As it goes, I've been planning to "get around to" doing a series
of articles about Windows XP. I know there are a lot of users out there who
would appreciate learning more about some of the cool features in this operating
system. But like so many things, there isn't always time to do what you want.
Recently, I added a comments input box to our TechTrax subscription
page. My curiosity was getting the best of me and I wanted to know who or
what caused various surges in the numbers of new subscribers. Lots of wonderful
comments in there to boost the fact that we are doing something much appreciated
here at TechTrax. So to all who have taken the time to leave a nice note
about how happy you are that you found us...thank you!
I suppose the comments in there could be considered Feedback,
but we have a specific place for folks who wish to pass comments along, so
I don't intend to publish what people say when they toss in their two cents
as they subscribe. However, I do take time now and then to read those comments.
And someone left a nice note that was not only complimentary, but also a
gentle kick in my virtual butt—and in my own mind—to get moving and start
working on this Windows XP Learning series.
The new subscriber wrote: "My sister emailed me the link to your site this
morning since which, I've been perusing for the last 5 hrs. I love it and
I am not easy to please. The only change I would like to see to this site
is more tips and tricks on MS Windows and more free/fee paid tutorials. Your
articles are written in a clear concise manner which isn't condescending
even to individuals who aren't novice computer users. I believe everyone
would be able to get something from this site."
First, allow me to thank this subscriber, very much, for the kind words.
But also for reminding me that folks would appreciate more info about windows.
I hope you, and other readers who have been wishing for similar information,
appreciate this series. I don't have any lesson plan in mind at this point.
I just want to write about Windows XP and tell you how to do lots of cool
stuff to make it work the way you want/need. And along the way, I hope to
add in some tips and tricks.
Also, to those of you who aren't using Windows XP, don't walk away in a huff!
Although the information presented in this series will be specific to Windows
XP Pro, a lot of the basics will also cover those of you using Windows 2000.
And some of you using older versions of Windows will benefit, too.
As for more paid
training courses...we're working on it!
What's So Cool About Windows XP?
Probably the best thing about Windows XP (WinXP) is the fact that it is stable!
One of my favorite support lines is: When in doubt, reboot! I still
use this line and it's still true, but I do a lot less rebooting since I
moved over to WinXP Pro. I was using Win98 on my laptops and my desktop
system. Then I needed some upgrading on my desktop system and bit the
bullet with a move to WinXP. I didn't really want to change, but Greg wanted
me to, because he said it would be much easier for him to handle our home
network and keep our systems secure. And since he was doing the work,
I couldn't argue. But as with most things Greg suggests, he was right—I love
WinXP! I had a lot of the corporate features I enjoyed when using Windows
2000 in the business world, but it was as easy—no, easier to use than Win98.
A Brief History
I know! You'd prefer I can the history lesson and get on with the good stuff!
Me, too. But it's only fair that we start this series out at the beginning
and make sure you all get a little background understanding
of how WinXP was born. I've been using computers for about 16+ years now,
so I can remember all this stuff cos' I worked my way through it as a user.
But since many of you are new to computers, allow me to drag you down memory
I started using computers around the mid-1980s. Actually, they were really
just glorified typewriters with memory back then. HA! I'm sure a lot of you
can remember those huge floppy disks we had back on those Lanier and Wang
word processor systems! (I know, a lot of you can remember much further than
that!) But the PC was starting to appear in offices. Most of us started with
DOS back then, but some were moving to Windows 2x. Sheesh! I'm still kicking
myself for tossing out those Windows 2.1 diskettes!
Many folks will remember using Windows 3.x, which arrived around 1990. And,
later, Windows for Workgroups. I was dragged to the world of
Windows from DOS...kicking and screaming! In fact, I found a Sticking
With DOS button
at a tech show and wore it around the office just to make sure, Dave, my
boss, knew I was not pleased with the move. He laughed. Said he was waiting
for me to show up with a button that said My
Boss is a Horses' Ass! Later that day he nearly busted a gut when he
saw my new and improved button—now displaying the rear end of a horse
graphic. Nothing better than working for someone with a great sense of humor!
(Or so he always reminded me.<smirk>)
The corporate world was soon introduced to Windows NT, which stood for New
Technology. It started out with 3.1, then 3.5. But balanced out more
with WinNT 4 (which actually arrived after Win95). WinNT
provided the corporate world with more security and better ways to network
systems. There weren't many home PCs around back then, but those that
were there were mostly using Windows 3x, whereas WinNT provided more
features that corporations wanted.
Microsoft had these two lines of operating systems and they were fairly
split. Win3x for the home user and WinNT for the business user. The talk
was that Microsoft would come together with a single operating system that
could give both sets of users what they wanted and needed. But that wasn't
to be for many years yet.
In 1995 folks stood in line all night long to be among the first to purchase
the revolutionary new version—Windows 95! Greg was in Redmond (MS HQ) for
the launch and still talks about what a perfect "Windows kinda day" it was—the
sky resembled the blue sky and puffy clouds on the box—as Jay Leno and
Bill Gates stood on stage touting the features of this wonderful new operating
system. While cleaning out the garage this winter, that special edition boxed
version of Windows 95, which Greg got at the launch, did not find
it's way to the trash! Some things you just gotta save! (Wish I knew that
back when I tossed those Win 2x disks in the garbage!<sigh>)
Windows 98 was a more stable and improved version of Windows 95, but like
Office 2000 was to Office 97...it ran better, but much the same in looks
Windows 2000 (Win2K) was originally planned as the unifier. The idea of one
operating system...with the best of the corporate and home user environments...was
talked about and this sounded like it would be it. Nope—not yet! Win2K still
provided more than the home user needed and required more overhead than most
home users were willing to shell out for. The home users stayed with Win98.
Then Windows Millennium (WinME) arrived. This was to be something special
for the home user. It would have lots of multimedia goodies that would give
the home user greater abilities to do cooler things, like watch movies and
videos with greater ease. Share photos and take advantage of the Internet
in ways they hadn't been able to before. Unfortunately, WinME didn't take
off. It was soon discovered that those who upgraded were suffering from too
many application and driver conflicts. Most home users still stayed with
In 2001, Windows XP arrived. I believe people didn't know quite what to think.
Was this for the business user? Was this for the home user? After WinME,
should home users dare upgrade? "My office is upgrading
to WinXP...can I use this at home?" I don't know the sales stats (and
I'm too lazy to look them up), but from what I saw in the support market,
folks just weren't too anxious to make a move. Win98 worked just fine, thank
But with new computer buyers being force fed the latest operating system—WinXP,
the word slowly started to get out that users were not having
many conflicts. WinXP seemed pretty stable. It was! More exciting...WinXP
could be used in both the home and office. Okay, sure...there actually are two
flavors of WinXP—Home and Professional. But folks who had the luxury
of a choice were picking up on WinXP Pro. WinXP Home is missing a few features,
such as no Remote Desktop capabilities, no support for multi-processors,
no Backup/System Restore features, no File Encryption, no Domain Logon, no
Roaming Profiles, no Group Policies and no Web Server.
Personally, I wish Microsoft had just made the Professional version.
Users of the Home version are missing out on some cool stuff, in my opinion.
But I know I hear folks complain that they don't need all that stuff, so
there must be folks out there pleased with their choice. Before you do make
that choice, however, you might want to do a little comparison to make sure
you won't be disappointed, as I know some users are when they selected the
Home edition. Read: Which
Edition is Right for You? before you plop down
the cash. But if you do have cash and you're still using Win98...come
on over to WinXP, the water's fine!
For a more complete history of Windows, see this Microsoft link: Windows
Customizing the Overall Look of WinXP
Okay, I've rambled on long enough! Time to give up the goods!
In this lesson, we'll dig in and look at some of the ways you can customize
the look of your system.
I first moved from Win98 to WinXP, I didn't want to have to deal with
a whole new way of working. I was too busy and just wanted my system to look
and feel like my old friend. After I got used to the fact that I could keep
it just the way I wanted it, I took a few steps here and there to dabble
with a little customization. Now that I'm comfy with how to switch things
back and forth, I've enjoyed making my life easier by adding more drastic
customization. Let's take a look at some of the things you can do
to either keep it comfy or go wild!
One of the first things you'll notice about WinXP is the somewhat neon glow
of the interface. This new look
was code named Lunar.
At first, I didn't like it. I wanted my old look back. Thankfully, switching
between the Classic Windows design and the new Lunar look is quite simple.
To change the overall look of Windows, you need to go to the Themes dialog
box. This is under Display. You can get there by either clicking Start
> Control Panel > Display. Or you can just right
click anywhere on your desktop and choose Properties.
In the Themes drop down, you'll notice the Windows Classic choice. Choose
it and you'll be back to the old Win98 look.
But if, like me, you eventually tire of the old look and are ready to move
to the new Lunar look, just go back into the Themes dialog and change it.
You can also add a lot of customization to the look and then save your personal
version under another name.
The Start Button Properties
For the rest of this article, we'll be concentrating on Start
Button customizations. However, I wanted to make sure you were
aware of the above switching feature, so you can start with Windows the
way you prefer. In a future article, we'll dig deeper into all the features
of the Display
Properties dialog box.
For now, let's move to the Start button.
You may think that the Start button only does that...start you off to
move to other things. Yes, that's true. But there are a lot of things
you can do with that Start button besides just moving on to other programs.
For example, if you need to quickly get into your files, you can enter Windows
Explorer through the Start button by simply right
clicking on it and choosing
Explore, as shown below. This move will open Windows Explorer
which allows you to move, copy, delete and access your files and various
Note that you can also quickly access Windows Explorer by hitting the Windows
+ E shortcut keys or by clicking Start > My
Computer, or accessing the My
Computer icon you might have displayed on your desktop.
We're going to dig into the Start > Properties dialog, so right click on
Start and choose Properties.
In the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box that will appear, there
is a lot you can choose to customize the overall look of how your Start Menu
appears, as well as how your Taskbar works. Note that the Taskbar is that
area along the bottom of your Windows display.
Within the Taskbar/Start Menu Properties, there are two tabs. We'll look
at the Taskbar tab, first.
Lock the Taskbar
If you share your computer with others and they don't have their
own profiles in which to customize to their own liking, you may discover
that things on your Taskbar get moved around from where you last left
them. Or worse...did you know that you can even move the entire Taskbar to
another side of your monitor display?
Yup! As shown above, you can literally grab your Taskbar and drag it
to the top or either side of your monitor. You can also make it much wider
than its default size. I prefer my Taskbar a bit wider along the bottom,
because I like to keep so much stuff on it. You can click and drag the edge
of it so that there's more room for everything to fit. The image below is
a chopped up version of the left and right side of my current Taskbar.
If you often have a lot of applications open at the same time, you might
find it easier to view everything that's going on by making your Taskbar
a little wider.
But once you customize things just the way you want, you certainly don't
want someone coming along and messing things up! So you can choose to Lock
the Taskbar. This will ensure that things will be left the way you
set them. However, if you want to make further customizations, be sure to
unlock it, first.
Auto-hide the Taskbar
Although widening your Taskbar can be an advantage that allows you to get
more Real Estate to see things better, it also means that
you'll be losing some of the space on your desktop view. Particularly on
a laptop where screen spacing might be at a premium, a wider bar might be
too much for a little screen. However, you can set your Taskbar to Auto-hide.
I, personally, prefer this feature. It will cause the Taskbar to slide out
of view when you're not using it. However, just move your mouse over the
bottom of the screen and it'll reappear. After you have accessed what you
needed on the Taskbar, it'll disappear again once you move your mouse away.
This allows your applications to take advantage of that space and maximize
out to the full size of your monitor, if you wish.
Keep the Taskbar On Top of Other Windows
If you use Auto-hide, you'll probably want to keep this feature selected.
Otherwise, you won't see the Taskbar when you move your mouse over the bottom
as it'll be appearing in the background. So why even have this choice? Well,
maybe you prefer not to use the Auto-hide feature, but you still don't
want to lose that space. This option will give you the space, but you'll
need to move to the desktop to access the bar. Experiment with the different
settings and find what works best for you.
Group Similar Taskbar Buttons
This option can come in handy if you often have many of the same type of
windows open. Users often end up having a lot of Internet Explorer windows
open at the same time. You can choose to keep them grouped. This way you
can save space by having one button represent all those windows, versus having
individual buttons for each one.
Plus, this makes it easier to close all the windows at the same time, because
you can right click the one button and choose to close the entire
Show Quick Launch
The Quick Launch portion of the Taskbar is wonderful, in my opinion. In WinXP,
you can easily add any shortcut to this area of the Taskbar. The Quick Launch
is the section along the left, next to the Start Button. Any application
you add there will open with one click. Plus, it helps you keep your desktop
clear of icons, if you prefer. No need to have your frequently used icons
duplicated on your desktop when you can add them right here.
Just drag any program icon over to the Quick Launch area. If you
drag it with the left mouse button, it'll automatically add a shortcut
to that space. If you drag it with the right mouse button, you'll
get a mini menu offering you choices.
Show the Clock
You can choose to display a clock in the right portion of your Taskbar. This
area is known as the SysTray, or System Tray. Lots of programs that
are currently running in the background while your system is running
will display a notification icon in this area so you not only know they are
running, but can access the program's options by right clicking on the icon.
We'll discuss the SysTray more in a moment. For now, know that you can display
a clock here. And if you mouse-over the time display, you'll be able to see
In fact, if you widen your Taskbar, you can get all that information at a
glance, as you can see further above in the image of the wider Taskbar.
And double click on the time display and you'll open the Date/Time dialog
Hide Inactive Icons
One of the cooler features now in Windows is the ability to hide icons you
don't need displayed all the time in your SysTray. As you can see from the
Clock image above, I have a lot of applications running all the time. With
a large system, I can have the luxury of keeping programs available to me
with a quick keystroke by allowing them to run somewhat idle in the background.
You may have heard the term resident or TSR (Terminate
and Stay Resident). This means that the program won't actually be open and
running while displayed on your desktop. However, it's not completely closed
either. It's running idle in the background with it's system files still
in memory. This allows you to access that program much faster than having
to open it each time you need to use it.
I use Text
Aloud MP3 all the time to read mail to me or help me proof read
my writing. I want it to start quickly when I hit the keys I've set as
the activation keys for that program. So this program is always running in
the background and is displayed in my Taskbar. However, if I didn't want
to take up all that space to constantly see all these resident programs,
I can choose to have some hidden away.
But other icons in my SysTray, such as my "new email has arrived icon"
might be something I do want displayed each time it's activated by
Outlook. With the Hide Inactive Icons feature and it's Customization
button, I can choose which icons are important and which I don't care about.
Click the Customize button next to Hide
Inactive Icons to display the customization
dialog box shown below. Then you can pick and choose how you want various
TSRs to be displayed.
And if you choose to keep most of them hidden, you can easily locate any
open TSRs by simply clicking on the Show Hidden Icons button, as you can
This will shove the bar to the left and allow all running apps to be seen
and accessed, if necessary.
Start Menu Properties
The next tab on the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box allows you
to customize how your Start Menu will be displayed. Here, too, you can choose
the newer, double column look or choose to revert back to the Classic, single
panel view from previous versions of Windows.
Depending on which type of Start menu you choose, you'll have a Customize button displayed. When clicked, there is a lot of further choices you can
make to decide how you want the menu to look.
You can choose to have the various icons displayed larger or smaller.
You can also choose how many recent programs will be displayed on the Start
As you use programs, Windows tries to make your life easier by thinking
ahead for you and keeping those most often used programs quickly available
for you right on the start menu. These will automatically be shuffled
on/off this list as you use various programs. You can choose how much history
you want displayed, such as the last 10 opened programs. Change that number
to change your max display. You can also choose to clear the list if you don't
want other users to see which programs you've recently been accessing.
Note! You can also pin a favorite program to the Start menu if you
wish. Click Start > Programs and move over a program that you use often.
Right click and you'll see a menu that will offer you the ability
to Pin that program right on your Start menu. This will save you time when
accessing the program and you won't have to worry about it moving off the
list if you don't use it for a time.
Show on Start Menu
You can also choose other common programs to show, such as which browser
and which email program you prefer to use.
Start Menu Settings
A lot of additional customizations can be found under the Advanced tab in
the new Start Menu Properties dialog.
You can choose to have submenus display when you hover your mouse, rather
than having to click to expand the menu.
You can also have newly installed programs highlighted. Personally, I find
this feature wonderful. As you can see below, I do have a few programs
installed on this system! So my Start > Programs display is a bit crowded.
It's great to see where a newly installed/upgraded program has landed.
Start Menu Items
There's a ton of other options you'll want to explore here. You
can choose, not only what appears on the Start menu, but also how it will
behave. Dig around and experiment!
Just as Windows will help you out by showing you the programs you've recently
used, assuming you might want to use them again, soon...you can also find
all your recently accessed documents through the start menu. Or again, you
can choose to Clear that list, if you prefer not to show quick access to
If you choose the Classic Start menu appearance, your customization choices
will, obviously, differ, as you can see below.
Yes, there's lots to do just in this little section of Windows!
It may seem daunting. But you can easily find out more about each choice
before you make it by selecting an item and hitting the F1
Help key. A little
tip box will be displayed that shows you what this feature can do for you.
You can also click Start > Help and Support to look up further details about
The Clear Type Feature!
One last tip I want to share. Again, this is part of the Display
Properties that I'll talk about more in a future article. But it's such a wonderful,
new feature, I want to make sure you know about it, as I highly recommend
that you check it out!
Access the Display Properties dialog box by, either clicking
Start > Control Panel > Display, or by right clicking anywhere
on your desktop and choosing Properties. Click the Appearance tab and
then the Effects button.
There are many options you can play with here, but be sure to check out Windows'
new Clear Type effect. Personally, I love it. Your mileage
may vary. But it helps to enhance the text display and I find that I have
much less eye fatigue with this new look. In fact, as someone who has spent
a lot of time looking at a lot of monitors over the years, I often find myself
that looks so clear! Note that it's hard to display the difference in
a screen shot, so just go check it out!
Hope you've found a lot of useful information from this article. Don't know
yet what we'll discuss next month, so be sure to check back.
Have fun experimenting
and remember...keep notes as you mess around. This way you won't have
a problem following your own bread crumbs to revert any changes back to the
way you prefer!