We’re a year into Vista’s reign of terror, and by now most average users have resigned themselves to the fact that they’re stuck with Microsoft’s bloated, pokey, buggy OS. People simply feel powerless to fight the software juggernaut and PC vendors that happily play along by preloading Vista on everything that goes out the door.
Well, you’re better than that—you don’t have to take this nonsense lying down. Vista may never run as smoothly as good ol’ XP, but we’ve compiled an extensive collection of tips that will help you improve the OS considerably. We’ll show you how to enhance performance, ease frustrations, and turn Vista’s eye candy into something that at least does you some good.
No, Vista still won’t be perfect when you’re done, so we’ve got a special treat in store for you if, after you’ve finished reading our tips, you still aren’t satisfied. Flip to page 48 and you’ll find complete instructions for downgrading to XP or setting up a dual-boot machine with both XP and Vista. See? Happy days are here again!
Spare yourself the headache of endless pop-ups.
You won’t get far in Vista before you start losing hair thanks to UAC, Vista’s overbearing security pop-up system. If you’re an even remotely sophisticated user, turning off UAC should be job one. It’s easy to do: Visit the User Accounts control panel and click “Turn User Account Control on or off,” then uncheck the box on the following screen. If you just want a little more control over UAC (without turning it off altogether), download TweakUAC (www.tweak-uac.com), which suppresses UAC messages whenever you’re logged in as an administrator.
|End warning pop-ups with a single click.|
Don’t let the OS limit command-line rights.
Typing cmd in the Start menu’s search box will bring up the familiar command-line window, but depending on your machine’s configuration, you might be stuck in a restricted mode even if you’re logged in as an administrator. To launch an unrestricted Admin command line, type cmd at Start, then press Ctrl-Shift-Enter. You can also do this by right-clicking the CMD.exe result in the search box and selecting Run as Administrator in the drop-down menu. You’ll notice you’re in Admin mode by the Administrator prefix in the window’s title bar. Now you can move and copy files and folders from the command line and run system tools such as msconfig; by default these privileges are locked out.
|Two extra button clicks let you run the command line unrestricted|
Give your PC a modest speed boost.
Look, we know you’ve been promised repeatedly that if you just tweak this one registry entry, your computer will never crash and it’ll run three times faster. And then you did it and nothing happened, right?
TweakVI, a downloadable application designed to fine-tune Windows registry settings, won’t turn a Celeron into a Core 2 Quad, but in our tests it did modestly improve general benchmark performance, in the range of 5 to 10 percent. Download and install the free version of the app from http://tinyurl.com/24yz6q. When you run it, you’ll want to focus your energy on the System Information and Tweaks section, then the CPU Tweaks... subsection under that.
Don’t expect miracles, but try running your usual benchmarks before and after installing TweakVI—you might be surprised. That said, a $50 yearly subscription to unlock all of TweakVI’s features is pretty much out of line; the free version should provide most everything you need.
|Additional TweakVI fixes let you optimize IE, Firefox, and even font smoothing.|
Get PCs talking seamlessly
In the name of security, Vista wholly revamps the way networking operates. The Network and Sharing Center (part of the Control Panel) can be daunting and confusing when you want to share files on your local network. Here’s the easy way to get the job done.
First, make sure you use the same workgroup name on all PCs. In Vista, this setting is in the System control panel. Click Change Settings on the main page to join another workgroup.
Second, you’ll have a far easier time if you use the same username and password on all PCs you want to network. In Vista, you set up users in the User Accounts control panel. Administrator rights make this considerably easier, though it’s officially discouraged.
Now you’re ready to set preferences in the Network and Sharing Center control panel. Here’s how it should look:
• Network discovery: On This makes your PC visible on the network.
• File sharing: On The equivalent of installing File and Printer Sharing on XP. You need it to do anything.
• Public folder sharing: Up to you The Public folder is a special folder Vista creates in which you can put data you know you want to share across the network with multiple users. You might store your pictures, videos, and music here, for example. It’s just like any other folder, except it can be simply managed and shared with one click here. Turn it on (either read only or read/write) and you’ll see the Public folder in the Computer view directly under the Desktop folder.
• Printer sharing: Up to you Only if you want to print across the network.
• Password protected sharing: On This is the setting that lets users with a valid login on the Vista PC reach shared folders on that computer. Turn password-protected sharing off and users can do just about anything. Leave it on for better security.
• Media sharing: On This is largely useless, unless you stream music to your Xbox or another UPnP device, but leave it on, why not?
Your last step is to select and share folders. This process is much like it is in XP. Just right-click any folder and select Share. If you followed the above instructions, you can accept the defaults at the following menu: “Share to your username only and with owner rights assigned.” Click Share again to seal the deal!
|When finished configuring the Network and Sharing Center, your interface should look about like this.|
Browse multiple folders in a single window
Your web browser has tabbed browsing, so why not your file browser, too? Add tabbed browsing to Explorer with the free QT TabBar (http://tinyurl.com/2r9yj8). Download, extract, and install (right-click to run as administrator), log off and on again, then hop into Explorer. Right-click the menu bar and add both QT TabBar and QT Tab Standard Buttons to the display. Tabs work much like they do in Firefox, with some new tricks available: Dragging a file from one window to another tab in order to move it to another folder is an especially nifty convenience.
|Tabbed file browsing puts an end to cascading Explorer windows.|
Make Vista crash and burn less often
Don’t just twiddle your thumbs waiting for Service Pack 1 to arrive. Take matters into your own hands: One or more of these fixes may solve problems you’ve been having with Vista. None of the fixes has been publicly announced or delivered via Windows Update, so you’ll have to install them manually.
• http://support.microsoft.com/kb/929451: A Vista machine may register old IP addresses if certain changes are made to the networking setup.
• http://support.microsoft.com/kb/931671: Errors may occur when trying to put your PC to sleep with a live PPP connection.
• http://support.microsoft.com/kb/932649: Poor video quality in interlaced mode.
• http://support.microsoft.com/kb/940646: Slow performance with 3G WWAN connections.
• http://support.microsoft.com/kb/941542: Connecting to a network printer may fail.
As well, all users will benefit from a couple of general Vista performance and reliability hotfixes that have been pushed out through Windows Update (as recommended updates) and can provide dramatic improvements on some PCs. Check in the Installed Updates section in the Programs and Features control panel to make sure they are installed (look for the KB numbers in the URL). If they aren’t already installed, install them manually.
Turn Vista's eye candy into a useful tool
|A selection of intelligent upgrades turns the Sidebar from eye candy into brain candy.|
Sure, you thrill at the sight of the weather report and that analog clock, but how about putting some genuinely useful apps into the Vista Sidebar? Here are a few power-user favorites:
App Launcher: It’s just like the Quick Launch toolbar, but considerably more manageable.
ClipboardManager: Gives you quick and easy access to current and recent clipboard contents.
Memory Meter: A simple look at how full the ol’ DIMMs are and how well your CPU cores are clocking along.
Mini Outlook Inbox: Outlook junkies can keep tabs on their inboxes without clogging up the screen.
Network Utilization: Keep an eye on your bandwidth with this simple graphical display.
That's 25 fewer characters that you have to type
When you install Vista, you don’t actually need to input a license key. Vista will give you 30 days before requiring the key before throttling down to Restricted mode. But you can extend that eight times with this simple fix, allowing you to make major hardware upgrades without having to reactivate the OS.
|This simple registry hack will give you a year of no-license-key operation.|
To reset the timer to 30 days, open a command-line window in Administrative mode (see tip on page 40), then type slmgr -rearm. This starts the 30-day countdown anew, no matter how much time is left on your first countdown. You can do this three times (for 120 days total) before it won’t work any more.
You can give yourself another 240 days by making one registry tweak. Type regedit in the Start menu search box and press Enter; then navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\SL. In the right pane, right-click SkipRearm and click Modify. Change the 0 to a 1. You should now be able to do the rearm trick above eight more times.
Note: We make no promises that Microsoft won’t patch this behavior before day 360 rolls around.
Upgrade your GeForce gaming
Running an Nvidia GeForce 6, 7, or 8 series videocard? If you’re seeing abnormally low frame rates or system crashing while gaming (especially noticeable in Battlefield 2142, Half-Life 2, and Rainbow Six Vegas, among other titles), a patch can help considerably. Grab it here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/940105. A similar fix is available for Vista users running SLI rigs at http://support.microsoft.com/kb/936710. This hotfix improves (or enables) the use of a secondary graphics card under DirectX 10.
|Gaming under Vista might choke with late-model GeForce cards, but a quick download can fix you right up.|
Get instant alerts when something’s amiss
Rather than manually checking the boring old Event Viewer, how about getting Vista to email you when something’s gone wrong? To set up email logging, open the Event Viewer (it’s in the Administrative Tools control panel), open a log, and find an event for which you want to be notified. In the pane on the right, click “Attach Task to This Event...” and walk through the wizard, specifying the server from which email should be sent and the address it should go to. (Be careful with this, you might end up spamming yourself.)
|The security log is likely the most useful source for logging via email.|
Enable SATA’s latest high-test features
Risk-takers can get a little hard drive performance boost by turning on two options in Vista that are disabled by default. In Device Manager, find your hard drive (under Disk Drives), right-click it, click Properties, then click the Policies tab. Select “Optimize for performance” and check both “Enable write caching on the disk” and “Enable advanced performance.” Be warned: With the latter two options turned on, you may risk losing data if you lose power or have a catastrophic crash, so make sure you use a universal power supply and run regular backups. The specific performance boost depends on the make and model of your drive; don’t expect the moon.
|Vista doesn’t automatically take advantage of some of SATA’s performance features.|
Upgrade your defragger to something less useless
Vista’s disk defragmenter is a giant leap backwards. Run a defrag manually and what you get isn’t the helpful, animated progress window you know from XP, but rather that evil, spinning, blue wheel and the notice “Defragmenting hard disks... This may take from a few minutes to a few hours.” Wow, informative!
|Reclaim the visual look at your hard drive's fragmentation with Diskeeper.|
To get a better defrag system, you’ll have to install third-party software. Without a doubt, the best is Diskeeper 2008 Pro Premier ($100, www.diskeeper.com), which offers an exhaustive collection of defragging options, including file sequencing based on usage patterns, boot-time defragging, and barely noticeable background operation. The $50 Pro (non-Premier) edition is exactly the same, sans the file-sequencing feature.
Head back to what actually works
You saw this one coming. After all that work, you may very well find that Vista still isn’t your cup of tea and you’d like to go back to Windows XP. We don’t blame you; we pretty much feel the same way.
If push comes to shove, here’s how to return to XP.
1. Sadly, you can’t just pop in an XP disc while you’re running Vista and hit Install. Your first step is to determine whether you want to dual boot Vista or simply wipe out Vista and replace it with XP. If you’re going to dual boot, use the DiskPart tool on the Vista installation disc (details here) to create a second partition, or use a third-party tool such as GParted (http://gparted.sourceforge.net/) to do the same thing. If you’re wiping out Vista, you can use the same tools to erase the Vista partition and start with a clean slate or just reformat while booting and installing from the XP setup disc.
2. If you’re using a bleeding-edge PC, XP will likely choke when it comes time to start copying files, as it won’t be able to see your hard drive. Why? XP can’t handle AHCI mode on SATA drives, which most newer PCs have enabled. In your PC’s BIOS, turn off AHCI mode (which should turn on ATA emulation) to make your installation easier. Or just load the drivers via floppy F6 drivers at boot. Alternately, you can slipstream AHCI drivers into a Windows XP installation disc, but this is a huge hassle.
3. With a blank partition ready and AHCI turned off, boot from an XP setup disc, preferably one with Service Pack 2 preloaded on it. Install the operating system normally. (If dual booting, Vista will remain on the C: drive; XP will show up on E: or another drive letter. The two OSes will be able to see each other, so be cautious when selecting the proper drive when installing apps.)
4. If you plan to dual boot, you’ll need to repair the Master Boot Record, as XP overwrites the Vista-created MBR, which prevents Vista from loading. To fix it, boot from a Vista DVD and select “Repair your computer” on the Install Now screen. Select Startup Repair to finish the job.
5. Last step: Set up dual booting. Any boot manager will do the job, or try the free (and Vista-friendly) EasyBCD. Boot into Vista (you won’t have a choice), install and run EasyBCD, then click Add/Remove Entries. Change the drive letter to E: (or whatever drive letter you set up in Step 3), and then change Type to Windows NT/2k/XP/2k3. Click Add Entry, then Save. Reboot and the bootloader will now automatically appear.
|Your final step in setting up a dual-booting Vista/XP machine with EasyBCD should look like this.|