We've worked our way from the hardware to the software, and the most important piece of software on your system is the Operating System (OS). The OS is the interface between you the user and the hardware and peripherals of your system. It takes your inputs and converts them into information the hardware can understand, and vice versa.
For many years this was a Microsoft OS by the name of DOS (Disk Operating System). It consisted of plain black screen with green or white text, and the only input device was the keyboard. DOS holds some fond memories for the older ones among us, but Windows - although the earlier versions were somewhat unstable at times - is infinitely more friendly and easy-to-use.
Quite obviously optimizing your OS is imperative to a fast stable system. Below I provide resources and advice on how best to do that for your particular OS.
In recent times an alternative to Windows has sprung up in the form of Linux. Now you can call me all the bad names under the sun, but I'm not going to cover Linux optimization in much detail here. If you want to know more about Linux, a recent guide to the various distributions of Linux is here. If you already use Linux and want to optimize it, try a site like TuneLinux or this article at Tom's Hardware about Windows Gaming on Linux as your starting points.
Unfortunately I simply don't have the knowledge or experience to provide you with much more Linux guidance.
- Windows Optimization
Like it or not, Microsoft Windows is the most popular operating system at present on personal computers. There are several versions of Windows floating around on PCs out there, the most common ones being used for gaming being Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition (SE), Windows Millennium (ME), Windows 2000 and Windows XP (Home and Pro).
I don't want to get into a debate over which OS is best for gaming, as that is a topic of contention amongst geeks which I can't resolve here. Suffice it to say that unless you've performed a clean reformat and install of each OS on your current system, thoroughly tweaked the OS and run benchmarks on each then you won't ever truly know which is actually the fastest or the best for you. Results from other people will differ based on their exact setup, level of overclock, optimization of the OS and BIOS, etc. In the end it all depends on what you can afford, what features you're looking for, what type of interface you like, how large your hard drive and memory is, how new your hardware is, and so forth. Everything that follows is my personal view based on experience and research.
- Windows XP (Home & Professional)
I personally use WinXP Pro and so it's only natural for me to have prepared two comprehensive Windows XP Tweak Guides, which should be followed one after the other:
WinXP Tweaking: From Reformat to Relax. This guide brings together all the main known performance tweaks, and is guaranteed to speed up your system noticeably.
WinXP Tweaking: From Relax to Righteous. This guide picks up where the previous one left off - visual enhancements, convenience tweaks and troubleshooting is the focus.
Without being modest, I highly recommend you read and follow these guides from start to finish to optimize XP correctly. I also provide links to other Windows XP tweaking resources in both guides, so there's plenty more XP tweaking to discover once you've read them. Below I address three common questions about Windows XP:
- What is the Difference Between WinXP Home and WinXP Pro?
Well effectively there is no difference whatsoever for performance and gaming purposes. The main differences are that XP Pro has a few extra utilities/functions for administering networks, such as the Group Editor. If you have WinXP Home you are not missing out on anything, and in fact if you have a standalone machine at home (i.e. you're not connected to a network), XP Home is just as good as XP Pro for your purposes.
- What is the Difference Between OEM, Upgrade, Academic and Full Versions of Windows?
There is no difference - aside from price and packaging - between any of these versions in terms of performance or content. These are just different methods by which Microsoft can target particular markets. OEM means Original Equipment Manufacturer and an OEM copy of Windows can only be sold with the first-time purchase of several major hardware components (basically a PC). The upgrade edition is based on the assumption that you own a valid earlier version of Windows. The upgrade is the same as the full edition, and you can do a full clean install on a reformatted hard drive using the upgrade edition. The only difference is that during the installation it will ask you to insert your earlier version of Windows to verify that you're entitled to the cheaper upgrade edition. The Academic edition is again identical to the equivalent standard version, however you can only purchase it if you are an educator or a student.
- Which File System is Better - NTFS or FAT32?
This is another contentious topic, and the answer depends on your requirements. From the Microsoft Windows XP manual comes this advice:
Use FAT32 if:
- Your hard drive is smaller than 32GB.
- You want to install more than one operating system on your computer.
Use NTFS if:
- Your hard drive is larger than 32GB and you are running only one operating system on your computer.
- You want enhanced file security.
- You need better disk compression.
Essentially NTFS is a newer, more stable and much more secure file system which has several benefits FAT32 doesn't. For example, if you format your hard drive in NTFS and password protect it, no one can access the information on the drive without the correct password, even if they physically steal it. As for the speed difference, well for larger drives it is negligible. In my opinion the benefits of NTFS, and the similarities in speed with FAT32 make a strong case for formatting your drive in NTFS, unless you have a very small drive or want to install more than one OS on it.
- Windows 2000
Windows 2000 is extremely similar to Windows XP, quite simply because XP is based on Windows 2000. Many of the tweaks and issues covered in the WinXP section above will apply to Windows 2000. However here are some Windows 2000 Tweak Guides which should help you if you run this OS:
The above guides should cover the bulk of your Windows 2000 tweaking needs. However there is one question which is often asked by Windows 2000 users:
- Should I Switch from Windows 2000 to Windows XP?
From my research and experience, I have seen that Windows 2000 and Windows XP are similar in speed. Windows 2000 used to have issues with compatibility for games as it was originally designed for professional (office and server) use. However with the release of four Service Packs, the latest being Service Pack 4 (SP4), the OS has no major compatibility or performance issues, just like Windows XP.
I personally believe that Windows XP provides more flexibility in interface customization, additional features and built-in support for the latest peripherals, however I don't think anything really warrants switching from Windows 2000 just yet. If you're happy with Windows 2000 stick with it. If you're using any other version of Windows, or choosing an OS for the first time, I would recommend Windows XP because it has excellent stability and memory management compared to the Win9X/ME family, and quite simply because Microsoft and the major developers are focusing their driver support and compatibility efforts towards WinXP.