How to keep your machine faster for longer.
I’d wager that the number one cause of system slowdowns, stability issues, disk-space loss, unexpected behavior, and even malware is the software we invite onto our machine.
Installing software safely is all about taking a few steps to minimize the impact of what we’re about to do.
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Installing software safely
Don’t install it if you don’t have to.
Test somewhere unimportant if you can.
Always choose custom or advanced installation options.
Turn off options you don’t need, including automatically starting when you sign in to Windows.
Avoid it if you can
My number one recommendation for keeping your machine clear of cruft is to carefully consider whether you need it before installing anything.
I’m not talking about updates; you want them. I’m talking about new programs, add-ons, plugins, and other things that vie for our attention and play on our curiosity.
I’m also not saying to never install anything. That defeats the purpose of having a computer.
What I am suggesting is to think about whether you really need whatever you’re about to install. Is it something you’ll actually use, or is this idle curiosity? Do you understand why someone or something is even suggesting you install some random tool you’ve never heard of? If you’re ever not sure, just wait until you find out more. You can always install something later if you find you have a need for whatever it is.
But remember: a program that’s not installed can do you no harm.
Test somewhere else
Sometimes, we just don’t know if the software we’re looking at is worthwhile. In fact, we won’t know until we actually try it out. Perhaps it’s a trial version, or it’s just a package we’re installing because we really need to play with it a bit before we decide.
This happens to me all the time.
One approach is to use a “sacrificial machine” — one that you don’t really care about or isn’t particularly important.
If you don’t have a second machine available for that, another solid approach is to use a virtual machine. This is nothing more than a software simulation of a PC that runs in a window on your desktop. I have several virtual machines I’ve set up on my main desktop machine: one each for my example copies of Windows 10 and 11. When it’s running, it’s like having a completely separate PC, except it’s running on my single desktop.
Testing your software elsewhere avoids any negative side effects on the machine you do care about. Once you determine the software is going to be useful, you can then install it “for real” on your main machine. That test or virtual machine can be left alone, reformatted, restored from a backup, or completely discarded.
Of course, if you decide the software is not what you had in mind, you’ve come to that conclusion without putting your most important machine at risk.
Choose custom installation — always
To be helpful and install software with the most appropriate set of optional components, many setup programs offer you a default installation. This is a set of decisions made for you that install the application in a ready-to-go configuration. It’s an easy way to get software installed quickly without needing to understand obscure details.
Unfortunately, the default choice is often the wrong choice.
Many software vendors, particularly those whose products are free, include unrelated additions in their default installations. That often comes as additional extensions appearing in your web browser, but this “foistware” (as it’s sometimes referred to) runs a range from benign to downright malicious.
The only way to avoid it is to select the “Advanced” or “Custom” option, if offered, during setup. That should expose all the optional choices you have, including whether to accept the unrelated software you probably don’t need.
Un-check options you don’t need
Many software installers — particularly for larger packages — include an array of options that allow you to pick what parts of the product you want installed on your machine. Choosing the custom installation option reveals those options to you.
Regardless of what you’re installing, if there are options, it’s worth seeing whether you need them. If not, un-select them so they’re not installed. Not only does this reduce the amount of disk space the install will take, but it typically reduces the impact on system resources and the number of components that may need to be updated in the future.
Opt out of unrelated options
As mentioned earlier, software packages often include components that aren’t even a part of the software you’re installing. Typically, this is a source of additional revenue for the software vendor, but it simply adds confusion and unnecessary software to your machine.
The most common additional and unrelated items are things like extensions or limited trials of more powerful paid versions of the free software you’re installing.
Opt out. Just say no. Or at least make it a decision on your part that you actually want whatever is being offered.
Saying no will keep your machine cleaner and your experience less frustrating.
“Start when Windows starts” isn’t always needed
Many programs install components that start running every time you reboot or log in to Windows.
In some cases, it’s the right thing to do. For example, you want your anti-malware tools to always run without having to think about them, so having them start when Windows starts is clearly a good choice.
At the other end of the spectrum are utilities that just don’t need to run until you need them — yet the developers who created the installer feel their program is just so important that it must run always and as soon as possible.
Many programs are somewhere in the middle.
When you encounter a setup option related to automatically starting, think twice. If used often, it makes sense that they start automatically, but if used only occasionally, it makes more sense to free up the resources and speed up boot time by only starting them when actually needed.
It’s also worth reviewing the options or preferences settings for programs you already have installed. Sometimes the “start with Windows” option is buried there.
I’ve presented a few recommendations for installing software to keep your machine running clean and fast.
- Don’t install software unless you know you need it.
- When testing software for fit, try to do so on something other than your most important machine.
- Always choose the “Custom” or “Advanced” installation option to see all your choices.
- Uncheck options you don’t want or need.
- Uncheck options unrelated to the software you’re installing.
- Think carefully about whether the software needs to start with Windows, if that’s an option.
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