Windows XP is a take-charge kind of operating system, and it's easy to sit back and leave it to its own devices, so to speak. But from start-up to shutdown, in the face of baffling errors to programs you don't use but can't get rid of, you can be more in control than you may have thought.
Control Which Programs Launch at Start-Up
Many of the programs you install on your system automatically configure themselves to launch at start-up, often invisibly. The truly essential ones, such as firewall and antivirus products, generally run as Windows services, working efficiently in the background. Other less important products like media players really don't need to be running constantly, if at all. These extra applications slow the boot process and then suck up system resources and CPU cycles.
There are many ways a program can launch at start-up. The System Configuration Utility rounds up all of the start-up programs in a single display. Launch it by choosing Run from the Start menu and entering msconfig. The Startup tab displays a complete list of the programs that launch at start-up. To disable any one of them reversibly, just uncheck the box at left. It should be safe to disable any of them, as only nonessential programs appear on the Startup tab. But leave the adjacent Services tab alone—disable some of those entries and you may disable Windows completely.
For an even simpler approach, you might want to try a start-up manager like Absolute Startup (for our review, see http://go.pcmag.com/utilityguide ).
Control Start-Up Launch Order
Windows checks various locations in the file system and Registry to determine which programs should launch at start-up, but gives you no real control over the launch order. Here's how to enforce a specific order, perhaps to connect to a VPN before launching a program that needs that connection.
If shortcuts to the start-up programs reside in the Start menu's Startup folder, move them to a new folder; otherwise, create a shortcut to each in a new folder. Open a command prompt, navigate to that new folder, and issue the command DIR /B > ORDERED.BAT. Enter NOTEPAD ORDERED.BAT to open the resulting batch file in Notepad. Use copy-and-paste to put the lines in the desired order. Surround each line with quotes and precede it with the START command, a pair of empty quotes, and a space—for example, START "" "C:\Ordered Launch\First Program.lnk".
Double-click the batch file to test it. The programs will start in the specified order, but if one takes longer to initialize, it may show up out of order. In that case, insert a delay line after the slow-starting program. This line will insert a 5-second delay: ping -n 5 127.0.0.1 > nul. Edit the number after -n to set a different delay. After testing, use the right mouse button to drag the batch file to the Start menu's Startup folder, selecting Create Shortcut(s) Here.
Remove Components Not in Add/Remove
You can uninstall many Windows components, from Solitaire to Networking Services, using the Add or Remove Programs applet from the Control Panel. Launch it and click the Add/Remove Windows Com-ponents button at left. MSN Messenger, however, is deliberately hidden, as are several other components. Here's how you tell Windows not to hide those components.
In Windows Explorer, navigate to C:\Windows\Inf and make a copy of the file Sysoc.inf. When you double-click on Sysoc.inf, it will launch in Notepad. Press Ctrl-H and replace the string ,hide, with ,, and save the file. Now you'll find that all the hidden components appear in Add/ Remove Windows Components.
Recover a Corrupted System File
If an essential Windows file goes missing, gets whacked by a virus, or is otherwise corrupted, you can restore it from your Windows XP CD. Select Search from the Start menu and search the CD for the filename, replacing the last character with an underscore—for example, Notepad.ex_. If it's found, open a command prompt and enter the command expand followed by the full pathname of the file and of the desired destination, for example, expand D:\Setup\Notepad.ex_ C:\Windows\Notepad
.exe. If either pathname contains any spaces, surround it—the full path—with double quotes.
If the file isn't found, search again using the unmodified filename. It will probably be inside a CAB file, which XP treats as a folder. Then simply open the folder, drag the file to the desired location while holding down the right
Make a Recovery Disc
Your PC may have come with a recovery CD that will restore it to the precise state—as far as OS, drivers, and software are concerned—it was in when you bought it. But really, the older your system is, the less useful that CD is. It will lack all the latest security patches (including Windows XP Service Pack 2) and in all likelihood, many drivers will be outdated. So it's an excellent idea to build a new recovery CD, and fortunately you can. The process is more involved than will fit here, so for our full instructions, point your browser to http://go.pcmag.com/xpsp2recover .
Reboot to Safe Mode in Win XP
Sometimes in the course of troubleshooting you need to reboot and start Windows in Safe Mode, which is a minimal start-up that loads only those Windows components that are absolutely essential. In theory, you can enter Safe Mode by restarting and then either holding down the Ctrl key or pressing the F8 key at the right moment. In practice, it can be difficult or, with a USB keyboard, impossible (the USB drivers aren't available in the DOS start-up environment). To configure Windows XP so its next restart will enter Safe Mode, launch the System Configuration Utility (msconfig) from the Start menu's Run dialog. Click the BOOT.INI tab and check the box titled /SAFEBOOT. Don't touch the other settings. When you reboot, XP will start in Safe Mode and will keep doing so until you uncheck that box
Task Manager Missing Parts
Normally, the Windows XP Task Manager contains several tabs with information and options for Applications, Processes, Performance, and Networking. But sometimes the Task Manager goes wonky, displaying just one tab and no menu. This is the Task Manager's "tiny footprint" mode, invoked by double-clicking on the border around the tabs. It's easy to do this accidentally. Fortunately, it's just as easy to restore Task Manager to normal: Simply double-click in the border of the window again.
Restore the Show Desktop Icon
If we had a nickel for every time we've been asked how to restore this handy Quick Launch icon . . . well, we'd have a few bucks by now. The Show Desktop icon isn't a normal shortcut. If you accidentally delete it, restore it like so: Launch Notepad and type these lines:
Save the file with the name "Show Desktop.scf", including the quotes, to the folder C:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch, where username is replaced by your actual user account name.
Shortcut to Shutdown
We've all noted the irony of having to click on Start to shut down. But you can create a shortcut that will automatically shut down your PC, log you off, or reboot.
Right-click on the desktop and choose New | Shortcut. Browse to the file C:\Windows\System32\Shutdown.exe, click Next, name the shortcut, and click Finish. Now right-click on the new shortcut and choose Properties. In the Target box, append the command line switch -l (to log off), -s (to shut down), or -r (to reboot).
If you also add the switch –t xx (where xx is a number of seconds), Shutdown.exe will display a warning and countdown before activating. You can specify a comment to be displayed with the warning by adding the switch -c "Your text". The countdown behavior is particularly useful if the shutdown is launched through the Scheduled Tasks applet. Once it's activated, the only way to stop the program is to launch it again with the -a (for abort) switch on its command line—you might create a separate Cancel Shutdown shortcut for that.