We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
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Saturday, May 3. 2008
Lesson 4: Windows XP Tweaks
Like most computer nuts, I've had a long love-hate affair with Windows. Sometimes it's just the best darn-tootin' operating system in the whole gol' dang universe...
Well, let's not go into it. There might be children present.
While Windows straight out of the box isn't bad, there are a number of ways it can be improved for both speed and functionality. Some are transparent, some are quite visible. Some are very important, in that a build-up of certain things, like background programs, can actually keep the machine from working correctly at some point. On the opposite end, some tweaks are totally esoteric, completely valueless, won't do a damn bit of good — but we still do them just because it feels so good to do them.
At the end of the lesson we're all going to join hands and chant for world peace.
But until then, please...
First off, I should note that I've used True Image twice since last week's lesson. The first time was a large program I was evaluating and was planning on removing anyway, but — please note — rather than uninstalling it from the system and having it possibly leave behind scads of miscellaneous files and Registry entries, I opted to just rewrite the system with an image file and it's as if the program was never installed. Much cleaner that way over the long term.
The second time was the classic — where some wayward video program screwed up some other video program. Rather than remove it and hope everything went back to normal, I grabbed the latest image file and threw it in. Ten minutes later and I've got a perfectly-working system. The image file backup routine is truly one of the greatest computer innovations in the past decade.
This is written with two types of people in mind; those who want to leave the general looks and feel of Windows alone, but want to take care of the background stuff, and those who want to trim it down to a lean, mean, fightin' machine. I'll let you know when a tweak will make a major visual change on your system.
Most of these are just option boxes we're selecting, so if you don't like it, just uncheck the box and you're back to where you started.
Note: Depending upon how the system was initially set up, your "user name" might be your actual name (or handle) if you created it, or some company name like "DellHome" or "Compaq". Click on the Start Menu and down at the bottom you should see "Log Off" followed by your user name. When I refer to "user name", that's what I mean.
No question, the most important thing you can do for your computer is to make sure it's only running the background programs it should be. These are programs that load up in the background while Windows is booting up. The unnecessary ones just take up memory and clog up the system. When this really becomes important is on older machines that don't have gobs of memory. You get enough things burning up memory in the background and, the next thing ya know, some program isn't opening up because you've run out of memory.
First, download Startup.exe. It doesn't require an install. Just copy the folder to a permanent home, then grab the Startup.exe icon with the left mouse button and d-r-a-g it over to the Start Menu and drop it in for future access.
Fire up Startup.exe. This panel is empty with a brand-new Windows, so everything you're seeing has been added later. As such, we note that you can't actually 'break' Windows by disabling any of these.
Except for the programs you actually want running in the background, like firewalls and anti-virus programs, most of these are unnecessary. Some are trying to phone home when you fire up the program (to give the company demographic info on its users) and others are simply pre-loading program files so they won't take so long to load up when you run them. Now and then an entry will do nothing more than place the program's icon in the SysTray; the little area just to the right of the Task Bar.
The trick, of course, is to figure out which ones should stay. While it's somewhat rare, some programs actually do require something be run in the background during startup; running it later won't work. I can think of two (but only two) examples:
The nice thing about Startup.exe (compared to the Windows program MSConfig) is that we can temporarily disable things, reboot, then test them out. If something's amiss, just re-enable it and reboot.
Looking over the Startup panel, you'll recognize some things and not others. The bigger programs, like firewall/anti-virus/anti-spyware programs might have a bunch of entries, but you can tell who they go to by the location on the C Drive.
For the ones you don't recognize, you can track most of them down by their location. Even if the folder name is the name of the company (not the program) and you don't recognize it, you can always go into the folder and run the program to see what it is. If it's just some normal program, go ahead and disable the entry, reboot, then test out it out. If it runs fine, then you don't need the background program.
On that note, when I say "test", I mean it, in the sense that Adobe Acrobat will load up and work fine — it just won't save a PDF file without that Distiller program being run during boot-up.
If you're still not sure what it is, the next step would be to do a Google search for it, and make sure to type in the whole command, like "schedhlp.exe". A bunch of security sites and web forums will pop up and you'll be able to tell what it goes to and, for that matter, whether or not it's harmful.
Speaking of which, you should memorize the ones that are normally there so you can spot an intruder if something slips past your anti-virus or spyware program. The first thing I'd do would be to run over to Google and see what it is.
Once you've 'Disabled' a background routine and have verified you don't need it, you can delete it to clean things up.
Open the 'My Computer' folder, make sure no other folders are open:
At this point we're going to make our first radical change from the WinXP look. If you don't like something, just change it back:
View Menu, select 'Icons'.
View Menu, 'Arrange Icons by':
Tools Menu, 'Folder Options', 'View' tab:
What we're basically doing here is de-XPing your Windows. This is how folder windows have always behaved until XP came along. You can see now that they knocked themselves out trying to make it easy for beginners, but if you're doing these lessons, you are way beyond that point. A couple more steps will complete the deXPification of your system.
Let's take a dash through the Control Panel, accessed via Start Menu/Settings.
Task Bar and Start Menu:
Go check your Start Menu and you'll probably be surprised why everything looked so gigantic before. Again, it's just XP placating the newbies.
The 'Scheduled Tasks' feature allows you to pop up a Notepad file at a certain time & date to act to a reminder to watch some TV show, dentist appointment the next morning, etc, or run some program when you're away from the computer. A very handy tool. It requires a system password, though, so if you're planning on using the feature, open 'User Accounts', click on your user name, then, if it says "Create a password", do so. If it says "Change password", then you already have one.
Please note that the system will now require a password whenever you boot up, but the TweakUI program, below, can do it for you automatically.
To use 'Scheduled Task' with a Notepad file, first make the reminder file in Notepad and call it something like "remind1.txt". Then run 'Add Task' and 'Browse' to the Notepad file. Select when you want it to run, enter your system password and that'll do it.
This is a free Microsoft program. If you didn't install it last week, do so now. It's about halfway down the nav bar on the right. It's just a quick Next-Next-Next installation.
My Computer/Special Folders:
If you're tired of that pesky requester popping up every time you delete a file, click on the 'Recycle Bin' icon with the right mouse button and open 'Properties'. Uncheck the 'Display...' box.
It's to note that you're not really "deleting" files when you delete them from Windows. All you're really doing is moving them to the Recycle Bin, and there they'll be should you — ten minutes later — go "Oops!" The Recycle Bin rolls the old files off the back end as new ones are added. It should also be mentioned that by default the Recycle Bin is going to use up 10% of your hard drive space whether there's anything in it or not, so constantly emptying it doesn't 'save' you anything.
Unless you use it, you want to kill this baby dead, not just disable it. It's a classic 'open port' for outside hackers. Do the following:
This doesn't have anything to do with machine operation, but as long as we're cleaning everything else up, you should spend some time with your Desktop. Shall we compare?
(Just so you're not confused, the two icons above are from Windows Millennium, just because I think they look nicer than the XP icons with a solid color backdrop. If you'd like to give them a spin, they're here.)
That plethora of Desktop icons you currently have cluttering up the place are most likely:
The Desktop should be looked at as a 'quick save' option. For example, I removed three shortcut icons from my Desktop to snap the above screen-grab. They were all from sites I'd visited this morning and I either wanted to read them later or incorporate them into an article. At some point later on today I'll do both and then delete the icons. That's how the Desktop should be viewed.
As I said earlier, this doesn't have anything to do with system performance, it's more of a subliminal thing. Uncluttered Desktop equals uncluttered mind? Feeling like you're in control of your computer environment, rather than being overwhelmed by it? Something like that.
This section is a bit complicated, so if you need to take a breather, come back to it later.
The reason it's a bit complicated is because Windows divides up the entries in the Startup Menu into two categories, "all users" and "<your user name>". Programs in "all users" can be accessed by anyone who logs onto the computer; the ones in <user name> can only be accessed when that person logs on.
Security Note: When I say "accessed", I mean via the Start Menu. The actual programs are still sitting right there on the C Drive and can be run by anyone who knows how to dig up the program folder. So if you're trying to keep your computer-savvy 12-year-old from accessing your 'Best of Girls Gone Wild' program, don't count on this method. It's for convenience, not security.
If you open up the C Drive, 'Documents and Settings', you'll see the 'All Users' folder and the "user name" folder. Each of these folders contains a folder we need to access.
Now click on the Start Menu icon with the right mouse button and select 'Open'. This is how you'll normally access your Startup Menu entries. Take a look at some of the programs so you'll recognize it again, then close it down.
Back to the 'Documents and Settings' folder, open your <user name> folder. Inside, you'll see the 'Start Menu' folder, which is the one you just opened via the Start Menu button. Open it and you'll see the files you saw a minute ago.
In that folder you'll see a 'Programs' folder. If you open it up, you'll notice that it matches up with roughly half of the icons in the 'Program Files' area of the Start Menu. As I said, Windows divides them up, and this is half of them.
Now go back to the 'Documents and Settings' folder and open the 'All Users' folder. As before, you'll see a 'Start Menu' folder and, inside of that, a 'Programs' folder. Inside of the 'Programs' folder are the other half of the Start Menu icons.
Now do this:
Again click on the Start Menu icon with the right mouse button and 'Open'. You should see a bunch of unsorted icons and folders and, somewhere in there, your 'Start2' folder. Open it and you should see the other bunch of unsorted icons.
And now it's up to you to sort them all.
(As the crowd panics and breaks for the door, Doc thinks feverishly!)
Hey, guys, wait a sec! Have you seen these hot new RAM chips?
Open the startup folder via the Start Menu button. This is where your main categories go. Here's what my folder looks like:
When you've installed a program and want to move its icon to the proper area, open the 'Programs' folder. That's our main one in the '<user name>' folder. The icons will either be inside of it, or the 'Startup2' folder inside, which is the "all users" startup folder.
Once you find the program's icon, grab it with the mouse, d-r-a-g it to the correct area, then delete the rest of the junk that came with the program. 99% of the time, all you want is the main program icon.
Inside of each folder should be just the program icons, nothing else:
We Forgot Something Dept.
Sure, your system looks and feels snappy — but what about the audio environment?
This is a fun effect. It's a little whoosh! sound that plays whenever you minimize and maximize a window or program. Your friends will think it's pretty cool, and kids love it.
If that doesn't make your system feel snappy, nothing will.
At this point, assuming everything's working, you should certainly make a backup image file if you're into the scene.
Things might look a little strange at first, but this is really the time-honored way Windows has been run over the years, and it was silly of XP to kowtow to a bunch of rank beginners and change it so dramatically from the sleek beast she is. When you get Windows pared down to its knuckle-dragging roots and get rid of all the bells & whistles and background programs clogging up the works, Windows is a very solid, robust operating system.
Now that we've spent a few lessons getting your system cleaned up, it's time to get you cleaned up. Next week's lesson is going to be on ergonomics, with the goal to make your computer easier (on you) to operate, and to eliminate any long-term aches and pains.
See ya then!
Dr. Mercury's Computer Corner: Introduction
In an effort to round out Maggie's Farm and make it truly eclectic, Bird Dog has invited me to add the geek factor to the mix. But, rather than just adding a few geeky articles here and there, I thought it would be fun to actually get serious about the w
Weblog: Maggie's Farm
Tracked: May 02, 21:05
Dr. Mercury's Computer Corner: Lesson 6 - Building a home page
Project time! Okay, the big mean Dr. Mercury has been boring you to tears with lessons on ugly, sordid things like file structure and backing up systems and such, but today we're actually going to get our hands dirty. We're going to construct a local web
Weblog: Maggie's Farm
Tracked: May 16, 12:54
Dr. Mercury's Computer Corner: Lesson 7 - Cool tools
This is a weekly Saturday morning feature that will slowly, over time, turn you into a full-fledged computer expert. More info here. Lesson 7: Cool ToolsThe nightmare couldn't have happened to a nicer person.You.There you were, innocently saving a small
Weblog: Maggie's Farm
Tracked: May 23, 21:33
Doc's Computin' Tips: Customized 'new' projects
If you create a fair number of new projects, be it spreadsheets, desktop publishing brochures, word processing documents, web pages, pictures, songs or whatever, you'll be interested in this.There are actually two ways you can create a new project with al
Weblog: Maggie's Farm
Tracked: Jun 05, 12:04
Dr. Mercury's Computer Corner: Lesson 11 - Troubleshooting
This is a weekly Saturday morning feature that will slowly, over time, turn you into a full-fledged computer expert. More info here. Lesson 11: Troubleshooting Temper, temper!You work to keep your emotions under control when what you really want to do is
Weblog: Maggie's Farm
Tracked: Jun 20, 21:04
Doc's Computin' Tips: Scheduled Tasks
It's got the big, ponderous name of 'Scheduled Tasks', but I prefer the term 'Windows Alarm Clock'. As so often happens with the built-in Windows tools, 95% of a program's function might be completely worthless, but that last five percent...Got a doctor'
Weblog: Maggie's Farm
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I've bookmarked each lesson so far so I will have the lessons to refer to if and when needed. That is, as long as the pages are not deleted behind the scenes.
In theory, they should be online as long as the site remains up. They've got their own category, which says something.
The irony: Last night, while writing the lesson, I was in Display Properties and accidentally selected the "WinXP" theme -- which promptly destroyed all of my custom settings. So there I was, following my own lesson in real-time setting everything back. :)
Are you saying a Mac doesn't have WinXP 'themes'?? And you expect us to believe that? Jeez, the way they blatantly steal from each other, I'm surprised one can even tell the difference anymore.
But, rest assured, the one person in the world you don't want to push Mac cultism on is me, because as a webmaster I can be just devastating. A quick example?
Here are the viewer stats from a commercial web site I maintain:
Did you catch that? Unknown has twice as many users out there as Macs.
And how devastating is that? :)
"Unknown", BTW, would mean Amiga, Atari, NeXt, BeOS and God-knows who else.
"Say, I heard you bought a new computer and it's not a PC!"
"Yeah, it's really fun being different!"
"So, what is it? Amiga? Atari? NeXt?"
"No, it's a Mac."
BTW, I was on your side of the fence for ten years as an Amiga user in a PC world. They'd laugh and point and call it a "game machine" (the industry's highest insult), but we knew better.
Just like you. :)
I am scared to do these things. Afraid I will damage something.
"Damage", no. That's basically why they're called "tweaks", because they're not really affecting the working of the computer, just the overall look and feel of the thing. As I recall, there isn't a thing on the page that can't be immediately undone.
On the other hand, to be fair, if you're used to the way everything on your computer is set up and don't seem to be having problems finding anything, then I agree there's no overt reason to change anything. But, again, that's why it's nice to have selectable options, so you can try something and, if you don't like it, set it right back.
If I were you, I'd forget about tweaks and concentrate on backing up your system. In case you didn't get the message, no, that black box you've got isn't going to do you any good if your system bites the big one. Just ask Ed Morrissey. Even if you had the savvy to copy the backup files to the newly-formatted C Drive, it still might not work.
Remember, there are two ways to do the True Image routine. The 'casual' route is merely installing the program and running it occasionally. No big deal. The only actual work you do when making the backup file is typing in the file name.
Using the 'casual' method, you'd make backups whenever you made a significant change to the system, or added a bunch of important files. Then, when should the system melt down, you'll only lose things you've added since you made that last backup file. The 'serious' method was for those who don't want to lose a single thing.
And, of course, you could pick 'n' choose. You might feel your Favorites are important enough to do the 'serious' routine with, but not your email. Or vice versa.
Either way, I'd take care of that little item first. Just ask Ed Morrissey.
And the tweaks are the same way. You may feel your Start Menu is just fine the way it is, but you have trouble finding things in 'My Computer'. Or vice versa.
And, to return to item 1, if you have an image file of your system, you can afford to totally screw things up fiddling around. That's what's great about it. Remember, a regular backup program can't back up a number of "in use" system files, and if it's one of those that goes bad, you're shit-out, baby. With an image file, blam! The whole thing's re-written and you're flying again within minutes.
Buy True Image.
You can do it. :)
Having worked with multiple operating systems, from command line interface to the windowed interface (originating in Xerox PARC back in the '70s which I have seen but never used), and for all the utility of hacking scripts together in CLI, windowing does offer some geographic mapping in the brain to quickly shift between tasks that the CLI is hard pressed to do in an intuitive fashion.
That said there is one annoyance (and Windows Annoyances has many others) that is common to almost every single windowing interface (some LINUX varieties excepted) that is only a long term 'why can't I change *that*' annoyance. I will describe it...
You have just finished with a task(perhaps one that opens multiple windows going on with it) and are just quickly going through to close down the unneeded ones and get to others. As your mind keeps track of the geography of things, hand-eye coordination moves your hand to the upper corner of the window to close it... and you maximize it instead!
Damned simple, and yet... it is a User Interface absurdity to have the minimize, maximize and close buttons so close to each other. One of my favorite sites for this sort of absurdity is Jakob Nielsen's useit.com as he goes through the catalog of what is wrong with UI design being one of the leading men in that area of Man/Machine Interface. Good UI design would require some spacing between these three different functions so that the user doesn't mistakenly close out a needed window when trying to maximize it (you haven't done that?) or minimize one when trying to maximize it. This mapping comes from the days when screen real estate was at a premium and the size and placement of those things was *fixed*. Now, when one can get plenty of screen real estate, why can't I set up a distance between those buttons to allow me to work without mistakenly hitting one that I don't want.
Actually, if you start perusing Annoyances and useit, you will start to realize just how counter-intuitive some of the things we have on our desktop are... and it is rarely big things, like getting the BSOD from windows, but the little, picky, annoyances that really start to get to you the Nth time you do them.
Tweaking windows is one thing... making interfaces less annoying? Now that is a problem...
Very good observations, Ajack. And thanks for the link to Jakob's site, I'll peruse it later.
I hit the Maximize button instead of the Close button all of the time!
Another thing I would call decidedly unintiuitive is placing the Task Bar on the bottom of the screen. As all ex-Mac and Amiga users know, it's much more natural at the top.
Another thing would be this goofy nonsense when it comes to (delicate cough) "alphabetizing" files:
I mean, hello?? Win95/98/ME did it correctly, but XP does it the Win2K way. Goofy, weird, wacko -- pick yer term.
Do you use the (terrific) SendTo feature? To alphabetize the listings in the drop-down SendTo menu, you have to:
1. Sort them by 'Name' in the SendTo folder
2. Grab them all together and move them to the Desktop
3. Grab them one by one and d-r-a-g them back to the folder.
Now they're sorted alphabetically -- until the next time you add an entry, at which point you have to do the above routine all over again. And how daffy is that?
And then there's-
But hey -- I haven't got all day. :)