I can't wait for Windows 8 to arrive, not really for the new features but because it's an excuse to start over with my computer, to lose all the crud that builds up over time to slow it down, crud that maybe software developers themselves could prevent.
In particular, I'm annoyed with all the programs that load themselves when I start my computer. They're like guests you invite over for a day who instead decide to move in permanently. Go home! Or don't come over again until you're invited!
I'm a longtime Windows user, and this problem has been around with the operating system for as long as I can remember. It may be a similar problem with the Mac, but for whatever reason, I don't notice it as much there. Suffice it to say, to the degree it happens on the Mac, I don't like that, either.
For this column, I'll focus on Windows as an example of the issue. Let's start with my task bar, shown over there on the right. This is the most easily accessible, visible reminder of programs that have decided they need to run all the time.
Some of these make sense. The cloud icon represents SkyDrive, Microsoft's service that allows me to automatically synchronize files on my computer with Microsoft's storage service. I do want that always running. But many of those other icons represent software that I don't need constantly on, and turning these off can be a challenge.
Saying no to auto-run, when you can
Those headphones in the task pane? They represents Google Music, which is always watching to see if I have new music on my computer that should be uploaded to the Google Music servers. I don't mind that this is always running. It's also easy to disable, if I want:
But others don't make it so easy. That icon in my task pane with two arrows? That's for Live Mesh, Microsoft's other file sync service that I used to use before SkyDrive. I no longer need Live Mesh, but I couldn't find any way to stop it loading at start-up within the program itself, other than to uninstall it entirely.
That little camera icon? That's the Adobe Photo Downloader, which installed itself as part of Photoshop Elements 6. I know, that's a way old program. I needed to dig it out recently for when I was experimenting with Photoshop Elements 10. But there was no easy way I could find to stop it from loading, not within the application itself.
Speaking of Photoshop Elements 10, installing that seemed to add that little red A icon to my task pane, the Adobe Application Manager. What's that all about? It's constantly checking for updates to Abobe applications.
Do I really need that running all the time? Why can't Abobe just check when I actually run one of my Adobe products to see if there's an update? As it turns out, it probably can:
The screenshot above shows how I can disable the Adobe Application Manager. It's nice that it does have this option. But "Notify me of new updates in the menu bar" doesn't clearly explain that the program will run each time Windows start. More important, why flip that on by default?
Not shown in the task pane is Zune, software that keeps launching without me asking it to. Digging into it, as best I can tell, it thinks my external hard drive is a device that requires waking it from its slumber at random points during the day. At least Zune has an option that I hope will prevent this from happening in the future:
Somewhat similarly, Motorola Mobility decided that it really needed to have MotoConnect software running all the time on my computer. I don't know that it was ever necessary when I did have a Motorola Android phone. As I don't have one now, I know I don't need it running. Unfortunately, the expanded task pane that lists it running doesn't allow me to prevent it loading at start-up:
I can hide the icon. Oh boy! But I can't just turn it off from the task pane. Wouldn't that be nice? Nor does the software have an off-switch. Instead, I had to uninstall it entirely.
There are plenty of other things running at start-up that I probably don't need. My favorite long standing tip for disabling unnecessary programs is to click Start, the scroll to the search box at the bottom of the Start menu and enter "msconfig" to launch the System Configuration window. Then, using the Startup tab, you can tick to prevent some programs from launching that might not show themselves in the task pane:
Look, there's Amazon Unbox Video deciding it really needed to run, even though I never need it. Tick, and it's off. You can do the same for other programs listed. The downside is that you really have to know what's essential or not when you do this. I wish Windows gave you better advice, but it doesn't.
Looking through the CNET archives, How to start Windows 7 faster mentions the Autoruns utility from Microsoft that sounds promising, especially when the utility itself promises the "most comprehensive knowledge of auto-starting locations of any startup monitor." But have a look:
That's just a sample of all it reveals. Comprehensive, yes. But it's also cryptic and not enlightening. Click on an entry, and you're taken to the Windows registry, which doesn't help you know if you're going to disable some essential program or not.
Of course, there's also the trusty Task Manager that can show all running processes in Windows. But I pity anyone who then goes to the Web to find out whether csrss.exe or disnoted.exe are essential processes or not. The first is from Microsoft, the second from Apple, and I've hit Web pages describing both as malware or Trojan software.
In the end, I come back to thinking developers themselves should really think twice before deciding that any process needs to run at start-up. I sure hope that Windows 8 provides some better control of the situation. And to the degree it's a problem on the Mac, here's hoping for the same solution.