Windows 10 settings: When to fix and tweak, when to leave your PC alone
To tweak or not to tweak? That is the eternal question, especially for those who have years of experience with Windows PCs.
All that hands-on time is both a blessing and a curse, it turns out. As Windows has evolved, many of the tips, tricks, and secrets that were once essential for enhancing performance and reliability have become irrelevant.
And yet those lessons, once learned, are hard to unlearn. That’s particularly true when habits are based on traumatic experiences, like a failed BIOS update that bricked a Windows PC, or when your favorite system tweaks have been engraved into your memory like a pilot’s pre-flight checklist.
As Windows 10 has evolved over the past few years, I’ve been paying close attention to feedback from readers, and I’ve assembled this list of outdated ideas that are still stubbornly popular.
It’s OK to update your firmware
One of my most common recommendations for people upgrading to Windows 10 is to check for system firmware updates. This is especially important when you’re working with a system that was designed before the release of Windows 10 in 2015. As I learned from troubleshooting issues readers reported to me, several manufacturers released firmware updates in the months after that launch specifically to address upgrade issues.
The trouble is, too many people are absolutely petrified at the prospect of updating their system firmware. That’s especially true for people who’ve been using PCs for decades and who have terrible memories of “bricking” a PC with a BIOS update that goes wrong.
In the 1990s and 2000s, that was a legitimate concern, as BIOS code was stored in rewritable flash memory on the motherboard. On that type of PC, flashing the BIOS often required rebooting with an MS-DOS disk, and if the process didn’t go perfectly, you had to fuss with DIP switches on the motherboard and hope you could recover.
Modern PCs no longer use a BIOS, but instead start up using the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI). On UEFI-based PCs, the portion of firmware that’s hosted on the motherboard is relatively small and simple; its job is to find the EFI partition and load the UEFI code stored there, then find the boot loader.
Beginning with Windows 8 in 2012, Windows uses an update mechanism that delivers update packages to a known system location; the UEFI firmware then installs the update package on its own, after a restart. This architecture makes UEFI updates far more reliable than those old BIOS updates, with error-checking mechanisms that can roll back unsuccessful changes automatically.
The bottom line is that on all but the most ancient PCs, firmware updates are no longer to be feared. If they’re not delivered automatically via Windows Update, it’s worth checking the manufacturer’s support site for firmware updates before any major software update.
Don’t mess with the page file
Since its earliest days, Windows has used a page file (sometimes called a paging file*), a hidden file in the root of the system drive that caches pages of memory so they can be accessed quickly. In olden days, this hidden file was sometimes called the swap file**, and its primary purpose was to provide virtual memory so that apps didn’t crash when you ran out of physical memory.
On a clean install, Windows 10 sets the page file to be managed automatically. This is the best practice and I recommend that you leave that setting exactly where it is. To see your current settings, click in the search box or press Windows key + R to open the Run dialog box, and then enter the command systempropertiesperformance (with no spaces). That opens the Performance Options dialog box. Click the Advanced tab and then, in the Virtual Memory section, click Change to open the dialog box shown here.
By default, the option to automatically manage the page file (1) is selected. Clearing that check box gives you access to options to change the page file for the selected drive (2) and shows how much space is in use (3).
You can still find well-meaning but misguided online advice to tweak the page file in one of two ways: Some people argue that you can reclaim disk space by eliminating the page file completely (if, for example, you have 32 GB of physical memory and are unlikely to ever need virtual memory). Others recommend setting it to a fixed size, so that you don’t experience a performance hit when it automatically resizes itself.
Neither one is a good idea, for the simple reason that in the Windows 10 era, the role of the page file has evolved. In addition to enabling virtual memory, the page file provides a place for crash dump files, which are created when Windows experiences a Blue Screen of Death.
It’s possible to envision edge cases where tweaking the page file makes sense (hello, commenters!), but those examples are vanishingly rare.
* The official documentation at docs.microsoft.com, which was updated just a few weeks ago, calls it a page file; the Windows dialog box, which dates back more than 20 years, calls it a paging file.
** Because Microsoft loves confusing its customers, Windows 10 actually includes a tiny file called swapfile.sys. It holds pages of memory swapped from so-called modern apps and has nothing to do with the systemwide virtual memory settings. Although you can tweak a registry setting to manage this file, I cannot think of a reason why any rational person would want to do this.
Let defragging take care of itself
In the Dark Ages of the PC era, defragmenting a hard disk was one of the most important performance-enhancing tasks you could do to speed up your PC. The combination of a slow storage bus (relative to modern technology), slow rotating disk speeds (ditto), and dumb file systems meant that regularly rearranging the physical placement of files on the disk actually made a noticeable impact.
Over the years, two noteworthy things have happened in the Windows ecosystem. System storage has become dramatically faster, especially as solid state drives have replaced conventional hard disks, and Microsoft engineers have gotten better at automatically managing the data on all of those types of disks.
In Windows 10, the Defrag.exe command is now officially named Defragment and Optimize Drives. It runs automatically, as part of a scheduled task. On conventional hard disks, Defrag does what it has always done, rearranging data so that it can be retrieved most efficiently. On SSDs, where the traditional defragging activity doesn’t apply, running Defrag performs the Trim command, which wipes blocks of storage that are no longer in use and can be freed up for new data.
(The real old-timers in the audience will remember the MS-DOS Defrag utility, with its crude but mesmerizing Tetris-style display of colored blocks that shifted to represent files being defragged. The icon for the Defrag.exe command still includes those colorful blocks.)
To check the status of all currently available drives, type defrag in the search box and then click Defragment and Optimize Drives from the results list. The list of volumes displayed in the Optimize Drives window clearly indicates the media type and defrag/optimization status for each one.
Most importantly, all of this defragging and optimizing happens automatically. You can run the Defrag.exe command whenever you want, to inspect the status of every local disk and confirm that everything’s working as expected. But you shouldn’t need to manually intervene.
Uninstall your registry cleaner
This particular class of what I used to call “snake oil software” has declined in popularity in recent years. But it’s not dead yet, which is unfortunate.
The concept behind registry-cleaning tools is simple. It starts with the belief that the Windows registry is a chaotic kludge, and then leaps from that assumption to a belief that cleaning out unnecessary or unused registry entries can magically speed up everyday activities and prevent crashes.
Now, one can put forward all sorts of logical critiques of the Windows registry. It is indeed occasionally messy. But the idea that software can magically identify unneeded and unwanted entries in this configuration database is charmingly quaint. And the idea that you can improve performance by removing one or more registry entries that were left behind by a sloppy uninstaller is decidedly illogical.
I have never seen a registry cleaner that could justify its existence with actual data proving performance improvements. I have, on the other hand, seen multiple examples of PCs that were corrupted or crashed by aggressive “cleaning” that removed useful registry keys.
If someone offers you a registry cleaner, just say no.
Try not to obsess over telemetry
I hear much less about telemetry these days than I did a few years ago, when a handful of ill-informed commentators harvested truckloads of pageviews by scaremongering about Microsoft “spying” on PCs running Windows 10.
The reality is far more prosaic. Microsoft, like most software companies in our hyper-connected world, relies on a steady stream of data to determine how well its products are working. With more than 900 million PCs running Windows 10, having that data in real time is essential to identify problems in the ecosystem, especially those involving failures in the automatic update process.
To be fair, that initial burst of negative publicity did inspire some welcome transparency from Redmond. All of the information that’s collected as part of the telemetry process is now fully documented, and a Diagnostic Data Viewer app allows you to inspect all the data that’s being sent to Microsoft’s telemetry servers. For enterprise customers, Microsoft has even documented what it calls a Windows Restricted Traffic Limited Functionality Baseline to minimize connections from Windows to Microsoft services.
Along the way, Microsoft also simplified the settings for telemetry data. The default setting for all editions of Windows 10 is Full, which means that the uploaded data includes some anonymized details about app usage. If you are concerned about possible inadvertent leakage of personal information, you can go to Settings > Privacy > Feedback & diagnostics and change the Diagnostic And Usage Data setting to Basic.
That switch isn’t enough for some folks, who recommend a scorched-earth group of settings that disable telemetry-related services and tasks. Naturally, a cottage industry of small utility developers has sprung up to automate those settings, which can have a range of unfortunate side-effects, including blocking access to updates.
If you’re genuinely concerned about privacy, there’s a long list of settings to adjust and behaviors to modify, and telemetry data is pretty far down that list. For details, see my “Windows 10 privacy guide: How to take control.”
Do you have additional items to suggest for this list? Feel free to leave a comment below, or use the contact form (click the envelope icon next to my by-line) to send me a private message. If you want a reply, be sure to include your correct email address; that information isn’t used for any other purpose.