Five Vista tips, revisited and expanded

Five Vista tips, revisited and expanded

Summary: Last year, I published two collections of tips for beta testers of Windows Vista. Now that Vista is officially released, I've gone back and selected the five best tips from those two posts and expanded them to cover the version you can buy today. (And don't miss my 30 days of brand-new Vista tips and tweaks, beginning next week.)

TOPICS: Windows

Last year, during Windows Vista's long incubation, I published two collections of tips for beta testers working with release candidate versions of the software. In all, there were 10 tweaks for RC1 (with image gallery) and another 10 for RC2 (the full collection is here). Now that Vista is officially released, I've begun putting together a new collection of 30 tips, which I'll kick off in a one-a-series beginning next Monday. As part of the research, I went back to those two older collections and pulled out five tips that were worth revisiting. In each case, I've checked the steps against the final release of Vista to confirm that the instructions still work, and I've added notes and comments based on more than three months' of experience with the final code.

Set up without a product key

I remember I was blown away when I discovered that this feature was going to survive the transition from beta to released software. In essence, every DVD copy of Windows Vista is a full-fledged trial version. If you're setting up an evaluation machine to try out Windows Vista or to test compatibility or performance of new piece of hardware or software, the last thing you want to do is activate the machine. In the beta versions, the evaluation period was 14 days. In the released version, you can install any edition of Windows Vista and use it for up to 30 days, a deadline that you can extend up to three times for a total unactivated period of operation of up to 120 days. (For more details on how to reset the activation counter and push the deadline back another 30 days, be sure to come back next week.)

Early in the Windows Vista setup process, a dialog box makes it appear that you have to enter a product key to install the operating system, just as you do with Windows XP. But that's not so. Regardless of whether you start the setup program by booting from the DVD or from within another copy of Windows, you'll come to a "type your product key" dialog box, which hasn't changed since the RC1 version I showed here. Leave the Product Key box blank, and then click No in response to the "Are you sure?" dialog box. You'll be presented with a list of all the different Vista versions available on the DVD. You can pick any edition from this list and use it for up to 30 days without having to activate and with the ability to download updates. After 30 days, though, you'll need to enter a valid product key, do a fresh install, or reset the activation counter.

As I'll explain next week, this is also an invaluable secret to know when you want to perform a clean install using an upgrade edition of Windows Vista.

Give your system a performance boost

Vista's ReadyBoost feature allows you to plug in a USB flash drive or a flash memory card and use its contents to cache frequently used files. Surprisingly, this feature really works, and with the cost of 1GB+ flash drives these days it's a cheap way to speed up a system without having to remove the cover. The screen shot and instructions I posted when RC1 was released are still accurate. In a follow-up article, "Is your flash drive fast enough for Vista's ReadyBoost?" I explained how to check the performance of a flash device to see whether it will work with ReadyBoost and where Microsoft hides the detailed performance measurements it stores about each device (see the image gallery for step-by-step instructions). Since then, I've successfully used new Secure Digital and Memory Stick Pro devices as ReadyBoost devices.

The speed champ in my testing was the Apacer Handy Steno model HT-203 drive, which is available in 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB sizes. Microsoft recommends a drive that is at least equal in capacity to the amount of RAM installed on your system, and my experience bears that out. A 2GB drive should be just about right for a system with either 1GB or 2GB of memory.

Master the Quick Launch bar Did you know that each of the first 10 shortcuts on the Quick Launch bar has its own custom keyboard shortcut? The basic technique hasn't changed since the illustrated description I posted for RC2. This is one very simple way for keyboard-centric Windows users to get quick access to the programs they use most often. Here are a couple of additional things to know about the Quick Launch bar:

  • The keyboard shortcuts are disabled if you hide the Quick Launch bar. If taskbar space is an issue, unlock the taskbar, make sure the Quick Launch bar is visible, drag the right side of the Quick Launch bar to the left so only a single icon is visible, and then lock the taskbar again. You'll need to memorize the order of items on the list or click the chevron at the right side of that icon to see the entire list and determine which number goes with which shortcut.
  • If you leave the built-in Quick Launch shortcuts in their default positions, then Windows key+1 is Show Desktop, Windows key+2 is Switch Between Windows, Windows key+3, is Internet Explorer, and Windows key+4 is Windows Media Player.
  • The Switch Between Windows shortcut on the Quick Launch bar (Windows key+2) is not the same as Flip-3D (Windows key+Tab). With Flip-3D, when you release the Windows key the window at the top of the stack moves to the front. With the Quick Launch shortcut, the stack of screens remains visible, and you can scroll through it using the arrow keys. When you reach the correct window, press Enter or Escape to bring it to the front.
  • The Quick Launch toolbar isn't just for programs. You can use it for shortcuts to documents, local or network drives, folders, and websites - basically, anything you can define with a file location or URL.

Back it up

The Backup program in Windows Vista is light years ahead of its predecessor. I posted details about using Backup and Restore Center after RC2, and the basic procedure is still the same. The exact capabilities of the Backup program depend on which Vista edition is installed, but all are worth setting up. Here are some updated notes and comments:

  • On Windows Vista Business or Ultimate, you can use the new Complete PC Backup feature to save an image of your system drive after you get everything configured just right. Remember that if you need to restore a Complete PC Backup image, you'll have to partition the restored drive identically (same partition layout, same partition sizes), so make sure you have the partitions defined to your liking first.
  • With Home editions of Vista, only file-based backups are available. With Home Basic, you have to manually perform a backup. With Home Premium, you can set up a file-based backup as a scheduled task. By far the best destination for these backups is an external (USB or Firewire) hard drive.
  • If you need to retrieve an earlier version of a file and you're running Vista Business or Ultimate edition, you can use the Previous Versions tab on the Properties dialog box for that file or folder. This tab contains files from backups and from restore points, which are created automatically by the Shadow Copy feature when you have System Restore enabled for a given drive. (This is a good reason to make sure System Restore is enabled even on a drive that contains only data.) On Home Basic and Home Premium editions, the previous Versions feature isn't available and your backed-up files are available only from the Backup program.

Add an elevated Command Prompt
By running a Command Prompt as an Administrator, you can start just about any program or Control Panel applet without being bothered by UAC prompts. When I first posted this tip shortly after RC2 was released, some commenters objected that this lowers the security of the system. Well, not really. You have to deliberately choose to run a system-level command from a console, which pretty much rules out the prospect that you'll see an unexpected prompt to install a program or change a system setting. If you want to open an elevated Command Prompt on the fly, follow these steps:

  1. Click Start or tap the Windows logo key.
  2. Type cmd in the Search box, which should find the Command Prompt shortcut and display it in the Start menu within a few milliseconds.
  3. Press Ctrl+Shift+Enter to run Cmd.exe as if you had chosen the Run As Administrator option.
  4. Respond to the UAC consent dialog box.

Be sure to return Monday, when I'll begin my month-long series of new Vista tips.

Topic: Windows

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  • Looking foreward to this series...

    Ed, two quick comments on this one. First, thanks especially for the Quick Launch keyboard tip. I'm one of those keyboard-centric types, so it is perfect for me. Second, I have the Apacer flash drive you mentioned and it works great.

    I am greatly looking forward to seeing additional Vista tips. I'll check out the other tips here as well. I have already implemented the rest of these tips except for the product key one.
  • VISTA TIP #1: Don't Upgrade :)

    Hehe... ya, whats the point? Espcially if you are gonna shell out money for the weak 'home / basic' edition. Plus tons of software compatibility issues.
    • Please stop FUDING!

      Tons of compatibility issues?!?!?

      Okay, since Windows runs more software on the planet than probably all other OS'es combined, there are no doubt from a numerical standpoint a lot of issues.

      However, for the average person will find at least 90% of their software will run just fine.

      But before anyone upgrades, use a search engine or ask a friend if an important app is Vista compatible. If it isn't and there's no update to make it compatible, then don't upgrade.

      It's really that simple.

      There was only ONE piece of software that I use that doesn't work on Vista, well it can but its not supported, and that was Visual Studio 2003, which it out dated anyway, none the less, I still need it from time to time. I just run it on an XP when needed.
      • It's a Valid point

        I was considering upgrading but now I'm thinking I'll just go with a New PC with Vista on it. If an App I have fails to run on Vista I a stil have the older PC where it will run on the older OS. It's the best of both worlds but it does come at price of a New PC. I'm thinking maybe buying a Laptop with Vista and keeping my 2 year old desktop and upgrading it to XP from Windows 2000.
      • FUD? Just because YOU haven't had problems?

        Let's see... so far I've received a notice from SmartDraw, warning users about compatibility issues. I have a large stock of existing designs in SmartDraw, as do most people who use it. If you want to buy Vista, SmartDraw 7 users will also have to upgrade to SmartDraw 2007 (here are the issues:

        Intuit also sent out an email to warn users about compatibility issues with QuickBooks 2006 and earlier. Users who switch to Vista will have to upgrade Quickbooks as well. As with SmartDraw, most users are business users, and their livelihood depends on this app. In case you lost your calendar, we just left the year 2006 about forty days ago. Whether Microsoft or the vendors think it's reasonable to upgrade software purchased just last year in order to maintain compatiblity is irrelevant. Whether you in your own paltry usage have experienced problems is likewise irrelevant. The compatibility issues exist, and they are most emphatically [i]not[/i] FUD to those affected.

        Each user needs to make that evaluation based on his [i]own[/i] software choices, [i]not yours.[/i] These two examples [i]alone[/i] adds hundreds of dollars to the cost of Vista upgrades for shops that use the programs. Given that Microsoft has refused to publish a compatibility list as they did with XP, it is perfectly reasonable to adopt a "wait and see" approach to software compatibility. This is, in fact, the [i]only[/i] strategy that does not involve unnecessary risk and expense to your company. Furthermore, it's perfectly reasonable for a company, should they be thus affected, to decide not to upgrade rather than be forced to upgrade mission-critical software at the same time. Remember, XP AIN'T BROKE. QUICKBOOKS 2006 AIN'T BROKE. So it's highly questionable that the Vista upgrade is going to do anything for your business other than drain your bank account.
        • XP Users don't need Vista

          If you think you "need" a supposedly "prettier" user interface knock yourself out with Vista. If you think you would be getting more than an expensive Service Pack for XP, think again. If you think you might like IE7 with tabs, download it and add it to XP. Vista is to XP as Millenium Edition (ME) was to 98SE -- more trouble and expense than it is worth.
          • I don't know about that

            I use Windows 2000 and XP right now and I've just started looking at Vista. It's installed on few PCs now. What I've found is W2K is rock solid, XP is flaky at best and Vista looks like it has a lot of promise.

            I'd also not XP isn't in the same class of OS. So vista is to XP what Windows 2000 was to Windows 98. Now what them put out crap version of XP to satisfy those with older PCs unable to run Vista, that'd be just like ME.
      • FUD that aint!!

        I'm an accountant, and lots of my clients use Quickbooks. I need to have lots of versions of Quickbooks so that I can use their accounting files and send the updated file back to them to continue use.

        Quickbooks 2006 has compatibility issues with Vista. So ALL my clients have to upgrade their Quickbooks if I want to (upgrade?) to Vista?

        Yeah, I can upgrade their file to the later Quickbooks version to work with Vista, but I can't downgrade it to give it back to them.

        That AIN'T FUD!! It's FACT!!
        • Re-associate the QB file extension with the host QuickBooks program

          Solving QB/Quicken issues under Vista is as easy as re-associating the QB file extension with the host program.
          Find your QB datafiles and right click them, then select, open with and choose the QB/Quicken application. They will work after that. This only takes a second and versions back to 2005 have been tested - I'd have tested earlier versions, but have no customers using versions earlier that 2005.
      • This is not FUD

        Please stop using FUD to disparage someone's view because they think VISTA has teething problems and that some products are not working at the moment. You would have to be deaf and blind not to have noticed there are more than one or two products which have issues. Even if you forget ipods and a few difficulties faced by some security software suppliers (now mostly resolved) there are a whole range of products that are still "adapting" Nvidia still do not have their drivers working properly.

        FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) is spread by large companies (or their agents) Ed would like you all to think that FUD is also any complaint against Microsoft spread somehow by unknown forces but FUD only works if you have the power to put fear into peoples minds.

        So that Ed does not use his usual excuse and say look he gives no examples here's just 2 to start.

        Look at the "Initiative for Software Choice" (ISC) and their letters to Mitt Romney Governor of Massachusetts dire warnings that the adoption of ODF would restrict choice and disadvantage blind and other disabled groups. Or their letter to the European Commision in October damanding they withdraw statements regarding the benifits of open systems (which they did only for the technical team to reiterate their statement) to now be rebutted by a demand that the EC reaffirms its commitment to technical neutrality. The aim of this group is clearly directed to protecting the interests Microsoft by casting doubt on the viability of alternative products.

        The ISC is part funded by guess who M$ it has members around the world the vast majority of who you have never heard of such as the Egypt Cyber Center, other members are companies like Intel and EDS. The only big software names that jump out are Symantec and of course Microsoft themselves. The Initiative for Software Choice is part of the Computing Technology Industry Association and who just happens to be on the board John Kelly, General Manager of Global Affairs, Microsoft.

        In much the same way the "independent" ECMA Open XML document standards committee happens to have a Microsoft employee is its chair, a Microsoft employee on the committee who then submits the documents for approval, they then vote to approve these standards. Then CNET write dumb stories like "Microsoft sails through document standard vote" Its a joke.

        Then also look at the where you even have ex Microsoft employees stating under oath that Microsoft had a policy of spreading FUD to control the market. There's lots more on this site and I guess you have to conclude that either lots of people with no apparent financial interest are telling lies in court or Mr Gates and his company have been less than honest. Oh I forgot the courts have already decided on that issue in the past.
      • Trend Micro

        Trend Micro does not work. Pretty critical ap in our environment.
    • And refuse

      to buy any machine that comes preloaded with it!!
  • Cool Beans

    I like the tips. Especially the nice tip with CMD and control-shift-enter. Although I am thinking a program could detect if you ran an elevated command prompt and launch itself from there. Would this be possible? I know it would be very unlikely malware would bank on this since most people probably won't even use CMD let alone an elevated prompt. Anyways good tips!

    P.S. Yes, I agree with the other post. Stop the FUD people.
  • The backup program ain't THAT great...

    Who ever heard of a backup program that a) doesn't show you what it's backing up and b) doesn't allow you to select a folder on a drive, only the entire drive ?
    • You are not correct

      You can indeed backup only document files without having to backup the entire hard drive with the Backup and Restore Center in Vista.

      However, it will only allow you to backup the standard document locations, not just any file or folder. However, for most people this is all the backup capability they need. It's FAR better than no backups at all.

      Microsoft is only trying to give the average user some protection, not create a world class backup app. There are already a ton of those for Windows.

      That's the power of Windows. If you need an app for just about anything, it's probably already out there.
      • That assumes alot

        Only issue I have with this apps saving data in non standard locations. Maybe this won't be as much of problem in Vista however. I just know my TAX software saves it's files in the C:\tax%year%\ directory with no option to change that location. Maybe Vista compatible versions of this tax software will change that.

        Still, how hard is to burn those directories to a CD. That's what I do now.
        • Vista's backup program will back those up

          The default settings include everything that is not a program file and is not in a protected system location. So any user data files in a directory like the one you describe would be backed up using the default settings.
          Ed Bott
          • That's cool then (NT)

            My only real problem with Backups is size. I currently have too much data to burn to CD and even DVD would cumbersome and time consuming. So really back-ups for me a non issue. I put the key critical file on CD and accept if the harddrive crashes I'll lose all music and video files.
      • Correction

        "it will only allow you to backup the standard document locations"

        Not so. The Vista backup program in Home editions is based on file types. It backs up all files of the selected type on the system drive and on any other drives you select. So if you choose Music, all MP3, WMNA, AAC, etc. files will be backed up, regardless of where they are located.

        The default settings back up all data files on the selected drives, even if they have unrecognized extensions and/or are located in strange, non-standard directories.
        Ed Bott
      • Good backup programs abound

        Good backup programs abound. Why should I subject myself to the problems and expense of Vista to get a mediocre one?