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Windows XP Tips and Tweaks

revised 21 Dec 2010

Copyright © 2005–2013 by Stan Brown, Oak Road Systems

Summary:

Finally joining the Windows XP world in January 2005, I found there was a lot I needed to know. I bought some books, hung out on the Windows XP newsgroups, and Googled up a storm. In the process I accumulated lots of tips and tweaks that friends and colleagues didn’t seem to know about. This page is an idiosyncratic set with not much in common except that they appeal to me.

Some of these tips should also apply to Windows Vista, but I don't have Vista and have no plans to get it. If anyone writes me with information about specific ones that do or don’t apply, I’ll be happy to add it.

See also: Time marches on, and I now have Windows 7. You might be interested in my Windows 7 Tips and Tweaks.

Contents:

Caution: I haven’t personally tested all the tweaks given here, but I saved them because the source seemed trustworthy to me. Your mileage may vary—if something here trashes your system please don’t blame me, but please do let me know so that I can remove the item or add a warning.

Before getting into specific questions and problems, here’s a short list of sites that contain a number of excellent tips on many aspects of Windows XP:

I can also wholeheartedly recommend two books out of the ones I consulted:

Startup Issues

Plan Ahead: Install Recovery Console

Recovery Console can be useful in troubleshooting boot problems, but you have to install it before you need it. See How to install and use the Recovery Console in Windows XP.

As installed, Recovery Console can access only a few directories. You need to change a security setting, again before you actually have to boot into Recovery Console. In the Usenet article posted 2005-02-28 by Al Dykes and archived here, you’ll find this procedure (adapted from the 2005-02-22 PC Magazine):

  1. Start → Run and type secpol.msc
  2. Expand Security settings → Local policies → Securities options
  3. Scroll down to Recovery Console and enable “Allow Floppy copy and access to all drives and folders, double click”

Can’t Boot

If you got “invalid boot.ini”, see “Invalid Boot.ini” or “Windows could not start” error messages when you start your computer.

You may be able to take a shortcut if you’ve previously installed the Recovery Console. If you can boot to Recovery Console, follow these steps to rebuild a broken boot.ini file:

        attrib -h -r -s C:\boot.ini
        del C:\boot.ini
        bootcfg /rebuild

as suggested by the Usenet article posted 2005-02-27 by Rick “Nutcase” Rogers and archived here.

If you got the message “Windows XP could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt”, with a reference to a hive file or something in the system32 directory, see How to recover from a corrupted registry that prevents Windows XP from starting and How to troubleshoot registry corruption issues.

Where are Startup Programs Listed?

You can use MSCONFIG, if your account has administrator rights, to list many of the programs that run at startup time, but not quite all of them. For a list of places where XP looks for programs to run at startup, see “Re: msconfig for multiple users”, a Usenet article posted 2002-12-28 by Thorsten Matzner and archived here.

There are a great many third-party startup managers out there. GThe one I use is Autoruns, freeware from Sysinternals.com.

Order of Startup Programs

If the order of startup programs matters to you, execute them from a script or batch program where you can control the order.

You’ll see an awful lot of claims about the order programs are run at startup, but you shouldn’t count on any of them. In the words of Raymond Chen, “They are relying on undocumented behavior which can change (and indeed has changed) over time.” For more, see “What order do programs in the startup group execute?” at blogs.msdn.com.

Microsoft states explicitly in KB article 179365, Run, RunOnce, RunServices, RunServicesOnce and Startup, that program keys and entries are “loaded asynchronously”, except that “Entries in the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\...\RunOnce key are loaded synchronously in an undefined order.”

For an annotated list of places where Windows looks for startup instructions, see “Re: Starp up sequence” [sic] in microsoft.public.windowsxp.customize (Usenet article posted 2005-07-26 by Wesley Vogel and archived here), and scroll down to “Here is my longer version”. Or download and run the free Autoruns program from Sysinternals.com.

Shutdown Issues

Run a Script at Shutdown

See Chapter 8: Configuring User and Computer Policies continued at the Microsoft site.

According to this Usenet article posted 2005-03-17 by Jabez Gan and archived here, the Group Policy editor adds multiple keys below

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Group Policy\State\Machine\Scripts

Run gpedit.msc and select Computer Configuration → Windows Settings → Scripts → Shutdown. Examine the changes in the registry and use that as a guide.

The utility Karen’s Show Stopper can automate this.

Kill Hung Processes Automatically

When logging off, you sometimes get an “End Task” dialog prompt, indicating a program that doesn’t shut itself down. You can suppress the prompts and have Windows kill these programs automatically when you log off. In regedit, find key

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop

Look for the value AutoEndTasks, and change it from 0 to 1.

Reference: Registry Explorer

“It is now safe to turn off your computer”

If you get this message and the computer doesn’t shut off, you may not have enabled Advanced Power Management in your BIOS or Windows or both. See Your computer stops responding when you try to shut down in Windows XP.

Error Message at Shutdown, or Slow Shutdown

James Eshelman’s Windows XP Shutdown & Restart Troubleshooting is comprehensive and excellent. In particular, note the advice to disable Event Log temporarily to reveal a problem.

Microsoft’s own Knowledge Base article is Resources to help troubleshoot shutdown problems in Windows XP.

Add/Remove Programs

Big White Space in the Program List

Most likely the display icon has a negative number. (Autocad seems particularly prone to cause this.) In regedit either remove the negative number or remove the application listing itself from this key:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Uninstall\{}

References: Kelly’s Korner and I Am Not a Geek forum

Peripheral Hardware

USB2 Not Recognized as USB2

See “Re: USB 2.0—All devices don’t initiate”, a very detailed step-by-step procedure by Bill Drake, posted 2005-05-13 to microsoft.public.windowsxp.general and archived here. Note one addendum: in a followup the next day, Steve N advised not to update the motherboard BIOS (step 3) without first verifying that the update was known to fix this specific problem; the followup is archived here.

Hi-speed USB Device Plugged into Non-hi-speed Hub

This is the flip side of the previous problem: you have a USB port that’s truly not USB2, and you’re plugging a USB2 device into it, and you know it, and you want Windows to shut up about it. The Microsoft article How to turn off the “Hi-speed USB device plugged into non-hi-speed USB hub” warning message tells how to turn off the message (at the cost of suppressing all USB error messages).

You might also find General USB troubleshooting in Windows XP helpful.

CD and DVD

Burning CDs with Native Win XP Software

Aside from dragging to the CD drive in Explorer, or right-clicking on files and selecting Send To the CD drive, you can also write files directly to the “staging area”, which is

Drive_letter:\ Documents and Settings\ username\ Local Settings\ Application Data\ Microsoft\ CD Burning

according to Description of CD-R and CD-RW recording in Windows XP.

Control Panel

Direct Access

You can access Control Panel applets directly by opening up a Run window (Windows+R keys) and typing the appropriate name, such as desk.cpl for display (desktop) properties. For a list of .CPL applets, see Usenet article posted 2005-05-26 by Bert Kinney and archived here, “Re: switches for the control command”. (These applets can be invoked from the command line or a batch file in the same way.)

I’ve discovered one addition to that list: irprops.cpl brings up the infrared settings applet, if your computer has infrared. (I found this listed under Windows control panel icons and their associated files, but there are also a number of errors on that page.)

TweakUI (if you’ve downloaded and installed it) is an .EXE, not a .CPL. To run it directly, type plain tweakui in the Run window or at a command prompt.

Later in the same thread, Wesley Vogel posted an alternative method, using the control command, which is not documented in the Help and Support Center. See the full list in his article, which is archived here. At the end of his article he also gives a slightly different list of .CPL Applets from Bert Kinney’s.

Add TweakUI to Control Panel

When you download and install TweakUI, it creates a shortcut in your Start Programs menu, not in Control Panel. To add a shortcut in Control Panel, download and run the registry edit provided by Windows IT Pro in the article How can I add the Windows XP Tweak UI PowerToy to the Control Panel?"

Context Menu (Right-Click Menu)

Add to the “New...” Menu or Remove Entries

To remove existing entries you can use TweakUI (the Templates tab) or edit the registry; see Windows XP Troubleshooting. To add items you must edit the registry.

Add Entries of Your Own or Prune Unwanted Entries

Add “Move to folder...” and “Copy to folder...”

To move or copy a file to a different location, you can right-click it in Explorer and select Cut or Copy, then navigate to the destination folder and select Paste, but this loses your place in the original folder. Solve this problem by adding two entries to the context menu for any file, Copy To Folder... and Move To Folder... If you select either of these, Windows opens a new dialog box in which you can select the destination folder without losing your place in the source folder.

To add this capability, copy the following three lines to a text file, which you can create in Notepad or any other plain-text editor. Name the file anything ending in “.reg” (without quotes).

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00
[HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\AllFilesystemObjects\shellex\ContextMenuHandlers\{C2FBB630-2971-11D1-A18C-00C04FD75D13}]
[HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\AllFilesystemObjects\shellex\ContextMenuHandlers\{C2FBB631-2971-11D1-A18C-00C04FD75D13}]

After saving the file, right-click on it and select Merge. Answer Yes to the confirming prompt.

source: Manage Files From Your Right-Click Menu from PC World magazine

Add Items to “Send to”

The Send to menu is handy, and you can easily customize it by adding or removing shortcuts in a special SendTo folder.

First, click the Windows Start button and then Run. Type sendto and click OK. The SendTo folder for your user ID opens.

Next, remove any shortcuts that you don’t want, and create any that you want to add.

Alberto Pignocchino offers an interesting variation on this, for those who want to add items frequently to “Send to” without opening the folder each time:

  1. Open the SendTo folder, as above.
  2. With your mouse, grab the folder icon in the location bar and drag it to the body of the window. Close the Window.

You now have a “Send to” item in the Send to menu. You can easily right-click on any icon or Start Menu item and send it to the SendTo folder, with no need to open the folder ever again.

Delete Removable Drives from “Send to”

Advice is often given like this:

In regedit, find key

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Explorer

and add a DWORD value NoDrivesInSendToMenu with a value of 1.

Reference: Usenet article posted 2005-03-01 by Christpher Davis and archived here

However, this doesn’t actually work in XP. There appears to be no way to delete removable drives from the Send To menu without side effects.

You can hide a CD-RW drive from SendTo by right-clicking on the drive in Explorer, then selecting Properties → Recording and unchecking “Enable recording on this drive”.

For all other removable drives, if Explorer sees them then they’ll be in Send To. Either live with that, or hide them from My Computer, from Windows Explorer, and from Send To. (They’ll still be accessible from other programs including Start → Run and the command line; and you can still type the drive letter and path in common dialogs like Open and Save As.) This is a per-user setting, and there are two methods:

Delete “Send to”

Correspondent Stein Bakkeby contributes this one: if you want to remove the Send to item entirely, open Regedit, navigate to HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\AllFilesystemObjects\shellex\ContextMenuHandlers and then delete the key SendTo.

File Associations

Default Action for Files with no Extension

In regedit, navigate to the key

HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\Unknown\shell

and create a new key Open, with subkey command. Put the desired path and program in the default value, using "%1" (including quotes) to stand for the data file. For a more detailed explanation, see Windows IT Pro magazine on line.

Image Preview

If you install a third-party image viewer, Windows may still pop up a preview in Picture and Fax Viewer when you double-click an image file in Explorer. (It depends on the image viewer you install; some are smart enough to disable the preview on their own.) This article tells you how to disable image preview if your chosen image viewer didn’t do that.

ZIP Files

If you install a third-party program like Winzip, that will disable XP’s native handling of ZIP files as compressed folders. You can also disable that native handling, without installing a third-party program, by typing this on the command line:

regsvr32 /u zipfldr

You might want to do that, for instace, to make Windows search not look inside ZIP files. You can re-enable XP’s native handling of ZIP files by typing this at the command line:

regsvr32 zipfldr

Reference: Usenet article posted 2005-03-22 by Ramesh and archived here

Shorten the “Open With” List

To remove an unwanted entry from the Open With... list, run REGEDIT and navigate to the key

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\FileExts

and then under that expand the key that matches the file extension. In the OpenWithList subkey you’ll find the list of programs; delete the one you don’t want. If it’s not there, have a look at OpenWithProgids.

Reference: Usenet article posted 2007-06-19 by Raj Kohli and archived here

File Handling

Select Multiple Files without Copying

Most people know that you can select multiple files in Explorer by clicking the first one, then holding down the Ctrl key while clicking additional files. But some people see copies of all the selected files suddenly appear when they do that. The problem is that without realizing it, they moved the mouse pointer a tiny bit while selecting files.

The solution is to make your mouse less sensitive. You can do this in either of two ways:

Delete File or Folder with Invalid Name

See DelInv. Before downloading, look at the suggestions at the top of the page: you might be able to delete the file from the command line without installing a separate program.

Delete an Undeletable File or Folder

When you delete a file or filder and it comes back moments later with no message of any kind, probably it’s been restored by Windows File Protection. This protects essential Windows components, though Microsoft has odd notions about what’s essential: the MSN Gaming Zone, for instance.

On the other hand, maybe you get a message that the file is in use, or a sharing violation. In this case you can do some detective work to see what program is using it, or use the free WhoLockMe program. For a more in-depth look, with other suggestions, take a look at “I can’t delete a few files or folders in XP.

If you’re trying to replace a system file, it may always be locked while Windows is running. If you really need to replace that type of file, you can download and use the Microsoft tool Inuse.exe to schedule a replacement for the next time you boot your computer.

A non-Microsoft alternative is the free CopyLock, which can also display and edit actions set up for the next boot by other programs, such as installers.

Sort File and Folder Names Numerically (or not)

Previous Windows showed file and folder names alphabetically in Explorer and in common dialogs. Windows XP changed that for filenames that contain numerals: ABC10 now sorts after ABC2, rather than before as it used to.

A simple Registry edit controls this behavior, either for one user or for all users on the computer. See Microsoft’s Knowledge Base article The sort order for files and folders whose names contain numerals is different.

Disable File Protection

See this tutorial for how Windows File Protection Works and how to disable it, if you really must.

Move “Documents and Settings” or Other Special Folders

The easiest way to move many of the Windows special folders is with TweakUI (My Computer → Special Folders). But if you want to move the entire Documents and Settings folder, for one user or for all users, see the ironically named Microsoft Knowledge Base article Cannot move or rename the Documents and Settings folder.

Help and Support Is Missing

Press Windows+R and type

helpctr -regserver

Reference: Usenet article posted 2005-02-25 by “Laxmi” and archived here

Alternative: download and apply this registry edit from Kelly’s Korner.

If those don’t work, a Usenet article posted 2009-08-23 by “TaurArian” and archived here suggests these commands:

helpctr -regserver

regsvr32 itss

regsvr32 hhctrl.ocx

regsvr32 jscript

In the last extremity, reinstall Help and Support, as suggested in the same article: Open folder C:\Windows\inf, right-click pchealth.inf, and select Install. (The folder is hidden by default, so you may have to click Tools » Folder Options » View » Show hidden files and folders and uncheck Hide extensions for known file types.)

Taskbar

Taskbar Auto-Hide Is Broken

Sometimes when returning from Hibernate, Windows gets confused about the taskbar and forgets to auto-hide it. From the Usenet article posted 2005-03-14 by me and archived here:

The taskbar is put up by Windows Explorer, which sometimes gets confused about its state. ... Here’s the solution that worked for me every time:

  1. Close any open Explorer windows (file explorer, not Internet Explorer).
  2. Ctrl-Alt-Del to open Task Manager. In the Processes tag find EXPLORER.EXE. (You can click on the “Image Name” heading to sort the processes.)
  3. Highlight EXPLORER.EXE, and click End Process. Answer Yes to the warning box.
  4. In the menu, click File → New Task. Type explorer in the window and click OK.
  5. Close Task Manager.

Stopping and restarting Explorer in this way resets the taskbar, and it’s a heck of a lot less drastic than rebooting.

This assumes that in fact you’ve got the task bar set for auto-hide. To verify this, right-click on an empty area of the taskbar, select Properties, and make sure on the Taskbar tab that “Auto-hide the taskbar” is checked.

Change Taskbar to Icons Only

Often the taskbar shows too little text to be useful unless you expand it to several rules. Since you have to hover your mouse anyway over a taskbar entry to see the full text, why not show just the icons in the taskbar?

In regedit, find key

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics

and locate value MinWidth or create it as REG_SZ type if necessary. Set it to −285. (−2310 is the default.)

Reference: Registry Explorer

Taskbar Hides Balloon Tips or Bottom of Program Windows

Right-click on an empty area of the taskbar, click Properties, and make sure Auto-hide is checked. If it is, then Windows has forgotten. See Taskbar Auto-Hide Is Broken for the remedy.

Keyboard

Enter Unicode Characters

There are a number of methods; naturally, they all assume that the current font actually has the character you’re trying to enter. Here are two methods should work in almost any application, for SP1 and later:

For more details on these methods, and for other methods, see Shortcuts by George Hernandez, and How to enter Unicode characters in Microsoft Windows at Fileformat.info.

For a list of the Unicode characters you’re most likely to need, with their numeric codes, see Using special characters from Windows Glyph List 4 (WGL4). Remember to use decimal values with leading zeroes to make four digits, or hex values with leading +.

Missing Keys? Use OSK

Some laptop keyboards are missing some keys like PrtSc or PrintScreen, and some third-party keyboards don’t have the Windows key. You can bring up an on-screen keyboard that has all keys: click Start » Run, type OSK and click OK. Be sure to use the Settings menu to set up your preferences.

Thanks to Shenan Stanley, who published this tip in a Windows XP newsgroup.

Fix the Caps Lock Key

This is a very personal thing, but I tend to hit the Caps Lock key without realizing it, and then find myself writing about the dUKE OF yORK. I was pleased to see that in WinXP keyboard remappings are simply a matter of software (though per machine, not per user). Since I tend to hit Caps Lock when I meant to hit Shift, I like to remap the Caps Lock key to act like another Shift key.

Autohotkey

If you want to do it yourself, see the next section. But it’s much, much easier to use the free program Autohotkey. I also use it to correct the typos I commonly make—things like testbook for textbook—and to send long sequences of keystrokes to multiple windows. It’s best in class, in my opinion.

Do It Yourself

Autohotkey (above) is easier, but if you want to get into the nuts and bolts here’s how. You must be logged on as an administrator. Extract the following lines to any file with a .REG extension, and then double-click that file. The change will be effective next time you log on; you don’t have to reboot.

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layout]
"Scancode Map"=hex:00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,02,00,00,00,2a,00,3a,00,00,00,00,00

To remove all keyboard mappings, extract and apply the following patch in a similar way:

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layout]
"Scancode Map"=-

To create your own remappings, read up on the theory behind these registry edits. See the Microsoft page “Scan Code Mapper for Windows”. You’ll need the list of scan codes from the MS-Word file in this self-extracting executable ZIP file.

Printer

Clear the Print Queue

Sometimes it happens that you delete a pending document in the print queue and it just stays there. Here are three methods to clear the queue.

Miscellaneous

Save and Restore Desktop Arrangement

You can save the current state of your desktop icons by exporting the registry key

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\Shell\Bags\1\Desktop

and then restore it by double-clicking the saved .REG file.

source: “Re: Desktop icons and their position”, Usenet article posted 2005-09-06 by Wesley Vogel and archived here

As an alternative, go to Add Save & Restore Desktop Layout to Menu (line 188) and install the program there. It will add to the context menu that you get when you right-click on an empty area of the desktop.

Wandering Mouse

Many people report that occasionally their mouse pointer drifts slowly in one direction or another even though they’re not touching the mouse; most reports involve optical mice.

In the Control Panel, select Mouse and the Pointer Options tab. Uncheck “Enhance pointer precision” and the problem may go away. (It did for me.)

Make a Boot Disk

See this excellent Usenet article posted 2005-02-27 by André Gulliksen and archived here.

Make an Autoplay CD

All you need to do is put an autorun.inf file in the root directory of the CD. See CD AutoRun basics or ` Autorun.inf, What is it? for the format of autorun.inf.

The same site also contains a freeware program, Autorun Editor, that will automate the process of creating autorun.inf for you.

Expand Too-small Dialog Boxes

MSCONFIG doesn’t have a wide enough window to show a lot of the paths, and the dialog isn’t resizable. See “Re: View Msconfig.exe” in microsoft.public.windowsxp.customize (Usenet article posted 2005-07-31 by David Candy and archived here) for instructions on how to edit the executable using ResourceHacker.

Fix Time Sync

If your computer’s clock is drifting, time synchronization may be failing for one reason or another. First check the site: double-click on the time display in the system tray, then select the Internet Time panel. The default site is time.windows.com, and it’s always worked for me, but some people have reported problems.

Click Update Now to force an immediate update. If it fails, select an alternative site such as time.nist.gov, tock.usno.navy.mil, time-a.nist.gov, time-b.nist.gov and repeat Update Now to make sure it works.

If the time service itself isn’t working, you can stop and restart it. Open a command prompt and run these commands, from a Usenet article posted 2007-09-02 by Dee and archived here:

net stop w32time
w32tm /unregister [ignore error message]
w32tm /unregister [enter a second time]
w32tm /register
reg add hklm\system\currentcontrolset\services\w32time\parameters\ /v
NtpServer /t reg_sz /d time.nist.gov /f
net start w32time

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