PC Apps

Why my Windows XPerience is better than yours – part deux

Start Menu Organization

I repair PCs in addition to my day job, so I get an intimate look at the ways people use, misuse, and abuse their Windows operating systems. One thing that’s consistent between all my clients is that they have about 5 years of compounded Start Menu folders and icons. These listings are woefully neglected, listed in the order they were installed, often take two or more columns to list, and comprised of largely unused and undesired software. We are creatures of habit, though, and often accept cards as they are dealt, flawed though the hand may be.

Not I! Unlike my desk, closet, kitchen, and just about every other physical domain I occupy, I pride myself in my meticulously maintained Start menu. Despite my reliance on the venerable Keylaunch I still occasionally trawl through my Start menu, and I’ll be darned if I have to waste a solitary moment doing so.

Thus, the first thing I do when I install Windows fresh is create organizational folders in which every application I plan on installing will reside. Then, as I install software drivers and applications, I move their folders into my own. This guarantees that when I click Start / All Programs I am not rendered catatonic by the epilepsy-invoking flash of a screen full of individual application folders.

The coup de grace (“coop de Gracie” as Daffy Duck would say) of this ritual is performed by right-clicking any folder or item in a list and clicking Sort by Name. This arranges the items in the list alphabetically.

If it’s been many a moon since you installed Windows this procedure might be a bit lengthy, but rest assured knowing that the longer this one-time organization takes, the more time you’ll have saved yourself every time you look for a program in the future.


Adding Explorer Buttons

The user interface presented upon the fresh installation of Windows XP is decidedly minimalistic. The desktop is devoid of icons, few Start menu items exist, and Windows Explorer is configured with few features. This presentation is neophyte-friendly, revealing few jarring or confusing elements upon this first glance, but is rather crippled in terms of usability.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the benefits of adding buttons reflecting my commonly-performed tasks. If you’ll note my screenshot below you’ll likely recognize a few buttons not present on your own Windows Explorer UI. Starting from the View pulldown icon and going rightward are a refresh button, a delete button (surrounded by separators to minimize accidental clicking), cut, copy, and paste.

The astute among my readers might interject, noting that every one of the buttons I added have corresponding keyboard shortcuts (F5, del, ctrl-x, ctrl-c, and ctrl-v respectively), all but rendering my additional efforts pointless. However, the true power users among you will mirror my enthusiasm for this redundancy as you often find dual-finger keyboard shortcuts to be impossible due to common hand-disqualifying variables such as soft drink cans, deep fried potato products, and ice cream spoons.

The most accessible software applications present multiple ways to perform any one task. My sweet tooth and I grant our kudos to Microsoft for succeeding so thoroughly in this endeavour.


Disk Partitioning

It happens to each and every one of us at some point, kind of like chicken pox, so if it hasn’t happened to you yet you’d better be prepared. I’m talking about loss of data, logical partition corruption, total disk failure, clutzy human error, and what the Russians refer to as kaput-ski. Aside from backups, mankind’s number one unfulfilled new years resolution, the prescribed preventive maintenance for this inevitable catastrophe is strategic paritioning.

The vast majority of my repair clients are not even aware of the option of partitioning. For those who don’t know, partitioning is the act of logically splitting a hard drive into separate sections, each represented (in Windows, anyway) by a separate drive letter. As illustrated in my screenshot below, before installing Windows I am careful to plan a partitioning scheme based on my perceived needs, granting sufficient diskspace to each resource. Once Windows is installed I assign a drive letter to each partition that clues me as to the planned contents.

How does this help protect one from information apocalypse? Well, as outstanding as Microsoft’s operating systems are, it’s likely that a nasty bit of spyware, a virus, trojan, sloppily programmed application, or other misfortune will befall your Windows system at some point. When this happens and you are forced to reinstall Windows you will almost certainly need to format, ergo obliterate, your system partition including the entirety of its contents. Wouldn’t it be nice if your re-installable programs, and not your irreplaceable data, were the only victims of Hurricaine Hard Drive?

Partitioning doesn’t protect against physical disk damage, so it is a poor substitute for backups or multiple physical disks, but it is sufficient to protect against most “soft” disasters. It also makes categories of data easier to find, as I can be sure I need to look on my M drive for music, my T drive for television shows, and my S drive for my, er, stuff. Hey, it may be a mess but it’s an organized mess, mom.


For more of my informative tiddlywinks be sure to check out part one of this ever-growing series of Windows XP customisation tips.

PC Apps

Why my Windows XPerience is better than yours

MinimizeToTray by Mook and Helix400

I never really used the old Mozilla web browsing suite much in its heyday since I didn’t really care about the other bundled apps. However, one feature that I wish had carried over to Firefox is the quickload agent that loads some of the browser code into memory at boot in order to speed subsequent loads. Firefox is a powerful and zippy browser but the more functionality you add via extensions (I guess they’re called add-ons now), the slower it loads up.

And so, having played with the outstanding and free 4t Tray Minimizer several years ago, I wished for a way to minimize Firefox without having to load a third-party app. Lo and behold, the benevolent Mark Yen (Mook) and Brad Peterson (helix400) have granted my wish with their fantastic MinimizeToTray add-on!

I copied the Firefox icon to my Start/Programs/Startup folder and set the properties to minimize on load. When my PC boots I’m bothered by a single dialog asking whether I want to start Firefox fresh or open the previous tabs (I opted not to disable this for convenience) and Firefox stands at the ready for immediate browsing at any time! Note the cute little Firefox icon on my icon tray – minimizing or closing (the latter is togglable) the browser plunks it down next to the clock!

A word of warning; Firefox is a memory hog. I’ve spied with my little task manager Firefox guzzling upwards of 150MB of RAM while minimized with a few tabs open! I had found a tweak some time ago that freed about 95% of consumed RAM when Firefox was minimized, but I think this extension overrides that. My 2 gigs of DDR2 more than compensate for this so it’s no skin off my DIMMs.


Get the fantastic MinimizeToTray add-on here!

KeyLaunch by xFX Jumpstart

I saw this app reviewed on The Screen Savers several years ago and was so impressed that I immediately bolted downstairs and downloaded the program. The author had exercised exceptional generosity by offering Screen Savers viewers a free copy of this payware app, which I gladly accepted and hoggishly milked for years. Long after, upon reinstalling Windows, I decided that I couldn’t live without it and purchased it (for something like $12).

KeyLaunch is a realtime local search app. Though it can be configured to search any folder on your computer, its primary function is to quickly launch any icon located on your Start menu. Any XP user can attest to the frustrations caused by gently navigating the mouse over one, two, three, four subdirectories on the Start menu, only to accidentally nudge the cursor and have to start all over. KeyLaunch makes this a thing of the past!

Just hit the Scroll Lock key (you haven’t used that one in a decade, I bet) and the KeyLaunch menu pops down from the top of the screen. Type a few consecutive letters of the desired icon and all matching entries appear nearly instantly! KeyLaunch is intelligent as well, so even though typing “inter” will yield many entries with the words Internet and Interactive, the most frequently executed entry will become the default first choice the next time you type that same query.

I can’t sufficiently recommend this app. I am perhaps the most frugal cheap-ass on earth when it comes to shelling out the bucks for such seemingly innocuous shareware, but KeyLaunch absolutely takes the cake as the most innovative and timesaving app I’ve ever used. I’ll likely still use it with Windows Vista even though the OS features built-in search functionality.
Try KeyLaunch for just one day. If you uninstall it the morning of day 2 you’ll miss it by noon.


Get info and the installer for KeyLaunch here!

Royale Noir and Zune themes by Microsoft

The day I first installed Windows XP I marvelled at the attractive new Luna desktop theme. 20 minutes later I wondered where the rest of the themes were hidden. Little did I know that Microsoft was holding them hostage!

Well, not exactly. The blue, olive, and silver colour schemes for Luna were pretty much all she wrote until the advent of Windows XP Media Center Edition which featured a slightly darker and slick-looking blue theme called Royale. I was thrilled with Royale the moment I tried it, but after about a year it’s getting tougher and tougher to keep finding blue desktop wallpapers to suit it.

Between Luna and the public release of Royale for XP I’ve used apps like WindowBlinds and StyleXP to shake up my desktop. These are both fantastic, easy to use programs, each with a huge user base and thousands of contributed desktop themes. My issue with these apps is that they introduce an extra layer of arbitration between the user interface and Windows’ blood and guts which sucks up extra RAM and CPU resources. Even with both apps’ “zero resources mode” I still ran into UI troubles, and that’s unacceptable.

Thus I was thrilled to find some easy-to-install dark and colour-neutral themes released by Microsoft! After 6 years it’s about damn time! Royale Noir is a very low profile, dark but sheeny theme that is very easy on the eyes and suits any wallpaper. The brand new Zune theme borrows heavily from Noir but introduces bright orange Start button and sidebar options. Be sure to back up your wallpaper before implementing the Zune theme because it insists on installing an absolutely hideous picture of Generation Y alternadrones reaching skyward. Spluh.

These new themes appear in the Display Properties option set under Royale and Zune respectively and can be switched-to as easily as the built-in Luna themes. You’ve got nothing to lose but a bright blue suntan to check them out today! They’re free!


Get the Royale Noir theme here, and the Zune theme here!

MP3ext by Michael Mutschler

You illegally download music. I caught you. Don’t deny it. It’s okay, it’s a stupid law that will be defunct pretty soon. You use a program like Limewire or SoulSeek or a BitTorrent site like The Pirate Bay to download music you may or may not have paid for, you burn it to CDs or stick them on your MP3 player, and you rock out without a care in the world. I forgive you. In fact, let me help (more).

Whether you’re downloading or ripping MP3s there’s a pretty good chance that they won’t be uniform. They’ll probably be encoded at different bitrates which greatly impact the quality of the highs and lows and the overall presence of the sound. Ever made a mix CD with a random sampling of your favourite music du jour? You had to dance with your partner as well as with your 10-band mixer, didn’tcha? Wouldn’t it be nice if bitrates of a feather flocked together?

Well, flock on! MP3ext is a Windows shell enhancement utility that changes the icons of MP3s to display bitrates in a big, bright font! While compiling a mix CD, just give the song icons a once-over before dragging them into DeepBurner (or some other.. ugh.. RETAIL burning software) to ensure consistent high (or low) quality audio pipes through your sound system throughout the disc.

For the truly meticulous, MP3ext also adds a properties tab to all MP3 files which enable you to enter ridiculous sums of data about each song. Some such fields include lyrics, artist website URL, classical conductor, a custom icon specific to that song, and even as many as TEN graphics embedded right in the file! (presumably viewable only on computers with MP3ext installed)

The download is teeny tiny and many alternative icon packs can be used to match your desktop colour scheme. Check it out! It’ll cost ya squat!

Download MP3ext here!

Letter Icons by anonymous

You may notice my two-row taskbar at the bottom of my Windows desktop. Yeah, it’s large and most of my friends think I’m dumb for using it. Nuh-uh, I say, because it unlocks the potential to populate that valuable real-estate with all kinds of goodies!

In truth, said goodies have mostly come and gone from from my taskbar. I’ve tried sticking desktop search utilities, virtual desktop enhancements, magnifiers, an address bar, and other seemly helpful UI extensions that ended up just wasting space. However, my beloved Quick Launch icon bar has remained there for years and I trust it always will. I keep that space populated with my most frequently-opened apps as well as quick-access icons to the root of my hard disk partitions and optical drives.

Even before trying Linux where the practise has always been the norm, I’ve always been a huge proponent of disk partitioning. I keep my operating system and installed apps on my C drive, music on M, games on S, and other stuff on T. Don’t ask how I came up with those letters, but that’s how they’re named and I’m used to it now.

Why all the bother? Well, ever had your hard disk crap out on you? Chances are the entire disk wasn’t dead – just your one and only partition. By putting my important stuff on separate logical partitions on the same physical disk I greatly minimize the risk of losing more than one partition worth of data. Want to know how to partition your drive in a similar fashion? Failsafe answer – format your hard drive, configure partitions, and reinstall Windows. Risky answer – maybe the gigabyte gods will be kind and Partition Magic won’t corrupt your precious data as you attempt to partition a “live” drive. Maybe.

Anyway, I’m all partitioned up and sticking four identical HDD icons on my Quick Launch bar was confusing. I happened across these handy dandy letter icons more than a decade ago and found enough uses for them (the aforementioned is one of many) that I’ve retained them after all this time. I can’t find them hosted anywhere on the web so I offer them to my readers for the high, high price of reading this drivel!


Get the letter icons here!

Is your XPerience even better than mine? Well, please don’t say it in those words because I’ll probably start bawling like Ballmer. But if you’ve got a handy dandy timesaver I haven’t mentioned please leave a comment!

And if you’ve found this article informative, you might want to have a look at part deux of this series.

PC Apps

Speak softly and carry a big mic

I’ve been testing Microsoft Windows Vista this week and so far I’m having a lot of fun! There are all kinds of awesome features that I’m really excited about, not the least of which is the voice recognition functionality. In fact, I’m dictating this log entry right now and am rather impressed with the degree of accuracy. Thus far I’ve only had to make two corrections. The speech recognition engine seems rather intelligent in that it always seems to choose the correct word in context even when one word sounds like another.

Believe it or not, Vista is an even better blogger than I am since this entry is taking longer than when I type.

In addition to dictation I’m particularly impressed with how easy it is to navigate native and third party applications without touching the mouse. To click any button on an ordinary windows application interface I can either say out loud the name of the button (you can cover the mouse over the button to see the tool tip if you’re not sure) or I can say “show numbers” to overlay numbers on top of every button on the interface. I then say the corresponding number out loud, followed by OK, to click that button. Using “show numbers” I can even click elements on a webpage, such as a link or text box, to browse the web or even use the message forum.

I admit to this point I’ve been speaking fragments rather slowly and in a monotonous tone, so just for fun and all read an excerpt from Douglas Coupland’s JPod verbatim:

“Brea told me this great story. She was assigned to show around a visiting middleware consultant from France. Nobody was sure if he was gay or not. His name is surge to quote—which is sort of funny in itself, because in high school, the fictional guy in my French textbook was searched and quo. Everyone my age in my school district has the same surge to call die in their ads, forever asking where the metro is.”

For comparison hull type the same paragraph:

“Bree told me this great story. She was assigned to show around a visiting middleware consultant from France. Nobody was sure if he was gay or not. His name is Serge Duclos—which is sort of funny in itself, because in high school, the fictional guy in my French textbook was Serge Duclos. Everyone my age in my school district has this same Serge Duclos guy in their heads, forever asking where the Métro is.”

Aside from having to be mindful enough to say punctuation marks out loud, to my great surprise dictation works phenomenally well. While this may not spell a new era in data entry (imagine the noisy workplace) it is certainly a testament to how far personal computer accessibility has come. I admit, though I’m sure I look like a raving lunatic, I’ve really enjoyed controlling my computer without touching it.

Release Candidate 1 of Microsoft Windows Vista has just been released, so it is currently only available to those who signed up previously. Check this website periodically if you would like to beta test the next version.

Audibly yours,
Brian Damage