Reinvent the Windows Wheel

Nathan Edwards

There’s an unwritten rule that states, “To be considered a power user, you must tweak every aspect of your PC and assert man’s dominance over machine.” That means not only choosing the right combination of hardware and software to do your bidding but also tailoring Windows to perform the way you want it to, not the other way around. After all, you built your computer, so why should you have the reins pulled from your hands the moment you hit the power button? The answer is you shouldn’t, and we’re going to show you how to fine-tune Windows—from the way it looks to the way it functions, and everything in between.

We know what you’re thinking: What could we possibly show you that you haven’t already seen countless times before? Plenty. And if you think you’ve uncovered every secret there is to know about Windows, think again. These aren’t your garden-variety tweaks that litter every Windows guide on the web. We’ve dug deep to find tips that will surprise and delight even the most seasoned power user. It doesn’t matter whether you use XP or Vista; we cover both camps to bring you a smorgasbord of treats guaranteed to improve your OS experience.

Keep reading this page for Windows XP tips, or skip ahead to tips for XP and Vista users or Vista-exclusive tips !

Windows XP Tips

Brand your PC with a custom logo

OEM vendors often dress up the System Properties screen with a custom logo and support information, giving prebuilt PCs an air of professionalism. Well guess what? You can add the same personal touch to your own machine in just a few easy steps.

Open up any photo-editing program and create a 180x114-pixel image. Save the image as a bitmap and name it oemlogo.bmp, then place it in C:\Windows\System32. Next, create a Notepad file in the same folder and save it as oeminfo.ini. OEM resellers use this file to enter customer-support information, but you can write whatever you wish as long as you use the following format:

[General]
Manufacturer=Maximum PC
Model=Dream Machine

[Support Information]
line1=For even more great tips visit
line2=www.maximumpc.com

If you need more space, just create a new line.

Give Your Hard Drive a New Icon

Grab IconsExtract (free, http://tinyurl.com/2p7c7x ) to extract existing icons from your system. When you find one you like, save it to the root of the drive you want to change (for example, C:\Cool_Icon.ico). Next, create a new file with Notepad and edit line one to read [autorun] and on line two write icon=Cool_Icon.ico . Save and name the file autorun.ini and reboot.

Alter the Scroll Bar’s Dimensions

A wider scroll bar can make navigation an easier affair on a touch-screen panel, and power users can benefit from the additional real estate afforded by narrowing the scroll bar. Whatever your objective, open Display Properties in the Control Panel, click the Appearance tab, click Advanced, select Scrollbar from the Items menu, and go hog wild!

Install Google Desktop, then Hack It!

Google Desktop (free, http://desktop.google.com ) pounces all over Windows’s built-in search, but to truly kick your search groove into high gear, you need to tweak a couple of settings. Under the Options menu, make sure HTTPS is unchecked to prevent Google from indexing sensitive information. Then click “Add drive or folder to search” and add any networked PCs so you can search for files across your network without ever leaving your chair. Finally, install the TweakGDS plugin (free, http://tinyurl.com/2nwxb9 ), which will let you designate a different folder or hard drive to store Google’s indexing information.

Uncover ‘No to All’ Option

Whenever you copy multiple files from one location to another, Windows prompts you with an overwrite request if duplicate entries already exist. Selecting “Yes to All” can go a long way in preventing carpal tunnel, but where’s the “No to All” button? It doesn’t exist, but you can force Windows to act as though it does by holding down the Shift key the first time you press No.

Delete an Undeletable File

Windows won’t let you delete a file if it’s currently in use, which is usually a good thing, but that can spell bad news when trying to rid your system of a nasty malware strain. Luckily, there’s a workaround. Click the Start menu, select Run, and type CMD to bring up the Command Prompt. Now hit CTRL-ALT-DEL to open the Task Manager. Under the Processes tab, highlight explorer.exe and click End Process. ALT-Tab your way to the Command Prompt and then navigate to the directory of the file you’re trying to delete using the CD command ( cd C:\Program Files\3DSaver ). Next, use the delete command to delete the offending file ( del 3DSaver.exe ). ALT-Tab back to the Task Manager, select New Task under File, and type explorer.exe to bring back the Windows shell. Alternately, try Unlocker (free, http://ccollomb.free.fr/unlocker/ ) and delete stubborn files through a svelte GUI.

Create Restore Points on the Fly

Uh oh! Did experimenting with beta software thrash your Windows install? Don’t fret—fire up System Restore and revert to the last known good configuration. That is, if you have one. Windows doesn’t always create restore points when it should, and who wants to go through the rigmarole of sifting through menus to manually create one? Now you don’t have to, thanks to a VB script (free, http://tinyurl.com/3rw0 ) that does the job with just a double-click of the mouse.

Uninstall Hidden Components

Find sysoc.inf in the C:\Windows\inf folder and edit it with Notepad. (If you don’t see the inf folder, click Tools, View, and select “Show hidden files and folders.”) Remove the word HIDE from any entries you wish to unhide, such as WordPad or Pinball, and then save the file. These will now show up in the Add/Remove Windows Components list.

Stay Prepared with a Password Restore Disk

Open User Accounts in the Control Panel and select your account. Click the “Prevent a forgotten password” link in the left-hand pane and follow the prompts.

If you’re on a domain, press CTRL-ALT-DEL to bring up the Windows Security dialog box and then click Change Password. In the “Log on to” box, click the local computer, select Backup, and then follow the prompts. Both methods require a floppy disk.

Scan System Files for Corruption

Malware infections and bad install routines are just two of the ways critical system files can become corrupt, but there’s an easy fix to undo damage done by third-party software. Click the Start menu, select Run, and type sfc /scannow to run XP’s System File Checker. Keep your Windows CD handy and insert it when prompted.

Automatically Kill Processes and Shut Down Quicker

Teach Windows how to shut down without nagging you about unresponsive processes. Open the registry and navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop. Double-click AutoEndTasks and change the value from 0 to 1. Then double-click WaitToKillApp and change the value from 5000 to 1000. Finally, double-click HungAppTimeout and change the value from 20,000 to 3000.

Eliminate Lag and Speed up the Start Menu

A fully loaded rig pays dividends in everything from productivity apps to games, but no matter how fast your machine is, the Start menu still lags. To give the Start menu a much needed speed boost, click Start, select Run, and type regedit . Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop, double-click MenuShowDelay in the right-hand pane, and change the value from 400 to 5. Reboot and watch your Start menu fly!

Apply One Folder’s View to All Folders

XP allows you to view folders five different ways—thumbnails, tiles, icons, list, details—but what you select for one folder doesn’t apply to all of them. Sure, you can configure each folder individually, but that takes far too long. To apply the same view universally, Go to My Documents, click Tools, then Folder Options, then select the View tab, and click Apply to All Folders.

Install Support Tools for Advanced Diagnostics

To be a true IT ninja, equip yourself with Windows Support Tools (free, http://tinyurl.com/yja7vw ), a set of more than 100 troubleshooting utilities aimed at advanced users (view a complete list at http://tinyurl.com/2k42ex ). Not all of them are gems, but a few notable standouts include pviewer, for gathering information about running processes on remote computers; msicuu, to remove installer information when a program’s uninstaller gets borked (power outage, for example); and windiff, to compare files and see which is more recent, along with line-by-line code comparisons.

High Score!

Become the new champ at old games.

It’s tough enough getting through the workday unscathed, and to make matters worse, most workplaces aren’t going to let you install Counter-Strike to blow off some steam—oh the tyranny! That means you’re stuck playing Minesweeper or Pinball, only Bob in accounting holds the high score in both and is quick to let everyone know. Here’s how you can stick it to Bob. To freeze time in Minesweeper, minimize the app using the Windows Key + D combination and then restore the window. Then fire up Pinball and type 1max at the start of a new game for additional balls or bmax for unlimited tries and an unbeatable score.

Upgrade to Notepad++

Jotting down notes with Notepad is only slightly more advanced than chiseling in stone, but we still find ourselves using the rudimentary editor for scrawling quick grocery lists and composing HTML code. With Notepad++ (free, http://tinyurl.com/552wn ), we can do both at the same time! A tabbed interface is just one of the many features included, along with an almost endless array of coding options, drag and drop documents, multiview features, and much more.

Encrypt and Password Protect Your Files

No sooner was it released than Microsoft pulled the plug on a utility called My Private Folder. The password-protected folder sat on your desktop, encrypting any files you put inside it. So why doesn’t MS offer it anymore? With no backdoor access, IT professionals feared facing the wrath of users who had forgotten their passwords, and parents fretted over what files their kids might be hiding. If you’re OK with those risks, you can still download the utility from http://tinyurl.com/kxdxs .

Enable Hibernate in the Shut-Down Dialog

Putting your PC into Standby conserves power without shutting down your computer, but if there’s a power outage, any open programs and unsaved work will be lost. Using Hibernation tackles this issue by first taking a snapshot of your desktop and saving it to your hard drive before powering down, but Microsoft neglected to include a Hibernate button in the shut-down dialog box. To fix this, first make sure you’ve enabled hibernation under Power Options in the Control Panel. Next, go into the registry and navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows and create a new key called System (right-click Windows and select New > Key). Highlight System and create another key called Shutdown (you should now be in HKLM \SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\System\Shutdown). Now create a DWORD value named ShowHibernationButton and change the Data from 0 to 1. You should now see the Hibernate button in the Shutdown dialog. If not, you’ll need to request a hotfix from Microsoft at http://tinyurl.com/ccbpw .

Goodbye MS Paint, Hello Paint.NET

Capable photo-editing suites are often too expensive if all you’re interested in is the occasional doodle, and the learning curve requires a further time investment. Solve both problems with Paint.NET (free, www.getpaint.net ), which combines the ease of use found in MS Paint with enough functionality to release your inner Rembrandt!

Make Your Own Icons

Who wants boring old icons when you can make your own? Fire up any photo-editing program and create a new 48x48 pixel image, or resize an existing photo. Save the image as a bitmap and change the file extension to .ico (e.g., MPC.ico).

To apply your custom icon, right-click a folder on your hard drive, select Properties, then Customize, then Change Icon. Or if you prefer to change system icons, open Display Properties and click Customize Desktop under the Desktop tab. You can change icons for all file types by opening My Computer, clicking Tools, Folder Options, File Types, Advanced, then Change Icon.

Use a Video Clip as Your Background

Dreamscene enables Vista Ultimate owners to set video clips as wallpaper, and with the help of VideoLAN (free, www.videolan.org/vlc ), you can get the same effect on XP. Select the video you want to display, right-click while it’s playing, and select Wallpaper. Create a playlist with multiple video clips and then configure VideoLAN to loop your selections by clicking Tools, Preferences, Playlist, and checking Repeat All.

Sync Your Backup Routine

If you don’t have a backup routine in place, then get one. Now. Then install Microsoft’s SyncToy v2.0 Beta (free, http://tinyurl.com/2cu9fh ) to back up files from one folder to another on different hard drives, or across a network or an external device. SyncToy even keeps track of renamed files, so you won’t end up with duplicates.

Improve Video Viewing with a Codec Library

Life would be so much easier if all video clips adopted a unified standard, but instead we’re forced to hunt down codec after codec to play an assortment of videos. At least, that’s how we used to do it, until we found ffdshow tryouts ( http://ffdshow-tryout.sourceforge.net/ ). Ffdshow sports an expansive codec library, several filters, and the ability to display pertinent details about the file it’s playing. CPU-utilization monitoring and the ability to grab screenshots add icing to the cake.

Customize XP’s Boot Logo

Tired of the same old boot screen? Change it up! There are two methods for altering XP’s boot logo—one involves risky system-file edits that put your OS at risk, the other entails downloading BootSkin (free, http://tinyurl.com/358lj ). Play it safe with the latter and click your way to a new boot screen with one of the bundled logos. Don’t see one you like? Choose from hundreds more available for download or follow the tutorial at http://tinyurl.com/367khw and make your own!

Three 30-second changes to improve XP

  1. The first thing we do with every new XP install is turn on ClearType to clean up those unsightly fonts. Go to Display Properties and select the Appearance tab, then click Effects. Choose ClearType in the second pull-down menu and make sure the box above it is checked.
  2. Often, we need access to hidden files and folders to apply power-user tweaks, and the second thing we do on every XP machine is make these visible. Under My Computer, click Tools, Folder Options, View, and then click the “Show hidden files and folders” radio button.
  3. We don’t anticipate any BSODs on a new XP install, but if it does happen, we want to be prepared. By default, Windows will automatically restart if it encounters an error, but those blue screens contain key information that helps us decipher what went wrong. To stop XP from restarting, right-click My Computer and select Properties. In the Advanced tab, click Settings under Startup and Recovery, and then uncheck “Automatically restart."

Next: Tips that Work in XP and Vista!


XP/Vista Tips

The following tips don’t discriminate—they will improve your computing experience equally, whether you’re rocking Microsoft’s new or old OS.

Make Your Own Control Panel

We’re willing to bet you never use half the items in the Control Panel, but did you know you can make a Control Panel that reflects your particular habits? Here’s how: Right-click the Start menu and select Explore. Create a new folder and give it a descriptive name, such as Custom Control Panel. Drag and drop only the tools you’ll actually use from the original Control Panel into your new one, renaming as you see fit. Change the icon so it stands out in the Start menu.

Disable Highlighting New Programs

Every new program in XP and Vista gets highlighted in the Start menu as if to say, “Hey, remember when you installed me?” That’s great for those afflicted with extremely short attention spans, but not much use for the rest of us. To rid your Start menu of these unsightly reminders, right-click the Start button and select Properties, select the Start Menu tab, and click Customize. In Vista, scroll down and uncheck “Highlight newly installed programs.” You’ll find the same option in XP under the Advanced tab.

Add Entries to the Send To Menu

Moving files with the Send To command can save oodles of time, but it doesn’t do you any good if the destination you’re looking for doesn’t appear in the menu. To add your own destinations, select Run from the Start menu (type Run in the search box on Vista) and type shell:sendto . Create a shortcut of the folder or program you want to appear and move it to the Send To folder you just opened.

Minimize Windows and Drag Files with Ease

Ever grab a file on your desktop only to realize the destination folder’s sitting behind an open window? To get around this, drag the file to an empty space in the taskbar and all open windows will minimize, allowing you to move the file wherever you want. Using this method, you can hover files over minimized windows to restore them.

Monitor CPU and RAM Usage

We can already keep tabs on our CPU and RAM through the Task Manager, but there’s a better way. CPUMon (free, http://tinyurl.com/363k6f ) displays the same information but ups the ante with an adjustable, unobtrusive transparent graph, CPU-speed monitoring, statistics that include the average CPU and memory usage, and a handful of other options.

Enhance the Clipboard with Ditto

Download Ditto ( http://sourceforge.net/projects/ditto-cp/ ) and take Windows’s clipboard to new heights. Ditto retains up to 500 copied entries, including images, and stores the information on your hard drive, so you won’t be thwarted by a power outage or system reboot. Stay productive by exporting saved entries and transferring them to another computer, paste HTML as plain text, perform keyword searches, and apply hotkey shortcuts to the first 10 items.

Build a Button (or Two)

Put your Restart and Shut Down buttons in plain sight—because you can

Forget about mucking around in the Start menu and instead create desktop shortcuts for shutting down and restarting your system. Right-click your desktop and select New > Shortcut. In the pop-up window, type shutdown –s –t 00 to create a shutdown shortcut and shutdown –r –t 00 to create one for restarting. Give your new shortcuts custom icons (see Windows XP tips) and then drag them to the Quick Launch bar for even easier access.

Remove the OS Logo and Improve Boot Times

Until instant-on technology makes a breakthrough in home computing, we’re left to our own devices to reduce system boot times. One surefire way to save a few seconds is by disabling the boot logo. Open the Start menu, select Run, and type msconfig . Under the Boot.ini tab, check the /NoGuiBoot box and apply the change.

Resize Windows to Specific Dimensions

Sizer (free, www.brianapps.net/sizer.html ) displays the dimensions of any open window while resizing, making it an invaluable tool for web developers and anyone interested in grabbing screen captures. Manually resize a window to any resolution, or right-click and select a preset dimension, including any custom dimensions you create.

Move Off-Screen Windows Back into View

It’s a shame that SLI and CrossFire still don’t support gaming on multimonitor setups, and to add insult to injury, there’s always at least one open window that gets stuck out of view when in single-monitor mode. You might be tempted to reboot or even uninstall/reinstall the offending application, but you needn’t resort to such drastic measures. Instead, right-click the application in the taskbar, select Move, and then use your arrow keys to bring the window back into view.

Change the Logon Background

Just like our clothes, our PCs are an extension of us, and we should dress them accordingly. Logon Studio (free, http://tinyurl.com/2kuys7 ) helps in this endeavor. The program lets you choose from a wardrobe of more than 500 logon backgrounds ( http://tinyurl.com/mh7eq ). Can’t find a style to suit your tastes? Make your own background from scratch or edit an existing background.

Change Dual-Boot Default to XP


Because of the way Vista’s boot loader works, you’ll have much better luck with your dual-boot setup by first installing XP and then installing Vista. By going this route, Vista loads as the default option, but you can change this without any adverse effects. In Vista, right-click My Computer and select Properties, then Advanced system settings, then the Advanced tab. Click Settings under Startup and Recovery and select Earlier Version of Windows from the pull-down menu.

Know Your Common Shortcuts

Many common Windows tasks come assigned with shortcuts; here are five guaranteed to increase productivity:

  • Shift+Del: Bypass the recycle bin and permanently delete files
  • ALT+Print Screen: Nab a screenshot of just the active window to the clipboard
  • Windows Key+M: Minimize all open windows
  • CTRL+ESC: Bring up the Start menu
  • Shift+Tab: Tab backward through a form

Assign Hotkeys to Common Tasks

Quick, try to open the Task Manager without lifting your hand from the mouse. Unless you have unusually long fingers or a third hand growing from your torso, you can’t hit the CTRL-ALT-DEL combination without contorting into an unnatural position. Luckily, there’s an easy workaround. Navigate to C:\Windows\System32 and create a shortcut for taskmgr.exe. Right-click the new shortcut, select Properties, and assign a new hotkey combination in the Shortcut tab. Use this trick for any commonly used application.

Add Locations to the Save In Sidebar

On the left-hand side of the Save As dialog box sits a Save In sidebar; in it are common locations where you might want to save a file. To add your own folders to this list, type gpedit.msc in the Run box (or search box in Vista), then navigate to User Configuration, Administrative Templates, Windows Components, Windows Explorer, Common Open File Dialog; then, double-click Items Displayed in Places Bar. Here you can add up to five locations, including remote folders residing on your home network (e.g., \\MaxPC-Quad\Pictures).

Next: Tips for Vista users only!

Vista Tips

Vista’s still brand-spanking new, but there are already some things you can do to make it perform better

Generate Problem Reports and Look for Solutions

Vista keeps a meticulous record of every error that’s ever caused a program to stop working or presented a compatibility problem, but even better, you can make Windows check for solutions and save yourself a recurring headache. You’ll find the Problem Reports and Solutions Wizard under System and Maintenance in the Control Panel. In the left-hand pane under Tasks, click “See problems to check” to bring up a list of applications; put a check mark next to any or all of them and click “Check for solutions.”

Access Advanced Options with Tweak VI

Optimize nearly every nook and cranny in Windows Vista through an intuitive GUI by installing Tweak VI (free, http://tinyurl.com/24yz6q ). Tweaks run the gamut from the strictly visual to performance boosts—and include everything in between. Setting up a PC for the kids? Configure Tweak VI to hide a bevy of configuration options to prevent them from accidentally mucking up a system, and then password protect Tweak VI to keep curious fingers from undoing changes.

Open Quick Launch Programs with the Windows Key

Using the Windows key in combination with the numbers 0 through 9 will open up the corresponding sequential programs in the Quick Launch toolbar. Make sure the Quick Launch toolbar is visible (if not, right-click the taskbar and select Quick Launch from the Toolbars menu) and then rearrange the first 10 programs however you see fit.

Take Better Screen Captures with the Snipping Tool

Vista’s built-in Snipping Tool does for screen captures what Bruce Lee did for kung fu movies, but without the cheesy sound effects. Just type Snipping into the search box and start taking screenshots like you’ve never taken them before. Draw a perfect box around the area you want to capture or use the free-form tool, then highlight or draw over the capture before saving it as a JPEG, PNG, GIF, or MHT file.

Force the Sleep Button to Function as Shut Down

Vista’s Start menu marks a departure from the familiar theme found in XP, and one such change includes swapping the Shut Down button for a Sleep icon. With a little bit of digging, you can bring back the Shut Down button. Navigate to the Control Panel, then System and Maintenance, then Power Options. Under the selected power plan, click “Change plan settings,” and then click “Change advanced power settings.” Expand “Power buttons and lid” and then “Start menu power button.” Highlight Setting and choose Shut Down from the pull-down menu.

Enable DirectSound3D Hardware Acceleration

Vista giveth DirectX 10 and taketh away DirectSound3D, killing off hardware acceleration and EAX effects for the legacy format. But don’t despair, because Creative came up with a workaround for Audigy and X-Fi owners. Install Creative’s ALchemy software (free, http://tinyurl.com/29ghqj ), let it automatically detect any installed DS3D games, and then click the arrow to move them to the right-hand pane, so they’ll be translated into OpenAL.

Enable Check Boxes for Selecting Multiple Files

It never fails: Just as we’ve almost finished highlighting several files while holding down the Control key, our finger slips, instantly deselecting every single file. We thought there had to be a better way, and it turns out there is. Open My Computer and select Folder and Search Options from the Organize pull-down menu. Under the View tab, put a check mark next to “Use check boxes to select items.” Now you can select multiple files by clicking on their check boxes.

Restore the Menu Bar

In XP, we got accustomed to seeing File, Edit, View, Tools, and Help in the menu bar, but in Vista, Microsoft redesigned folders and windows so they resemble IE7’s less than intuitive interface. One way to bring the menu bar back is to click Organize, highlight Layout, and select Menu Bar, which makes the change permanent. For a temporary solution, press the Alt key, which can bring up menus for windows that don’t normally have them.

Holy Hotkeys!


Access everything quicker with Enso.

Think of Enso (free beta, www.humanized.com ) as the ultimate hotkey, because that’s essentially what it is. You unlock the magic behind Enso by holding the Caps Lock key (or designate a different key) and typing commands, which range from looking up highlighted words or phrases on Wikipedia to translating text. Load maps into emails, control your media player, check your Gmail, and much more without ever having to open the Start menu.

Quickly Copy a File’s Path to the Clipboard

In the pre-Vista days, copying a file or folder path to the clipboard meant you had to right-click, select Properties, highlight the path, right-click again, and select Copy. That’s more steps than are in a Broadway musical! To perform the same action in Vista, hold the Shift key when right-clicking and select Copy as Path.

Save Search Results and Save Time

There was a time when hard-drive space was considered a hot commodity, but with 500GB and even 1TB drives now the norm, we find ourselves becoming digital pack rats. This also means we’ve developed a dependency on the Search function, but instead of repeating searches for the same sets of files, save the results to a virtual folder instead. After Windows finds the files you’re looking for, click Save Search. Windows will even keep track of any changes to the search results, so you’ll never receive outdated information.

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