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Test & Boost Your PC's Performance

 Analysing how your PC works helps to identify problems and improve efficiency. Lets picks 13 of the best free monitoring tools.

Analyze and reduce your boot time using Soluto

The marvelous free start-up manager Soluto (www.soluto.com) not only tells you exactly how long your PC takes to boot, but also calculates the launch times of individual programs. This helps you identify the applications that are slowing you down, so you can disable them to speed up your start-up.

Install Soluto, then restart your computer and the tool will analyses your boot process. When it's finished, click the 'Learn more' option in the bottom left corner of your screen and choose Chop Boot. Here, you'll see information about the number of programs that run on start-up and the amount of time they are costing you.

Sluggish software that can be easily disabled with no detrimental effect to your PC is categorized under 'Nobrainer'. Important programs that can be run later, such as security tools, are dubbed 'Potentially removable (advanced users)', and essential system entries are marked as 'Cannot be removed with Soluto'. You can choose to pause an application (run it manually) or delay it (launch the program after your PC has started).

Once you've followed Solute's advice, which helpfully tells you how many other users have disabled the same program, restart your PC for a new and improved boot time.

Diagnose PC problems using iolo System Checkup

iolo's new System Checkup tool (http://bit.ly/iolo278) scans your PC for problems that may be affecting its performance. The free program runs nine tests that examine factors including memory levels, hard-disk corruption, security holes, Registry errors and junk files. Once the analysis is complete, your system will be given an overall rating and you can click the View Details button for more information. You can either deal with the detected issues yourself, by clearing out clutter and addressing security vulnerabilities, for example, or click the Fix Errors Now button to have System Checkup do the work for you. This costs a one-off payment of $9.95 (about £6.31).

 Use SpaceSniffer to identify disk-space hogs 

If you want to know which programs, files and folders are taking up the most hard-disk space on your PC, you can quickly find out using SpaceSniffer (http://bit.ly/space278). Run this free program and it will display your files as boxes proportional to their size, so the largest files will be represented by the largest boxes. Double-click an entry to zoom in and view more information, and right-click to open or delete the item. It's a great tool for making big files easy to spot and you're bound to find some you no longer need: we discovered a 1.8GB WAV file of a long-forgotten radio programme!

Other disk-space analyzers worth trying include WinDirStat (http://windirstat.info), which uses color-coded 'tree maps' to indicate different types of files on your hard disk, and JDiskReport (http://bit.ly/jdisk278), which uses pie charts.

Get information about any aspect of your system 

Need to know what make of graphics card or motherboard you have installed? Wondering how much memory or hard-disk space you have available? System Information for Windows (SIW, www.gtopala.com) will tell you the details in a jiffy. The program brings together a massive amount of information about your software, hardware and network, which would take you hours of digging around to uncover manually. You can export all or selected data from the software as an HTML or text file, and even reveal the passwords you use in Internet Explorer.

If you're looking for a simpler, less comprehensive system-information tool, we'd recommend Speccy (www.piriform.com/speccy), which describes itself as an electronic 'what's inside' sticker for your PC.

Monitor your system temperature

If the fans in your PC aren't working properly, or if your machine is in direct sunlight or too near a radiator. It could be at risk of overheating, which could damage its components and disk drive. The tiny free program SpeedFan (www.almico.com/sfdownload.php) measures the heat of your hard disk and motherboard and alerts you if they exceed a specified temperature (by default, this is 50°C). You can quickly check Speed Fan's latest readings by hovering your mouse over the number in your System Tray.

Speccy, mentioned in the previous tip, will also monitor the temperature of your hardware.

Find out which programs crash most frequently

If you use Windows 7 or Vista, you can use a built-in tool called the Reliability Monitor to see which programs cause the most problems on your PC by hanging or crashing. Go to Start, type 'perfmon /rel' (without the quotes) into the search box and press Enter. When the Reliability Monitor opens, select Weeks and click individual entries (a red circle with a white cross) in the graph line labeled Application Failures. This will display information below the graph about the number of times software stopped responding or working on your system. If a particular program, such as Internet Explorer or Adobe Reader, crops up again and again, you should consider switching to an alternative.

Track how long you use different programs for

If you're using particular programs on your PC for too long, Personal Activity Monitor (http://activitymonitor.codeplex.com) can help you identify the biggest timewasters and improve your productivity. This free tool sits in your System Tray, tracking the number of minutes you spend using different applications in a session and displaying the results as a graph. For example, if you're always browsing the web when you should be working in Word or Excel, Personal Activity Monitor will show you exactly how much time you've wasted. You can choose to track only your own PC habits, or those of everyone who uses your computer.

Track how long you spend on different sites

If you're worried that you're wasting hours every day on Facebook, or that you're not spending enough time on work-related websites, install the Chrome extension History Trends (http://bit.ly/history278). This analyses your entire browsing history to determine the domains you visit most every hour, day and month, so you can see which sites are regularly diverting your attention.

If you want more detail, the Chrome extension Time Tracker (http://bit.ly/time278) calculates exactly how long you spend at specific web addresses, and the percentage of time you were active there (judged by mouse movements).

An add-on with similar features and an almost identical name, TimeTracker, is available for Firefox (http://bit.ly/timefire278).