Monday, 23 February 2009

Maintaining and upgrading my desktop PC for photography - Part 1: simple system optimisation and maintenance

There are a few really simple and essentially safe tweaks that you can make to the set up of your PC which may improve performance immensely. Here are three things I did to improve my PC’s performance.

Over time Windows allows new programmes to make all sorts of decisions on your behalf which may benefit the software being installed, but are detrimental to the PCs overall performance. Tidying up these will improve overall system performance as well as speeding up boot up times. There are some programmes that you may want to run automatically, such as anti-virus scans, which may have a bad effect on system performance when they are actually running – you should look at these as well.

There are two key areas to look at; the programmes that install themselves, or part of themselves, on start up and various services that are turned on when you start up the computer.

Start up programmes

To look at what programmes the system is starting up (and hence using up memory) when you turn on you need to run “msconfig”. As far as I know the only way to run this is from the DOS command line via the “Run” option in the start up panel (see screen show below)

Type in “msconfig” at the prompt and press "OK", as in the screen shot below

The “System Configuration Utility” window will open; choose the “Startup” tab – see screen shot below

Here you will find all the programmes that Windows is starting up for you every time you turn on your computer. Some are essential, but many are not necessary and just slow down the system. I worked my way through the list – using Google to check on the more obscure programme names and turned off about half of them by unticking the boxes next to the name of the programme (as you can see in the screen shot above). This is a pretty safe process as you are not deleting them, just telling the system not to start them up when it starts up. If you make a mistake then just tick the box again and it will be reinstated the next time you boot up. I accidentally turned off the ColorVision utility that loads up the monitor’s profile on start up, which was easily remedied by turning it back on.

The changes will take place when you next re-boot – when you exit “msconfig” it will ask you if you want to restart or not. When you reboot a window will pop up telling you that you have made changes. To stop it doing this every time you start up just tick the box in the bottom left hand corner before pressing “OK” – see screen shot below.

Doing this will both speed up your computer’s booting up time and make more system memory available for doing things you actually want it to do, boosting performance.

System Services
Another area where time and system resources are used up is in the system “Services” department. This is also a place where inter-programme conflicts may be set up. To see what is going on here right-click on the “My Computer” icon on your desktop and click on “Manage”. This will bring up the “Computer Management” window; see screenshot below:

Click on the “Services” option under “Services and Applications”. This will open the services window as shown in the screen shot below.

This lists all the services that are operating – they are either automatically turned on (Automatic is displayed in the “Startup Type” column), disabled or turned on manually as needed.

To change the status of the service right clock the name and choose “Properties” (as in the screen shot above).

The properties for the service you chose will appear in the window – as in the screen shot below. To change the startup action go to the “Startup type:” box where you will have a choice of three drop down options; Automatic, Manual or Disabled. Click on the one you want and press OK.

Work you way down the list – some are clearly redundant, some clearly essential and many need to be investigated as to whether they are necessary or not. Some are obviously downright dangerous – such as the old Symantec anti-virus services that were left over from when I changed over to AVG. Again the service is not deleted by the action and you can turn them on again if you make a mistake.

When I worked through this list (it took me about half an hour) I turned off about half of the services with no ill effects.

What difference does it make?
I have not done any fancy timing or benchmark testing to see what difference these changes have made but boot up is now much faster and the applications I use feel much more nimble and responsive.

If I needed convincing about what a difference it could make I then run “msconfig” on an old laptop which I had tried to resurrect a few months ago but it was so slow that it was almost completely unusable. It only has 256mb of RAM and I only turned off about half a dozen start up applications, but it totally reinvigorated the machine. I was delighted and amazed by how such a simple action could completely turn around the machine's performance, easily proving to me the value of this sort of simple and safe system maintenance.

How come it took me some many years to find out?

Checking background software operation
When using Lightroom and other processor intensive applications I often found that it slowed down hugely for no apparent reason and started ignoring two thirds of my mouse clicks. I usually rebooted at this stage but thought that it was time I found the problem and fixed it.

What I found, via the “Windows Task Manager” (reached via the “ctrl-alt-del” keyboard shortcut), was that my AVG anti-virus software was running a scheduled whole system background virus check – which, when I knew what to look for, I could see happening via the icon in the system tray. As you can see in the screen shot below a silver right arrow appears on the AVG icon when it is running.

The solution is either to change the scheduled scan or to right-click on the icon and choose the “pause all scans” option which turns off the scan while you are doing the processor intensive work. This paused state shows up in the icon as a classic pause button in silver – see screen shot below.


These three simple and safe actions have eliminated the extreme slow down I experienced during scheduled scans and made the whole system feel much more responsive and quicker. In fact much like it was when it was new.
So this is a good start to the programme; now onto the next stage …

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Maintaining and upgrading my desktop PC for photography

As a digital photographer I spend far too much time in front of my PC and I would like to make that time as pleasant and productive as possible. Recently my PC has slowed down and I have had to decide whether to get my old PC running smoothly again or buy a new one – for reasons of both economy and trying not to waste more of the world’s resources unnecessarily I have decided to maintain and upgrade my existing system. This posting is the first in the series that I shall be writing over the next few weeks charting my course and the results.

I do nearly all my photographic work on a desktop PC running Lightroom and Photoshop CS3, along with a myriad of other software I have accumulated over the years.

The desktop I use was a pretty good system back in July 2005 when I bought it – just over 3½ years ago. It was built out of standard components to my rough specification by a small British company which no longer exists…

The main specs for the computer were:
  • Foxconn 925XE7AA motherboard – supports LGA775 Prescott-T processors
  • Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz CPU
  • 2gb DDR2 RAM
  • 200gb Maxtor DiamondMax 6L200MO SATA hard disk drive
  • XFX graphics card with the Nvidia GeForce 6200 TurboCache chip set and 256mb
  • Windows XP operating system, with Service Pack 2
  • + LG DVD drive, 3.5” floppy drive, memory card reader and lots of USB 2 and Firewire ports
  • All in a tower case with lots of expansion options
  • + the NEC MultiSync LCD1850X monitor I already had
Over the 3½ years I have kept the operating system up to date and added in a Pioneer DVD drive to supplement the LG, added in a card to provide more USB 2 ports, attached a Wacom Intuos 3 graphics tablet, hooked up various external hard disk drives and scanners via USB 2 and given up using the internal memory card reader as it was very unreliable in favour of an external Dazzle card reader; as well as investing in a ColorVision Spyder 2 to profile my monitor.

The only time I have had to get inside the case was to install the Pioneer DVD and USB 2 ports card, and to replace the power supply when it died after about 2 years.

Needless to say I have tried lots of software, installed and then moved on many packages and generally cluttered my system up with unused and potentially conflicting software – including changing from Symantec to AVG anti-virus software. I have kept an eye on disk fragmentation and run a couple of defrags, and tinkered a bit with registry cleaning applications, but I am generally wary of playing with the software guts of the machine as I do not really feel I know enough to not do more harm than good.

During this time digital image files have grown and grown and inevitably the PC has become a bit sluggish, and on occasion downright unusable, needing frequent re-boots to clear persistent problems, usually just slowness, which when editing large image files is a major cause of dissatisfaction.

Recently I realised that the time to do something had come – should I bite the bullet and buy a new system, or try to get my current one back to new and upgrade bits that would make a difference? I also wanted to upgrade to a twin monitor system for work with Lightroom and Photoshop.

I am reasonably confident that I can take out and put in bits of kit without zapping them with static, but would not class myself as any sort of computer technician, nor really confident that I have the time or patience to work out what the relative value for money would be for the huge number of options available for my needs; which are to make a system specifically optimised for working with digital images (not video – yet).

Luckily my brother is a computer consultant and offered to advise – without his help I would not know what to do, nor feel confident that I could find a solution if something goes wrong.

So which option to take?
For a new system:
  • 3½ years down the technology track should produce a big performance boost
  • Low power "Green" component options could reduce energy consumption
  • Clean install should eliminate accumulated system clutter
Against a new system:
  • Cash expenditure
  • The days of setting up, installing and configuring the system and software to meet my needs
  • Not environmentally friendly
For maintaining and upgrading the existing system:
  • Should be cheaper than a new system
  • More environmentally friendly
  • Choosing low energy "Green" component options should reduce power consumption
  • Should be able to mirror the old set up fairly quickly; so it should be much quicker to set up
  • More challenging and satisfying…
Against maintaining and upgrading the existing system:
  • It might all go horribly wrong!
  • Probably not ultimately as good performance as going for a new system
I decided to go the “maintain and upgrade” route.

After discussions with my brother I decided on a four phase approach:
  • Do some simple system optimisation and maintenance
  • Upgrade the main components that will make a performance difference that have an easy (and safe) upgrade path
  • Install the twin monitor system
  • Review and see if more drastic (and expensive) options should be considered
The blog postings over the next few weeks will plot my course and hopefully help other photographers faced with the same dilemmas.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Clearing a stalled printer queue / spooler

Every now and again - actually it is every day or two now - when I print to my Epson 4800 via Windows XP the jobs just sit in the printer status queue nearly complete, but nothing ever actually prints. What to do?

This problem only seems to happen with my Epson 4800 printing via a USB port. My networked B&W laser printer has never done it.

I don't get any error messages - it simply sits there doing nothing much. Every subsequent print job joins the queue, but nothing can actually get anything printing.

One solution that often works is to simply reboot the computer, but this does not always work and is, in any case, a pain. If it clears, then all the queued print jobs print one after another, including all the multiple copies I have sent thinking that I must have forgotten to press the print button...

The easiest way I have found to clear the non-printing file is the following:
  1. Go to the DOS command line (via "Run") and type:
    Net stop spooler (see screen shot below)

  2. Navigate your way to the following location:
    For windows XP: Windows\System32\Spool\Printers
    For Windows 2000: Winnt\System32\Spool\Printers

  3. Delete the files in the Printers folder

  4. Go back to the DOS command line and type:
    Net start spooler (see screen shot below)

All should now be well.

I have not found any other way of clearing this problem. Deleting it via the printer status queue or from the printer does not work as you have to clear the spooler itself and neither of these two actions does.

If you do not stop the spooler, clear it and then restart it it will just keep on trying until you reboot, and then it does not always work.

To speed things up I have made a shortcut to the spooler folder on my desktop so that it is easy to find.