“No man (or woman) is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne, and we accomplish more by working together. That proves true even in gathering the best tricks for using Windows Vista. After scouring the earth looking for the best of the best, I offer these eight Vista tricks to help you get more out of Vista.
1. Navigate by using shortcuts. The Windows Key will bring up the Start menu, but when combined with other keys it can do more than you might know. For example, + D will show the desktop without your sidebar. If you want to see that sidebar just press + Space Bar. For a quick way to access the Run command, hit +R. One of the coolest features is the ability to use the Windows Key to select icons in your Quick Launch bar. So, if you count from the left the various icons in your Quick Launch bar and then hit the number that corresponds with the icon, it will open up that application.
2. Use the System Configuration Tool (MSCONFIG). It might have slipped into the background for many users but I’m here to bring msconfig back out of hiding for Vista. What for? Well, if you have a ton of applications that are starting up on boot and you’re going crazy trying to find a quick way to disable some of them, just go to the Start orb and type
in the Quick Search bar. On the Startup tab, you can see all of those applications and clear the checkboxes next to the items you want disabled. Then hit Apply and you should be good to go with your next reboot.
While looking at msconfig, you might as well check out the Tools tab, which is new in Vista. From here you can select a tool, note the location of the command, and hit the Launch button to kickstart that tool. Another option that might catch your eye is the Disable UAC option. Not that I recommend using it, but it’s good to know where to go to enable and disable that feature.
3. Use Task Manager. Task Manager is one of my favorite tools for finding applications, processes, and services that are causing difficulties. Although you can still open the tool using the standard method (Ctrl+Alt+Delete and then selecting Start Task Manager from the menu selection), you might find it faster to use the shortcut keys (Ctrl+Shift+Esc) to bring it up immediately. Note the column headers where you can select a column header to sort. You should note the direction of the arrow that shows you if the sort order is ascending or descending.
At the Processes tab, you can see the new Description column, which identifies each process. If you want to see more information here, select the View menu and choose Select Columns to reveal a host of other options you can add. Some very helpful columns you might want to add include Image Path Name, which shows you the path to the file running a particular process; and the Command Line option, which shows you the full command line with parameters and switches used in launching the process. If you want to go directly to the location of the file for a process, you can right-click the process and choose Open File Location.
Another interesting change in Task Manager is the ability to see on the Performance tab the actual memory you are using as opposed to the page file usage. You can also see system uptime. And, if you want a quick way to access Resource Monitor, just click the button located conveniently on this tab.
4. Use Folder Options. Here is a set of simple tricks from the Folder Options that you might not have noticed just yet. Folder Options, found within the Classic View of Control Panel or in the Appearance and Personalization link of Control Panel, is often the last place people look for some very interesting options. The Search tab, for example, has an option called Use natural language search, which lets you search for items in a more natural manner. Instead of using search code to find an item, you can type in a request such as “pictures from Florida in December.” Other Folder Options features can be found on the View tab, which has options that let you perform the following:
- Show hidden files and folders
- Hide extensions for known file types
- Hide protected OS files
- Show pop-up descriptions for folder and desktop items (to turn off pop ups, clear this option)
- Use check boxes to select items
5. Create Multiple Local GPOs. Vista lets you create multiple local GPOs for an environment that doesn’t have Active Directory (AD) in place. The trick is in finding the settings to create multiple policies. It isn’t as easy as you might think. To start with, open up Microsoft Management Console (MMC) by selecting Start, Run; type
and hit Enter. Select Continue in the User Account Control (UAC) dialog box. Go to the File menu and select Add/Remove Snap-In, and add the Group Policy Editor (GPE) snap-in. The Group Policy wizard will begin. Select Browse, and a dual-tabbed Computers/Users dialog box opens. Select individual users to configure or you can use the Administrators/Non-Administrators policies. Select the user or group for whom you want to enforce the GPO and click OK. Click Finish in the Select Group Policy Object dialog box and click OK in the Add or Remove Snap-ins dialog box. Now you should have a console where you can expand the local GPO in the left pane and configure the options in the right.
6. Use a UAC workaround. Although User Account Control (UAC) is a great feature that adds security, it’s frustrating if a device or an application won’t function without administrative credentials. Here is a trick to ease some of the frustration caused by UAC without having to turn it off or give away your administrative password.
A tool called the Standard User Analyzer, which you can download as part of the Application Compatibility Toolkit (http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/windowsvista/aa905102.aspx), looks at the needed access that an administrator would have (that a standard user doesn’t have) to run a particular piece of software or a hardware device. Then it performs mitigation to loosen the ACLs for that software or hardware for a standard user. The standard user remains locked down and the UAC remains enabled, but the user has access to what he or she needs.
Now one little caveat that they don’t tell you up front is that before you launch the SUAnalyzer, you need to also install a tool called the Application Verifier. This is a runtime verification tool that locates subtle programming errors. After you install the tool, select the Browse button and locate the executable for the program you need to test. Then select Launch. Under Launch Options, if you select the Elevate button, it shows you with the Admin elevated privileges. To run it as a standard user, you need to deselect it. Close the application and then choose Mitigations, Apply Mitigations to see the ACLs that need to be loosened for that app to work for a standard user. Select Apply, and you’re all set.
7. Take advantage of CompletePC backups and Microsoft Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) files. One of the cool features of the CompletePC backup process is that the resulting backup file is a .vhd file. If that extension looks familiar to you, it might be because you have been working with Microsoft Virtual PC, the free downloadable tool from Microsoft that lets you install virtual OSs. However, you can’t back up with the CompletePC backup file and see a duplicate of your OS. The reason is because the backup is not meant to be a bootable copy of the OS, but rather will be saved as a vhd file. The .vhd file, however, is mountable. You can configure another virtual OS to view that .vhd file as another drive. You can then access files that have been backed up without having to restore the entire system. Even better, you can use a tool called vhdmount (in Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 SP1) to mount the .vhd file without having to use a virtual OS. It lets you mount the .vhd file directly from your host OS.
8. Use a command-prompt shortcut. Some commands work fine without admin credentials, while others require admin credentials. The problem with Vista is that once the command prompt is open, if it wasn’t opened by right-clicking and selecting Run as Administrator, you have to close the command prompt and start with a new one that is being run as administrator.
How do you know if you have an admin command prompt? Look in the top left corner of the dialog box and you will see the word Administrator. One quick way to open a command prompt as an administrator is to hit the Windows Key (which will put your cursor in the quick search), type cmd, then hit Ctrl+Shift+Enter. You will have to agree to continue (hit Alt+C), and the Admin Command Prompt will open.
Here’s a related tip: If you want to really make your Admin command prompt stand out, type
and hit Enter. Now you will easily be able to tell that this is a special prompt.