Are you getting "icon clutter" in your system tray? That's the small box-like area of the Windows Task Bar opposite the Windows Start Button. The Task Bar is the gray strip running along one side of the computer desktop, the background screen that appears after starting up the machine.
In a new computer, the system tray usually contains a clock and a few other small icons. After weeks or months, however, it may collect icons like dust. You may want to remove some of the system tray contents because those icons are more than an eyesore.
Some are programs running on your computer "in the background" - unseen and often without your knowledge. Those program often hog huge chunks of the precious random access memory (RAM) that determine a computer's speed and efficiency. Others are programs poised to run immediately.
The result can be sluggish operation, even though you have 64 megabytes (MB) or even 128 MB of RAM. RAM temporarily holds key program instructions and data from files currently in use are stored. It gives the computer's central processing unit (CPU) faster access to this material.
A computer with 64 MB of RAM will work faster and be able to have more files and programs open simultaneously than one with 32 MB. Each "active," or open program, however, gobbles up a chunk of the available RAM. Run enough programs, and RAM will be filled to capacity.
Every time you start the computer, programs automatically load parts of themselves into the RAM chips. That makes plenty of sense for frequently used programs, which will be ready to use immediately. Other programs must be constantly active to do their job. Antivirus software, for instance, must run constantly in order to detect and neutralize incoming viruses.
Computer owners usually have little voice in deciding what programs run in the background. Programs often give the order themselves, during the installation process. System tray icons collect as you install programs from diskettes and CD-ROMS and download programs from the Internet.
How can you stop unwanted programs from automatically running, free up some RAM, and boost your computer's performance?
Each of the icons in the system tray represents a program that is either running in the background or can be started quickly.
If your computer has plenty of memory, works fine, and you don't mind the icon clutter, leave it alone. However, there are several ways of stopping unwanted programs.
The easiest begins with a right click on a system tray icon to produce an option box. Look for the "quit" or "disable" option in the box.
If that approach fails, right click in the gray area of the Task Bar, select Properties, click on the Start Menu Programs Tab, click the Advanced button, double click on Programs in the left column, find Startup in the right column, and double click to get a list of the programs.
Right click on a program to get an options box. Select Properties and click on the two tabs in the resulting box for information about the program's function. If you're certain about stopping the program from automatically starting, select delete. If not, leave it alone.
More advanced users may try another stopper, which involves using the System Configuration Utility.
It can be reached through the Windows Start Button, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, System Information, System Configuration Utility. A click on the Startup tab shows programs that start up with the computer. Unchecking the boxes stops the program.
Don't unclick unless you know what the program does and are certain it's not essential for normal operation of the computer. Watch for a future column on using the configuration utility.
Michael Woods is The Blade's science editor.