Guidelines for a Well-Oiled Windows System
Last Updated: 03 Apr 2005
*** PLEASE NOTE: Link(s), If Provided, May Be Wrapped ***
Here are some guidelines for installing and configuring a
Windows-based system so that it runs silky smooth and
gives you the least possible grief. It is possible to do
this without a tremendous number of 3rd party utilities.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. OS CHOICE
2. CHECKING HARDWARE COMPATIBILITY
3. CHECKING SOFTWARE COMPATIBILITY
4. UPGRADE VS CLEAN INSTALL
5. DISASTER RECOVERY
6. REGULAR MAINTENANCE
7. SECURITY & SECURITY SCANNERS
8. CONFIGURATION & TWEAKING
9. ADVANCED FEATURES
10. TROUBLESHOOTING (OVERVIEW)
11. TROUBLESHOOTING (DETAILED)
If you haven't already done so, please, please, please
ditch Windows 9x/ME. They have served their purpose
as a transition from 16-bit Windows to 32-bit Windows,
but their time is long gone.
Trust me on that. You want to be using a stable OS
with proper memory management and a robust file system.
This limits the choice (for Windows OSes) to 2000 or XP.
I favor XP in virtually all circumstances (even at the
corporate level), and more specifically XP Pro.
Only the most novice of users should settle for XP Home.
Anyone who might ever conceivably install a network
will find that XP Pro is a better choice. (And don't
focus on the list price of the OSes -- you can find
bargains all over the place, particularly online).
In order of preference, here's what I would recommend:
1. Windows XP Pro
2. Windows 2000 Pro
3. Windows XP Home
On the server-side, my list looks like this:
1. Windows Server 2003
2. Windows 2000 Server
CHECKING HARDWARE COMPATIBILITY
Since the release of NT, Microsoft has provided a list
of compatible hardware that they've tested with their
Operating Systems. This list is not 100% inclusive, but
if you don't see your peripheral in this list, you
should make sure that the vendor really does support
the OS you are looking to use.
The next step is the vendor's website. Be sure that
you are going to be able to find drivers for your
equipment BEFORE you start installing the OS. If you
purchase your system from one of the big OEM vendors,
then this is less of a problem, as the OS will be pre-
installed, and the system should have only certified
components. Also, check that your system BIOS and the
firmware for any other components (such as the drive
controller) is up-to-date.
If you're putting your own system together, then you
need to do a decent bit of research before purchasing
anything, so that regrets are minimized. Go with well
regarded, brand-name products -- don't make the wrong
choice between quality and cost.
Windows NT/2000/XP is much more picky about hardware
than Win9x/ME. Don't assume that your sound card will
work with the new OS just because it worked with the
old one. Additionally, your drivers can make or break
a system... (or at least a peripheral)
Also, DON'T overclock until after you've successfully
installed the OS and have had things running properly
for a day or three. Just because your 500Mhz overclock
worked under Win9x doesn't mean it will work under
Windows 2000 or XP. This is just a small price to pay
for the vastly improved stability, superior memory
management, and efficient multi-tasking of 2000/XP.
CHECKING SOFTWARE COMPATIBILITY
Similar to the issue of hardware compatibility, you
will want to verify that the apps you want to use
are actually available on the new Windows OS of your
Windows XP has excellent backwards compatibility with
many older apps -- Win2K SP2 and above possess some
of this functionality -- and games. The greatest area
of contention will be utilities, particularly disk
utilities, since they tend to interact more with
low-level interfaces that can change between versions
of the OS.
UPGRADE VS CLEAN INSTALL
Although you will be tempted to save some time on your
new install by simply upgrading over the old install,
this can cause more problems than it's worth.
Clean installs are generally advised unless you took
*really* good care of your previous installation, and
you don't have lots of 3rd party utilities installed.
If you were running NT or 2000, and you want to upgrade
to 2000 or XP, respectively, then you can take a chance
with an upgrade. If, however, you were previously
running Windows 95 or 98 -- and especially WinME -- then
you are encouraged, make that commanded, to perform a
fresh install. Otherwise, you'll just be delaying the
inevitable clean installation -- after days of annoying
Systems that are upgraded from Win9x to 2000 or XP tend
to be far more sluggish, or exhibit weird bootup or
shutdown problems vs machines that are installed clean,
or upgraded from NT4 or later.
Upgrades should be done from within the old OS, while
clean installs should generally be done by booting
from the CD (or DVD). If you're upgrading an older
system, make sure that your firmware is up-to-date,
and that you download all the necessary drivers in
RECOMMENDED UPGRADE PATHS
Do not attempt to fix software problems with the OS by
simply upgrading to a new version, as quite often, the
problems are just carried over.
XP Home to XP Pro ........ Highly Recommended Upgrade
NT to 2000 or XP ......... Highly Recommended Upgrade
2000 to XP ............... Highly Recommended Upgrade
Win 95/98 to NT .......... Not Recommended Upgrade
Win 95/98 to 2000 ........ Not Recommended Upgrade
Win 95/98 to XP .......... Barely Recommended Upgrade
WinME to anything ........ DO NOT EVER DO THIS unless you
enjoy trouble or are looking
to improve your troubleshooting
NOTE: Wherever the upgrade path is listed as "BARELY
RECOMMENDED" or "NOT RECOMMENDED", it is an
indication that a CLEAN installation should be
performed, not that the new OS should be avoided.
If you still decide that you will upgrade directly over
a previous version of Windows, be sure to at least run
a good SCANDISK/CHKDSK, a solid defrag, and perform a
full backup before starting the upgrade process.
Remember that if it breaks during the upgrade, you'll
likely have to revert to your backups.
Also, be sure you remember to disable or uninstall your
AntiVirus software when installing the OS, and also when
installing any major patches or service packs.
You can take a few steps to make your system easier to
recover in an emergency. They are as follows:
• INSTALL RECOVERY CONSOLE
• INSTALL SUPPORT TOOLS
• CREATE BACKUP ADMIN ACCOUNT
• INSTALL ANTIVIRUS
• MAKE A BACKUP
• INSTALL CD FILES LOCALLY
The first thing you should do after completing your OS
installation is to install the Recovery Console. Go into
your installation CD and run the following command:
This will help you recover from serious issues without
the use of the installation CD. You'll still need the
CD if you have to restore any original files, but other
functions will not require it.
The next thing you'll want to do is install the Support
Tools from the OS CD (under the SUPPORT folder). These
utilities provide timesaving diagnostics functions and
assist in tweaking the OS.
Lastly, you should create an administrative account that
you only use for emergencies. It's a good practice to
use a regular account for everyday activities, and have
a backup admin account in case you get locked out from
your normal admin account by mistake.
This is easily done from the command-line. For our
example, we will use the following info:
• User Name .............. MICKEY
• Password ............... Disney4Minnie
NET USER Mickey Disney4Minnie /ADD
NET LOCALGROUP Administrators Mickey /ADD
This will add Mickey to the Administrators group.
Remember that Account names are NOT case sensitive,
but passwords are.
Be sure to give your backup Admin account a nice, strong
password with lots of mixed case, and extra characters.
Another thing for you to consider is to copy the setup
files from the CD to your local machine, and point to
it whenever the OS asks you for setup files. This is
faster than looking around for the CD and reading it
from your CD drive when necessary.
Many folks bring over their Win9x habits after they
upgrade to Win2K/XP. They install all sorts of apps
and utilities to keep the OS running smoothly. While
this was necessary to keep Win9x from periodically
imploding on itself, this is not the case with either
Windows 2000 or XP. I would definitely recommend
avoiding products like Norton SystemWorks, as I have
witnessed many problems on machines that were resolved
by simply removing the software altogether.
Additionally, many users of Windows 9x have gotten
into a habit of frequent (3-6 months) reformatting,
due to crappy software installations, or corrupt
registries, or inexplicable performance degradation.
This behavior is foreign to folks who are used to
NT. There is simply no need for being so familiar
with the FORMAT or FDISK commands. With simple, but
proper maintenance, you can keep your Windows 2000
and XP installations running at full steam for years
rather than mere months. On average, I completely
reinstall my OS approximately every 24-30 months.
If you're running Windows 2000 or 2003 Server, then
you'll want to make sure you install Terminal Services
(in Admin mode) to make remote administration a breeze.
The primary activities that constitute regular system
1. Service Packs & Patches
3. Disk Checks
5. Registry Cleaners
6. Disk Cleanup
SERVICE PACKS & PATCHES
Be sure to visit Windows Update regularly to find out
what patches and hotfixes are available for you system.
Check out the README file and any other documentation
prior to installing patches, even recommended ones. And
ALWAYS disable your AntiVirus software before installing
critical Service Packs (after scanning the download).
My policy for Service Packs and Hotfixes is to try to
stay as up to date as possible, after reading up on the
fixes, and possibly testing them on a spare system.
You should also occasionally check for newer firmware
for your motherboards and other peripherals, but my
procedure for dealing with firmware updates NOT related
to security products is to update only when problems
arise. LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE.
NTBACKUP is very robust, especially since it now backs
up to a file (rather than just tape). There are other
products that can be obtained if you want to backup to
removable storage such as CD/DVD. Even so, you should
make regular use of NTBACKUP to perform SystemState
backups, which will help you recover from serious
You will find that CHKDSK is all you need for checking
your drives. There's nothing that the 3rd party products
offer that is compelling vs the built-in tool. This is
especially true if you're using NTFS rather than FAT32.
There are many defragging tools available for 2000/XP,
including PerfectDisk and Diskeeper (from which the
built-in defragger is derived). The 3rd party tools
make it easy for you to schedule defrags based on
percentage of file/disk fragmentation, and can address
MFT and directory fragmentation as well.
When installing applications, make sure that you keep
track of what files and components are installed, and
what settings are made to the registry. This will help
you identify conflicts if any should arise.
I'm not that big on Registry Cleaners. It can be an
issue with other, Win9x/ME software, but it is far
less of an issue with Win2K or XP. If you must use
one, try the one from JV16.ORG and be sure to backup
your registry (or, better yet, SystemState) before
You should periodically clean out your temp files and
folders, as many programs leave things in there that
they shouldn't. You can use the Disk Cleanup feature
of Windows 2000 to handle this, or script it yourself.
If you choose to do it yourself, be sure not to do it
immediately after installing software that has asked
you to reboot "in order to complete the installation."
And don't schedule such deletes for right after your
system has booted up. Other than that, cleaning out
temp files once a week or once is month is not a bad
idea at all. This includes Internet Cache files, too.
SECURITY & SECURITY SCANNERS
Now that you've installed your system, you'll want to
ensure that your system is secure. There are a number
of vulnerability scanners that you can use, but a
free one is provided by Microsoft that is tied to the
Hotfix management tool.
You will want to consider 3rd party utilities for both
AntiVirus protection and Personal Firewall. XP does
come with Internet Connection Firewall (ICF), but it
only manages inbound traffic (not outbound), and is
not as flexible as many of the free alternatives.
I prefer the following products:
1. Kerio Personal Firewall
2. Tiny Personal Firewall (is no longer free)
3. SyGate Firewall
ZoneAlarm is a fan favorite, but I'm not fond of the
interface, and prefer the more precise controls of
the other products listed.
Among AntiVirus products, I favor AVG which is free,
and NOD32 which is not. In corporate environments,
Trend also gets my vote as a favored AV product.
THE PRINCIPLE OF LEAST PRIVILEDGE
Whenever possible, run with the least privileges
necessary to perform your tasks. This will minimize any
exposure you might have to malware...
CONFIGURATION & TWEAKING
While your first instinct might be to disable every OS
setting that you don't understand or think useful, it
might be a bit better to see how things work for a while
before launching into serious Tweak mode. Also, don't
make a whole lot of changes all at once, as it is harder
to troubleshoot problems that result from such changes,
and ALWAYS, always, always be sure to make backups
before changing things around.
The quest to save a few MB by disabling services has
often led to hours of troubleshooting. Get things
working BEFORE you make changes, and make sure that
you document what you alter. Just remember that one
of the strengths of the Windows platform is that 3rd
party software can make certain assumptions about
system defaults, based solely on version info. If you
make changes to the defaults, you may break 3rd party
Here are some good tools to use when changing your OS
GPEDIT.MSC (not in XP Home)
NOTE: It's a good practice to use NTBACKUP to perform
SystemState backups at least once per day. This
is true even if you have the SystemRestore feature
enabled. This is very easy to schedule.
Take the opportunity to configure the file system for
best performance, by disabling "Last Access Time", among
You'll also want to set a good sized pagefile, based on
your installed RAM and anticipated system usage patterns.
Finally, tweak the CMD console for maximum efficiency,
since the command line is your friend.
There are a number of advanced features offered by 2000
and XP, over their Win9x/ME cousins, including, but not
Robust Shell Scripting
Advanced NTFS Permissions and User Rights
Proper Domain Support
Encrypted File System
Remote Desktop (XP Pro only)
SMP (2000/XP Pro only)
The Help System is a good way to become acquainted with
these features and to start to make better use of your
OS. Learn to use the command shell as it will allow you
to perform many tasks faster than the GUI, to say nothing
of automating those tasks. The command line interface
(CLI) is king!
Here are the key things to check when troubleshooting
- Check the EventLogs
- Look at running processes
- Verify installed applications
- Check driver versions
- Jumper settings on your hard drive
- SCSI termination
By far, the most common issues which you will end
up troubleshooting involve permissions, bad software
installations, and/or self-inflicted registry tweaks.
When installing software, you should keep track of
changes made to your files and the registry. Apps
made specifically for 2000 and XP are more likely
to follow the guidelines for good behavior, but
many older Win9x apps act as though they expect to
be the only thing ever installed on a system. Be
careful what you install. (Use Tracking software)
The first place you will want to look when you begin
a troubleshooting episode, is the EventLogs. These
are the primary location for determining all that
goes on within the OS and applications. Again, apps
specifically written for NT/2000/XP will be more
diligent about writing to the EventLogs than apps
written for, and tested on, Win9x.
FDISK and FORMAT are not troubleshooting tools.
Don't be so quick to reinstall the OS as soon as
you encounter problems, or you'll never learn how
to troubleshoot or resolve any of the issues you
or others might encounter. And you will fail to
address the condition that could bring the problem
back in days or weeks.
One of the few real reasons to go with FDISK/FORMAT
is after a virus infection. It is advisable to start
afresh, rather than try and piece everything back
together, when there may be hidden backdoors put into
place by the virus.
WHITEPAPERS & TECH DOCUMENTS
• "REAL" Windows = NT, 2000, XP, 2003 and beyond.
• Upgrading from XP Home to XP Pro is pretty painless,
provided you disable AV software and other 3rd party
• I abhor Norton SystemWorks. Only products from
Computer Associates disturb me more...
• Whatever else you do, be sure to return your CPU and
any peripherals to stock speeds prior to installation
or reinstallation/repair -- Unless you like having a
• Whatever else you do, be sure to disable, or even
uninstall any AV software prior to installation or
reinstallation/repair -- Unless you like having a
• The HELP system in XP is greatly improved over
previous versions of Windows. If you're new to
Windows 2000 or XP you should definitely take a
tour and see what your new OS offers. It's very
different from Win9x/ME.
• If you want to control different access levels
for users of your machine, you really need XP Pro
as opposed to XP Home.
• XP Home is limited to 5 simultaneous inbound
connections, while XP Pro can support 10 simultaneous
• I heartily recommend XP Pro even for happy Win2K
users, and the new features add serious value --
particularly if you administer systems.
• Many of these guidelines apply to Windows.NET Server
• Bad RAM, insufficient cooling, overclocking and poor
drivers are the biggest contributors of flaky systems.
Also, the lack of clean power can be a factor with
system instability. Get a UPS with line conditioning.
• I continue to maintain that USB networking adapters of
any type are a bad idea. Perhaps they'll be less of
an issue when everyone is using USB v2.0, but for the
time being, the represent higher CPU utilization, and
more conflicts than PCI adapters.
• Be careful with tweaking. Make a full backup BEFORE
you start changing things around. Many a functional
system has been torched by indiscriminate tweaking,
especially by first-timers to a new OS.
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