Windows XP Tweaks

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This is a collection of my favorite Windows XP Tips and Tweaks. While there are countless more, these are the ones I find the most useful. Some of them already worked in earlier versions of Windows, a few of them only work in XP Professional. This collection will grow over time as I discover and add new ones. Have fun!

Unlock the taskbar

By default, the task bar is locked in Windows XP, limiting your ability to customize it. You can unlock the task bar by right-clicking on it and unchecking the option Lock the Taskbar.

Show all icons in the system tray

By default, Windows XP hides all inactive icons in the system tray. While this feature makes for a cleaner task bar and system tray, it might prevent easy access to certain programs or information. You can set it to display all icons at all times by right-clicking on the taskbar, selecting Properties and unchecking the box labeled Hide inactive icons.

Activate the Quick Launch bar

The Quick Launch bar is a handy feature that gives you access to shortcuts without having to see the desktop or navigate the Start menu. Activate the Quick Launch bar by right-clicking on the taskbar, selecting Toolbars, and clicking Quick Launch. Add shortcuts to the Quick Launch bar by dragging and dropping them onto the bar. Rearrange the order of icons by dragging them with the left mouse button into the spot where you want them.

Show all taskbar buttons

To avoid a mess of tiny taskbar buttons when you have many windows open, XP will combine similar taskbar buttons into one entry, e.g. if you have 5 Internet Explorer windows open, it will combine them into one button with the number 5 on it, indicating the 5 windows. If you prefer to have all buttons visible, disable this feature by right-clicking on the taskbar, selecting Properties, and unchecking the box labeled Group similar taskbar buttons.

Customize the Start menu

You can change the size, number, and type of icons that appears on the Start menu. Right-click the taskbar, select Properties, select the Start Menu tab, and click Customize. Under the General tab you can change the size of the icons, choose how many icons to show, and specify your preferred browser and email program.

Customize the Start menu Part 2

You can further customize the Start menu by adding or removing certain options and changing certain behavior. Right-click the taskbar, select Properties, select the Start Menu tab, click Customize, then select the Advanced tab. Under Start menu items, pick which options you want to show in the Start menu, and whether you want them to act as a link, or a menu. For example, a very handy option is to display the Control Panel as a menu. Scroll through the list and customize to your heart’s content.

Get the latest security updates automatically

Instead of checking for Windows updates manually, you can tell Windows XP to check automatically, download them, and even install them if you want. In the Control Panel, select Performance and Maintenance / System (or just System in the classic Control Panel view), then select the Automatic Updates tab. Check the box labeled Keep my computer up to date, then choose to either download and notify, or download and install.

Customize the command prompt window

The command prompt window is by default pretty small and ugly looking. You can change that by right-clicking the title bar of the command prompt window and selecting Properties. Here you can customize the text and background color, window size and position, and a few other options. When you’re done and click OK, you will be prompted whether to apply the changes only to the current window, or to all future command prompt windows. Select the option Save properties for future windows with the same title to have the same look and feel on any command prompt windows you open in the future, even after reboot.

Autocomplete file and folder names at the command line

Instead of having to type the full file or folder name at the command prompt, you can designate a key to have Windows fill in the rest of the name after typing the first few characters. Go to Start / Run, type Regedit, and click OK to launch the registry editor. Drill down to the key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Command Processor. Right-click on the DWORD value CompletionChar and select Modify to edit it. To designate the tab key, change the value to 9 and click OK. Perform the same modification to the DWORD value PathCompletionChar. Now open a new command prompt window. Type the first few letters of a file or folder name, then press the Tab key. Windows will fill in the rest, assuming you typed enough letters for it to positively identify the name you wanted. If several files or folders start with the same letters, type as many letters as needed to positively identify the desired name.

Remember a previous directory at a command prompt

When navigating directories at the command prompt level, it can get quite tedious maneuvering back and forth between directories. A handy little command can remember your current directory before you navigate somewhere else, and bring you back at any time with a simple command.

Instead of using the CD (Change Directory) command to change directories, use the command PUSHD followed by the target directory you wish to navigate to, for example PUSHD C:\Windows. This command will remember whatever your current directory is, e.g. C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator\My Documents\My Pictures and then change it to C:\Windows. Whenever you are ready to get back to the previous directory, you do not have to type the entire path again. Instead, type POPD and press Enter. You are now back to whatever directory you were in when you used the PUSHD command.

Quick Shutdown or Reboot shortcut

You can shut down Windows with a double-click instead of having to navigate the entire Start / Shutdown / Shutdown / OK sequence. Right-click on your desktop and select New / Shortcut. You will see the Create Shortcut wizard. In the field labeled Type location of the item enter the following command:

Shutdown -s -t 0

Click Next. Enter a name for the shortcut, e.g. Quick Shutdown. Click Finish. If you want to replace the generic icon for your new shortcut, right-click on it, select Properties, select the Shortcut tab, click Change Icon, and select the desired icon.

You can also create a shortcut for a quick restart. Follow the instructions above, but enter the following command instead:

Shutdown -r -t 0

Disable that pesky Messenger

Windows Messenger is enabled and loads at startup by default in Windows XP. If you want to get rid of that pesky icon because you do not use Windows Messenger, here’s how. Go to Start / Run, type gpedit.msc and click OK. In the resulting Group Policy Editor window, drill down to Local Computer Policy / Computer Configuration / Administrative Templates / Windows Components / Windows Messenger. In the right panel you will see two entries: Do not allow Windows Messenger to be run and Do not automatically start Windows Messenger initially. For each one, double-click it and change the setting from Not Configured to Enabled. After your next restart, Windows Messenger will no longer appear.

Get serious with the Search feature

The Search feature in Windows XP is almost too user friendly. For anybody used to how the Search function worked in previous Windows versions, here’s how you can get the advanced look and feel back.

Go to Start / Search. Click on Change Preferences. To turn off the silly dog, click the link Without an animated screen character. Now click Change files and folders search behavior. Change the setting to Advanced and click OK. Now you have all the advanced search features back at your fingertips.

While you’re here, you can also customize your Internet search behavior. Click Change preferences one more time, then select Change Internet search behavior. If you prefer the classic search behavior, select With Classic Internet search and choose your preferred default search engine, then click OK.

Quick Admin Tools Access

You can get access to all essential XP administration tools with a few keystrokes. Go to Start / Run, type compmgmt.msc and click OK. The resulting management console includes access to logs, shares, users and groups, disk defrag, disk management, device manager, services, and more.

Advanced Startup Diagnosis and Configuration

Get access to all components involved in the startup process such as boot.ini, services, the Run registry keys, and more. Go to Start / Run, type msconfig, and click OK.

System Details

Find out every single detail about your computer at a glance. Go to Start / Programs / Accessories / System Tools / System Information. Here you can find data about your CPU, RAM, BIOS, installed hardware, resources, and much more in a searchable organized window.

Bonus tip: At the top of this window you’ll find a Tools menu with access to some system tools. One of the options, Net Diagnostics, scans your system and gathers a long list of very useful troubleshooting information not only about your network connections, but also about your computer configuration.

Change Folder Default Behavior

If you don’t like how Windows opens a simple folder window instead of the full-fledged Explorer view, here is how you change it. Open Windows Explorer and go to Tools / Folder Options / File Types. Scroll down to the entry labeled (NONE) Folder. Highlight it and click the Advanced button. In the Actions window, highlight explore and click Set Default. Click OK, then Close.

Uninstall Additional Windows Components

Some Windows components are installed by default and normally cannot be uninstalled by going to Start / Control Panel / Add or Remove Programs / Add/Remove Windows Components. This little trick makes some of those components visible on that list and available for removal. Open Windows Explorer and drill down to the C:\WinNT\inf direectory (your Windows installation folder might vary slightly). Find the file called sysoc.inf and double-click it to open it in Notepad.

Note: If you don’t see the file, go to Tools / Folder Options / View and select Show hidden files and folders, then uncheck Hide protected operating system files.

Some of the lines in the file have the word hide towards the end. This switch prevents them from appearing in the uninstall list. Remove the word hide from the desired lines, but be careful to leave both the comma before and after in place. Save the file and check out the Windows components uninstall list again to see the results.

Handy Keyboard Shortcuts

Windows offers a lot of useful and convenient keyboard shortcuts. If your keyboard has a Windows key, there are even more.

Windows key + R Run
Windows key + M Minimize All
Windows key + Shift+M Undo Minimize All
Windows key + F1 Windows Help
Windows key + E Explorer
Windows key + F Find Folder or Files
Windows key + Tab Cycle through Taskbar Buttons
Windows key + Pause/Break System Properties
Ctrl+X Cut selected item
Ctrl+C Copy selected item
Ctrl+V Paste
Ctrl+Z Undo the last operation
Shift+F10 Pops up the shortcut menu, just like right-clicking
Ctrl+Esc Pops up the Start Menu
Ctrl+A Select all items
Ctrl+F Find
Alt+Tab Switch between applications
Alt+Tab+Shift Switch backward between applications
Alt+Esc Switch open windows
Alt+Enter Open properties for selected item
Shift+Delete Delete selected item without placing it in the Recycle Bin
F1 View Help for a selected dialog box
F2 Rename the selected item
F3 Opens the Find Command in your current folder
F4 Drop the “folder selection menu” in Explorer
F5 Refreshes the contents of the current folder
Alt+F4 Quit a program
Backspace Go up one directory (Explorer), go to previous page (Internet Explorer)

See more in Windows Explorer

The default view of Windows Explorer in XP is very secretive. It hides whole folders, extensions, details, paths, and more. You can tweak Explorer to bare it all with a few easy steps. In Windows Explorer, click View / Status Bar to see various details at the bottom of the window. Then click View / Details to display more information in the right pane. Now go to Tools / Folders Options / View / Advanced settings and check all the Display… entries, then uncheck all the Hide… entries to expose a whole slew of information. Lastly, make sure your changes are remembered by clicking Apply to All Folders. Browse through a few folders and enjoy the vast amount of information now available.

Windows XP Power Toys

You can tweak Windows XP even more. Microsoft offers a free set of power user tools called Windows XP Power Toys. They include virtual desktops, a command line prompt anywhere with one click, an advanced Alt-Tab menu, the classic TweakUI program, and more. You can download them individually from http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/downloads/powertoys.asp. Read the description for each one and install the ones you find useful. If you change your mind later on, you can always uninstall via the Add/Remove Programs option in the Control Panel.

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