Vista's Performance Improvements

Certain computer pastimeshard-core gaming, software development, database administration, and digital video editing, to name just a fewrequire hardware help to maximize performance. Whether it's scads of system RAM, a mountain of hard drive storage space, or a state-of-the-art graphics card, these intense computer tasks require the best hardware that users can afford.

Those of use who are not into these intense computing pursuits generally don't need the fastest machine on the market to write memos, build spreadsheet models, or design web pages. What we really need is a system that doesn't get in our way by making us wait for seemingly routine tasks. For example, in Windows XP I often right-click a document in Explorer with the intention of clicking a command such as Cut, Copy, or Rename.

Along the way, however, my mouse pointer has to pass over the Send To command. XP populates the Send To menu by going to the Registry and searching for items that it can add to this menu. For some reason, that sometimes takes several seconds, so my mouse pointer remains stuck on Send To, even though that's not the command I want.

This kind of interface annoyance must have bugged the Windows programmers one too many times also because they've rewritten the interface code from the ground up to make actions such as choosing menu options (including displaying the Send To menu) much faster. Even the in-place All Programs menu is a huge improvement over XP and enables you to launch items much more quickly from deeply nested folders such as System Tools and Ease of Access.

Besides these fit-and-finish performance improvements, Vista comes with a host of new features and updated technologies designed to make Vista the fastest Windows ever. The next few sections take you through the most important of these performance enhancements.

Faster Startup

The first thing you'll notice about Windows Vista is that it starts up much faster than any previous version of Windows. I don't mean that it's a second or two faster, either. My own testing reveals that Vista starts up in approximately half the time compared to an equivalent XP setup. For example, on an XP machine that takes 60 seconds from power-up to the point that you can actually start working with the interface, the equivalent Vista system would take 25 to 30 seconds. Remember, too, that I was testing with a beta version of Vista, so the release version you'll use should be even faster.

Where does the startup speed boost come from? Some of it comes from optimizing the startup code. However, most of the improvement comes from Vista's asynchronous startup script and application launching. Older versions of Windows were hobbled at startup because they had to wait for each startup script, batch file, and program to launch before Windows handed the desktop over to the user.

Vista handles startup jobs asynchronously, which means they run in the background while Vista devotes most of its startup energies to getting the desktop onscreen. This means that it's not unusual to notice startup scripts or programs running well after the desktop has made its appearance. Because all startup items run in the background, theoretically it shouldn't matter how many script or programs you run at startup; Vista should start up just as fast as if you had no startup items.

Sleep Mode: The Best of Both Worlds

In the last few versions of Windows, you had a number of options at your disposal for turning off your computer. You could use the Shut Down option to turn off the system entirely, which saved power but forced you to close all your documents and applications; you could put the system into Standby mode, which preserved your work and enabled you to restart quickly, but didn't entirely shut off the machine's power; or you could go into Hibernate mode, which preserved your work and completely shuts off the machine, but also took a relatively long time to restart (faster than Shut Down, but slower than Standby).

I think it's safe to say that most users were confused by these options, particularly by the (subtle) difference between the Standby and Hibernate modes. By far the most common power-management complaint I've heard over the past few years is, "Why can't Windows be more like a Mac?" That is to say, why can't we turn off our machines instantly, and have them resume instantly with our windows and work still intact, as Apple has done with OS X?

The new answer to these questions is that Vista is heading in that direction with a new Sleep state that combines the best of the old Standby and Hibernate modes:

  • As in Standby, you enter Sleep mode within just a few seconds.
  • As in both Standby and Hibernate, Sleep mode preserves all your open documents, windows, and programs.
  • As in Hibernate, Sleep mode shuts down your computer (although, as you'll see, it doesn't quite shut down everything).
  • As in Standby, you resume from Sleep mode within just a few seconds.

How can Vista preserve your work and restart in just a few seconds? The secret is that Vista doesn't really shut off your computer when you initiate sleep mode. Instead, it shuts down everything except a few crucial components such as the CPU and RAM. By preserving power to the RAM chips, Vista can keep your work intact and redisplay it instantly upon waking. Don't worry, though: Vista does make a copy of your work to the hard disk, so if your computer completely loses power, your work is still preserved.

To use Sleep mode, open the Start menu and click the Sleep button. Vista saves the current state and shuts off the computer in a few seconds. To resume, press your computer's power button; the Vista Welcome screen appears almost immediately.

SuperFetch with ReadyBoost: The Faster Fetcher

Prefetching was a performance feature introduced in Windows XP that monitored your system and anticipated the data that you might use in the near future. It then loaded (prefetched) that data into memory ahead of time. If that data was indeed what your system required, performance would increase because XP wouldn't have to fetch the data from your hard disk.

Windows Vista introduces a new and improved version of the Prefetcher: SuperFetch. This technology tracks the programs and data you use over time to create a kind of profile of your disk usage. Using the profile, SuperFetch can then make a much more educated guess about the data that you'll require and, like the Prefetcher, can then load that data into memory ahead of time for enhanced performance.

However, SuperFetch goes even further by taking advantage of Vista's new ReadyBoost technology. If you insert a 512MB (or larger) USB 2.0 Flash drive into your system, Vista displays the AutoPlay dialog box. If you click Speed Up My System Using Windows ReadyBoost, SuperFetch uses that drive's capacity as storage for the SuperFetch cache. This frees up the system RAM that SuperFetch would otherwise use, which should result in an automatic (and probably quite dramatic) performance boost.

Not only that, but you still get an extra performance nudge from SuperFetch itself because even though data access via the Flash drive is slower than with system RAM, it's still many times faster than even the fastest hard drive.

You can also control the amount of storage space that SuperFetch uses on the Flash drive. Select Start, Computer; right-click the Flash drive; and then click Properties to open the device's property sheet. In the Memory tab, click Use This Device to let SuperFetch access the Flash memory and then use the slider to set the maximum amount of memory SuperFetch can use.