Put new life into Windows XP

By Preston Gralla, Computerworld |  Windows, Windows XP

Microsoft may have given up on Windows XP, but that doesn't mean you have to.

While there's plenty of life in the old operating system, there's also a good chance XP may start looking long in the tooth to you. The good news is you don't have to live with an XP that feels sluggish or looks and acts outdated. In this article, we'll show you plenty of ways to spiff up XP -- and make it faster and more reliable -- without spending a penny. So come along and get your free DIY Windows XP upgrade.

Caution: Some of these tips require that you edit the Windows Registry, which can be tricky and dangerous for your system. If you're not sure how to make a DWORD value, for example, read our story "The tweaker's guide to the Windows Registry" first. And be very sure to read the instructions for backing up the Registry before you attempt any Registry edits whatsoever.
Ready? Let's give XP a little spit and polish.

Improve folder and file management
XP's Windows Explorer is one of the worst-designed folder and file managers you'll find anywhere. It makes it hard to perform even rudimentary tasks, such as moving and copying files and folders. Want to copy a file from one folder to another? Most of the time you're stuck having to open two separate Explorer windows, then dragging and dropping between them.

Ditch Windows Explorer altogether Here's a simple solution: Get Q-Dir from SoftwareOK.com. This is the file manager that Microsoft should have created.
It has four windows, so you can easily copy files and folders among them. You can also define links for your favorite folders or network locations for easy navigation and copying. The program also lets you assign different colors to different file types, so it's easy to distinguish one from another. And there are lots of other extras as well, such as a screen magnifier and the ability to control how many windows open at start-up -- from one to four.

Teach Windows Explorer new tricks
If you're not interested in a wholesale upgrade of Windows Explorer to Q-Dir, you can still teach Windows Explorer some nifty new tricks, all having to do with the context menu, which appears when you right-click a file or folder.

Add Copy To Folder and Move To Folder options
Copying and moving files in Windows Explorer requires you to open up multiple copies of Explorer and drag between them. There's a simpler way: Add Copy To Folder and Move To Folder options to the right-click context menu.

You'll then be able to browse anyplace on your hard disk to copy or move the file to, then send the file there. To do it:

1. Open the Registry Editor by typing regedit at a command prompt or the Run box.

2. Go to HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\AllFilesystemObjects\ shellex\ContextMenuHandlers.

3. Choose Edit --> New --> Key to create a new key. Call it Copy To and set the value to {C2FBB630-2971-11d1-A18C-00C04FD75D13}.

4. Create another new key called Move To. Set the value to {C2FBB631-2971-11d1-A18C-00C04FD75D13}.

5. Exit the Registry.

The changes should take effect immediately. Now when you right-click a file, the Copy To Folder and Move To Folder options will appear.

Open the command prompt from the right-click menu
Are you a command prompt junkie? If so, you know that sometimes the command prompt is a great tool for tasks like the mass deleting or renaming of files (see "DOS Lives! Secrets of the Windows command prompt" for more ideas).
Wouldn't it be nice to integrate the command prompt with Windows Explorer -- for example, to open a prompt at the current folder you're visiting in Windows Explorer? It's easy to do:

1. Open Windows Explorer.

2. Select Tools --> Folder Options and click the File Types tab.

3. Highlight (NONE) Folder and click the Advanced button.

4. Click New.

5. In the Action text box, type: Command Prompt.

6. In the "Application used to perform action" text block, type cmd.exe.

7. Click OK, and OK again, and then Close.

8. Exit Windows Explorer.

The new menu option will show up immediately. Note that it won't appear when you right-click a file; it shows up only when you right-click a folder.

Note: If you want to remove this option from Windows Explorer, you'll have to remove it via the Registry. Open the Registry Editor, then delete the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\Folder\shell\ Command Prompt key. After you exit the Registry, the option will no longer be available.

Add and remove destinations for the Send To option
The right-click context menu already has one useful option, Send To, which lets you send files to a drive, program or folder. It's easy to add new locations to it -- that is, if you know where to look.

First, you'll need to change the way that Windows Explorer displays folders and files so that you can see what Windows calls "Hidden files and folders." In Windows Explorer, select Tools --> Folder Options. Then click on the View tab. In the "Hidden files and folders" section, select "Show hidden files and folders." Then click OK.

After you do that, go to C:\Documents and Settings\ username\ SendTo, replacing username with your username. The folder will be filled with shortcuts to all the locations you find on your Send To context menu.

To remove an item from the Send To menu, delete the shortcut from the folder. To add an item to the menu, such as a shortcut to a folder called Privacy, choose File --> New --> Shortcut and follow the instructions in the Create Shortcut wizard.

The new setting will take effect immediately. You don't have to exit Windows Explorer for it to go into effect.

Speed up hard-disk performance
Got a sluggish hard disk, or just want to speed up the one you have? There are a few quick tweaks you can perform that will do it for free.

Defragment the hard disk
First off, defrag your hard disk regularly. Choose Start --> Control Panel --> Performance and Maintenance --> Rearrange items on your hard disk to make programs run faster. (If you don't have a Performance and Maintenance option in the Control Panel, instead go to Start --> All Programs --> Accessories --> System Tools --> Disk Defragmenter.)

Then click the Defragment button. You can keep working while the defrag is going on, though you might notice a slight slowdown in performance.

Use direct-memory access
There's more you can do as well. Make sure your hard disk uses direct-memory access (DMA). This lets your hard disk and CD and DVD drives transfer information to and from RAM without having to use your processor as a conduit.

DMA is usually the default, but there's always the possibility the default has been changed, so it's worthwhile to check. To do so:

1. Get to the Device Manager from within Windows Explorer by right-clicking My Computer, then selecting Properties --> Hardware --> Device Manager.

2. Scroll down to the "IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers" section and click the + sign.

3. From the list that drops down, right-click Primary IDE Channel and select Properties.

4. Click Advanced Settings, and for each device, in the Transfer Mode drop-down list, choose "DMA if Available" and click OK.

Turn off automated time and date stamp updating
If you're using New Technology File System (NTFS), there's another way to speed up your hard disk. Whenever you view a directory on an NTFS volume, the file system updates the date and time stamp to show the last time the directory was accessed. This constant updating can slow system performance, particularly if you tend to access many directories during a typical workday. To turn it off:

1. Open the Registry Editor by typing regedit at a command prompt or the Run box.

2. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\Current Control Set\ Control\Filesystem

3. Look for NtfsDisableLastAccessUpdate. If it isn't there, create it: Choose Edit --> New --> DWORD Value, type:

NtfsDisableLastAccessUpdate

into the box, and click OK.

4. Set its value to 1 by double-clicking it and typing 1 in the Value data box that appears. Click OK.

5. Exit the Registry.

Speed up file copying
No one will ever accuse XP of copying files quickly. If you've got a big file or groups of files that are hundreds of megabytes or more, you've no doubt waited and waited while XP did its work. Worse yet, you may freeze in midcopy and then have to start from scratch.

TeraCopy from Code Sector makes those problems a thing of the past. It uses a variety of techniques, such as adjusting buffers on the fly, to speed up and fix XP's copying problems. It even lets you pause and resume file copying, and it uses error-recovery techniques to make sure that if one file copy in a multifile job fails, the rest will still be copied.

By the way, you may at first be baffled about how to use this program. You have to use it in concert with Windows Explorer or another file manager like Q-Dir. Drag files from whichever file manager you're using to TeraCopy and then have it do the copying from there.

Get more disk space -- for free
Running out of disk space on your XP machine? Don't rush to buy a new hard disk just yet. You may be able to increase the size of your existing hard disk in essence without spending a penny.

You can use the NTFS to compress files on your hard disk and gain back some space. XP will compress and decompress files on the fly; when you open a file, it automatically decompresses so that you can work with it. Then, when you save the file, it is automatically compressed.

First, you need to make sure you're using NTFS. If not, you can easily convert your hard disk to it. To see if you're using NTFS, go to Windows Explorer, right-click your C: drive and select Properties. On the General tab, look at the "File system" listing. If it says NTFS, you're all set. If it says FAT32, you'll need to convert from FAT32 to NTFS.

To convert your hard disk to NTFS, open a command prompt, and (assuming that your hard disk is C:), type this command:

convert c: /fs:ntfs

Once you've done the conversion, you're ready to use compression.

You can compress your entire drive, or just individual files and folders. It does take a little longer to load and save files when they're compressed, though I haven't noticed a major difference. If you care about top performance, however, it's not a bad idea to do it on a folder-by-folder basis, at least to start with.

To compress an entire drive, right-click the drive in Windows Explorer, select Properties, and on the General tab check the box next to "Compress drive to save disk space," then click OK. You'll be asked to confirm that you want to do the compression, and XP will then go about compressing the drive.

Depending on the number of files and folders and your processor speed, the process can take up to several hours. You can still work while XP does the compression. But if you're working on a file that XP is about to compress, you'll be prompted to close it so XP can compress it.

If you'd prefer to instead compress individual files or folders, right-click any file or folder from within Windows Explorer, select Properties, and on the General tab click the Advanced button. Check the box next to "Compress contents to save disk space," click OK, and then OK again when the Properties dialog box appears, and OK once more when the Confirm Attribute Changes box appears.

From now on, all compressed folders and files will show up in blue in Windows Explorer, so you can differentiate between them and uncompressed files.

How much space will compression save? That depends on the types of files you commonly use. I've found that TIFF graphic files are often compressed by 80% or more. My Microsoft Word 2003 files were shrunk by about 66%. Other formats, such as JPEG and PDF, hardly shrank at all.

You can easily check how much compression you've achieved on a file or folder. Right-click it in Windows Explorer, choose Properties and select the General tab. You'll see two listings for the file size, one titled Size, and the other "Size on disk." Size on disk is the compressed size, while Size is the original size of the file. (Note that this applies only to files and folders that have already been compressed.)

Turn off indexing to ease strain on system resources
XP's search uses an indexing system that speeds up the searching process. But it also uses up significant system resources, and uses plenty of hard-disk space. Unless you do a lot of searching, you'll be better off turning off indexing.

To turn it off, right-click your hard disk from within Windows Explorer and select Properties. On the General tab, uncheck the box next to "Allow Indexing Service to index this disk for fast file searching" and click OK.

You'll be asked whether to apply the changes to just the hard drive (C:\ in the example shown), or also all of its subfolders and files. Choose to apply it to all subfolders and files and click OK.

Improve start-up and shutdown times
Tired of twiddling your thumbs or taking a coffee break while XP boots up or shuts down? These tweaks and hacks will speed up both for you.

Speed boot-up with boot defragments
The simplest way to speed boot-up is to do a boot defragment so that all the boot files are next to one another on your hard disk. By default, XP performs a boot defragment, but there's a chance that it's been turned off. Here's how to make sure it's turned on.

1. Open the Registry Editor by typing regedit at a command prompt or the Run box.

2. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Dfrg\ BootOptimizeFunction.

3. Change the Enable string value to Y if it is not already set to Y.

4. Exit the Registry and reboot.

The next time you reboot, you'll do a boot defragment.

Tweak your BIOS for faster start-ups
Each time you turn on your PC, it performs a set of BIOS start-up procedures before XP loads. Speed up those start-up procedures, and you'll speed up boot times.

You change the start-up procedures by changing the BIOS settings with your system's built-in setup utility. How you run this utility varies from PC to PC, but you typically get to it by pressing the Delete, F1 or F10 keys during start-up. A menu of choices then appears. Here are the settings to tweak for faster start-ups:

Quick Power On Self Test (POST): With this option, your system runs an abbreviated POST rather than the normal, lengthy one. Turn it on.

Boot Up Floppy Seek: When was the last time you used a floppy, much less booted from it? If you're like most of the world, the answer is never. Disable this option. When it's enabled, your system spends a few extra seconds looking for your floppy drive.

Boot Delay: Some PCs let you delay booting after you turn on your PC so that your hard drive gets a chance to start spinning before boot-up. It's unlikely you need this boot delay, so turn it off. If you run into problems, however, you can turn it back on.

Disconnect dead network connections
Windows XP has a very useful feature that lets you map a network drive to your local PC. So, for example, if there's a drive on another PC on your network or on a network server that you frequently browse to, you can make it look to XP as if it's a local disk, such as the F: drive. That way, you can quickly get to the network drive instead of having to navigate through a complex maze of paths.

That's the good news. Here's the bad news: If any of those network drives is no longer alive, it can slow down your system. Every time you start XP, it tries to connect to all the network drives you've mapped. If the remote drive doesn't respond, XP waits to start and will try to connect again until it gives up.

In addition, when you use some programs, they'll try to make the connection as well, further slowing your system. The result? When you try to open a file on your local PC, you may have to wait several seconds.

Disconnecting dead network drives is simple. Right-click My Computer and choose Disconnect Network Drive. You'll see a screen like one pictured nearby, which lists all your network drives. Select any drives you want to disconnect, then click OK. Things should now speed up.

Remove extraneous start-up programs
You've most likely got many programs that load into your system on start-up. These programs do worse things than just slowing down start-up -- they can bog down your PC by constantly taking up RAM and CPU power. Unfortunately, in XP, there's no single place to go to find all those start-up programs and decide which ones to keep and which to kill.

That's where Mike Lin's Startup Control Panel applet comes in. It shows you all the programs and services that load on start-up, then lets you kill any you don't want to keep.

The program is multitabbed, with one tab for every place where a program or service may be launched on start-up. Click each tab and examine the listings. Right-click any program you don't want to run, and select Disable so that it no longer runs.

If you're not sure what a particular program does and whether you need it, do a Google search on the program name or file name for more information. The process is laborious, to be sure, but what you gain in start-up speed is well worth your efforts.

Don't clear the paging file on shutdown
If shutting down XP takes too long, you can tell XP not to clear your paging file when it shuts down. The paging file stores temporary files and data, but when your system shuts down, that information stays in the file.

Some people want the paging file cleared at shutdown because sensitive information such as unencrypted passwords sometimes ends up there. But if extreme security isn't a high priority, you can save yourself some time by not clearing it. (If you're on a corporate machine, check with IT before taking this step.)

To shut down XP without clearing your paging file:

1. Open the Registry Editor by typing regedit at a command prompt or the Run box.

2. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\ SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\ Control\Session Manager\ Memory Management.

3. Look for the value ClearPageFileAtShutdown, and change it to 0.

4. Exit the Registry and reboot.

From now on, your paging file won't be cleared, and shutdowns should be faster.

Make XP more secure
Windows XP's security tools are in serious need of upgrade. A prime example is the XP firewall. It has one very serious deficiency -- it doesn't block potentially dangerous outbound connections.

The solution: Get a free firewall that does that and more. Several are worth trying, but my favorite is Comodo Firewall Pro. It's the top free firewall rated by the independent Matousec testing site. In addition to offering inbound and outbound protection, it includes a Host Prevention System to stop malware from being installed in the first place.

XP doesn't include antivirus protection, so you'll of course need some kind of antivirus. Rather than using a bloated, big-name security suite stuffed with a firewall, backup software, identity protection and other modules, your better bet is to get an independent, lightweight antivirus program.

Two of the best are Avast Antivirus Home Edition and AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition. In addition to viruses, AVG protects against spyware, and Avast includes protection from spyware and rootkits -- but that extra protection won't weigh down your PC.

Both programs are free for home and noncommercial use, keep you safe, and take up little RAM and few system resources. What more do you need?

Modernize XP's look and feel
Face it, you may like XP, but it's looking very old and dated these days. It's in some very serious need of eye candy.

A great way to dress it up is with the ObjectDock from Stardock. It gives XP a Mac-like look with an animated dock that mimics the one in Mac OS X.

With it, you dock your favorite applications and folders at the bottom or side of the screen. It features a slick look, smooth animations, and much more visual appeal than XP.

The clunky old method of using Alt-Tab to switch between applications in XP could use some help. Yes, it will switch you -- but that's the extent of it.

You can power up Alt-Tab with TaskSwitchXP from NTWind Software. Use it, and whenever you press Alt-Tab, you'll be able to see previews of all your open windows. From here you can close and minimize applications and their groups as well.
Finally, give your XP desktop a useful sidebar like Vista's, with Google's Desktop Sidebar. It's packed with gadgets, such as a weather tracker, stock checker, and news reader, and there are many other free gadgets you can download for it as well. Yahoo Widgets similarly offers you a sidebar and plenty of free widgets.

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