Five secrets to faster Vista starts

The wise old men of mainstream tech journalism are once again repeating the conventional wisdom that Vista is slow to start up and slow to shut down. They're wrong. I provbed this with some tests last spring and I've just repeated the same tests with equal or better results. So what's the deal if you're experiencing slow startups and shutdowns with Vista? Chances are you're running into one (or more) of five specific issues. I've got the details here.

Oh, great. Here we go again.

The wise old men of mainstream tech journalism are once again repeating the conventional wisdom that Vista is slow to start up and slow to shut down. They're wrong. I proved this to my satisfaction last spring (see also the first and second parts in the series) with tests on three separate systems, and I've just repeated the tests on a new crop of Vista PCs to verify that there's no new problem. The results are the same or better, perhaps reflecting incremental improvements from the many reliability and performance updates since then.

In this post, I'll explain why they're wrong and show you how you can fix the problem if you encounter a slow startup.

The latest to repeat this accusation is the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, who slipped this doozy in his review of Leopard:

I compared a MacBook Pro laptop with Leopard preinstalled to a Sony Vaio laptop with Vista preinstalled. Even though I had cleared out all of the useless trial software Sony had placed on the Vaio, it still started up painfully slowly compared with the Leopard laptop.

It took the Vista machine nearly two minutes to perform a cold start and be ready to run, including connecting to my wireless network. The Leopard laptop was up, running and connected to the network in 38 seconds. In a test of restarting the two laptops after they had been running an email program, a Web browser and a word processor, the Sony with Vista took three minutes and 29 seconds, while the Apple running Leopard took one minute and five seconds.

Three minutes to start up? This is the same crappy Sony notebook that Mossberg was complaining about back in April, and it seems downright unfair to pick this one sluggish machine and continue using it as the benchmark. But whatever. Walt, if you're really interested in fixing this machine's slow startup times, keep reading. Or call me and I'll help walk you through it.

The other tech journalist to weigh in on the subject is my old pal Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle, who wrote this last month as part of a laundry list of 10 things he wants Microsoft to do to fix Vista:

Ed Bott disagrees with me, but Vista's startup and shutdown times are atrocious. Yes, in a clean, virgin state, these are snappier, but operating systems are meant to host applications, and if they bog down at startup or won't shut down properly because you've added programs, then something's wrong.

I scratched my head when I first read that. If your system bogs down after you add a program, it seems like that program might be the something that's wrong. Doesn't it?

But after reading these two columns, both written by journalists I trust, I thought, "What if I'm wrong? What if Vista really is slower?" So I turned my attention to five different systems here and found some fascinating results. On four of them, startup and shutdown times had indeed deteriorated. On one system, in fact, it was taking between a minimum of two and sometimes well over three minutes to get to the point where I could load a web page. That's not acceptable.

After a little troubleshooting, I had located and repaired the problem on each machine. And guess what? Every single one could be traced to a third-party hardware or software component. After making these (minor) repairs, performance is back to normal. On each system, I'm at a fully responsive desktop within a minute (in some cases much faster), and I'm fully connected to the Internet and able to load a web page in 90 seconds or less. If you're experiencing similar problems, here's where to check for problems:

1. Sluggish security software. I hate antivirus software. I hate all-in-one security solutions even more. As it turned out, the slowdown on two systems here was directly attributable to overvigilant security software. On a pair of notebooks, the time before full network access was available was being delayed by 15-60 seconds as file-system drivers and network filters loaded for AVG Antivirus and Avast. I also noticed that shutdowns were taking up to a minute on these two systems. When I replaced these two programs with Nod32 and Windows Live OneCare, respectively, the delays shrunk to 5 seconds or less at startup, and shutdowns returned to a normal 30 seconds or less.

2. Hardware. On one desktop system, I noticed that the hardware check was taking significantly longer than usual. A stopwatch revealed that it was taking 30 seconds more than expected for the Windows boot cycle to even begin. On a hunch, I disconnected an external USB drive attached to this PC and the delay went away immediately. The culprit, in this case, was a nonstandard partition at the beginning of this drive, which had been repurposed from a Dell system. When I removed that partition and reconnected the drive, the delay was gone.

3. Network connections. Do you have any persistent network connections? If so, make sure they're not interfering with startup. A correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous wrote to me reporting that he was seeing startup times of 3-5 minutes. After some troubleshooting, we found the issue. I'll let him explain:

I had checked a box so that Windows would automatically map a network drive upon startup, but I needed to use a VPN client to access that drive. In Windows XP, I would get an error at startup that windows was unable to reconnect, but it didn't extend the startup time (as far as I knew). I was getting the same error in Vista, but didn't realize that it was also slowing down startup. After I unchecked the box, the startup issue went away.

4. Craplets. In his complaints about that sluggish Sony, Walt Mossberg described removing the trial software that came pre-loaded on the machine, but he missed the much more insidious culprit. Notebooks in particular come with little applets designed to take advantage of common features such as wireless networking, power management, and data security. Most of those functions are already part of the operating system and work just fine via the Windows Mobility Center. On one notebook, preventing the Acer Empowering Technology toolbar from loading at startup shaved 45 seconds off the startup time. I never used this toolbar except once, out of curiosity, so no great loss. I'm willing to bet that's the problem with Walt Mossberg's Sony.

5. Browser add-ins. This was the biggest surprise of all. On my main notebook, an Asus Tablet PC, boot times were fine, and the network appeared to connect right away, but I experienced a frustrating delay of as much as 90 seconds getting to a web page for the first time after starting up. I was stumped, so I tried going to Internet Explorer's options dialog box and checking installed add-ins. After a bit of trial and error, I confirmed that two add-ins installed with Skype were the entire cause of the delay. Disabling them restored the system to full speed, with web access available almost as soon as I logged in after starting up.

And there you have it. In every case, I was able to identify a third-party cause for the problems I was encountering. Hardware, software, add-ins, or a configuration option. In every case, it was something I had done (or that the PC maker had done for me), and in every case I was able to undo the damage with some basic troubleshooting.

The moral of the story? The expandability of Windows PCs is a two-edged sword. Yes, those little add-ins and software programs can do marvelous things, but they can also wreak havoc. That's one reason I'm extraordinarily cautious about every piece of software I install.

And for those who think this is a Windows-only problem and that Apple is flawless in this regard, you might want to read this thread from the official Apple Mac OS X v10.5 Leopard support forums. Here's a small sampling of what real users are reporting after upgrading to Leopard:

"i upgraded to Leopard and I have found that the boot up takes about 10-20 seconds longer than it used to with Tiger..."

"Same symptoms here. Roughly 30 seconds longer to boot than tiger, and 45 seconds longer to shut down than tiger. "

"I just switched to Mac from Windows last month (Oct), and Tiger was lightning fast compared to my P4 Toshiba. But with Leopard, my boot and shut down times more than doubled..."

"...installed on my g4 1.42Gh iBook after running Diskwarrior on Tiger and repairing permissions. The system runs like a slug: I just did a restart and it took 5 minute and 10 seconds before it was fully booted. Also, repair permissions takes close to 10 minutes to complete."

"I was having the same problem after I upgraded my 17" MacBook Pro. It would take about 20 seconds to start up tiger but over two min in leopard."

"I've got a 4 year old 1.8GHz PowerPC G5 tower and whoa is there a startup problem! Literally takes 8-11 minutes (MINUTES!) to boot, and sounds like the fan is going into hyper speed. Was no problem before I installed Leopard. Just did the update to 10.5.1, no improvement."

"I have the same problem a pale blue screen and quite a long time till I get my log in screen. And my hard drive sounds like it's in overdrive on my Mac pro."

My point? The wrong combination of hardware and software can turn any PC or Mac into a slow starter. On either platform, you don't have to accept it.