Top 19 Amazing Windows XP Operating System Tips & Tricks

Become Master Of Your OS Domain
Sure, even grizzled PC cynics ended up loving Windows XP. Microsoft seems to have addressed a host of longstanding user peeves in the most recent iteration of its OS (operating system), which is not to say that there isn’t always room to tweak something here and there. In the year since its release, WinXP has spawned scores of standard tips and tweaks. After extensive tweak hunting, we gathered the best, most indispensable system tips, along with a few personal favorites.

1. Disable error reporting. We know that Microsoft has good intentions, but seeing the error-reporting function pop up every time a program crashes or hangs is just plain tedious. You can disable this function with some menu drilling. From the Control Panel, open the Performance And Maintenance category and click the System icon. Below the Advanced tab in the System Properties dialog box, look toward the bottom for the Error Reporting button. Click it to display its dialog box where you can select the Disable Error Reporting radio button to ditch this function altogether. If you wish, you can leave a check mark in the But Notify Me When Critical Errors Occur checkbox as an added precaution.

You also can become very selective about which programs report errors to Microsoft. If you decide to keep error reporting enabled, you can elect to report only OS problems or program crashes. In addition, you can click the Choose Programs button to report on all programs, only Microsoft programs, or specific programs that you add to the list.

2. Stop Windows Messenger from loading at startup . . . for good. For those of us who don’t use Windows Messenger for our instant-messaging tasks, this program is worse than athlete’s foot. No matter how often we try to eliminate it from loading itself into the System Tray at startup, it just keeps coming back. Among the many tweaks and Registry hacks we’ve seen circulating since Microsoft released WinXP, the following tip is the easiest way to keep Windows Messenger dormant.

Launch Outlook Express, open the Tools menu, and click Windows Messenger and Options. In the Options dialog box, choose the Preferences tab, deselect all the checkboxes found here, and click OK. The Windows Messenger icon will disappear from your System Tray immediately and stay away permanently. Keep in mind that installing a particular service update for Outlook Express or WinXP may activate the Windows Messenger options again, but Outlook Express is the place to go to shut it back down.

3. Disable startup and System Tray programs. Is your System Tray of programs that load into memory at startup getting so long that it’s crowding the Taskbar? Do you really need all those quick access buttons to every feature of your Sound Blaster Live! sound card or media player? The System Configuration Utility provides an easy way to monitor what programs WinXP loads as it starts and disable most of the unnecessary ones.

From the Start menu, click Run to display its dialog box. Type msconfig in the field provided. When the System Configuration Utility dialog box opens, choose the Startup tab to find the list of programs. The programs with check marks are the ones that load at startup. Be careful; the programs are not labeled explicitly, so be sure you only deselect the ones you can identify and deem unnecessary. To help identify programs, look in list’s Command column to see where each program resides on the hard drive. After you make choices and click the Apply button, the utility will ask for a system reboot to enable the new settings.

If you use the System Configuration Utility frequently, make a Desktop shortcut for it. You can find the program buried at C:WIN DOWSPCHEALTHHELPCTRBINARIES (where C: is the letter assigned to your hard drive). Right-click Msconfig.exe, select Sent To, and click Desktop (Create Shortcut).

You can permanently prevent Windows Messenger from loading at startup by opening Outlook Express’ Options dialog box and deselecting the Run This Program When Windows Starts checkbox.

4. Pop those balloons. By default, WinXP displays system update prompts and other reminders Microsoft believes are helpful. Microsoft calls these little varmints Notification Area Balloon Tips, while most of us have our own pet names (mostly rude) for these things.

Ridding your PC of this balloon plague requires a Registry tweak. And we all know what that means: Use extreme caution. Whenever you plan to edit the Registry, you should always back it up first. One wrong move while using the Registry Editor to modify keys and values can create more problems, some of which can be disastrous.

Now, on with our Registry adventure. From the Start menu, select Run to display its dialog box, type regedit in the field, and click OK. In the Registry Editor window, expand the tree by clicking each of the following folders and sub- folders: HKEY_CURRENT_USERSOFT WAREMICROSOFTWINDOWSCUR RENTVERSIONEXPLORERADVAN CED. In the right pane, right-click a blank area, and choose New and DWORD Value from the pop-up menu to create a new item. Type EnableBalloonTips (as one word, no spaces) to name the item, and then double-click it and set its Value Data to 0. Click OK. You’ll need to reboot your system for this Registry change to take effect.

5. Change dual-boot menu order. Many WinXP users like to maintain their old Windows Me or Windows 98 installation on the same computer but on different hard drives or partitions. This is because some users need Linux and WinXP on their systems, while others prefer the ways in which older Windows OSes work with some hardware peripherals and games, but whatever the reason, the order of the dual-boot menu matters. Why? Because at startup, a dual-boot system presents the user with a boot menu of the OSes available, with one choice always highlighted (usually the last OS you installed sets itself as the highlighted default choice), and the PC will boot into that OS if there is no user input within 30 seconds.

You can change the default OS highlighted in this menu with the System Configuration Utility (Msconfig.exe). Open the Run dialog box from the Start menu, type msconfig, and click OK (or, if you followed our previous tip, use your Desktop shortcut to open the System Configuration Utility). Choose the Boot.ini tab to see the raw contents of your Boot.ini file. Highlight the line containing the OS you want to set as the default and click the Set As Default button.

Use the System Configuration Utility to determine which programs automatically load when your system starts.

The Timeout setting in the field below (on the right side) determines how long the boot menu stays on-screen before automatically booting to the default OS. You can change the 30-second default setting by clicking in the field and typing a different number.

Click Apply and OK to save your changes.

6. Hibernate on command. The hibernation mode puts your PC into a deep sleep, shutting down the system after saving everything currently in memory to the hard drive. When you reboot, this saved state should be restored to wherever you left off working.

To force WinXP into hibernation, open the Start menu and click Turn Off Computer to display the Turn Off Computer window. Pressing the SHIFT key will change the Stand By button to a Hibernate button, which you can click to use this mode. The system will then save data to your hard drive and shut down. Restarting the machine will bring you back to the PC’s previous state. Well, maybe. Many PCs are set up with the hibernation mode disabled. So, if the SHIFT key trick doesn’t work with your Turn Off Computer window, you need to enable hibernation. Open the Control Panel, click the Performance And Maintenance category, and click Power Options. In the Power Options Properties dialog box, choose the Hibernate tab, and select the checkbox next to Enable Hibernation. Click Apply and OK to save your changes and close the dialog box.

That should do it, but be forewarned: Hibernation is a touchy mode, and our test machines had varying levels of success with it. Some PCs will declare a conflict with particular hardware drivers. One of our PCs regularly reported that the hibernate data was corrupt and failed to reload it. The best bet is to test this mode out a few times with nonvital data to see how your hardware configuration handles things.

7. Uninstall WinXP components. WinXP seems to install a host of utilities and programs that we never use, but the OS won’t let us uninstall them. Why, oh, why won’t Microsoft let us ditch its infernally bad 3D Pinball game, for example? In reality, you can uninstall many of these irritating extras from WinXP, but a specific file with an .INF extension is hiding them from your Add Or Remove Programs utility.

After you select the Enable Hibernation option in the Power Options Properties dialog box, you’ll be able to simply press the SHIFT key to reveal the Hibernate button whenever the Turn Off Computer window displays on-screen.

To solve this problem, open Windows Explorer, and find C:WINDOWSINF (where C: is the letter assigned to your hard drive). Open the Inf folder and display the Sysoc.inf file in Notepad. Below the [Components] section, you will find listings, some in abbreviated form, for Terminal Server, Auto Update, MS WordPad and, yes, Pinball. Look for the word “HIDE” toward the end of the command string for each component. If it is present, your system is hiding that component from the Add Or Remove Programs utility.

Delete HIDE from each component’s command string to make the component appear in the Add Or Remove Programs utility. Take note that a comma separates each of the commands in a string. You should preserve all the commas even after deleting HIDE, so that two commas now precede the final item in the string. You can also use the find/ replace command in Notepad (select Replace from its Edit menu) to eliminate all the HIDE commands and make every WinXP component visible for uninstallation. Just be sure to save your Sysoc.inf file before closing the Notepad window.

To see the results of your handiwork, open the Control Panel and click the Add Or Remove Programs category. From the menu on the left side of the window, click Add/Remove Windows Components to see all of the items you have now “unhidden.” Deselecting the checkbox next to an item and clicking the Next command will direct WinXP to uninstall that program.

For example, if you decided to “unhide” Pinball when you edited the Sysoc.inf file, go ahead and highlight the Accessories And Utilities listing and click the Details button. Then, highlight Games and click the Details button. Here, you’ll find Pinball. Deselect the checkbox next to the listing, click Next, and the Windows Components Wizard will uninstall Pinball.

8. Lock your PC in one keystroke. If you want to lock your computer when you leave your desk, you need to change WinXP’s default setting for Fast User Switching. Open the Control Panel and click the User Accounts category. Click the Change The Way Users Log On Or Off listing to display your options. Deselect the checkbox next to Use Fast User Switching and click Apply Options. All you need to do from here is hold down the Windows function key and press L. This locks the computer and displays a logon window that prompts you for a password to unlock things.

The Sysoc.inf file determines which Windows components are and aren’t hidden from the Add/Remove Programs utility.

However, like most people, you probably installed WinXP without a logon password. If so, this makes the lock function worthless because without a password, all it takes is pressing the ENTER key to unlock your PC. Go back to User Accounts in the Control Panel and click Change An Account. Click whichever account you need to change, then click Create A Password to assign and confirm a password.

9. Total control. The little-known Group Policy Editor, only found in WinXP Professional, gives the administrator of a single PC or network of multiple PCs absolute power over just about any aspect of how the PCs behave. This includes who has access to what, as well as which icons and WinXP processes are available to whom.

To access the Group Policy Editor, click Run from the Start menu, type gpedit.msc in the field, and click OK. There are too many options in the Group Policy Editor to detail here, but an extensive Help file walks you through its features. For example, Group Policy Editor lets you alter the behavior of Internet Explorer so users cannot do things such as save Web pages, use the search function, or mess around with the toolbar. Likewise, the program can hide Control Panel icons to prevent users from tweaking a system. The Group Policy Editor is for advanced users only, but it is truly a control freak’s fantasy come true. Bwa-ha-ha!

10. Clean up the Add Or Remove Programs utility. There is something uniquely frustrating about having the Add Or Remove Programs utility cluttered with program names that linger long after you’ve scotched them from your hard drive. Deleting a program from a hard drive without uninstalling it formally usually is the cause, but what is the solution? The solution lies in the Registry.

(NOTE: As we mentioned previously, be careful while editing the Registry and always back it up first. If you don’t, you and your system may suffer the consequences later.)

The tweaker of all tweakers in Windows XP Professional is the Group Policy Editor where you can adjust virtually every aspect of WinXP and its major applications.

To delete these orphaned listings, open the Registry Editor by clicking Run from the Start menu and typing regedit in the field. In the left pane, find HKEY_ LOCAL_MACHINESOFTWAREMICRO SOFTWINDOWSCURRENTVERSION UNINSTALL. Expand the tree beneath Uninstall to find all the listings in your Add Or Remove Programs utility. Simply right-click the orphaned entry in the left pane and select Delete.

11. Change Web text sizes on the fly. Do some Web sites use impossibly small typefaces that strain your aging eyeballs? Or do some sites fill your screen with headlines that make you scroll endlessly for further details? If you have a wheel-type mouse and use Internet Explorer, put the cursor over the frame of the Web page you are viewing, hold down the CTRL key, and scroll back and forth. This enlarges and shrinks the typeface size. Take note that this trick behaves oddly on Web pages with multiple frames. It usually affects only the frame beneath the mouse cursor.

While we’re playing with the scroll wheel in IE, try the following shortcut for the Back and Forward buttons: Hold down the SHIFT key and move the scroll wheel toward you to go to the previous Web page and move the scroll wheel away from you to replicate the forward command. Each click of the wheel equals another page, so scrolling three clicks is the same as clicking your Back or Forward button three times.

12. Sort the Start menu. After a few months of adding new software to WinXP, the All Programs list probably looks like a chaotic mess. Some newly installed programs end up on the bottom of the list, while others seem to slip themselves into the middle.

To sort the list into alphabetical order, simply right-click any of the programs or folders in the All Programs menu and activate the Sort By Name command. This will reorganize the entire All Programs menu.

13. Launch programs with customized keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard fans, rejoice. You don’t need to rely on a mouse to launch your favorite programs. To create customized hotkeys, make a common shortcut icon for any program, right-click the shortcut, and select Properties.

Below the Shortcut tab, place the cursor in the Shortcut Key field, and record the desired keyboard combination using CTRL-ALT-plus any unassigned key. Generally, the number keys are safe to use, but you must avoid using major function keys such as ENTER, TAB, ESC, and the Spacebar.

Click the Apply button and your new hotkey should be set. Note that the hotkey is linked to the shortcut icon, so when you delete the shortcut, the hotkey assignment disappears, as well.

14. Goose those sluggish menus. No, it is not your slow PC; the cascading menus and submenus of the Start menu really do have a built-in lag before opening. Perhaps this new, fancy interface of WinXP just likes being fashionably late, but you can use the Registry Editor to make these menus snap to attention.

(NOTE: Once again, we must warn you to be careful while editing the Registry and to back it up first. Incorrectly editing its contents can wreak havoc on your system.)

Open the Start menu, click Run, type regedit, and click OK. From the Registry Editor window, find HKEY_CURRENT_ USERCONTROL PANELDESKTOP. In the right pane, double-click MenuShowDelay to display its Values Data field. Change the default value of 400 to 200 (if you want to halve the lag time) or 100 (to further reduce the lag time). Click OK to save your change.

Please note, however, that there is a functional reason for the menu lag time, so you may not want to set the default value to 0 (to eliminate any lag time). Maintaining some lag time at least lets you mouse over portions of the Start menu on your way to other areas without making all of the submenus pop open instantaneously just by gliding past them. You may find that an intermediate setting of 200 or 100 is a good compromise.

15. Faster boot times. Microsoft has its own downloadable utility that analyzes the time it takes to boot WinXP and optimizes the process in order to shorten it. The easiest way to get the utility is to go to the Microsoft home page ( and type bootvis in the Search field. The top of the results page should give you a direct link to a special Web page dedicated to fast booting as well as a link to the program.

Once you install BootVis.exe, close all open programs and launch BootVis. To analyze the boot process, go to the Trace menu and activate the Next Boot + Driver Delays command. This will give you the option to reboot now or wait to let the program reboot the PC in 10 seconds. After the reboot, leave the system alone until BootVis reappears with its report. This can take several minutes, so don’t be alarmed by the wait. In a series of windows, BootVis gives you more information than you wanted, needed, or even understand about the when the drivers loaded, the amount of disk and CPU activity required, and more—just to get your PC up and running.

You can make a custom keyboard shortcut for any program via the Properties dialog box associated with its shortcut icon.

The top window of the report is a bar chart that illustrates which part of the boot process is loading and at what point it is during the process. Mousing over any of these bars will indicate the process involved (for example, loading the Registry). Scroll to the right to get to a vertical line with a rectangle at the top. This represents the end of the boot process, and mousing over the rectangle will reveal the amount of time your system took to boot. Looking in the Driver Delay window may also reveal the specific drivers that are adding the most time to the boot process. Getting the most recent drivers for hardware components, such as sound and video cards, could reduce your boot time considerably, especially if early versions of the drivers tended to delay the boot process.

Another way to reduce the boot time is to go to the Trace menu and activate the Optimize System command. BootVis will then reboot your PC, and as it restarts, BootVis will move some of the more critical boot files and drivers to a faster portion of your hard drive. Run the BootVis Next Boot command again to see how much time this optimization shaved off of the boot process. According to your system’s configuration, the amount of boot time it saves with a BootVis optimization could be anywhere from a second or two to 10 seconds or more.

16. Disable indexing for faster performance. The Indexing Service is an option many users activate when they perform searches of their hard drive contents. At the search screen, WinXP asks users whether they want to speed future searches by enabling this function, yet many users don’t realize this Indexing Services might continue to run in background and eat up performance without their knowledge.

To check up on it, open the Control Panel, click the Performance And Maintenance category, and click Administrative Tools. Double-click Services to display a long list of WinXP services. From this list, highlight Indexing Service. Its Status column describes whether it is active or not. If so, click the Stop The Service link on the upper-left side of this list to disable it.

17. Optimize virtual memory.Like its predecessors, WinXP automatically manages virtual memory, the way in which data swaps to and from the hard drive when there isn’t room for it in memory. In the default mode, Windows expands and contracts the size of the swap file (called a “paging file” in WinXP) as needed, but this process can slow down your machine. Many users have found that forcing WinXP to use a static swap size gives their system faster performance.

To do this, open the Control Panel, click the Performance And Maintenance category, and click System. Below the Advanced tab, find the Performance section and click its Settings button. When the Performance Options dialog box appears on-screen, choose the Advanced tab, and click the Change button from Virtual Memory area.

In the field at the top of the Virtual Memory dialog box, highlight the letter associated with the hard drive where you want to keep your swap file. Then select the Custom Size radio button. The two empty fields beneath this area are where you type in the size of the swap file. The rule of thumb is to make the swap file at least twice as large as the memory installed on the system. So, for a PC with 256MB of system RAM, set both the top and bottom fields to 512 (which will set to 512MB for each). Click the Set button, and you’ll receive a message that you must reboot for this tweak to take effect.

18. Make the Desktop snappier. If you find that the Windows Desktop looks and feels sluggish or that particular Web sites in your browser window scroll awkwardly, this could indicate that some of WinXP’s cute visual effects are bogging down the video subsystem. Turning off features such as animated window effects, mouse pointer shadowing effects, or smooth-edged text fonts can make the Desktop seem much snappier.

To access these and many other options, open the Control Panel, click the Performance And Maintenance category, and click System. In the System Properties dialog box, choose the Advanced tab and click the Settings button in the Performance section. Below the Visual Effects tab, you can select and deselect checkboxes next to more than a dozen settings. Experiment with some of these changes (one at a time), and click the Apply button to see the effects immediately. The functions that seem to have the most dramatic effect on video performance are: Animate Windows When Minimizing And Maximizing, Show Shadows Under Mouse Pointer, and Smooth Edges Of Screen Fonts.

19. Enable DMA. The hard drives and disc drives attached to a system’s IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) ports usually can take advantage of DMA (direct memory access) modes to minimize the load these drives put on the CPU. The end result can be faster performance and the elimination of video and audio glitches, especially with disc drives.

In most cases, WinXP should detect the DMA modes a device has available when the OS is installed, but some drives can be finicky and some pesky programs have been known to disable DMA is order to run more effectively. In fact, WinXP is known to have problems enabling DMA on drives that use a slave mode on the primary or secondary IDE channels.

To check and change the DMA setting for your devices, open the Control Panel’s Performance And Maintenance category and click System. Below the Hardware tab, click the Device Manager button. From the Device Manager window, double-click IDE ATA/ATAPI Controllers to expand this section. Most computers will have primary and secondary IDE channels available, both of which need to be checked. Double-click one of the channels to display its Properties dialog box. Below the Advanced Settings tab, each device attached to that IDE channel will have its own Transfer Mode field and drop-down menu. Make sure DMA If Available is the setting selected. If you make any changes to the DMA status of a device, Windows will direct you to reboot your system to put the changes into effect.