This is a good read by Christopher Null at PC World. Here's the link if you want to look at the pictures and click the links.
Here's the text if the link is dead. WARNING: It's a long read.
35 Things Every PC User Should Know
By Christopher Null, PC World
Want to speed up your broadband connection? Diagnose mysterious crashes? Move massive files across the Internet? Sooner or later, you will -- and you'll find step-by-step instructions for these and other common PC tasks right here.
Find Out What Your PC Is Really Up To
The Windows Task Manager provides a good start when you try to discover what programs are running on your system, but it's only a first step. For more-detailed data, you need another tool. Your best bet: Sysinternals Process Explorer (Microsoft acquired Sysinternals last year).
Get Process Explorer for Windows v10.21 at Microsoft TechNet. It needs no formal installation; just unzip it and run the .exe file. It will then list your PC's active processes, much as Task Manager does, but with better descriptions and organization.
Interpreting Process Explorer's information is fairly straightforward (and killing processes works much as it does in Task Manager), but here are some tips to help you make the most of the utility.
Consider adding the useful 'Handles' column to the view. Handles (a term that refers to programming methodology) are a convenient way to measure a process's resource utilization. Processes with high handle usage should be the first ones you kill when resources run low. Add the column by right-clicking in the header area and clicking the Select Columns option. Click the Process Performance tab and check the box next to Handle Count.
Note that Handles can also be created for media-based devices like CD-R drives, which may cause errors on eject. If you can't safely eject a disk or memory card, use the Find menu to search for the drive letter followed by a colon (for example, E
, and kill that process directly.
Instead of outright killing a process, you can suspend it (right-click on a process to see this option). This can be useful in the case of a runaway program stuck in an endless loop.
Want to know what a program's process identification is to better tell whether it's friend or foe? Open the program, then switch to Process Explorer. In the top-right corner is a target icon (concentric circles). Click this icon and drag it onto the program you want to ID; Process Explorer will highlight the process.
Expand Your Collection of Windows-Tweaking Tools
Microsoft offers a sizable collection of useful yet unofficial and unsupported utilities called PowerToys. Following are the essential PowerToys for any serious computer user; all are downloadable from Microsoft's PowerToys for Windows XP page.
ClearType Tuner: Dramatically improves font legibility on some LCD screens.
Image Resizer: Adds a new menu when you right-click a photo on your PC. Just click Resize Pictures to change an image's dimensions without opening an editor.
Tweak UI: If you don't already have Tweak UI, get it. This essential OS tweaking tool offers more granular control over your privacy settings and operations, and even over the way you log in to your PC (plus much more). It should be one of the first things you install on any new computer.
Alt-Tab Replacement: Adds previews of each page when you switch between open applications using <Alt>-<Tab>.
SyncToy: Improves the task of synchronizing files among multiple machines, especially compared with Windows Briefcase.
Safeguard Your Wi-Fi Network
Out of the box, most Wi-Fi routers are totally insecure. Fixing that takes only a few minutes, but you can easily get lost in the confusing menus of your router's management tool. Here's what to do.
If possible, plug in via ethernet to set up your router at the start--it'll save considerable time down the line. Don't bother installing the special software that comes with your router. Most routers can be controlled via a Web browser, which lets you manage your router from any networked PC.
To manage the router, type its IP address into your Web browser's address bar. If you don't know the IP address, go to Start, Run and type ipconfig /all in the field. The address will be shown as 'Default Gateway'. You'll also need the user name and password available in the manual or via an online search of the model number. (Try looking at this Default Password List.)
Once you can manage your router, change the administrator password you just looked up. This is typically under System Settings or a similar option.
Next, turn on encryption. WPA (or WPA-PSK) is about as secure as Wi-Fi gets today. Set a WPA key, and configure your clients to use the new key. (If one of the devices on your network does not support the WPA version you want to use, though, you'll have to go with a less secure method.) Look for 'Encryption' or 'Security' in the wireless management portion of the page (where you'll also find the following steps' settings).
It's a good idea to change the SSID from the default, which is usually 'linksys', 'belkin', or the like. Choose an SSID that doesn't invite inquiry from passersby (like 'broken' instead of 'janes-wifi' or '123mainstreet'). For extreme security, turn off SSID broadcasting.
Optional: Enable MAC address control, which limits access to computers you specify by their unique MAC address. This can enhance security, but MAC addresses are easily spoofed, and using this feature means you'll have to access your router's admin page to add new PCs to your network. To find a PC's MAC address, use the ipconfig command in step 2; look for the 'Physical Address'. Add that address to the allowed list in the appropriate router settings page.
Diagnose PC Problems Using Event IDs
Anytime your system crashes or an application freezes up, Event Viewer dutifully logs the error--but sorting through Event Viewer logs can be just as frustrating as dealing with the Blue Screen of Death. Here's a cheat sheet.
Start by familiarizing yourself with Event Viewer before you have a problem. It's under Start, Settings, Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Event Viewer. The utility's System node logs Windows issues (particularly networking ones), while the Application node logs issues with other software. You should not see much activity in the Security node since it is disabled by default and is used only if you have auditing turned on (which requires extra Microsoft software and ultimately doesn't help most folks anyway). Third-party apps might create more nodes, as well.
Events are fairly self-explanatory: The date and time of each event are logged along with its source, plus miscellaneous data about the issue. Most events will be noted as 'Information' and are generally safe to ignore. The 'Error' and 'Warning' entries are what you should concern yourself with. You can access the guts of the information by double-clicking the event to open its Event Properties page.
In the Event Properties window, you'll find detailed information about the error in question and a link to the Microsoft support Web site. Clicking the link will open a detail page within the Windows Help application (not your browser) for the error you're investigating. But often the information you get will tell you little about the problem, either saying no more data is available or declaring there's nothing you can do.
For more detail on the error types and what they mean, turn to the Web. Plug the event ID into EventID.net, or search for key phrases in the error message, and try looking for clues to your problem by using the 'Source' field in the Event Viewer log as a search term.
Not too long ago hiding your tracks on the Web usually meant finding an open proxy server to surf through or paying for proxy software like Anonymizer ($30), which redirects traffic through its own proxy servers.
Today there's a better solution, and it's free: the Torpark browser. Torpark is a Firefox-based browser designed to access the Tor network of encrypted proxies. When you use the Torpark browser, your Web session bounces through multiple secure proxies, encrypted all the way, until your request reaches its destination. Torpark is a quick download and doesn't require a formal install on your PC; just launch the executable when you need it and make sure the Tor Network icon is active when the browser starts.
Secure browsing is considerably slower than regular browsing, though, so skip it If you don't need the extra security---and most people don't most of the time.
Test and Tweak Your Internet Connection for Top Speed
Don't settle for out-of-the-box performance when faster downloads and hidden features are just a few steps away.
First, measure your current connection speed. Make sure nothing else on your network is using the connection and stop any Internet processes on your PC (finish downloads, close your e-mail client, and the like). Next, visit Speakeasy's speed tester. Click a server to run the test for download and upload speeds. Note that you will get atypically high results for servers very near you, but that will give you a gauge of your connection's top raw speed. Try running the test once more against the farthest-away city on the list to see your full range. Try the same test at BroadbandReports.com, too, for a good idea of what your current throughput is.
If you like to keep an eye on performance over time, the venerable DU Meter keeps logs of network performance no matter what kind of connection you have.
You can improve network performance modestly through Registry tweaks, but mucking around in the Registry is never a pleasurable experience, and with these difficult tweaks, it's easy to mess something up. Tweak Tester makes the task simple. Visit Broadband Reports' tweak page, and run Tweak Tester II. Results will appear on a new page. Pay attention to the 'Notes and recommendations' section of the page, where you will see any settings that merit alteration for improved performance. (You may want to print this page.) Changing the TCP Receive Window setting is likely to be the only tweak that will have any real effect.
Next, download and run Dr. TCP. You can run the program directly without installing it, but backing up the Registry before you use it is a good idea. (Go to Start, Run, and type regedit at the prompt; then, click File, Export, name the file, and click Save.) Enter the changes noted in the Tweak Tester results in the Dr. TCP window, and the program will then make all of the appropriate Registry fixes for you. Restart the PC, and then retest your connection to see if the tweaks helped.
You can also improve your Web experience (but not raw throughput) by increasing the number of download sessions in your browser. By default, Windows limits you to a mere two downloads at a time, but you can bump that up to eight or ten. Since few downloads fill your network pipe completely, the overall effect is that downloads should go faster. (Warning: Regedit work coming up, so back up your Registry before you begin!)
Click Start, Run, and type regedit.
Browse to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\
Right-click in the right pane and then click New, DWORD Value.
Type MaxConnectionsPerServer in the resulting field.
Double-click on the new item and then type a new number of connections (say, 10) in the 'Value data' field. Click Decimal.
Following the previous three steps, create another new DWORD entry, giving it the name MaxConnectionsPer1_0Server.
Solve Wireless Connection Problems
Wi-Fi is awfully convenient, but it's also awfully buggy for many users, particularly those in areas crowded by competing wireless signals. If you're dealing with a loss of signal, try the following to troubleshoot your wireless setup.
Your PC might just need a little massaging. The best way to quickly disconnect and reconnect to your router is to right-click the wireless icon in the system tray and click Repair. If this doesn't solve the problem and you suspect it's still a PC issue, open a command prompt and type ipconfig /renew. This performs nearly the same operation as Repair but bypasses Windows, which could be causing the problem. If all else fails, reboot your PC.
If you're still having trouble, power-cycle your router by unplugging it, waiting 10 seconds, and plugging it back in. Your PC will need to reconnect after the router has booted up. Most routers lock up occasionally, and power cycling is the most reliable way to fix them. (Unless you can't physically reach your router, don't restart it through its management utility; that approach takes just as long, and the utility may not respond anyway.)
If you're still encountering frequent problems, you may be experiencing channel conflict, where multiple Wi-Fi routers are operating in the same narrow band of frequency. Download and run the evaluation version of WirelessMon; you can do all you need to with the demo. Look at the 'Channel Use' chart: Red and orange bars indicate channels under heavy use, while blue or no bars indicate relatively free channels. If your router is on a crowded channel, switch to a less busy one. (Visit your router's management system to do this; read "Safeguard Your Wi-Fi Network" for directions.) You may see better performance and fewer dropouts.
Save Streamed Media Locally
Since YouTube hit it big, streaming movies and music have gone positively bananas. But such online media has a major flaw: You can't download it to your desktop and save it forever.
Here's how you can download streamed-media offerings of various types.
Record Internet radio with Replay A/V, which can handle every audio format you're likely to come across, including Windows Media, Real, QuickTime, Flash, and even AOL's NSV format. It's $50, but if you want to record a lot, it's worth it.
Record Flash-based video (like YouTube and Google Video files) with KeepVid.com. Just enter the video's URL, and KeepVid converts it into an FLV file you can download. To play the file, use software such as FLV Player or VLC. Better yet, convert the video to an .avi, .mov, or .mp4 file by visiting the FLV Online Converter. These sites and programs are free.
Create Keyboard Shortcuts
You can automate just about any point-and-click operation you perform with the mouse. Here's a variety of ways to make keyboard shortcuts.
Windows lets you assign a keyboard command to any shortcut icon. (Note, though, that it has to be a shortcut; you can't assign a keyboard shortcut to any file you want.) Just right-click the icon in question, click Properties, and click in the 'Shortcut key' field. Press the keyboard combo you want to assign to launch the shortcut; it must include one standard character plus two or three of <Ctrl>, <Shift>, or <Alt>. (<Ctrl>-<Shift>-R in the example shown.)
To make more robust shortcuts, try the appropriately named freeware app Keyboard Shortcuts. With such shortcuts you can launch any file, perform system commands (such as logging off and shutting down), or open any URL in a browser. One shortcut can even perform several of these actions, simultaneously or in sequence.
For even more complex shortcuts, get a macro recorder that can capture detailed steps and repeat them on command. The Workspace Macro program ($25) can capture anything you type, as well as mouse movements and clicks. Just click New to record a macro, and click Stop after you've done all your typing and mousing. If you want to assign keyboard shortcuts to your macros, you'll need a separate program, Launch-N-Go ($25).
Keyboard Shortcuts You Should Know
<F2> Rename selected file (in Windows) or edit selected cell (in Excel).
<Shift>-<F3> For any highlighted text, cycle among all-caps, lowercase, and title case. Click Format, Change Case for more options.
<F5> Refresh your page in Explorer and Web browser windows.
<Ctrl>-<Esc> Open the Start menu (useful if your mouse won't respond).
<Ctrl>-<Space> Reset the highlighted text to the default font (in Word).
<Ctrl>-mouse wheel Zoom in and out.
<Windows>-L Password-lock the computer.
<Windows>-R Open the Run dialog box.
<Windows>-M or <Windows>-D Minimize all windows.
<Ctrl>-+ (on numeric keypad) Resize a column to fit its comments (in Excel).
<Windows>-E Launch Windows Explorer.
Create a Disaster Recovery Disc
It's great to have your PC's system-restore disks and a fresh copy of Windows at hand, but if your computer does go south, don't be in such a rush to wipe out the hard drive. In advance, create a DVD full of essential utilities that you can use to try to repair your PC before reinstalling Windows from scratch.
Your disaster disc should also contain up-to-date hardware drivers, especially for networking devices. Organize everything by folders, and keep names short: You may be browsing the folder from a command prompt if Windows won't boot.
Here's a good selection of utilities that should help out in any crisis, large or small. Note that the first two listed need to be installed on their own bootable CD or DVD in order to run at startup. All are free or available as trialware.
MemTest86: This venerable RAM tester still works.
Active@ KillDisk: Securely wipes drives as required.
Hot CPU Tester: Diagnoses CPU problems with an in-depth testing procedure.
Restoration: Recovers accidentally deleted files from both FAT and NTFS partitions, as well as memory cards.
HDDlife: Monitors the hard drive to warn you if a failure is near. (It's also a good idea to install this on your PC for occasional checkups.)
AOL Active Virus Shield: Free antivirus protection, with an engine powered by Kaspersky.
Spybot Search & Destroy: Keep an antispyware scanner on hand at all times.
OpenOffice.Org: Always great for reading Office files when Microsoft Office isn't working.
Also check out these premade, downloadable emergency discs, which, in many cases, pack lots of system utilities.
Knoppix: Use this free bootable Linux CD to access Windows directories on a hard drive.
Ultimate Boot CD: Contains over 100 low-level system utilities on a single disc. The download is free; a CD is $6, with shipping.
EBCD: This free emergency CD is designed for seriously broken PCs--and expert users.
Microsoft Boot Disks: Download free boot discs for OSs from Windows XP to MS-DOS 6.
Move Big Files Across the Internet
It's considered rude--and rightly so--to e-mail someone a file larger than a few megabytes without permission. And you may not be able to anyway, since many ISPs place a cap on message size (often 10MB or less). So what are you to do if you need to send an 18MB, an 80MB, or even an 800MB file to someone? Online services make the task much easier and more elegant than burning a DVD and dropping it in the mail. You have lots of options, and more new services pop up every day. MediaFire.com is my favorite, and it's one of the best on the market now. The free service requires no registration, and it allows unlimited maximum file size, unlimited downloads, and multiple simultaneous downloads. It's just about perfect!
The other services below, however, also have certain unique features that may make them more suitable for you.
Files-upload.com: Handles 300MB files through a Web-based interface without registration; files expire after 45 days. Register, and you get your own FTP subdomain (yourname.files-upload.com) that's accessible with a standard FTP client. It has a 1GB file-size limit.
GigaSize.com: Has a 1.5GB file-size limit and stores files for 90 days. A $4 monthly fee gets you a 2.5GB size limit.
Pando.com: Has a 1GB file-size limit, but offers a peer-to-peer plug-in for various e-mail, Web mail, and instant messenger clients, so you don't have to go to the Web site to transfer files.
Xdrive.com: Gives you 5GB of free storage space, accessible through the Web or a Windows Explorer plug-in that also allows for sharing with others.
Safeguard Your Cell Phone Data With a Backup
Increasingly, people have essential data stored on a fragile, easily misplaced communications device that they carelessly toss around. Here's how to back up the data on your cell phone.
First, check your handset's manual or product Web page: A backup program designed specifically for that phone may be available for download. For phones with a USB charger, connect the handset to your PC via a USB cable with a mini-USB plug on one end. Use the software you find on the vendor's site to back up contact information to your PC.
If your phone doesn't have such an application, check out FutureDial SnapSync II, a $30 utility that supports most cell phones. Click the Is my phone supported? link on its site to make sure yours is on the list. A data cable costs an additional $30. SnapSync can also sync your data with Microsoft Outlook, as well as export numbers back to the phone. If SnapSync doesn't support your phone, consider Susteen DataPilot Universal Pro, which includes seven phone connectors, iPod and Bluetooth adapters, and backup software for $80. It supports hundreds of phones; to check for yours before you buy, go to Susteen's Phone Support page.
For SIM-equipped cell phones, use the Clipper Gear SIM Saver ($20) to make a backup copy of the card in less than a minute (but you can't then back up SIM Saver to your PC; it talks only with the SIM card).
Another option is Spark Technology's CellStik ($40), which looks like a USB thumb drive and attaches directly to your phone. A USB connector on the other end lets you hook up to a PC to back up and edit the data, which you can then transfer to the phone.
Eradicate Your Web and Windows Tracks
Hey, it's nobody's business but yours what you're doing on your own PC. If you share a system with a nosy roommate or family member, or if you're stuck using public PCs at a conference, you may want to scrub your tracks--Windows' memory of what you've done over the last few hours or days--each time you sign off.
First, set up a browser for sensitive surfing, and use it only for work in which you need maximum security. Clear your secure browser's history and configure it to remember as little as possible. In the chart below are instructions for the most commonly used browsers.
You can also get rid of your Windows history on PCs that you own or share, but the easiest way to keep prying eyes away from your Windows history is to prevent it from being recorded. Download Tweak UI (see "Expand Your Collection of Windows-Tweaking Tools") and run it. Make these changes:
Under 'Explorer' check Clear document history on exit. Uncheck Allow Recent Documents on Start menu, Maintain document history, and Maintain network history.
Under 'Common Dialogs' uncheck Enable AutoComplete and Remember previously-used filenames.
Calibrate Your Monitor's Color
Obtaining true-to-life color on your display can be an expensive task that requires special software and hardware. Here's how to get more-accurate color out of your monitor without spending an arm and a leg.
First, download the free Monitor Calibration Wizard. When you run the wizard, it will walk you through several simple tests.
Afterward, save the profile under a name of your choosing. Select this profile under the Load Profile box, and check the box next to Load at Windows startup. Your color will be corrected to your new profile each time you boot. You may not notice much of a difference, though, unless your monitor was seriously out of whack to begin with.
Additional free color-correction tools exist for specific video card brands. RivaTuner is primarily designed for systems with nVidia cards (through the GeForce 7 card series), while ATITool is the counterpart for ATI cards (to get color-correction support for cards released in the last 12 months or so, download the beta version of this free tool).