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Windows XP Power Hound by Preston Gralla

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Chapter 1. Getting Started

There’s more to getting started with Windows XP than just turning on your computer. With XP, the most stable and customizable version of Windows developed so far, you can tweak pretty much every aspect of how your computer looks, starts up, and shuts down—plus a whole lot in between.

The hints in this chapter help you get more out of Windows XP’s most basic functions.

Startup and Shutdown

Start up and shut down faster, get yourself a new startup splash screen, and get rid of useless error messages. After you read the hints in this section, you’ll never again settle for sitting down at your PC and fumbling for the On button.

Instant Startup

Windows XP seems to take a few light years to start up. Happily, you can change that. The secret? Don’t shut down your computer. Instead, put it on Stand By, a kind of deep freeze your PC can recover from almost instantly. A nice bonus of Stand By is that you can leave your programs running—meaning they’re standing at attention when you pull your computer out of hypnosis.

To invoke this handy trance, choose Start Turn Off Computer Stand By (instead of Start Turn Off Computer Turn Off). In Stand By mode, your computer appears to be turned off, but in fact uses a trickle of power to stay just barely on (the system stores everything in its short-term memory, or RAM). Then, when you use your mouse or keyboard, it springs to life almost instantly rather than going through the normally lengthy startup procedure.

Note

Don’t use the Stand By method all the time. When Windows XP shuts down and starts up again, it does various bits of housekeeping that keep it running smoothly—like cleaning out its memory. But it can’t perform those chores when your PC is just Standing By, so over time your machine can slow down dramatically. The solution? Every few times, shut your computer down completely.

Instant Startup for Laptops

The downside to Stand By mode is that even though it uses just a smidgen of power, it does continue to suck power. If you use a laptop, leaving it in Stand By for more than 20 minutes or so can dribble you into oblivion. In these cases, set your computer to Hibernate. It’ll take your computer a little longer to wake up from Hibernate, but this mode draws considerably less power.

To put your computer in this hibernation state, choose Start Turn Off Computer as you normally would. Then, when the shut down dialog box opens, press Shift to change the Stand By button to a Hibernate button (Figure 1-1). Click it, and your computer appears to go to sleep.

To wake your computer up, press the power button—merely jiggling the mouse or pressing a key doesn’t do the trick.

Tip

If you have a laptop, you can set Windows XP to automatically slip into Stand By or Hibernate mode when you shut the lid—a nice way to bypass the Start menu altogether when you want to grab your computer and run to a meeting or class on another floor. Choose Start Control Panel Power Options, and then click the Advanced tab. Under “Power buttons,” the first choice is “When I close the lid of my portable computer”; use the menu to choose Stand By or Hibernate. If your laptop resists slipping into Stand By, see hint Section 10.2.2.

Left: The Stand By button changes to a Hibernate button (right) when you press Shift. Right: To use hibernation, you need a little room on your hard disk because that’s where Windows XP stores everything you want to leave open. To find out whether you’ve got the room, choose Start → Control Panel → Power Options, then click the Hibernate tab—which has a “Disk space for hibernation” section that does the math for you.
Figure 1-1. Left: The Stand By button changes to a Hibernate button (right) when you press Shift. Right: To use hibernation, you need a little room on your hard disk because that’s where Windows XP stores everything you want to leave open. To find out whether you’ve got the room, choose Start Control Panel Power Options, then click the Hibernate tab—which has a “Disk space for hibernation” section that does the math for you.

Note

Like Stand By, Hibernate does not run your computer through its normal regime of startup/shutdown exercises. If your machine doesn’t go through its paces every few days, it can accumulate gunk in the memory that slows it down. Avoid this irritating sluggishness by doing a full-blown shutdown a couple of times a week.

Nixing the Startup Screen

Every time you start up your PC, Windows XP puts a screen in front of your face that serves no purpose other than giving Microsoft extra advertising. You can easily make this splash screen history by using a little-known Windows XP feature called the System Configuration Utility.

Although hiding this screen won’t hasten your PC’s start up time, killing the ad can make your morning routine a tad less heraldic. Here’s how.

Click the Start button, and then choose Run. In the blank box that appears, type msconfig and then press Enter. When the System Configuration Utility opens, choose the BOOT.INI tab, and then select NOGUIBOOT, as shown in Figure 1-2. Click OK or Apply. A little box pops up asking if you want to restart your computer now, for the changes to take effect immediately, or later. Click “Exit without Restart” if you want to wait. The next time you turn on your PC, the startup routine is pleasingly splash-free.

Note

You can also make this change from the command line, a separate window that lets you type commands directly to the operating system, without using menus or the normal interface.

Stopping the Windows XP splash screen from loading on startup is only one of the many ways the System Configuration Utility can help you take control of Windows XP. Sidebar 1-1 explains more about making changes in BOOT.INI, and Section 11.1.5 gives the lowdown on using the Services and Startup tabs to take charge of your operating system.
Figure 1-2. Stopping the Windows XP splash screen from loading on startup is only one of the many ways the System Configuration Utility can help you take control of Windows XP. Sidebar 1-1 explains more about making changes in BOOT.INI, and Section 11.1.5 gives the lowdown on using the Services and Startup tabs to take charge of your operating system.

Changing the Startup Screen

The previous hint told you how to nix the startup screen. But if a blank screen is too minimalist for your taste, you can add a picture instead. BootXP, available from http://www.bootxp.net, lets you choose from hundreds of pics available online, or it can help create your own. Here’s how to use it to change your startup screen.

Note

BootXP is shareware, which means you can try it out for free. If you keep using it, there’s a $7.95 fee.

  1. Download, install, and run the program.

    When you run BootXP, it starts by asking where you want to store your boot screens. The program comes set to create My Computer C: WINDOWS Resources Bootscreens. Unless you can think of a better place to keep them, click OK to confirm this folder and let BootXP finish launching. Don’t be put off if the interface looks confusing at first—it’s not that tough to use.

  2. Select the Your Boot Screens tab.

    If you have any graphics or boot screens in My Computer C: WINDOWS Resources Bootscreens, the program displays a list of them.

    If you don’t have any boot screens stored, click the Get Boot Screens button to have BootXP search several Web sites that have downloadable boot screens. (If you find any you like, make sure to download them to My Computer C: Windows Resources Bootscreens.)

    Note

    You can also create screens from scratch using a graphics program. Put them in Windows Resources Bootscreens, and then, when you open them in BootXP and click Convert To Boot Screen, BootXP converts them to the format Windows XP requires: 640 × 480 pixels and 16 colors.

  3. To choose a new boot screen, click the file in the list, and then from the selection screen that appears, click OK.

    As in Figure 1-3, the program shows the graphic you’ve chosen on the left side of the screen, and how it looks as a boot screen on the right.

    When you preview your boot screen using BootXP, the graphic may appear somewhat distorted. For a clearer view, click Preview Boot Screen. When previewing your boot screen, press Alt-Enter to see the boot screen full size, exactly as it will appear when your PC is starting up. Press Alt-Enter again to get back to the smaller size. You can also export your boot screen as a graphic in .bmp format so you can use it in other ways. To do that, click Export Boot Screen as BMP in the bottom right corner of the screen.
    Figure 1-3. When you preview your boot screen using BootXP, the graphic may appear somewhat distorted. For a clearer view, click Preview Boot Screen. When previewing your boot screen, press Alt-Enter to see the boot screen full size, exactly as it will appear when your PC is starting up. Press Alt-Enter again to get back to the smaller size. You can also export your boot screen as a graphic in .bmp format so you can use it in other ways. To do that, click Export Boot Screen as BMP in the bottom right corner of the screen.
  4. To confirm this is the boot screen you want, click the Set As Your Boot Screen button.

    That’s it. You’ve now got yourself a shiny new startup picture.

Good Housekeeping for Speedier Startups

If you’re tired of waiting...and waiting...and waiting while Windows XP starts up, you’re in good company. But you can leave the unwashed masses behind by running boot defragment, a process that puts all the startup files next to each other on your hard drive, thereby helping the operating system start up more quickly. Defragmenting may speed the startup process by five seconds or more depending upon how badly your boot files are scattered all over your hard drive.

On most computers, boot defrag—as geeks call it—comes turned on, so every time you defragment your hard disk by choosing Start All Programs Accessories System Tools Disk Defragmenter, your boot files get defragmented along with all the other files. Defragment your drive once a month for best performance.

But what if you’re flossing regularly and you’re still molding over waiting for your computer to boot up? If you’ve inadvertently turned off boot defrag, you can run the Disk Defragmenter until the cows come home and see no startup benefit. To make sure boot defrag runs every time you defragment your system:

  1. Run the Registry Editor.

    For information about how to run and use the Registry Editor, see Section 15.1.2.

  2. Go to My Computer HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE SOFTWARE Microsoft Dfrg BootOptimizeFunction.

    This is the Registry key that controls how the Windows XP defragmentation process works.

  3. Change the Enable string value to Y if it is not already set to Y .

    If for some reason the Enable value isn’t present, create it as a new string value.

  4. Exit the Registry and reboot.

    From now on, whenever you run the Disk Defragmenter, it makes sure your boot files are all in one place.

Tip

For more powerful defragmentating options, see Sidebar 1-2.

Killing the Error Messenger

Windows XP likes to keep you apprised of problems on your system by popping up messages when if finds something wrong—a nice service. But nothing’s more annoying than getting the same error message every time you start the computer, especially if you have no way to fix the problem (say you improperly installed some software or inadvertently disabled a driver nine months ago). Luckily, you can quash these error messages before they appear.

Note

When you turn off error messages that display on startup, you’re disabling all startup error messages, not only those you’d prefer not to see. So if you turn them off, you risk missing important Windows XP error messages.

To kill error messages: Launch the Registry Editor (Section 15.1.2), and go to My Computer HKEY LOCAL MACHINE SYSTEM CurrentControlSet Control Windows. Create a new DWORD called NoPopupsOnBoot and give it a value of 1. Exit the Registry and reboot. Error messages will bedevil you no longer.

Customizing Your Startup Process

Hidden on your PC are startup folders that tell your computer to launch certain programs every time you turn it on. Every account has its own startup folder, and the system has a common folder, too. The cool thing about these folders is that you can use them to customize how your PC greets you.

For example, if you want your email program to open automatically when you turn on your computer, startup folders are the place to turn.

You can find the common startup folder by opening Windows Explorer and choosing My Computer C: Documents and Settings All Users Start Menu Programs Startup. Individual startup folders live at Documents and Settings [Your Account Name] Start Menu Programs Startup; [Your Account Name] is whoever is currently logged in.

To prevent programs in either folder from running automatically, simply delete their shortcuts. (In Windows Explorer, you can spot shortcut icons by the label “shortcut” next to them.)

To force a program to run automatically when you start up the computer, you can add a shortcut to one of these startup folders. In Windows Explorer, find the executable file for the program you want to add to your startup process. (An executable is the file that launches a program, identified with the extension .exe; for example, word.exe for Microsoft Word.) To locate the executable file you want, right-click the program icon on the Windows desktop and choose Properties from the shortcut menu. The name and location of the executable file appear in the Target box. Now that you’ve got your executable file at the ready, drag it to the startup folder you want to customize. Once you’ve put the executable file in the startup folder, Windows automatically creates a shortcut and launches the program when you boot up.

Tip

If you’re having startup problems and you want to determine whether any of your startup programs are to blame, you can have Windows ignore those programs when you boot—without deleting their shortcuts from the startup folder. That way, you don’t have to waste your time deleting and then recreating the shortcuts.

Here’s how: When you log in, type your account name and password in the logon box, and then press Shift as you click OK—and continue to hold down Shift until the desktop appears. When you follow this procedure, Windows XP doesn’t run any programs in your startup folders, but it doesn’t delete them either. They’ll run as usual the next time you boot up. For more on this Safe Mode, see Section 13.1.6.

Automating Reboots and Shutdowns

Rebooting or shutting down your PC should be quick and painless. But in Windows XP, you have to go through several clicks and menu choices and manually shut down programs that are running. Rome was built in less time than it takes to turn off your computer.

But relief is at hand: You can create reboot or shutdown shortcuts to perform the routine for you. Once you’ve got the shortcut icons on your desktop, all you have to do is double-click one to have the computer shut itself down. For maximum efficiency, create a shortcut that reboots your computer (to restart it if your system crashes, for example) and another that shuts it down.

Here’s how to create a shutdown icon:

  1. Right-click your desktop, and in the menu that appears, choose New Shortcut.

    A wizard appears asking you to fill in the location of the item.

  2. Type the command shutdown, but don’t press Enter. Instead, follow the command with a space and one of several switches.

    A switch is a letter that follows a command and customizes how the command works. Here’s a list of the switches you can use with the shutdown command. Note that you can use more than one, in any combination.

    • -s. Shuts down the PC. Use when you want to do a basic system shutdown.

    • -l. Logs off the current account. Use when you don’t want to turn off your computer, but you want to log out of the current account quickly.

    • -t nn. Indicates the amount of delay, in seconds, before the shutdown begins. So if you want to delay it for 10 seconds, you would use -t 10. Use when you don’t want an immediate shutdown, but instead want the shutdown process to start after a few seconds. That way, you have a chance to close any open programs before the system shuts down.

    • -c "messagetext“. Displays a message in the System Shutdown window. You can use a maximum of 127 characters, but you have to enclose the message in quotation marks. Use if you want to issue a warning to anyone using the computer that the system is about to shut down, like “Hasta la vista, baby!”

    • -f. Forces any running applications to shut down (safely). That way, you won’t have to close them yourself.

  3. For example, shutdown -r -t 01 -c “Rebooting your PC" reboots your PC after a one-second delay and displays the message, “Rebooting your PC."

    Type in your command and switches, and then click Next.

  4. Type a name for the shortcut, and then click Finish.

    A good name might be Shutdown, or Log Off and Reboot.

That’s it. Your shortcut is ready to roll.

Speedier Shutdown Times

If your computer takes its sweet time turning off, you can easily goose the shutdown process.

One reason it takes so long for Windows XP to shut down is that it waits for any open programs and services (see Sidebar 1-4) to call it a day before turning itself off. If you think you don’t have any programs running, think again—they’re just invisible, or what geeks call running in the background.

Things get sluggish when Windows tells a task to shut down but the task doesn’t respond, leading Windows to wait politely for 20 seconds before forcing the task to end. You can speed things up by shortening the amount of time Windows XP waits. To do so, run the Registry Editor (Section 15.1.2) and then:

  1. Go to My Computer HKEY_CURRENT_USER Control Panel Desktop.

  2. Edit the WaitToKillAppTime value.

    This value controls the amount of time that Windows waits, in milliseconds, before closing a program that isn’t responding. The value comes set at 20000, which is 20 seconds. Put in a smaller value, such as 10000 or 5000.

  3. Edit the HungAppTimeout value, which does essentially the same thing as WaitToKillAppTime.

    Again, the preset value is 20000. Enter the same number here that you entered for WaitToKillAppTime.

  4. Go to My Computer HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE SYSTEM CurrentControlSet Control.

    Edit the WaitToKillServiceTimeout value, which controls the amount of time that Windows waits, in milliseconds, before closing a service that isn’t responding. It should be set to 20000. Put in the same value that you entered for HungAppTimeout.

  5. When you’re done editing, exit the Registry.

    You have to reboot in order for the new settings to take effect.

Other Software that Can Control Startups and Shutdowns

Windows XP gives you some control over how your system starts up and shuts down. But if you want to do detailed things, like scheduling shutdowns, third-party software is the way to go. Here are a few programs you can download:

  • For full startup management, you can’t do better than Advanced StartUp Manager. This program is best for creating different startup profiles, which optimize your PC for certain tasks when you turn it on. You can, for example, customize a startup profile for the times you’re mostly using the Internet, and another for when you’re working in a graphics program. For Internet sessions, you can have programs like instant messengers and audio and video players launch automatically, ready when you are. On the other hand, if you need to run a graphics program, you might want to have very few programs running, so your system can devote resources to your graphics program. Advanced StartUp Manager is shareware and free to try; it’s $19.95 if you decide to continue using it. Get it from http://www.rayslab.com.

  • For a less powerful (but free) program, try Startup Control Panel . This small program, which runs via the Control Panel, lets you decide which programs Windows XP runs on startup the next time you boot your PC. (It controls which programs start only the next time, not every time after that.) You can download it from http://www.mlin.net.

  • To better handle shutdowns, try Switch Off. This free utility runs in your system tray where it’s easily accessible and lets you schedule things like shutdowns, restarts, disconnecting your dialup connection, and locking your workstation. It’s free and available from http://yasoft.km.ru/eng/switchoff.

Controlling Your Monitor and Sounds

You spend half your life looking at and listening to your computer. Why settle for lame displays and cacophonous sounds? This section reveals stunning monitor and sound tricks that most people don’t even know about. Some are just for fun (like building a customized startup sound), while others are powerful work tools (like attaching additional monitors).

Insta-Mute

Here’s a quiz: You’re blasting the latest Yeah Yeah Yeahs CD or your favorite Internet radio station when your phone rings. (You can’t hear the phone, but you can see it flashing.) What do you do?

Answer: In the system tray (also known as the notification area), which is in the far right corner of the taskbar at the bottom your screen, click the volume icon—the small, round icon that looks like a speaker. A dialog box, shown in Figure 1-4, appears. When you choose Mute, the sound stops immediately.

To mute sounds and music, choose Mute. You can also increase or decrease the volume by dragging the slider up or down.
Figure 1-4. To mute sounds and music, choose Mute. You can also increase or decrease the volume by dragging the slider up or down.

The Silence of the Modem

If you’re not a big fan of the squeaks, beeps, and static you hear whenever your phone modem dials, you can nix the screeching. Choose Start Control Panel Printers and Other Hardware Phone and Modem (alternatively, at the command prompt or in the Run box, type telephon.cpl and then press Enter). In the dialog box that appears, choose Modems Properties Modem, and then drag the slider in the “Speaker volume” area to Off, as shown in Figure 1-5. Click OK until you’re out of the dialog box. The next time you use your modem, you’re greeted by blessed silence.

Personalizing Your PC’s Sounds

Windows XP plays washy, electronic noises when it wants to alert you to things like the arrival of email or the intrusion of an error message. Who needs more tinny beeps in life? Instead, you can swap in, say, your dog’s woof for new email or your mother’s voice for errors.

You can easily add any sound you like, as long as your PC has a built-in microphone. Most PCs made in the last several years have them, and if yours doesn’t, you can buy a cheap plug-in mic at any electronics store.

When it comes to modem volume, you have two choices: On or Off. If you want to make the modem sounds quieter or louder, you can use the slider that controls the overall sound in Windows XP.
Figure 1-5. When it comes to modem volume, you have two choices: On or Off. If you want to make the modem sounds quieter or louder, you can use the slider that controls the overall sound in Windows XP.

Here’s how to record and add a new sound. If you already have a sound you want to use, and it’s saved as a .wav file, skip down to step 4.

Tip

You can download sounds from the Internet—just make sure they’re .wav files. http://www.wavcentral.com is a great place to find them.

  1. Open the Sound Recorder by choosing Start All Programs Accessories Sound Recorder.

    Figure 1-6 shows the Sound Recorder.

    Tip

    For a quicker way to get to the Sounds and Audio Devices Properties dialog box, at the command prompt or in the Run box, type mmsys.cpl and then press Enter.

  2. Click the Record button, record your sound clip, and when you’re done, click the Stop button.

    Speak (or bark) in a normal tone of voice, about six inches from the microphone. Remember to keep the clip short, because you don’t want to endure a long clip every time you get new email, for example. A few seconds is plenty.

    When you’re recording, Windows tells you how many seconds the sound will last. This clip will be a looong startup sound, as Sound Recorder shows that it’s already at 60 seconds.
    Figure 1-6. When you’re recording, Windows tells you how many seconds the sound will last. This clip will be a looong startup sound, as Sound Recorder shows that it’s already at 60 seconds.
  3. Choose File Save and save the file to a folder or your desktop.

    Note the location and the file name (it ends in .wav). Exit the Sound Recorder.

  4. Now tell Windows XP to use your new sound when you start your PC.

    The Sounds and Audio Devices Properties dialog box doesn’t limit you to changing the Start Windows sound. While only those events with a small speaker next to them already have associated sounds, you can make Windows XP play sounds for any event, and you can change the existing sounds. Highlight an event, then browse for and select a sound the same way you customized the Start Windows sound.
    Figure 1-7. The Sounds and Audio Devices Properties dialog box doesn’t limit you to changing the Start Windows sound. While only those events with a small speaker next to them already have associated sounds, you can make Windows XP play sounds for any event, and you can change the existing sounds. Highlight an event, then browse for and select a sound the same way you customized the Start Windows sound.

    To do so, choose Start Control Panel Sounds, Speech, and Audio Devices Sounds and Audio Devices. On the Sounds and Audio Devices Properties dialog box that appears, click the Sounds tab. In the “Program events” list, shown in Figure 1-7, select Start Windows—or whatever event you want to associate with your sound.

    Click Browse and locate the .wav file you just recorded (or the existing file you want to use). Select it and click OK. When the Sounds and Audio Devices Properties dialog box appears again, click OK.

  5. Restart Windows.

    When it starts up again, it greets you with the sound you recorded.

Building Sound Themes

In the previous hint you learned how to customize an individual sound. But you can build entire sound themes (groups of related system sounds), and you can even switch among themes as the mood strikes you. This trick’s just for fun—don’t expect it to boost your productivity.

To build a sound theme:

  1. Record as many sounds as you want to include in your theme.

    Follow the steps in the previous hint or download new sounds (in the .wav format) from the Internet. An excellent place to find them is http://www.wavcentral.com.

  2. Once you’ve assembled the sounds you want to use, choose Start Control Panel Sounds, Speech, and Audio Devices Sounds and Audio Devices.

    Under “Program events,” assign different sounds to each event. Once you’ve customized all the events, click the Save As button near the top of the dialog box, give your theme a name, and then click OK. You can close the dialog box now or create more themes before exiting. Your changes take effect immediately.

  3. To switch among themes, open the Sounds and Audio Devices dialog box, and choose from among the themes in the “Sound scheme” menu.

That’s it. You’re styling—soundly.

Visual Reminders

Setting your system to chime when it’s accomplished something—like successfully downloading a file—is a great way to stay on top of what your PC is up to. But if you’ve got Led Zeppelin blasting out of your speakers, you’re not going to hear those useful sounds. And if you fail to notice that your all-important quarterly report has finished downloading, and you go fishing instead of reading it, you’re gonna get fired. Better to have some handy visual reminders to supplement your alert sounds.

To help, Windows XP has a little-known feature called SoundSentry. It’s designed to assist people with hearing difficulties, but it’s also ideal for times when your PC’s sound system is otherwise occupied.

To use SoundSentry, choose Start Control Panel Accessibility Options Accessibility Options (if you’re at the command prompt or in the Run box, type access.cpl and press Enter). In the dialog box that opens, click the Sound tab and turn on the box next to Use SoundSentry, as shown in Figure 1-8. Now select the visual warning you want to display when the system makes a sound. For example, you can have it flash the active window as a visual cue. Click OK. Voila! Your machine is giving you every possible clue that it’s done something noteworthy.

SoundSentry was designed for people with hearing difficulties, but it’s useful for others as well. If you don’t like your music interrupted by system sounds, use it to flash visual alerts at you, rather than play sounds, when Windows wants to get your attention.
Figure 1-8. SoundSentry was designed for people with hearing difficulties, but it’s useful for others as well. If you don’t like your music interrupted by system sounds, use it to flash visual alerts at you, rather than play sounds, when Windows wants to get your attention.

Adding Sounds to Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office, unlike Windows XP, doesn’t include system sounds. But if you’re a fan of audio feedback from your PC and have Office XP or Office 2000 installed, you can make Word, Excel, and your other Office programs sound off, too.

Note

Unfortunately, if you have an older version of Office, Microsoft doesn’t provide any way to add sound.

Go to http://office.microsoft.com/downloads/2002/Sounds.aspx, and download and install the Office Sounds add-in. Now open any Office application, choose Tools Options General, turn on “Provide feedback with sound,” and then click OK. You’ve just made Office chatty.

If you want to turn off specific sounds or use different ones than those provided, choose Start Control Panel Sounds, Speech, and Audio Devices Sounds and Audio Devices, and click the Sounds tab. In the Sound Events list, scroll down to Microsoft Office, and select the sound you wish to turn on, turn off, or change. Then follow the instructions for Section 1.2.3.

More Screen Real Estate with Virtual Desktops

No matter how big your monitor is, it’s not big enough. And if you’re running multiple programs in Windows XP, the problem can get out of hand, with windows on top on windows on top of windows. In less time than it takes to say, “ten-program pileup,” you’ve lost an important document.

The best way to manage the problem is with multiple virtual desktops, which are separate versions of the Windows XP desktop, each complete with its own look and feel, and each of which can be running its own separate programs. You can have up to four such desktop environments running at once. For instance, you can have one desktop for sending and receiving email and browsing the Web, another for downloading and playing music, another for using your word processor and spreadsheet, and so on. You can quickly switch among the desktops, or take a global view of your work and see them all at a glance, as in Figure 1-9. It’s like adding Pentaflex folders to a crammed file drawer—suddenly, you can find things.

The Virtual Desktop manager can display all four of your desktops simultaneously. To switch among them, you just click the screen you want to go to.
Figure 1-9. The Virtual Desktop manager can display all four of your desktops simultaneously. To switch among them, you just click the screen you want to go to.

You can create virtual desktops with a free Microsoft PowerToy called Virtual Desktop Manager, available for download from http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/powertoys/xppowertoys.mspx. It’s one of several free utilities from Microsoft.

After you’ve downloaded the program, follow its installation wizard (which doesn’t require you to restart Windows), then turn it on by right-clicking the taskbar and choosing Toolbars Desktop Manager. A new toolbar appears on the taskbar, to the left of the system tray, as shown in Figure 1-10. You now have four virtual desktops at your disposal, numbered 1 through 4.

Controls for the Virtual Desktop Manager appear in the taskbar, just to the left of the system tray.
Figure 1-10. Controls for the Virtual Desktop Manager appear in the taskbar, just to the left of the system tray.

At first, the desktops are identical, since you haven’t customized any of them. To switch to any of them, click the desktop’s number. When you do, that desktop takes up your full screen. Treat it as you do your normal Windows XP desktop: You can change its background the way you normally would or run whichever programs suit the task at hand. For example, you can run your email program and an instant messenger in an Internet-themed desktop but keep a word processor and spreadsheet open in a desktop focused on productivity (switch to the latter when your boss is looking).

To see all desktops at a glance, click the leftmost icon. A screen appears like the one in Figure 1-9, where you can click the desktop you want to visit.

Tip

If you’re not a fan of the mouse, you can switch desktops using a keystroke shortcut like Ctrl+Alt+1, Ctrl+Alt+2 and so on. Simply right-click the taskbar, choose Configure Shortcut Keys, and choose a key combination for each desktop.

If you want to change the background of each desktop—a great way to help keep track of them—right-click the taskbar and choose Configure Desktop Images. In the dialog box that appears, pick from the backgrounds listed or browse your hard drive for a picture you want to use.

Expand Your Screen Real Estate with Two Monitors

If virtual desktops don’t get you enough screen real estate, go with the real thing: Use two monitors and spread Windows XP across both of them. You can use the two monitors as one large, continuous desktop. The extended desktop stretches across the two displays, treating them as one monitor.

You can achieve this feat only if your computer has two video ports or if you have a laptop. To see whether your PC has two video ports, look on the back where the monitor is plugged in. The monitor is plugged into a video port, so if you have another port just like it, you’re in business. Many computers have only one video port, and if that’s the case with yours, you’re out of luck—unless you buy a new graphics card with two ports. In the case of the laptop, you can use the built-in monitor and the second monitor in concert with each other.

Here’s how to create your amazing two-monitor setup:

  1. Attach the second monitor to your computer.

    If you have a desktop machine, plug the monitor into the free video port. If you have a laptop, it will have a free video port in the back, so plug it in there.

  2. Right-click your desktop and choose Properties Settings. Icons for two monitors appear, as you can see in Figure 1-11 .

    The monitor labeled 2 should be the monitor you just installed. Turn on “Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor.”

    When extending your desktop to two monitors, drag the icons for monitors in this dialog box until they match the way you want your desktop to span the two monitors—above, below, or side-by-side.
    Figure 1-11. When extending your desktop to two monitors, drag the icons for monitors in this dialog box until they match the way you want your desktop to span the two monitors—above, below, or side-by-side.
  3. With monitor 2 selected, move the Screen resolution slider to your preferred resolution.

    If the monitor flickers, you may need to change the monitor’s refresh rate. To do so, click the Advanced button, choose the Monitor tab, and try increasingly higher rates until you find the best one.

  4. Click OK. The Display Properties settings dialog box reappears.

    The arrangement of the two monitors determines how the desktop extends from one to the other. Initially, they are side-by-side, so that the second monitor extends the desktop to the right, but you can rearrange the icons so that the second monitor extends the desktop in any direction. When you’re done rearranging the icons, click OK. Your Windows desktop now spans both monitors.

Individual Windows Tricks

A window is a window is a window...or is it? As you’ll see in this section, there’s a surprising number of ways you can tinker with how individual windows work.

Previewing Windows Before Switching to Them

When you press Alt-Tab at the same time, Windows displays a box with all your open programs and windows. To switch among them, just hold down Alt and keep tabbing until you’ve highlighted the one you want. This tactic is one of the biggest click-savers in Microsoft history.

But when you use Alt-Tab, you’re flying blind: you can’t preview a window before switching to it. This behavior becomes problematic when you have several windows open in a program and don’t know which you’ll be switching to.

Here’s a simple solution: the Microsoft PowerToy called Alt-Tab Replacement, which you can download from http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/downloads/powertoys.asp. After you install it, whenever you use Alt-Tab, you get a preview of the window to which you’re switching. You can also read its title bar, as shown in Figure 1-12.

The Microsoft PowerToy Alt-Tab Replacement displays a preview of each window as you tab through. This program takes up much more screen space than the normal Alt-Tab feature, but the preview makes it well worth it.
Figure 1-12. The Microsoft PowerToy Alt-Tab Replacement displays a preview of each window as you tab through. This program takes up much more screen space than the normal Alt-Tab feature, but the preview makes it well worth it.

Manage Groups of Open Windows

As you’ve probably figured out by now, when you have several windows open in a program at once, they group together into a single button on the taskbar when minimized, with a small arrow at the right-hand side. Right-click the button, and a listing of all its open windows pops up, as shown in Figure 1-13 on the top. To switch to any of the windows, click it.

Top: When you have several open windows in an application, they group together in a single entry on the taskbar, which you can expand by clicking. Bottom: Save yourself time and keystrokes by managing open windows using this right-click menu.
Figure 1-13. Top: When you have several open windows in an application, they group together in a single entry on the taskbar, which you can expand by clicking. Bottom: Save yourself time and keystrokes by managing open windows using this right-click menu.

Don’t settle for the single-window switcheroo, though. The taskbar lets you manage the entire program group and view them all at once, close them all simultaneously, or minimize them if they’re open. Right-click the entry, and the menu shown in Figure 1-13 (bottom) appears. You can choose to display them in a cascade, arrange them like tiles horizontally or vertically, close them all at once, or minimize them if they’re maximized.

When you cascade them, the windows appear one behind the other, offset slightly, so that you can see the front one fully while the ones behind it are partially obscured (you can still see their title bars). Cascading is best when you don’t need to see the contents of individual screens, but you do want to see the title bars clearly.

When you tile windows, they spread out like tiles on a floor. No window obscures another, but each window is tiny, so you often can’t see the entire name in the title bar. Use tiling when it’s important to distinguish the contents of the screens, albeit in a shrunken size.

User Accounts and Logons

Windows XP gives you a quite a bit of control over the way you log on and what you can do with user accounts. Here’s where you’ll find out how to use your own customized picture for your user account, how to make sure you use a password no one can crack, and other insider secrets.

Using Your Own Picture for Your User Account

One of the best things about Windows XP is the way you can customize it to reflect your personality, not the collective wisdom of a Microsoft marketing committee. And one of the best ways to customize it is to use your own picture on your user account rather than one provided by Microsoft. Rubber duckies, soccer balls, plastic frogs, and Kung Fu masters are all well and good, but you might want something more personal (and attractive) next to your name. After all, you see that picture not only when you log on to your PC, but also every time you bring up the Start menu.

For your user account, you can use any picture as long as it’s in .gif, .jpg, .png, or .bmp format. Once you’ve decided on the picture, choose Start Control Panel User Accounts, then select the account with the picture you want to change. Next, choose “Change my picture” and then “Browse for more pictures.” Now navigate to the folder that contains the picture you’ve selected. Choose the picture, and then click OK. Your new picture appears in the Current Picture area of the User Accounts screen, as shown in Figure 1-14. It also turns up on your logon screen and on the Start menu.

Note

If you have a digital camera or scanner attached to your PC, a button appears on the User Accounts screen that lets you snap or scan a picture and then immediately use that picture for your user account.

Windows XP has a set of pictures you can use for your user account. The currently active picture appears in the upper-left part of the screen.
Figure 1-14. Windows XP has a set of pictures you can use for your user account. The currently active picture appears in the upper-left part of the screen.

Tip

You can quickly get to the screen pictured in Figure 1-14 by going to the Start menu, then simply clicking the picture at the top. (On some systems, there may be no picture available.)

Fast User Switching

If several people use your PC and each person has a separate account, you can make it easy to snap from one account to another by turning on Windows XP’s Fast User Switching feature. It lets several people log on simultaneously and then quickly switch between accounts without logging off the current account.

The cool thing is that whatever you’re doing in the first account keeps running when you switch to another account. So for example, your account could be retrieving an email with a very large attachment. If someone else logs on to her account and uses the computer for word processing, your email download continues in the meantime.

Note

You may encounter performance trade-offs when you use Fast User Switching. Every active program uses up CPU cycles and RAM. Even idle accounts running in the background can suck up resources, too. As a result, you may notice a slowdown on your PC when more than one account at a time is logged in.

To turn on and use Fast User Switching:

  1. Log on as an administrator and choose Control Panel User Accounts “Change the way users log on or off."

    The screen pictured in Figure 1-15 appears.

    When you turn on Fast User Switching, one person can keep his tasks running in the background, while another person logs on and uses the computer.
    Figure 1-15. When you turn on Fast User Switching, one person can keep his tasks running in the background, while another person logs on and uses the computer.
  2. Turn on “Use Fast User Switching,” and then click Apply Options.

    Fast User Switching is now ready to roll. To switch to another account, press the Windows logo key+L. When the Welcome screen appears, you can log onto another account as you would normally.

Create a Random Password

Anyone who guesses your password can break into your account and have the run of your computer. Frequently, the passwords that people use for their PCs are very easy to guess. You’d be surprised at how many people, for example, use the word “password” for their user account. You don’t have to be The Amazing Kreskin to guess that one.

The best way to keep yourself safe is to have Windows XP automatically create a random password for you that will be very hard for others to guess. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose Start Run, type command in the Run box, and press Enter.

    A command prompt appears, with a blinking cursor to the right.

  2. Type the command net user username /random, but change username to the name of the account you’re giving a new password.

    A prompt appears, telling you the random password to use to log on to the account. Be sure to write it down somewhere safe in case you forget, ideally not on a Post-it stuck to your monitor.

Create a Password Reset Disk

It can be easy to forget your password, especially if you create one no one could guess—not even you. That leads to a major dilemma: What to do if you’ve forgotten your password and can’t get into your account?

The best way to avoid this predicament is to create a Password Reset Disk. This disk allows you to change your password even if you can’t remember your old password to log on to your PC. Just pop the disk into your computer when you forget your old password, and you can then log into your account.

Make sure to create the Password Reset Disk before you forget your old password, because you need to know your current password to create the disk.

To create the disk:

  1. Make sure you’re using the account for which you want to create the disk.

    To be extra sure, you might want to log out and log back in to the right account.

  2. Choose Control Panel User Accounts.

    A dialog box opens, offering a sort of command central for managing user accounts.

  3. Click your account and choose “Prevent a forgotten password” from the Related Tasks pane.

    The Forgotten Password Wizard launches. Follow its instructions for creating the disk.

From now on, if you enter the wrong password when you log on, Windows XP prompts you for the disk so you can get into your account. Keep in mind that you can only have one Password Reset Disk for each account, so if you create a new one, the old one won’t work. Also make sure to keep the disk in a safe place...and remember where you put it.

Set Disk Quotas for Users

When several people use the same PC, it’s easy for the hard disk to become overrun with files. If a family member downloads digital music, videos, and movies, for example, that one space hog can quickly fill up a hard disk. However, you can solve the problem by setting limits on how much disk space any one person is allowed to occupy. You can also establish quotas on an individual basis.

Note

You can only set disk quotas on disks that use NTFS, a special Windows file system. To see if yours does, open Windows Explorer, then right-click your C: drive and choose Properties. On the General tab, look next to File System. It tells you whether your disk is NTFS.

Setting quotas that apply to everyone

To set disk quotas, log on as an administrator, and right-click your C: drive (or whatever drive you’re setting quotas on) and choose Properties Quota. The screen pictured in Figure 1-16 appears.

Turn on Enable Quota Management to allow disk quotas. As shown in Figure 1-16, you can set a quota for each account, and you can also set a specific warning level so a person gets alerted when he’s nearing his limit. If you select the checkbox next to “Deny disk space to users exceeding quota limit,” folks will get an “insufficient disk space” error message when they try to save a file but have reached their limit.

When you click OK, you get a warning message that Windows is about to rescan your disk, which may take several minutes. Click OK, and after scanning, the quotas go into effect.

Setting quotas individually

The quota limit above applies to every person who uses the PC, except for the administrator, who has no limits. However, you can set different quotas for each person who uses the PC as well. To do that, right-click the C: drive and choose Properties Quota Quota Entries. You get a list of all user accounts and details about their disk usage, including the amount of disk space used, the quota limit, the warning level, and the percent of their quota currently used.

To change the quota limit and warning level for a particular employee, student, or family member, double-click that account name. When the Quota Settings dialog box appears, set the quota limits here just as you did on the Quota tab of the disk’s Properties panel, and then click OK. Repeat for each potential space-hogger you want to reign in.

You can limit the amount of storage each person who uses the computer gets, and even set warning levels so Windows will warn folks ahead of time when they approach their limit. Go a step further and have Windows create a log that tracks when anyone’s account reaches its warning level or quota.
Figure 1-16. You can limit the amount of storage each person who uses the computer gets, and even set warning levels so Windows will warn folks ahead of time when they approach their limit. Go a step further and have Windows create a log that tracks when anyone’s account reaches its warning level or quota.

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