Remember how Windows was nice and fast when you first installed it, but now it takes two minutes to boot? Well, you can keep Windows that way. The trick is knowing what slows it down, and how to fix it. Most of it comes down to software makers being idiots.
When you install some software, it puts itself in the Windows startup group. Now, every time you boot up Windows, that program loads too, pissing away memory and adding a few more seconds to your start times. Most of the time, these programs are totally useless.
A perfect example is RealPlayer. Depending on the version, it installs a program called TKBell.exe or RealSched.exe, which checks for updates. Not just once a week though, every time you turn on your PC. And every few hours. Just in case there is some vital new feature you absolutely must have. Needless to say, you can disable it. Quicktime is similar - it puts a pointless icon in your task bar which does nothing and can safely be removed.
To disable startup items, click Start and select "Run...", then enter "msconfig" in the box. Click on the "startup" tab and look at the second column in the display. It helps to make it a decent size. I recommend disabling everything, except things you are sure you need like virus protection, firewalls, printer drivers etc. You don't need nVidia helper apps, update schedulers, NeroFilterCheck, "quick start" apps etc. If something stops working, you can already re-enable it.
Windows comes with a lot of built-in service programs - basically programs that are part of the system and that need to be running all the time. You can trim them down a bit with the Services Manager. Click Start -> Run... and type "services.msc".
Now, look for services which have status "Started". These are running now, and are candidates for being disabled. Unlike startup programs, you need to be careful here. There is a handy guide at http://www.overclockersclub.com/guides/windows_xp_services_2.php, but to get you started I recommend disabling things like the "Windows Firewall" (if you have a firewall), "Wireless Zero Configuration" (if you don't have a wifi card), "Help and Support", "Web Client", "Security Center", "IPSEC", and perhaps "Fast User Switching". To disable a service, double click it and change the "Startup type" to disabled. You can also set it to manual, which will start the service when needed, or automatic which usually starts it when you boot. If you don't know what a service does, simply Google the name.
If you see the Windows loading screen for a long time, it's probably because you have some dodgy device drivers. In particular, look out for virtual CD-ROM drivers and virus scanners. Check the device manager (right click My Computer, select Properties, Hardware tab and Device Manager) for SCSI/RAID devices, and remember that you can select View -> Show Hidden Devices to see, well, hidden devices.
Again Google anything you are not sure about.
A handy tool for deleting old temp files is CrapCleaner, found at http://www.ccleaner.com/. Also remember to defrag every now and then. Try using PageDefrag (http://www.sysinternals.com/Utilities/PageDefrag.html) to defrag your system files, which are normally left untouched.
It might seem obvious to some, but the more fancy widges you have on your system, the slower it will get. Try to cut down on sound effects, themes, and unnecessary programs. Uninstall things you don't use. Also, when selecting new software to install, take a good look around the net for alternatives to the massive commercial bloatware. www.TinyApps.org is a good place to start. When you do install things, don't just accept the default options. See if you can disable features you don't need, cut down on what is being copied to your HDD.
Anti-virus software slows PCs down a lot. Norton is probably the worst of the bunch, but they are all nearly as bad. Personally, I don't run AV software all the time. When I download stuff, I manually virus scan it. I also do weekly scans of the whole machine. This means that AV software isn't running the whole time, and because I'm careful I never get infected anyway. Not recommended unless you are the only person using the computer.
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