By Bruce Kratofil, CNET Software
If you scored a state-of-the-art Dell or Gateway PC for the holidays, chances are that it's running Windows XP. Groovy. But you may find out that XP is a bit more complex than previous Windows incarnations.
What know-how do you need to master this new OS? Take a look at this collection of tips and tricks to get a crash course on Windows XP. A little knowledge will go a long way with your new XP PC.
You're not stuck with XP's new look. Here are some tips to help you tailor XP's interface.
Don't know the difference between an administrator account and a plain old user account? Get help here.
Privacy and security
Find out how to tweak XP to protect yourself against hackers and other Net snoops.
Music and photos
What good is XP if it's not more fun? Check out these tricks for getting the most out of your multimedia options.
Bruce Kratofil is the coauthor of Windows 2000 Secrets and a senior editor at BugNet. He also writes for CNET Software.
Windows XP has a snazzy new interface. Don't be intimidated by all those colorful new dialogs. Consult these tips to get XP's good looks to work for you.
Turn back the clock
Gray is definitely out. The folks at Microsoft bathed Windows XP in color. Don't like XP's look? To switch back to the Classic look that resembles Windows 2000, right-click the desktop, select Properties, click the Themes tab, and choose Windows Classic from the drop-down list. Voilà! You're back to comfy shades of blue and gray--not to mention having all those familiar icons.
Click "Switch to Classic view" in the upper-left corner of the Properties dialog to bring back the familiar Control Panel icons of earlier versions of Windows. To get back to a Start menu that looks more like Windows 2000's, right-click in an empty portion of the Start menu's left-hand column, select Properties, and go to the Start Menu tab. Select Classic Start Menu. To bring the new look back, just reverse these steps.
Customize the Start menu
The Start menu gets more real estate in XP than in previous versions, and it's more customizable. To make the Start menu display only the applications you want, rather than the default determined by Microsoft, right-click in an empty section of the Start menu's left column, and select Properties > Start Menu > Customize.
Here you'll find a list of your most frequently used programs. (XP keeps track of what you use and what you don't, then updates this list dynamically.) Don't want your boss to know that Pinball, Solitaire, and Quake all make your list? Go to the General tab, click Clear List, and set the counter to zero.
Swap out the defaults
In XP, your favorite programs are displayed in the top left column of the Start menu. Microsoft starts you off with Internet Explorer and Outlook Express.
Want to display a different set of applications in this spot? Right-click an empty portion of the Start menu's left column and select Properties > Start Menu > Customize. At the bottom, deselect the program you no longer want displayed in the "Show on the Start menu" dialog, and, using Windows Explorer or My Computer, navigate to the program you want instead. Right-click the program and select "Pin to Start menu." To rename the new shortcut, right-click it and select Rename. Note: You can't pin files, just programs.
Organize your desktop
The only default icon on XP's desktop is the Recycle Bin, but we think it's a good idea to add a shortcut to Computer Management, a quick and dirty way to get to such important tools as the Event Viewer, Local Users and Groups, Shared Folders, the Device Manager, and Disk Management.
To surface this handy management dialog, click Start > Control Panel > Performance and Maintenance > Administrative Tools. Right-click the Computer Management shortcut. Select Copy from the dialog menu. Right-click an empty portion of the desktop and select Paste Shortcut. Use this procedure to add shortcuts to anything else; use Windows Explorer or My Computer to find your target.
Some of the tools in Computer Management need to be run as an administrator. See the tip about Run As for more info.
Like Windows 2000, but unlike Windows 95, 98, and Me, the ability to log in multiple users simultaneously plays a big role in Windows XP.
There is a default Administrator account set up when Windows XP is first installed, but you can create as many accounts as you need later, depending on how many people will be using the machine. Each user, once he or she has an account, can customize XP to his or her liking.
Individual users get their own subfolders in the Documents And Settings folder; this folder serves as a centralized location for most personalized information, such as the Start Menu, Favorites, and Documents settings.
Missing Administrator account
Once you have created regular user accounts, the default Administrator account vanishes from the Welcome screen, which you see when the computer starts up. Press Ctrl-Alt-Delete twice at the Welcome screen to retrieve the standard logon dialog. You can log on as Administrator from here.
To switch among accounts, just click the Log Off button on the Start menu. You'll then see the Log Off Windows dialog box. Click the Switch User button, and you'll be taken to the Welcome screen where you can select and log on to other accounts.
Only the Administrator can set up new user accounts (go to Control Panel > User Accounts > Create A New Account). You can select a picture to identify the account.
When you're logged on to the system under your username, this picture, along with your username, peeks out at you from the top of the Start menu. There are a slew of 48x48-pixel bitmap images to choose from within XP. They're housed in D:\Documents And Settings\All Users\Application Data\Microsoft\User Account Pictures\Default Pictures. But why limit yourself?
You can also copy any graphic you want into this folder or browse for another from your hard drive. Usable file types are BMP, GIF, JPEG, or PNG. However, always use a square picture, to limit the white space on the side. Your image can be any size but will be displayed as 48x48-pixel image, so a close-up works best.
Once you've created a user account, password-protect it to keep other users from viewing your files, Favorites, and cookies. Why? You may not want your child to see the note that you're sending to his or her teacher, or you may be planning someone's surprise party. (Note: Anyone with an Administrator account can still see them.)
Worried about remembering your password? Create a hint to help you when you initially create it by following the prompts during setup. XP stores the password hints in the Registry at Hkey_local_machine\Software\Microsoft\Windows\Current Version\Hints.
What if the hint doesn't help? Any user or Administrator can create a password reset disk, which you can use to log on and create a new password. Go to Control Panel > User Accounts and select "Prevent a forgotten password" in the Related Tasks box on the left. Follow the wizard's instructions. After creating the disk, find a safe place for it. Don't forget the password or where you put the disk. Someone else could use it to change your password without you knowing it.
Privacy and security
Folks migrating from Windows 95, 98, or Me will find a lush array of new security and privacy features in Windows XP. Consult these tips to make the most of these new tools.
Turn on your firewall
Microsoft included a firewall in Windows XP to keep you safe from hackers while you cruise the Internet. How do you know that the Internet Connection Firewall is on?
Go to the Control Panel and double-click the Network Connections icon. In the dial-up, DSL, or cable connection dialog that appears, check the Status column. If your firewall is on, it should say Firewalled. You can turn the firewall off with the check box, but unless you are going to add a third-party firewall for heightened security, it's best to leave it on.
Now that you know that your firewall is on, how do you know that it's doing its job? Test it with ShieldsUp, the free testing service sponsored by Gibson Research. According to our tests, XP's Internet Connection Firewall kept the computer in full stealth mode. Hackers could not break in and couldn't even see the computer online.
Watch your cookies
In XP, the Documents And Settings folder holds all user information, including configuration settings, favorites, and cookies. The Documents And Settings\Username\Cookies folder is where XP stashes cookies.
How do you control the number of cookies you allow on your system? Click Start > Control Panel > Network And Internet Connections > Internet Options. Click the Privacy tab, then use the slider bar to modify your cookie settings. For instance, you can block cookies from sites that use personal identification without your consent.
To increase your security, try out the other privacy settings in this dialog. The lowest level is Accept All Cookies while the highest is Block All Cookies, with low, medium, medium-high, and high settings in between. (An explanation of each appears as you move between settings.) Keep in mind that rejecting cookies may limit your actions on some Web sites.
While these security tools help keep your information safe from malicious users while you're on the Internet, Windows XP comes with additional tools for folks who share a computer. See Multiuser features within this article for more information.
The omnipotent Administrator
When you use Windows XP, you belong to one of two groups: Administrators or Users. Administrators are all-powerful: if you have a so-called Admin account, you can make systemwide changes and change other users' accounts.
While this power is a boon to the ego, it's also dangerous. If, for example, you encounter a virus, a Trojan horse, or a worm while you're logged on as Administrator, you could wreck all the accounts on your entire system. Log in as User, on the other hand, and any damage you cause will be less extensive, because ordinary users are prevented from making systemwide changes.
A word to the wise: Do your everyday computing as a regular user and log on as Administrator only when it's absolutely necessary, such as when adding a new user or changing security settings. To sign on as User, use the Run As command: just right-click a shortcut and select Run As. As long as you know the username and password, you can sign on as another user.
Music and photos
If your devices are Plug and Play compatible, Microsoft claims that XP will recognize them once you plug them in. Having trouble with pictures and music? These tips may make it easier.
Try automatic camera recognition
If you have a digital camera, try this trick for downloading pictures to your machine. Don't load any of the drivers or software that comes with your digital camera. Instead--if your camera supports USB--connect your camera via a USB port. There's a good chance that Windows XP will recognize the digicam.
After a few moments, the Scanner And Camera Wizard should start up and walk you through the steps involved in copying your pictures from the camera to a folder of your choice on your computer--much faster than doing it manually.
You may still need to install your camera's software if it provides configuration controls you can't access in any other way, such as those for changing the picture resolution on your camera or the software's special editing functions.
Know your rights
Windows XP comes bundled with Windows Media Player 8.0. While Media Player plays just about any digital media file format--it supports 35, including MP3--it records music only in the Windows Media Audio, or WMA, format. The reason? Content protection.
When recording, or ripping, music from CDs, Media Player allows you to make protected recordings so that no one will be able to copy the recording from one computer to another. You can turn copy protection on or off on the Copy Music tab by checking or unchecking the box that says Protect Content. Remember your legal obligations when it comes to copying music.
Protect your identity
Like many other audio players, Windows Media Player rushes out to the Internet to find information for you when you play a CD. Some of this information, such as song titles and album art, is useful, but Media Player also identifies your copy of Media Player to the site where it's getting data.
Why? According to the help file, "The server uses this unique identifier to monitor your connection. By monitoring your connection, the server can make adjustments to increase the playback quality and to alert you about events that occur when receiving streams over the Internet."
If you're disturbed by this exchange of information, here's how to stop it. In Windows Media Player, click Tools > Options and go to the Player tab. Notice the option that says "Allow Internet sites to uniquely identify your player?" Turn it off.
I want my MP3
Some of us may not want to record using the WMA format. For example, you may need to record in the MP3 format for compatibility with your MP3 player hardware. Instead of spending a lot on a special third-party plug-in, why not bypass Windows Media Player altogether? In our tests, the free, downloadable RealJukebox Basic 2.0 worked just dandy with Windows XP.