Some of the best ways to optimize Windows is to just flat out turn off some the useless or unneeded services that run by default on every Windows base install. One such service is the Indexing service included in every install of Windows. it is probably one of the most useless services found running in the background of Windows and that is saying quite a lot if you ask me.
What is does is it indexes files as they are saved to your hard drive so when you search your drives the search can be completed faster. I find that very few people actually use this feature and to top it off I have tried multiple searches with and without this enabled and the difference is none or so small you will never see it if you do use that function. This service will however slow your machine down as every single file will be indexed as you save it to the hard drive. Stopping this service is a very highly encouraged optimization.
On how to stop this service you will need to click the start menu button found in the lower left part of your screen. Once you do that then click computer. You should enter Windows Explorer and be able to see your hard drive (s), any floppy and / or CD / DVD ROM drive (s) among others. Right click your hard drive (you may have more than one and this needs to be done to each) and click the properties option at the bottom of the pop up. On this pop up you will see a check box that has "Index this drive for faster searching". Uncheck this box and click apply. This can take a while, but is worth it. While you are on this page you can run disk cleanup to help with stuffed hard drives. This to can take a long time, but will help in long run.
Also while you have this pop up box open you may want to click the tab that says Tools at the top of it. On this new tab you have options to check your disks for errors, which can be helpful at times, and also to defragment your hard drive (s). Defragmenting your hard drive (s) is a common, very basic optimization that many people either forget about or never knew about. All Windows filesystems save files on the disk in clusters that are in sequential order. This is fine as long as you never delete a file, but that isn't realistic. Easy way to explain this is to take four files, lets give them names of A, B, and C for simplicity sake. File A takes up 3 spaces on the disk, B is next to it at 2 spaces and C occupies 5 spaces. If you delete file B and then save a new file such as D that would take up 3 spaces, Windows will delete B and fill in its spot with the first 2 parts of D and place the third part after file C. This forces the computer to read the first 2 parts of D and then move over C to read the next part decreasing read times and hurting overall performance of any program using file D. This is called fragmentation and can become a huge problem over the course of years or even months . This is why defragmenting your hard drive (s) is so important to system performance. This process will move all pieces of a file and place them next one another so they can be read much more efficiently.
Troubleshooting Windows can be as easy as using the built in help and support feature in Windows or by using Google to search the error message you got so you can find what others have done to correct the issue you are facing. Windows also has a recovery console if you have the original install disk, you just put it in and turn on the computer. Unless your BIOS has been altered it should either boot from the disk or ask you if want to. Each issue has its own way of being solved so a broad troubleshooting guide can not fit in this article.
There are many programs out there that offer a variety of services. Many are free and a few of those actually do what they say they will. Some of the best for some samples of each type are as follows:
SpyBot search and destroy- includes passive protection built into browsers
Ad-Aware-can be used in tandem with Spybot to catch more spy / malware
Virus protectors and scanners:
Avira-usually rated as a close second on free virus protectors and the one I use most often.
AVG-is usually in 3rd place, but has made a strive forward and is closing the gap.
Avast-has been the best free virus protector for a while and is rated better than most and equal to the best paid virus protectors out there.
Openoffice- can save files in Microsoft Office format if that is your thing so less worries on that side, but Sun Microsystems, which produces this free open source software, has been recently bought out by Oracle. This may endanger this project, I advise getting this software while it is still widely available.
Of course the usual of msn, yahoo, etc. etc.
Pidgin-Can be used to connect to all the most popular messenger system around from one program.
Lastly to be discussed here is the operating systems besides Windows. Most Windows converts have went to Apple's Operating System which is based off of the same unix kernal that bsd and linux are. I have seen many say Mac has more in common with the BSD OSs than with the linux ones as of late. If you haven't tried these operating system I can offer you some guidance here. Make sure you read some literature on each before you attempt to use these as this will save you a lot of headaches, also look at each ones forums and read what problems new users of each one are having as an idea of what you may be facing . Apple has been closing the gap on being able to run the same programs offered to Windows users and much of their software database is actually superior to Windows. I can't speak much on BSD as I have not had a lot of time to spend with it, but I can make a few suggestions on the linux side.
Linux has many different distros available, most even have a live CD you can download and burn for free with software like cdburnerxp and boot from. that way you can try out the software before you install to your hard drive. Ubuntu and Fedora are 2 that jump to the front of my mind when I think of linux. Ubuntu has made strides to be more convert friendly than Fedora, but that isn't to say Fedora is hard to learn. Both distros have matured a lot in last few years and are happy to live next to windows in a dual-boot environment of you so choose. Ubuntu is the more user friendly of the 2 while Fedora is more bleeding edge. I recommend trying both as live cds and making your mind up from there. If they are almost what you are looking for then take a look at www.distrowatch.com for links to other just as capable OSs.