File: etc/computit - item number: 0
A brand new eXPerience Roger Gann (P C W, 1/02)) Welcome to P C W's newest Hands On column, one that's devoted to arguably Microsoft's finest operating system to date, none other than Windows X P. Maybe you've bought a new P C that's come with Windows X P pre-installed or maybe you're contemplating an upgrade. Either way, this column is for you. I'll be concentrating on the Home Edition, so I apologise to users of the fancier Professional version. However, all the features found in the Home Edition are found in the Professional so you shouldn't miss out on too much. Even so, this new operating system has so many new features and capabilities that I suspect I'll have my hands full dealing with the ins and outs of the Home Edition. Since this is a "Hands On" column I thought I'd kick off with tweaking your copy of Windows X P using some free Microsoft software. Yes, I know the paint isn't even dry on Windows X P but I have to start somewhere. After all, my motto is and has always been "if it ain't broke, tweak it"! Windows X P Power Toys. One of the more popular freebie add-ons for Windows 9x and Windows 2000 Professional were the Power Toys, a set of Microsoft developed (but completely unsupported and hence free) utilities that added a small dose of extra functionality to the O S. Perhaps the star turn among this rag-bag collection of goodies was Tweak U I - a small but multi-faceted toot that let you tweak many otherwise hidden aspects of the Windows user interface. It did bring with it a modicum of grief here and there, but by and large it's been an invaluable component in any self-respecting Windows junkie's toolkit. The Power Toys kind of went into limbo with the advent of Windows 2000 almost two years ago. Some of the tools were no longer needed, some didn't work at all and a couple, such as Tweak U I, almost worked and in doing so caused no end of trouble. Well the good news is that for Windows X P the Power Toys have returned. As the Readme file proclaims up front: "These toys add fun and functionality to the Windows experience". As before they're an odd mixture of the vital and the curiously useful. Here's what you'll find in there. Faster User Switcher. Fast User Switcher is a neat feature of Windows X P but to do it you need to log out and in again. Providing Fast User Switching is enabled on Windows X P, this PowerToy allows you to switch users without having to go via the Welcome screen. It works a bit like Alt & Tab switching: you simply hold down the Windows key and repeatedly hit the Q key to run through all the users logged onto that P C. Shell Player. This PowerToy lets you play M P3 files and w m a files (playlists too) from the Taskbar, without having to load the Media Player. You simply right-click on the Taskbar, click Toolbars, then click Audio Player. This gives you a new toolbar, with Play, Previous, Next, and Playlist Editor buttons. You might have to unlock the Taskbar and resize the Toolbar to view all the buttons. Task Switcher. This is an update of the old, familiar Alt & Tab function. It provides a thumbnail preview of windows in the task list and is compliant with the new Windows X P visual style. The functionality isn't improved, it's just a bit prettier. It's also a bit slower as each thumbnail is generated on the fly. If you're a heavy Alt & Tab user now, think twice about using this toy. Open Command Window Here. This PowerToy adds an "Open Command Window Here" context menu option on file system folders. This gives users a quick way to open a command window pointing at a selected folder in the Explorer U I. I found this a very useful toy as navigating down to some the deep-level sub-folders was no fun from a command prompt. A must-have for command line junkies (and yes, there is still a need for a command line in Windows X P). Tweak U I. Old wine in new bottles, the new Tweak U I is no longer a Control Panel applet but a separate program in its own right - you'll find it on the Accessories menu. Actually, I'm being a little harsh here - the latest Tweak U I is also the best yet. As before, it exposes a user interface for numerous system settings that are not normally exposed through the default Windows X P dialogs. That is, most of these options would have previously required you to edit the system Registry with RegEdit or a similar tool - a daunting task for most users. In use, Tweak U I features a cascading tree view of options on the left, and selecting any option will display configuration settings on the right. There are so many things to tweak in Windows X P, believe me. You can configure various U I effects, such as menu fading, error beeping, cursor shadow, and the like. You can configure the mouse, the Taskbar and the desktop. You can edit common dialogs, and determine the location of special shell folders, such as My Music, My Pictures, and the C D Burning cache. If you only get hold of one Power Toy, make sure it's Tweak U I. PowerToy Calc. This is just a superior version of the rather ancient Calculator that hasn't really changed much since Windows v1.0. This one is strictly for the rocket scientists! Bulk Resize for Photos. This Toy allows you to make a new, resized copy of your selected pictures in the same folder they are currently located in. You can resize one or batch process several. You simply right-click any image or group of images and select Resize Pictures in the context menu. You get a choice of 640 times 480 (small), 800 times 600 (medium), 1,024 times 768 (large) or 240 times 320 (palm-sized, for Windows C E-based Pocket P C devices). The file name is amended to include "small", "medium" or whatever. I S O Image Burner. One for the avid burners among us, this Toy lets you burn an "I S O Image" using a C D-ROM burner that is X P compatible. Slide Show Generator. A "family" Toy this one - it lets you burn a C D slideshow, adding an "Autorun" command to the disc so that it'll play automatically upon insertion. Slide Show Wizard. In a similar vein, this Toy is a wizard that helps you create a slide show of your digital pictures. When you're done, you can put your slide show on the web so that your family and friends can view it. Virtual Desktop Manager. An old chestnut this, and one I've not been too fond of in the past - it lets you manage up to four desktops from the Taskbar - you simply right-click on the Taskbar. Background Wallpaper Switcher. Can you guess what this Toy does? Taskbar Magnifier. Last but not least, this Toy magnifies part of the screen from the Taskbar. At the time of writing, the X P Power Toys weren't available from Microsoft's website, although some copies had "escaped" and found their way to at least one popular download site on the web. The more cautious among you might like to wait a little and get the real McCoy from Microsoft. And by that time don't be surprised if one or two of these don't see the light of day! There are, of course, some commercial alternatives to the Microsoft Power Toys, such as Tweak-X P, from a German software developer, TotalIdea (www.totalidea.de). This is a $30 (œ22) shareware program that incorporates "more than 22 utilities in one". Many of its tweaking functions are not, as you might think from its name, specific to Windows X P but generic, relating to matters such as banner-ad removal and optimising your Internet connection speed. And there's X-teq X-Setup 6.0 (www.xteq.com) which is free for home use so well worth a spin. This utility isn't version specific and will run on all flavours of Windows. Finally, devoted tweakers should definitely pay a visit to www.tweakxp.com which has a treasure trove of advice and info relating to Windows X P. For example, ClearType is now part of the operating system, a technique that helps improve clarity and legibility of text on an L C D display. By default this feature does not start until after you log on. But with the tweak below you will be able to make it start as Windows loads, so it will be enabled on the welcome login screen. You simply open RegEdit (from the Run dialog box) and drill down to HKEY_USERS\.DEFAULT\Control Panel\Desktop. Locate the key "FontSmoothingType" and change the value to 2. The change takes effect when you reboot. A small tip but one that makes life just that little bit more bearable, don't you think? And there's more where that one came from! [Contacts: Roger Gann welcomes your comments on the Windows X P column. 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