Five Vista tips, revisited and expanded

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.)
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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