Here are a few practical tips for improving your computer's performance by using stock Windows utilities and a few programs you can download for free. Though the associated articles assume that you're running the latest version of Windows 7, many of them work just as well on older copies of Windows 7, Windows Vista, and even Windows XP. None of the optimization tips and tricks in this guide cost anything, so feel free to run them as often as you'd like to ensure that your computer runs lean and mean for as long as possible.

Of course the first step in optimizing your PC's performance is to figure out which programs are running and how heavily they're taxing your hardware at any given moment. Thankfully, Windows 7 comes with a slew of free utilities that you can use to pinpoint performance bottlenecks and uncover weak points like outdated driver software or missing Windows security patches. Uninstall unwanted programs and download the latest versions of your device drivers from the manufacturer's website to ensure that your hardware will deliver peak performance.

You should also keep an eye on your Windows Resource Monitor to confirm that your PC is running only the programs you need. You can temporarily shut down unwanted programs by using the free Windows Task Manager, but consult our detailed guide on how to use Task Manager to avoid accidentally shutting down system-critical programs. It's always a good idea to delete unwanted programs to maximize space, but many useful programs that you rarely use automatically start system-hogging processes, potentially bogging down your PC's performance. To minimize this problem, take advantage of free Windows utilities like MSConfig to disable Windows startup programs that you don't use every day.

Last, keep track of how efficiently your PC sends and receives data online. With the advent of broadband data caps, monitoring the amount of bandwidth your PC uses is more important than ever. You can find lots of great free utilities to help you stay on top of how much data you're exchanging, and we explain how to monitor your bandwidth using one of our favorites tools, BitMeter OS. BitMeter OS runs silently in the background while you surf the Web, gathering detailed records on how much information you upload and download, without paying attention to the content. Use it alongside the other free utilities mentioned here to wrangle peak performance from your PC.