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Clean out a junk-filled system tray

Boost your computer's performance by ditching unused icons.

The winner of the most bloated system tray award weighs in with 30 icons and counting. This month I'll tell you how to shake the system tray free of worthless items while retaining the essential ones.

The Hassle: Every time I boot up my XP Home system – which takes forever – heaps of icons appear in my system tray. I checked my Startup folder and, except for two items, it's empty. Where are these programs coming from?

The Fix: Your computer's definitely stressed. There are two issues. First, every time you boot, Windows has to load the programs or processes represented by some of those icons. Second, they're gobbling up resources and CPU cycles, slowing down your system. It's a safe bet that plenty of the items are useless.

Removing the junk from your system tray can be an exciting adventure – by comparison with emptying the dishwasher, at least. Determining what apps are loading behind the scenes is the easy part. Working out which ones you can remove is harder. WinPatrol Pro 9.8 (www.winpatrol.com) is a must-have tool.

WinPatrol works in two ways. First, when you install a program and it tries to add an icon to the tray at bootup, you get a warning – and a way to nip it in the bud. That's important for programs such as AOL, Apple's QuickTime and RealPlayer, all notorious for adding junk icons. WinPatrol enables you to stop programs such as Adobe Acrobat that insist on running useless, daily version-update checks – and it prevents programs from changing file extensions willy-nilly.

Second, WinPatrol gives you an easy way to comb through existing background-loading programs: its 'info' button provides basic details, including the company name, version and startup location – enough to help you figure out which entries are removable. The free version is good, but I strongly urge you to spend $25 (about £14) on the Pro version. Its comprehensive database gives you more details and specific recommendations for which programs to keep and which ones you should remove.

Quick tip: Rather than remove an entry, I use WinPatrol's Disable feature until I am sure that the entry is unnecessary.

WinPatrol removes tracking cookies, monitors services, watches Internet Explorer helpers and blocks Sony's annoying rootkit-style DRM (digital rights management) scheme.

By the way, if you want lots of programs running from the system tray, don't mind the clutter and are willing to spend some bucks, you can improve your PC's startup speed simply by adding more RAM. I maxed out my computer with 2GB and rarely experience resource issues.

Tool of the month: unclutter your desktop

I preach neatness, but my laptop's desktop is an unholy mess, with icons everywhere. That's fine with me – until I have to do a presentation and everyone gets a look at my disorderly desktop. My trick is to use an obscure feature built into Windows to temporarily hide my desktop icons. Right-click your desktop and uncheck Show Desktop Icons under Arrange Icons By. This tactic is ideal when I need to capture a screenshot of a dialog box and want a blank background.

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