System information tools: a tech guide

Few programs provide real insights into computer systems. We examine three tools that do more than scratch the surface, and show how they can be used to optimise hardware and software.

If you want to optimise your Windows system, you need the right tools for the job. With suitable software you can, for example, identify processes you don't need, determine if your hardware supplier has used the most appropriate RAM chips, or whether your graphics card uses a driver that supports Direct2D acceleration.

Everest Ultimate Edition
One of the most popular tools for exploring your system's inner workings is Everest (now renamed AIDA64 Extreme Edition), a shareware utility that provides deep insight into PC hardware and Windows software. This information can form the starting point for many optimisations. Some examples are given below.

Everest is an information tool that delivers deep and detailed insight into your Windows system. With a little experience, you can use this information in a variety of ways

Under 'Computer - Overclock' you can not only assess whether a computer reaches its maximum clock speed under full load, but also determine for how long. New CPUs equipped with a turbo mode such as Intel's Turbo Boost Technology often cannot sustain turbo mode in notebooks because of cooling issues.

Anyone who uses single-threaded video encoding software can test whether turbo mode is maintained over several hours or only for a few minutes. In this context, it's also worth checking the temperature values under 'Computer - Sensors'. If you can, test this before buying a new notebook.

Under 'Motherboard - Chip' you can check whether a dual-, triple- or quad-Channel-memory-controller actually works in optimal mode. If your computer is fitted with the wrong kind of RAM, the controller can often only use single-channel mode.

Everest lets you store all information in TXT, CSV- or HTML format, allowing different systems to be compared together.

Process Explorer
Process Explorer is part of Microsoft's Windows Sysinternals stable. This utility is intended to be a replacement for the Windows Task Manager, displaying information about processes in much more detail.

For example, Process Explorer gives all TCP and UDP connections a process view. In conjunction with a firewall, you can use this information to determine exactly how a program interacts with the internet.

Process Explorer, from Microsoft's Sysinternals collection, shows much detailed information than the default Windows Task Manager

If a file does not delete or open, Process Explorer's Find Handle or DLL function allows you to see which process is locking the file. Similarly, if you want to remove a USB stick and Windows' Safely Remove Hardware function merely reports that the stick is still in use, Process Explorer finds the exact process involved. If necessary, it can then be stopped.

Unlike Task Manager, Process Explorer lets you suspend a process temporarily. If a background job such as video encoding gets in the way, you can simply interrupt it for a while. Task Manager does let you assign a lower priority to a process, but if hard disk activity and CPU utilisation are high, it makes sense to stop the background activity.

You can test Process Explorer online by running it from Live.

Autoruns is another utility from Microsoft's Sysinternals stable. It provides detailed information on programs that are started automatically, without user intervention. Applications often invisibly install agents such as Updater and Quick Starter that keep the application up to date or help it to load faster.

Often, though, these programs are simply memory hogs that deliver no benefit. They also slow down Windows startup because they are loaded when the user logs on, whether or not they are required.

To keep an application up to date, it should be sufficient that it searches for updates each time it is started by the user. Software vendors should ignore Quick Starter, which automatically loads DLLs into main memory, because they cannot easily estimate whether a user runs the program daily or only occasionally.

With Autoruns you can disable undesirable software with one click

Autoruns has 17 ways to disable unwanted programs, including the Startup folder, the registry hive HKLM \ SOFTWARE \ Microsoft \ Windows \ CurrentVersion \ Run, start as a service, register as a Windows or Internet Explorer extension and schedule service.

Spyware and adware often use startup methods that are not available to application programs, such as LSA (Local Security Authority) Providers, which are designed for authentication purposes such as a fingerprint reader software.

Annoying autoruns can be disabled with one click. If it turns out later that the program is required, it can be reactivated with another click on the check box.


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