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The Windows Experience Index

How well does your PC perform?

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The Windows Experience Index, showing Base and Subscores

The Windows Experience Index, showing Base and Subscores

The Windows Experience Index should be your first stop on the path to making your computer faster. The Windows Experience Index is a rating system that measures the various parts of your computer that affect performance; they include the processor, RAM, graphics capabilities and hard drive. Understanding the Index can help you sort out what actions to take to speed up your PC.

To get to the Windows Experience Index, go to Start/Control Panel/System and Security. Under the "System" category of that page, click "Check the Windows Experience Index." At that point, your computer will likely take a minute or two to examine your system, then present the results. A sample Index is shown here.

The Windows Experience Index displays two sets of numbers: an overall Base score, and five Subscores. The Base score, contrary to what you might think, is not an average of the subscores. It's simply a restating of your lowest overall subscore. It's the minimum performance capability of your computer. If your Base score is 2.0 or less, you have barely enough power to run Windows 7. A score of 3.0 is enough to let you get basic work done and run the Aero desktop, but not enough to do high-end games, video editing, and other intensive work. Scores in the 4.0 - 5.0 range are good enough for strong multitasking and higher-end work. Anything 6.0 or above is upper-level performance, pretty much allowing you to do anything you need with your computer.

Microsoft says that the Base score is a good indicator of how your computer will perform in general, but I think that's a bit misleading. For instance, my computer's Base score is 4.8, but that's because I don't have a high-end gaming-type graphics card installed. That's fine with me, since I'm not a gamer. For the things for which I use my computer, which mainly involve the other categories, it's more than capable.

Here's a quick description of the categories, and what you can do to make your computer perform better in each:

  • Processor: How fast your processor, the brain of your computer, can do stuff. It's measured in calculations per second; the more, the better. You can upgrade your computer's processor, but I don't recommend it. It's not easy or cheap, and can have unintended consequences. Unless you're a real pro, just live what you have here.

  • Memory (RAM): RAM is high-speed, temporary storage. For Windows 7 systems, I recommend a minimum of 2GB (gigabytes) RAM. This is the easiest and cheapest upgrade to do. If you have 1-2 GB, it would speed your system up considerably to move to 4GB. RAM isn't expensive anymore, and installing it is easy, even if you're not a geek.

  • Graphics: Windows calculates two categories here: Windows Aero performance and gaming graphics. Gaming and 3D graphics are much more extreme than needed for the typical user, so unless you do high-end (i.e. professional-level) video editing, computer-aided design, serious number-crunching or live for games like EverQuest, the Aero performance number is more important for you. This is the second-easiest upgrade to make. There are tons of PC graphics cards available in a multitude of price ranges and performance capabilities; installing them isn't hard either, although it generally takes a bit more work than slapping RAM in.

  • Primary hard disk: This is a measurement of how fast your hard drive moves data around (it is not a measure of how big your disk is). Again, faster is better, especially since hard drives are, these days, typically the slowest component involved in performance. Internal hard drives can be replaced, but it's not nearly as easy as replacing RAM or a graphics card, and can involve messing with jumpers, changing drive letters and other stuff not for the faint of heart. Putting in a new hard drive as your primary disk also means reinstalling your operating system, applications and data, so it's quite time-consuming as well.

If your computer performs badly in three or four areas of the Windows Experience Index, you may want to consider getting a new computer, rather than doing a lot of upgrades. In the end, it may not cost much more, and you'll get a PC with all the latest technology.

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