple tweaks. So, if you want to wring more from your battery or simply cut the time Windows takes to load, you'll find the advice you need right here.
Before you buy
Doing a little research before you buy your next laptop - and taking the marketing hype with a pinch of salt - can pay dividends. With the exception of a few components, laptops are not easy to upgrade, so getting the specification right first time can save money.
1 - More memory
Don't be tempted to get the fastest processor available when buying a new laptop - the performance difference between a top-of-the-range chip and one a few steps down is small. A slightly slower processor will be cheaper too, leaving you with more money to spend on memory. Adding more memory to a laptop is the easiest way to get a noticeable performance boost. While Microsoft claims that Windows XP Professional runs on a PC with 128Mb of memory, 512Mb is the absolute minimum for a smooth-running system. In our tests, doubling the amount of memory in a laptop from 512Mb to 1Gb improved its performance by up to 25%, while a faster processor typically made it only a few percent faster.
2 - Faster hard disk
Don't be swayed by the promise of a faster hard drive in a laptop. Most laptop drives spin at 4,200rpm, but some now come with 5,400rpm drives and a few offer 7,200rpm models. The faster a hard drive spins, the quicker it can supply information to Windows, but in practice these speed gains make little difference to the overall performance - no more than a few percent in our tests. Worse still, faster hard drives need more power and more cooling, neither of which is conducive to long battery life. Stick with a slower drive and spend the money on more memory (above) instead.
3 - 3D graphics
If all you want to do is use office applications and browse the web, you don't need to worry too much about what graphics a laptop uses. Most laptops use 'onboard' graphics that are built on to the motherboard and while these are generally useless for most 3D applications, they're fine for day-to-day Windows use.
The catch is that an onboard graphics chips has no memory of its own and so uses up to 64Mb of the main memory instead, which is why having at least 512Mb memory in a laptop is a good idea. If 3D graphics are a must, you'll be glad to hear that laptops with dedicated graphics chips (and dedicated graphics memory) are available - just be prepared to pay a penalty in battery life as a result of the extra power and cooling requirements.
Better battery life
Most people buy a laptop because they want a PC that they can use away from the mains. If yours isn't lasting as long as you'd like, don't despair - there are a few things you can do to make it go further
4 - Get a larger battery or a spare
One way to get more battery life from your laptop is to buy a bigger battery. Most laptops come with a three- or four-cell battery as standard, but most manufacturers offer a higher-capacity six- or eight-cell battery as an option. This usually replaces the smaller battery, but some laptops let you use a second battery in place of the internal optical drive, which is worth investigating if you're about to buy a new laptop.
5 - Turn off Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi may be convenient, but it's also power hungry and leaving it switched on when you're not using it, whether or not you're in range of a wireless network, will seriously affect battery life. So turn off your laptop's Wi-Fi when you don't need it. We found that it added a good 20 minutes to battery life in our tests.
6 - Reduce the screen brightness
If you really need to eke out every last drop of power from your battery, it's worth making a few compromises. Start by reducing the screen brightness to its lowest setting - usually by pressing the [Fn] key along with the appropriately labelled Function key. Most laptop screens are perfectly usable at their darkest setting, and you can gain 30 minutes or more of use on battery power as a result.
7 - Power schemes
Intel Centrino Mobile Technology uses a technology called SpeedStep that drops the processor speed when the laptop is running from battery power to prolong battery life. SpeedStep increases the processor speed if an application needs more power, but most laptops let you override this. If you know you're just going to be working on email and text documents, it's worth setting your laptop to run at its lowest processor speed when you're using it on battery power. You're unlikely to notice the performance difference, but you will add valuable minutes to your laptop's battery life.
8 - Unplug your peripherals
External peripherals plugged into USB ports require power, so unplug them while you're away from the mains to maximise your laptop's battery life. The same goes for PDAs, printers and even mice - in our tests, a connected USB optical mouse chopped 25 minutes off our laptop's battery life.
The easiest solution to the problem of a slow laptop may be to buy a new one, but that's not an option for everybody. Fortunately, there are quick fixes you can make to restore yours to its former glory.
9 - Prune the start-up programs
Whenever you turn on your PC or laptop, certain programs load automatically alongside Windows. Some are essential and others are useful, but many are pointless and, as well as increasing the time Windows takes to load, they eat up valuable memory and processor power. Some careful pruning can make a noticeable difference to your laptop's performance - including its battery life.
Start by looking at the icons in your System Tray immediately after starting Windows to see which programs start automatically. Any programs you know you never use can simply be uninstalled, but leave anti-virus and firewall software alone. It's best to disable start-up programs you don't recognise before uninstalling them, just in case they turn out to be useful.
To get some help, try Startup Inspector. This free program not only lists all the programs that start automatically with Windows, it also explains their function. Once you know what's redundant and what's useful, you can disable programs you don't need (including those that you can't otherwise uninstall) and you have the option to restore them at any time.
10 - Purge your fonts
The more stuff Windows has to process when it starts, the longer you'll have to wait before you can start using it, and fonts are no exception. Everything from word processors to image editors tend to install a selection of their own fonts, but if you only ever use Arial and Times New Roman, the rest are dead weight. You could simply delete any unused fonts, but certain ones are required by Windows - and besides, you might need to use others at some point. FontFrenzy is a free program that lets you pare Windows' font set down to a bare minimum to speed up your PC, but keeps the rest in reserve, just in case.
11 - Update your drivers
While there's not much point in upgrading your laptop's various drivers at every opportunity, some driver updates could prolong battery life and improve your laptop's performance. Graphics card drivers are at the top of the list, so its a good idea to check the appropriate manufacturer's website every now and then. If you haven't already done so, it's also worth installing the recent Intel patch for Centrino Mobile Technology. As well as fixing a networking security vulnerability, this update also adds a Wi-Fi profile manager that's far more useful than Windows XP's own utility.
12 - Disconnect old network connections
Avoid using the Windows Map Network Drive feature to turn network folders into virtual drives in My Computer. You should also right-click any existing mapped drives and disconnect them. Windows automatically tries to reconnect to mapped drives each time it starts and will wait if the remote drives don't respond immediately. If you're using your laptop away from the office, that's a wait you can do without.
13 - Standby
Don't bother with a screensaver on your laptop - it uses just as much battery power as displaying the Windows Desktop. Instead, click the Power button on the Screen Saver tab of Display Properties and set the laptop to go into Standby mode after ten minutes of inactivity. A laptop in Standby mode will run for hours on battery power, but it returns to exactly where you left it in a matter of seconds - perfect for those times when you're distracted by something else and you leave your laptop running.
14 - Hibernate
Windows' Standby mode is a great way of prolonging battery life, and its partner, Hibernate, makes using your laptop easier too. Set Hibernate mode to kick in whenever you close your laptop lid (in the same dialog box as Standby) and not only will Windows shut down in half the time, it will also start up more quickly when you next turn on your laptop. Better still, all your work and open windows will be exactly as they were when you left them.
One of the easiest ways to keep your laptop running smoothly is to keep it - and your data - safe. Viruses and other malware can wreak havoc on a PC, and if that doesn't concern you, just bear in mind that while your PC spends its resources on running unwanted programs, there are fewer resources to run the ones you want.
15 - Check for viruses
As well as ridding your laptop of background programs that have been deliberately - if perhaps misguidedly - installed, it's also essential that you keep it clear of less welcome visitors. Apart from the inherent security risks computer viruses pose, they also gobble up memory, processor time and battery life, and once one starts sending itself to all the contacts in your email address book, you may lose some friends too.
Anti-virus software is an essential addition to any laptop and if yours doesn't have any installed, download and install AVG Antivirus - it's free for personal use. Whichever anti-virus program you use, it's important to keep it up to date, so make sure its auto-update feature is enabled and that your laptop is online at least once a week so that it can download updates.
16 - Check for spyware
Spyware may be less harmful than a virus, but it's still an uninvited and unwanted guest on any laptop. Simply uninstalling the program it used to piggy-back on to your laptop is seldom enough: most spyware needs to be hunted down and thoroughly eradicated by a specialist tool. The two best programs in this field are Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy, both of which are free for personal use. As with anti-virus software, both programs must be kept up to date, and you should run both regularly - one may miss spyware that the other program will catch.
17 - Install a firewall
Your laptop may be safe online when its sitting behind the hardware firewall in your wireless router, but what about when you're using someone else's connection? Install a software firewall and you'll get an extra layer of online protection, no matter how you connect to the net. Sunbelt Kerio Personal Firewall is free for personal use - so get it.
18 - Windows updates
That Windows XP needs a hefty update every week or so to fix its various problems is a fact of life and many of these updates are important security patches that you should not ignore. That said, you can do without Windows automatically downloading and installing 20Mb worth of files, then pestering you to restart your laptop, when all you want to do is check your email and get on with some important work.
The solution is to change the way Windows' Automatic Updates works. Right-click My Computer, choose Properties and click the Automatic Updates tab on the dialog box. Select the "Notify me..." option and Windows will tell you when updates are available, but won't download or install them until you say so - just don't forget to download them when you're back on mains power.
19 - Set a password
Even if you're the only one who uses your laptop, you should set a Windows password. You will have to enter the password whenever you start Windows, although you can bypass it when resuming from Hibernate and Standby modes. However, you can also lock the laptop whenever you need to leave it unattended by pressing [Windows] [L], which is better than leaving your work for the world to see.
You've tweaked your laptop to improve its performance, but don't think that's all there is to keeping it running smoothly. Regular maintenance will keep it that way - and without it, you'll be back to square one.
20 - Clean up your hard disk
Windows creates all manner of temporary files as you use it, and similar files are left behind when you install applications and browse the web. Laptop hard drives are not exactly huge to begin with, so leaving all this digital detritus behind is a waste of space. To clear it up, right-click your hard drive in My Computer, select Properties and click the Disk Cleanup button on the dialog box. Once the disk has been analysed, tick the boxes on the list of Files to delete (everything except "Compress old files"), then click OK. Having done this, untick the "Allow Indexing Service..." box on the dialog box, before clicking OK. Disk indexing can degrade system performance, and you won't miss it.
21 - Defrag!
Ridding your hard disk of all that unwanted junk will have left pockets of free space scattered across it. Rather than having the hard disk seek here and there for free space when you save a file, it's better to consolidate the space into one chunk by defragmenting the hard disk. This has the added benefit of consolidating fragments of files that were scattered across the disk as a result of there not being enough free space in one place to hold them when they were first created. You can find Windows' own disk defragmenter on the Tools tab of the hard disk Properties dialog box.
22 - Clean up the Desktop
The more Desktop icons Windows has to keep track of, the less time it has for handling everything else, so keep your Desktop clean for a smooth-running laptop. The Windows Desktop Cleanup Wizard (right-click the Desktop, Properties > Desktop tab > Customize Desktop) will help the chronically disorganised; for everyone else a few Desktop folders for 'Images', 'Documents' and other files should suffice.
23 - Streamline the Registry
Just as your laptop's hard disk fills with unwanted files over time, the Windows Registry also gets left with unwanted and useless entries. Keeping the Registry lean and compact will keep Windows running smoothly, and may prevent programs crashing. RegSupreme costs just $13 (£7) and allows you to remove redundant Registry entries, as well as fix any errors, automatically.
24 - Keep it clean
It's not just your laptop's screen and keyboard that you should keep clean - pay close attention to its air vents, too. If an air vent becomes clogged, warm and cool air won't circulate freely, which means the cooling fans will have to work overtime, reducing battery life as a result. Clean the vents with a compressed air cleaner, and hold a vacuum cleaner nozzle nearby to suck up the dislodged dust.
© Dennis Publishing