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Cleaning Your Windows

If you’re stuck in the rut of the default settings that Microsoft applies to its software, you’re missing out: Here’s as guide to customizing your system to strip away annoying “features” and enhance usability.

Late last year I bought a new computer for the hip 23-year-old artist who sits for my children.  I wanted to buy her a Macintosh, because that’s what artists seem to prefer, but the cost differential between a Mac and a Windows machine ended up being hundreds of dollars. So the sitter-let’s call her Michelle-got a Dell.

Thinking that Michelle was an expert at these sorts of things, I simply left the Dell and a monitor at her door. A few days later when she had the whole thing set up and was happily chugging along, I stopped by to see how things were working out for her. And I was shocked.

Michelle is by no means a computer neophyte: I’ve long admired what she is able to do with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. But like most PC users, I guess, she was using the default settings for most of the applications software as well as for parts of the operating system. So I sat down with her and started making changes that, in my opinion, would make the system more usable.

The whole process was surreal. After all, Microsoft has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to make Windows XP and Office XP more usable, and here I was, systematically turning off many of the new “features” that Microsoft had added, and turning on others-all in an effort to make Microsoft’s out-of-the-box system work the way it was supposed to.

Surreal, perhaps, but completely understandable. That’s because many of the “usability” improvements in Windows XP didn’t really improve usability. Some of them were put there just so that XP would look different enough from Windows 2000 and Windows ME that users would want to upgrade. Others were added to advertise new features that Microsoft was trying to push into the marketplace. And still others were included as experiments: while Microsoft does do usability studies, there really is no substitute for testing a feature on the open market.

I figure that Michelle is not alone, and that there are a lot of people who don’t realize how to make Windows XP a better, more usable work environment. Rather than travel to each person’s house and manually reconfigure his or her system, I’ve decided to put all of my know-how here in this article. If you think that I missed anything, please let me know in the TechnologyReview.com forums.

Updates, Updates, Updates

The first thing to do when you get a new computer-especially if that computer is running a Microsoft operating system-is to connect it to the Internet and download all the product updates you possibly can. Updates fix bugs and security problems that the vendor discovered after the computer was shipped to you: a few years ago Microsoft made this process particular easy with its “Windows Update” service.

Unfortunately, Windows Update is problematic. Its most important flaw is that it does not run automatically. Ideally, the first time you connect to the Internet, XP would download any updates that it needs. In practice, though, you need to do this manually-and frequently, you need to run it several times, rebooting your computer after each major update is installed.

(It turns out that you can program Windows Update to automatically check for updates at a scheduled time, download them automatically, and even install them. To do this, you need to right-click on the Window’s Update Notification window. It’s likely that such automatic downloading and installation of updates will be the default on a future version of Windows.)

From a security point of view, the biggest problem with Windows Update is that your computer can be attacked while you are downloading the updates necessary to make your computer secure. This irony isn’t theoretical: according to the latest data from the Honeynet Project, a group of computer buffs who set up computers for the purpose of having them broken into, a new machine will typically be scanned for a vulnerability within an hour of being placed on the Internet. If your system is vulnerable, it will be compromised.

The solution here is to put your computer on the Internet behind one of those home router/firewalls-the kind of boxes that let you share a single Internet connection among multiple computers. These routers also prevent random computers on the Internet from reaching into your home network and mucking with your machines. (If you don’t have one of these home routers, you should get one-even if you only have a single computer.)

Once you’re done with Windows Update, you should now check to see if there are updates available for any of your other pre-installed applications. On Michelle’s Dell, for instance, I noticed a little warning saying “Devices or applications disabled” every time I rebooted the computer:

It turns out that the copy of Roxio DirectCD that Dell pre-installed on the computer wasn’t compatible with Windows XP.  Clicking on the warning took me to a window that had a link on it that in turn, took me to the Roxio Web site. Unfortunately, instead of letting me just download the patch, Roxio tried to sell me a $59.95 upgrade for Easy CD & DVD Creator. No thanks-I just wanted the update. (In fact, there was no update to download; Microsoft had misinformed me.)

While you’re thinking about security, you should probably spend the extra money and upgrade your antivirus system. Most computers these days come with a “trial version” of McAfee or Norton Anti-Virus that promises free updates for three months or so. Unfortunately, many people just use the free protection and never upgrade, leaving their systems vulnerable. While there are several free antivirus systems out there, my experience with the free ones has been uniformly bad. As with Windows Update, you should be sure that your computer is set to automatically download and install updates without user intervention.

Fixing The Desktop

Microsoft has added a ton of features to the Windows desktop over the years that make it easier on the eyes, faster to use, and generally more fun. Unfortunately, many of these features are turned off by default. Here’s how to turn them back on.

When Microsoft first started shipping Windows version 3 (the first version of the software that was worth having), computers were about 1,000 times slower than they are today. As a result, those ancient 1980s computers did a miserable job at moving images from one part of the screen to another. Microsoft dealt with this limitation by having the computer simply show outlines when you tried to resize or drag a window from one location to another, rather than displaying the window’s actual contents. Today’s video subsystems are much faster. Optimized for playing first-person shooter games, they can resize a window or drag it around the screen without breaking a sweat.  Microsoft, however, is still shipping Windows with a video configuration that it established nearly two decades ago.

To bring your desktop experience up to date, right-click your mouse on the computer’s desktop and select “Properties.” Then select “Appearance” on the Display Properties panel, and click the button labeled “Effects” Check the box that says: “Show window contents while dragging.”

While you’re at it, you might want to disable the transition between menus or enable the shadows; that’s your business.

One of the great things about Windows XP is that you can switch between different users on the same computer without having to exit all of your applications. Unfortunately, in an effort to make the computer more secure, the default XP screen saver takes you back to the login screen every time the machine is idle for more than five minutes. You can end this annoying behavior by selecting the “Screen Saver” tab of the “Display Properties” panel and unchecking the box that says “On resume, display Welcome screen.” Pick a better screen saver while you’re at it.

Better Menus

Back when Windows 2000 hit the streets, Microsoft made a fundamental change to the menus in many of its applications-a change that has been giving users headaches ever since. The innovation was called “personalized menus.” Different people use different menu commands, the theory went, so why show everybody every menu option all the time? Instead, personalized menus show each user just the most commonly used menus, and hide the rest under some kind of disclosure tab. XP does this with a vengeance, hiding programs in the Start menu under an icon that says “All Programs” and revealing only a few choice programs in the Start Menu.

In my experience, however, users find personalized menus confusing. The reason is that people have been trained over the past decade that the menus on a graphical user interface show all of the commands that are available at any given time. Hide the commands, and most users can’t figure out what to do.

Windows XP complicates matters further banishing the “My Computer” and “My Documents” icons from the desktop and moving them to the Start Menu. The default desktop is now reserved for icons of Microsoft programs like Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, Microsoft Outlook, and so on. Other programs that you might install fill up the desktop with their own advertisements; Michelle’s desktop has an icon for Dell Media Experience, iTunes, and QuickTime Player, among others.

I may be old fashioned, but both the novice and the experienced users that I’ve worked with prefer the pre-XP desktop. The good news is that it’s easy to restore Windows XP to a more familiar Windows 98/2000 experience-and improve usability at the same time. Here’s how:

First, right-click the Windows XP start button and select “Properties.” This will display a panel labeled “Taskbar and Start Menu Properties.” Then select the tab that says “Taskbar.” Uncheck the boxes that say “Lock the taskbar,” (so you can modify it) as well as “Auto-hide the taskbar” (so that you don’t lose it) and “Group similar taskbar buttons” (so that each window will have its own button in the taskbar).

I also like unchecking “Hide inactive icons” so that I know about every program that’s running in the background. Make sure that “Keep the taskbar on top of other windows” and “Show Quick Launch” are checked.  (The “Quick Launch” bar is the group of tiny application-starting buttons that go next to the Start button. You can add your own programs here by dragging their icons to the Quick Launch bar.) When you are done, it should look like this:

Next, click on the tab that says “Start Menu.” If you like the Microsoft XP start menu, leave this tab alone. But if you would like to see all of the programs that are actually installed on your computer without having to click “All Programs,” select the “Classic Start menu” radio button. Next, click on the button that says “Customize”

Windows XP actually gives you a tremendous amount of control over the Start menu. By checking the boxes on the Customize menu, you can turn the Start menu into a general-purpose control over everything that’s happening on your computer-sort of the way it was originally intended by its creator. (I know; I’ve spoken with him). On the Customize tab, I like to check the following options: Display Administrative Tools, Display Favorites, Display Run, Expand Control Panel, Expand My Documents, Expand My Pictures, Expand Printers, and Show Small Icons in Start Menu. Make sure that “Use Personalized Menus” is not checked.  Here’s how my customization settings look:

Office Madness

If you’re running Microsoft Word XP, or Office XP, you can make similar usability improvements.  Start up your copy of Word XP, right-click on the File menu and select “Customize” When the Customize menu appears, click on the “Options” tab.

If there was ever a program that’s been crippled by Microsoft’s Personalized Menus, it’s Word-a program whose menus carefully evolved over many years of trial, error, and usability testing, only to have the confused philosophy of “customized menus” throw a monkey wrench into the works. Find the check box that says “Always show full menus,” and make sure that it is clicked. While you’re there, make sure that “List font names in their font” and “Show ScreenTips on toolbars” are also checked.  If you find that your menus are appearing with annoying visual effects rather than just popping instantly onto the screen, make sure that “Menu animations” is set to “(System default)”-and make sure that the system default is simply to have menus appear the old-fashioned way, without effects.

You can also click on the “Keyboard” button and assign any Word command to any control character that you might like. For example, I like having my cursor move up when I type control-P and having it move down when I type control-N; here’s where I program that in.  (I keep hoping that somebody will do this as a Microsoft Word template, but so far no luck.)

For the last set of Word customizations, select “Options” from Word’s “Tools” menu.  (Don’t ask why Microsoft hides some customization features in one place, others in another place.) Select the tab that says “Save.”  Many people are surprised that text deleted from Microsoft Word files actually stays in the file long after the text is deleted. This can be a real embarrassment when files are sent by e-mail outside of your organization. The reason that this happens is because of a Word feature called “fast saves.” When Word does a fast save, it doesn’t actually overwrite the old document. Instead, it simply leaves the old document on the disk and writes out the changes that you made while editing. As a result, it’s possible to recover the old information by simply using the “undo” command. Minimize the chances of this happening by unchecking the “Allow fast saves” box.

While you are here, you should set Word to save AutoRecover files every minute, rather than every 10. Make sure that “Prompt to save Normal template” is checked; this decreases the chances that a virus will infect your Word document template. Checking “Make local copy of files stored on network or removable drives” will increase the reliability of Word in a networked environment. Finally, on the “General” tab, increase the number of entries in the “Recently used file list” from the default of 4 to 9.

Become Your Own Usability Expert

I used to tell people that the best way to learn how to use their computers was to read the documentation from cover-to-cover. Back then, Microsoft shipped a user’s manual with every copy of Word or Excel. After reading these books, even nontechnical users could do amazing things with the software.

Times have changed. These days, few of us ever see the manuals that have been written for these programs-our programs come pre-installed on the computer, and the manuals are sold for $50 or more in technical book stores.

Fortunately, there is a good way that you can learn the ins-and-outs of most programs. Just pull up the “Properties” or the “Options” panels whenever you see them. Whenever Microsoft adds new features in its programs, it creates a checkbox on one of these panels to turn it off-or to turn on a new feature that’s still considered “experimental.” It was by looking at the “Options” panel in Outlook Express that I discovered that I could program the thing to automatically spell-check every e-mail before I sent it. You would be surprised what you can learn, if only you look.

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