Even a PC that starts life with the pace of a champion racehorse may slow so fast its owner considers putting it out to pasture. At PC Advisor we hate such needless waste. Try our simple, cost-free remedies to fire up Windows XP and Vista, all over again. You may even save the cost of a new PC.

When you buy a new PC, it will usually run like a dream. Boxes open instantly, programs launch into action as soon as you click on an icon and the Windows operating system starts in seconds rather than grinding along for minutes.

Over time, however, that delightful and fresh experience is replaced with grudging responses. Things become increasingly sluggish. Installing more programs, letting data clutter your hard drive – these things and more contribute to slowing down your PC.

Clearly, such a situation can't be allowed to continue. There are myriad ways of making your PC run more smoothly. Most involve only a few simple tweaks to your Windows setup. Other problems are better served by a third-party program written precisely because Windows doesn't offer quite as much control as other PC users have deemed desirable.

It's that simple.

Here we've assembled 75 tune-up and streamlining tips, focusing on Windows XP and Windows Vista. Some of our suggestions will be familiar; others less so.

And lest you're concerned that applying 75 changes to the way you work is a surefire shortcut to computing chaos, don't worry: you shouldn't need nearly all of them.

To continue the equine theme, these Windows performance boosters are very much horses for courses, so read on and simply choose those tips that are most relevant to getting your PC back on form. And remember to back up your system before making major changes.

Defrag and error checking

Defrag and error checking tools are available under Properties

Revitalise Windows

Find out what's tapping PC resources: A simple way to check on which programs are running is to press Ctrl, Alt, Delete and click on Task Manager. You can then hit End Process to kill off any you decide are eating up precious resources.

Unfortunately, doing this often has no effect. And if there's something stealing all your PC's RAM, you want as much detail about it as you can get. FileMon provides this, recording what each application does and when. This can be invaluable when trying to establish what's causing your PC to lock up.

Don't start me up Programs that insist on starting up along with Windows can be a huge drain. Go to Start, All Programs, Startup to view those that deem themselves worth of auto-starting. Any you don't want can be removed from this folder. When you next turn on your PC, they shouldn't launch. If they do, try a third-party tool to prevent this, alter the preferences in the program itself or consider getting rid of it altogether.

Other sneaky startups While some programs that autolaunch are listed in the Startup menu, others that fire up along with your PC aren't. Click the arrow on the taskbar at the bottom of your screen and you'll see a host. Click an icon to find out what it's all about and stop it running. Go to the Options menu for the offending program to alter its status to 'Manual startup'.

Wash them out Unnecessary programs and services running unbidden are a major cause of PC slowdowns. Ashampoo StartUp Tuner helps rid you of the most annoying and persistent of these without you having to hunt through your hard disk for the culprits.

Clean up after yourself One big Windows slowdown is probably caused by you, if you download and install software you're not using. Be ruthless and go to Add/Remove Programs to get rid of any you don't use.

Spruce up your hard drive Sometimes performance can be impaired by files becoming scattered across your hard drive, while location errors – when a file is deleted or moved – will cause problems. To solve the former, be sure to defragment your drive by going to Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter.

For the latter, right-click your hard drive icon, select Properties and, under Tools, click Check Now. Make sure 'Automatically fix file system errors' is selected before you click Start.

Faster Windows startups Defragmenting your hard disk to free up blocks of memory can boost speed, but it's not the only thing you can defrag. The prefetch file can be defragged too. Go to Start, Run, Enter and type in defrag c: -b followed by Enter.

Quick links

System performance

Learn to prioritise You can tweak some settings for your PC by going to the Control Panel and double-clicking the System icon. Under the Advanced tab, click the Settings button to display options for appearance and virtual memory. Visual Effects can be changed to prioritise performance over appearance, while the Advanced tab allows you to modify Windows so that it prioritises programs, as well as to set a higher limit for virtual memory – where Windows uses the hard drive as a cache. This can be useful for programs that need to swap a lot of data in and out of RAM.

Turn off the service Windows tries to pre-empt all your requirements by loading as many applets or services as it can, to control everything from networking to file transfers, storage and media devices. But
if you don't use these services, they will simply slow down your PC.
Access Windows services from the Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Services. Some services, such as Messenger – this is not the same as MSN or Windows Messenger – or Application Layer Gateway (for internet sharing through a modem) – aren't especially useful. This doesn't stop them starting automatically, however. Double click the services you don't require and change the Startup type to Manual or Disabled.

To control which services run, use the Services tool. Click Start, All Programs, Administrative Tools, Services. The services listed will depend on your computer's configuration. In XP and Vista, a short description appears on the left when you select a service. If you don't see the description, select the Extended tab at the bottom. In Windows 2000, choose View, Details and look for a Details column that explains each item. Disable all the tools you don't use.

If you never send out faxes from your PC, double-click the Fax service in the list to open its Properties dialog box. Next to ‘Startup type', choose Manual or Disabled. The former prevents the service from starting with Windows but keeps it available for when it's needed.

If the description in the Services tool doesn't help to identify a given tool, search Windows' ‘Help and Support' listings (look for a shortcut on your Start menu).

For a thorough description of services, along with suggestions on which you can safely disable (sorted by Windows version), consult www.blackviper.com.

Making changes to services can cause problems, so set a System Restore point or back up your Windows Registry. Even after this precaution, be careful about which services you disable.

Never shut down a service you don't understand, and don't disable several services at once. Instead, turn one off and see whether your system runs okay without it for a while before disabling any others.

display properties

Under the settings tab adjust the resolution to match your screen

Speed things up

Access Vista's performance tools Although Vista makes most system information easier to find, many of the tools that will put your PC into overdrive remain buried. A new Control Panel applet in Vista offers tools for analysing and revving up your system.

Click Start, Control Panel, System and Maintenance, Performance Information and Tools, then click the links on the left to access the tools you need. Be sure not to neglect the various options that lurk behind the ‘Advanced tools' link.

Note: Few of these tools are new to Vista. XP users can access most of them by following the steps listed here.

Access hidden performance apps Some elements of the Administrative Tools control panel can help speed your system and are worth having within easy reach. Put them on the Start menu by clicking Start, Properties. Click whichever Customise button is selectable.

If you use the Classic Start menu, tick Display Administrative Tools in the ‘Advanced Start menu options' list. If you use the default Start menu, click Advanced. Under ‘Start menu items', find System Administrative Tools and select whether to display it on the All Programs menu or on both the All Programs and Start menus. Click ok twice.

Mind your memory Poor performance may signal problems with your system RAM. Vista will prompt you to use its Memory Diagnostic Tool if it detects a problem with your PC's RAM, but you can usefully run this utility at any time. Choose Start, All Programs, Administrative Tools, Memory Diagnostic Tool. (Click Continue if prompted by User Account Control.)

Next click the first option, 'Restart now and check for problems (recommended)'.

Having rebooted, your PC presents a text-based screen. Press F1 for more options or choose the Basic, Standard or Extended test. Tab through test sections. If your PC gives no indication of problems, choose the Basic test with the defaults for the Cache and Pass Count. Press F10 to start the test.

After the test, your PC will reboot and Vista will display the results; showing a pop-up in the system tray if it's problem-free. If it reports errors, replace the memory modules.

Faster displays If your PC isn't fitted with a particularly fast video card, or shares RAM with the main system memory, adjusting the display can help to speed things up. Double-click the Display icon
in the Control Panel.

Setting themes or background images takes up valuable memory and is a common cause of stuttering refresh rates when you move windows around. Under the Themes and Desktop tabs, set your PC to Windows Classic and remove any desktop graphics.

Windows XP and Vista add shadows and other visual effects to make icons and text easier to use, but this can inadvertently slow down your system. Double click the System icon and, under the Advanced tab (in XP) or Advanced system settings option (in Vista), you'll see a range of options for fading menus, sliding open boxes and adding shadows and styles. Simply deselect these to improve performance.

The right resolution For stable performance, ensure that the resolution of your PC matches that of your monitor. To adjust this, click on the Settings tab and alter the screen resolution settings. Click Apply to implement changes. Windows will test your settings for a few seconds, at which point you can switch back if you don't want the new resolution.

Clean up the desktop… Icons for shortcuts and files may not make much of a hit in terms of processor performance, but an untidy desktop makes work more difficult. To remove unused items, click the Display icon in Control Panel, select the Desktop tab, then click Customize Desktop, Clean Desktop Now. This places unwanted icons in a folder.

…but keep icons to hand If you don't already use them, you can add customisable toolbars to store often-used program icons. Right-click on the main Windows toolbar and select Toolbars, New Toolbar. Then simply drag-and-drop on to your new program launcher the icons you want to use.

Auto archive Storing hundreds of emails in your folders will slow down your email client, but you don't necessarily want to delete them. Archive them instead. Go to File, Archive, and choose a date – everything before this date will be moved to the folder you specify under Archive File.

Get the bin to back off Windows allocates a tenth of your hard disk space to the Recycle Bin, topping out at 4GB. Reserving some space for file recoveries is helpful, of course, but 10 percent is overkill. Change this by right-clicking the Recycle Bin icon, select Properties then adjust the slider.

Make everyday computing faster One thing that's guaranteed to turn your once-vigorous PC into an aged, wheezing husk is bloatware. Each generation of software is easier to use than ever before, and offers features that could only be dreamed of a few years ago, but these functions come at a price. And that price is performance.

Make Office faster When running common applications such as Word and Excel, there are countless aids that can become a hindrance if they slow your PC to a crawl. Constant spell- and grammar-checking may be worth the price, but do you really need animated text in Word or feedback in Excel? Head to the Tools, Options menu and deselect those bits and pieces you don't require.

Under Tools, AutoCorrect Options, you can also modify features that come into play as you type, ultimately slowing down your system. It's here that you can turn off such things as automatic internet links, autocomplete options or smart tags. We suggest you pay particular attention to the Save Autorecover Info box under Save.

It's a good idea to have this enabled as you can recover lost work if necessary, but saving every 10 minutes makes your files larger and slows you down while you're working.

Here's another tip to speed up launch times for Word and, with a little modification, other applications. If the program is loading a large number of templates and add-ins that aren't necessary, go to C:\Documents and Settings\UserName\Application Data\Microsoft\Word\STARTUP and move the files to C:\Documents and Settings\UserName\Application Data\Microsoft\Templates. You can select these files via Tools, Templates and Add-ins when you need them.

Speedier photo processing While Office is the most used set of applications after email and a web browser, image editing is a common task for many users. Photoshop and Photoshop Elements allow high-quality previews in their browsers, or render vector files which you can change by going to Edit, Preferences. But they will also load plug-ins during startup. To disable these, locate the Plug-ins folder and insert a tilde (~) before any folder that you don't want to load.

Under Preferences, check your memory settings under Edit, Preferences, Memory & Image Cache. You can increase this to take up a large proportion of your system memory – but bear in mind that Photoshop will use only as much RAM as you have spare disk space. If there's only 150MB of disk space available, then you've got just 150MB RAM for image editing.

That may sound like a lot, but start adding filters and effects to a high-resolution image and you'll soon wish for an extra gig of RAM for speedier operation.

Use a second hard drive Photoshop is one of several programs that lets you specify a scratch disk – a temporary storage space for files as you work on them. This will typically be much faster than the C drive because the drive heads have to do less work when searching through system files. Rather than reserving a second disk for high-end processing, you can use one to store all your files and documents.

This also has the advantage of keeping your data safe if your main disk suffers a virus or other data disaster. While it's possible to make safer data backups with a partition on your main hard drive, this won't bring the advantage of improved performance.

Quick links

How much power do you need?

While fine-tuning hardware and software will bring benefits, one way to improve everyday computing is to turn away from resource-heavy suites and make day-to-day tasks more straightforward. Here are some cheaper or free alternatives that will be lighter on your PC, as well as your pocket, and you can find many of them in the PC Advisor Downloads section..

OpenOffice.org 2.1 includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation package, plus drawing tools. It's free and it has lower system requirements.

Outlook might be great for collaborative working, but it's a hog if you want to check mail and keep track of contacts only. Mozilla's Thunderbird 2.0, on the other hand, is a lean, mean email machine (download Mozilla Thunderbird here). Photoshop is the usual choice for design professionals, but The Gimp has a huge number of features, it's not so resource-hungry and, best of all, it's free (download The Gimp here).

Don't forget the programs preinstalled with Windows. Windows Movie Maker is far simpler to use than many video editors, and perfectly acceptable for most when creating a home movie. Similarly, Media Player is handy for synchronising portable devices and PC.

Use online applications As well as looking for alternatives to install on your PC, there are plenty of applications that you can use with no more than a browser. Webmail has become immensely popular, notably sites such as Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail, but you aren't limited to email online.
Google allows you to word process and edit spreadsheets online.

Set up an account at docs.google.com, then select New, Document or Spreadsheet. Google Docs doesn't have all the bells and whistles of MS Office, but it easily accomplishes the tasks that the majority of us will require. You can even share files for collaborative working.

Draft print With ink worth more than its weight in gold, there are monetary gains for going easy on your prints. But there are other reasons for printing in draft mode: your documents come out more quickly, and standard copier paper won't be saturated. To print in draft mode, press Ctrl, P and click Properties; then select Fast or Draft mode.

Free tools

Free tools from OpenOffice, Mozilla and Google could reduce your system overheads and your overdraft

Drivers and software

While there are plenty of things you can do within Windows to improve performance, don't forget the rest of your software. Updates to applications and drivers can often speed things up, and most of the things you need can be found online.

Tweak to your heart's content TweakUI has long been a PC Advisor favourite for modifying the appearance of Windows and accessing hidden features. You can use TweakUI to change such things as the location of standard folders such as My Music. But while XP users can download TweakUI, there's no version available for Vista.

Instead, download a free version of TweakVI.

Incremental upgrades Many applications provide free incremental upgrades between major product releases, which add features and fix bugs. If you use Microsoft Office, for example, go to Help, Check for Updates to find out if there are any recent patches for your software.

Hardware often benefits from revisions to drivers, particularly graphics cards. To find out if new drivers are available, double-click the System icon in Control Panel and, under the Hardware tab, click the Device Manager button. Right-click a device and select Update Driver to launch the wizard.

Speed up your web connection I In the days of connecting to the web using a dialup modem, web accelerators were commonplace. With broadband they are less prevalent, but can still be useful.

Onspeed is most beneficial for dialup users but can help broadband users with connections running at up to 2Mbps (megabits per second), too. The program works by running compression software on its servers, which then reduces the amount of data that is sent to your PC.

Speed up your web connection II Ashampoo's Internet Accelerator 2.0 lets you adjust your web settings depending on your connection type. Internet Accelerator 2.0 claims to tweak Registry settings to optimise your connection strength.

Manage your downloads One of the virtues of an always-on, high-speed connection is that it makes it much easier to download applications and files to your PC. However, the movement towards the online distribution of programs means that you have to deal with some pretty hefty downloads.

Using download management software such as Download Accelerator Plus, SoftAtlas Download Accelerator or GetRight can speed up data transfer by downloading multiple streams of data simultaneously, and allowing you to pause large file transfers: you can pick up where you left off rather than start the whole process again.

Quick links

Perk up printing

When you invoke the Print command, Windows sends the data from the program to a spool file on your hard disk. As soon as the first page is spooled to disk, Windows sends that page to the printer. The operating system attempts to compromise between getting pages to your printer quickly and freeing your application to do other things. Customising your print settings revs up what's important to you.

In Vista, choose Start, All Programs, Administrative Tools, Print Management. With Custom Filters selected in the left pane, double-click All Printers, then double-click on the printer to be customised.

In Windows XP, click Start, Printers and Faxes (on the default Start menu) or Start, Settings, Printers and Faxes (on the Classic Start menu). Right-click the printer you want to customise and choose Properties. Click the Advanced tab in your printer's Properties dialog box and make your choice based on your priority:

To reduce the time your application makes you wait while printing a large document, make sure Spool print documents so program finishes printing faster is selected, and click Start printing after the last page is spooled. You'll need to have enough free disk space to spool the whole document.

To reduce the time pages take to print, choose Print directly to the printer. This option may not be available if the printer is shared, but changing a setting under the Sharing tab can stop sharing. The printer must be turned on for this option to work, and you won't be able to pause the print job.

If neither of these settings is satisfactory, return to the default by reselecting Spool print documents so program finishes printing faster and Start printing immediately.

Better backed up than sorry

There's no worse productivity drain than losing your work. First, we urge you to set up a backup routine – we've a few straightforward suggestions below. Then we show you how to protect data from theft and what to do to salvage items that go awol.

Better backup

Get secure backup online with offsite storage providers such as Xdrive and manage software downloads with a download accelerator

Back up using Windows' own tools There are many commercial applications that can be used to back up items on your PC, but a simple free solution is included in Windows itself. Called Windows Backup, it won't let you archive to CD, which is odd, but with flash USB keys now coming in multi-gigabyte capacities, these are a good alternative. Go to Start, Accessories, System Tools to find Windows Backup and invoke it. An alternative is to back up to another drive on your PC.

Backing up in other ways There are lots of other backup options and plenty of commercial programs to do it. Cobian Backup is a good option, letting you make incremental or differential backups to many locations including FTP sites. It can be used with all current Windows versions, including Vista. We also like the fact that Cobian can be used for free.

Go external External hard drives used to be extremely expensive and, in common with FireWire ports, difficult to connect to most PCs. Today the vast majority use USB – and it's possible to get even 500GB models for little more than £100. As well as using such drives to back up your main files, they can extend the life of your PC by providing additional storage without buying a new PC or performing a complicated upgrade.

Offsite storage, online While huge external hard drives provide plenty of space for easy storage, they don't provide perfect security unless you want to carry them around with you. For better backups try a site such as Xdrive, which offers 5GB of storage space for free. Alternatively, tools such as BullGuard Backup integrate more closely with Windows. Your files will be safe online, and you can clear clutter from your desktop for better performance.

Restore from a backup To get data from a backup, generally you insert the disc or USB device and copy items across. With a fast, reliable broadband connection, you can back up online just as easily – and then access files from wherever you are. Given the recent vagaries of the weather, those dire warnings about offsite storage in case of fire or flood may not be so silly after all. Try BT's Digital Vault (5GB free for all) or the free web space your ISP provides.

System addict Windows System Restore is intended as a means of getting your PC back on track when things start to go off kilter – usually as the result of an ill-advised software installation.

Windows will create System Restore points – bookmarks for you to return to if your PC loses its thread – but you can create your own, too. Go to Control Panel, System and click on the System Restore tab. Use the slider to adjust the amount of disk space reserved for this feature. The more memory available, the more points it can create, potentially helping you out of a tight spot in the future. It's worth knowing where to find System Restore should memory resources become critical and you need to free up space, too.

Restore your faith System Restore alternative Erunt (Emergency Recovery Utility NT) is worth installing. Like Windows System Restore it backs up the Registry and other vital Windows files, saving your bacon if your PC goes awry. Make a backup of your PC when things are running smoothly. After that, you can have Erunt automatically back up things for you. It's supposed to be more reliable than System Restore too.

Shadowy stuff in Vista Erunt doesn't work in Vista, but Vista users have an overhauled version of System Restore at their disposal under the guise of Previous Versions or Shadow Copy. This takes your Vista PC back to prior states and can help you uncover older versions of files. To manually set restore points or to apply System Restore to discs other than the primary one, click Start, type systempropertiesprotection and hit Enter. Tick all the disks you want to be protected and then hit Apply.

Manual restore points in Vista To set a manual restore point click Create, name the restore point, then click Create again. Vista makes restore points daily as well as when updates and installations are performed.

Restoring to previous versions In Vista, right-click a folder or file and the Restore previous versions option appears. Choose 'Read-only format' if you're unsure which copy of a file you need. Use Ctrl, C to copy the file or drag it anywhere you want.

Restoring missing files If you had a file but it's missing from its retaining folder, choose that folder (or the folder that originally contained the folder). Right-click it and then choose Restore previous versions. You can double-click through folders to track down your missing file(s). This works in Vista Business, Enterprise or Ultimate only.

Reinstall XP from the recovery disc A common complaint is that a Windows disc isn't supplied when you buy a PC. Instead, the manufacturer preinstalls the OS and gives you a ‘recovery disc'. Reinstalling Windows this way results in the loss of your data and applications. So you first need to back up everything on your PC and ensure you've got copies of all your applications.

Reinstall XP without a disc You don't need a Windows disc or a recovery CD. Create a bootable disc – a CD or USB stick is fine – and tell your PC to look for CDs and attached drives at startup prior to loading Windows itself. BartPE can help with the creation of a bootable disk.

Quick links

Park your mouse: keyboard shortcuts

Keep your hands on the keyboard and leave your mouse alone. Here are some of the most useful keyboard shortcuts:

  • Hold down Alt while repeatedly pressing Tab to cycle through open applications
  • Alt, F10 takes you to the current window's menu bar where you can use initials to select a tool such as V for View
  • Alt+Space opens the control menu of the current application
  • Alt+hyphen is another way of opening the control menu
  • Shift F10 or right-clicking on an object brings up a
  • Alt, Enter opens an object's Properties dialog box
  • Windows, Break opens System Properties
  • Close an application by pressing F4
  • Close the current document using Ctrl+F4
  • Press Windows key, E to launch Windows Explorer
  • Backspace takes you up one level
  • Press F2 to rename a selected file or folder
  • Use F3 (or Ctrl F) to start a search


Get the latest PC security news and reviews here

Get defensive… Get the same improved security in XP that Vista offers. Windows Defender is a two-way firewall (rather than XP's outbound-only filter) and can be downloaded from here.

…and protective: Vista offers Parental Controls but you'll need to fork out for an effective way of controlling what your children can do with an XP system. Safe Eyes and ChildSafe can help.

Windows Defender

Windows Defender is a two-way firewall

Lock up Windows files and folders You can keep files hidden from sight and locked up tight in both XP and Vista using a Windows feature known as EFS (encrypting file system). However, for Vista users the Starter, Home Basic and Home Premium versions offer decryption-only while XP Home lacks the tool entirely. You must format your PC for NTFS. After that, right-click on a file or folder, click Properties, Advanced then tick the box to encrypt it.

Working with encrypted files Encrypting files with EFS doesn't add a password to them. Instead, it works by allowing only the person logged in to view encrypted files. This means you need to ensure you have separate user accounts for each person who uses the PC and passwords to log into them. For business PCs, this should be a given; for home systems it's also a good idea – especially if there's anything on your PC you don't want others to see.

Set up separate user accounts One of the reasons Vista seems to be more secure than XP is UAC (user account control). By setting permission levels for each person, you can grant or deny them rights to make changes such as installing programs or editing the Registry. Go to Control Panel, User Accounts to view and alter account permissions under the Properties.

Password-protect user accounts When using Windows at work, you probably have to log on to both your PC and the network. To force users to do the same on your home PC, still in the User Accounts menu, click Advanced and tick the Require users to press Ctrl, Alt, Delete option under Secure logon. Users will now be prompted for a password each time they log in.

Hide folders from sight To keep people from prying into your personal folders, keep the folders' existence secret. That's easy to do with Cleanersoft.com's Free Hide Folders. It lets you make any folder completely invisible with a just a little pointing and clicking.

Free Hide Folders is password-protected, so you're safe even if the bad guys know you're using the product. It also lets you back up your folders' hidden states in case you have a system problem. And, as the name says, it's free.

Encrypt files: another free way of encrypting files is TrueCrypt, which locks up entire disks, external devices or hard disk partitions.

At-a-glance information

At-a-glance information that helps you plan your day, see what's where and minimises keystrokes saves valuable minutes.

Windows Sidebar One Vista feature that all Windows users should enjoy is the Windows Sidebar. This sits on the right of your screen and serves up weather, photo slideshows, news headlines and an RSS reader. It provides email, calendar, IM and task alerts, incorporates a mini Media Player and a Quick Launch bar for favoured applications.

Add Yahoo Gadgets Yahoo does a good line in gadgets – desktop applets along the same lines as the Windows Sidebar. You choose specific gadgets you want, rather than the Sidebar approach where you get a job-lot and then customise the content. The advantage of such desktop candy is you can see info you want at a glance, saving you constantly checking for mail or news.

Quick links

Essential timesavers

Office time savers In Microsoft Office pressing Shift, F5 takes you to a previous version. Use F7 to launch the spellchecker and Shift, F7 to bring up the thesaurus. In Word, hit Ctrl, Space to apply default (Normal) formatting for a selection or anything you subsequently type. Date or time-stamp your document with auto updating details using Alt, Shift, D and Alt, Shift, T respectively.

Add your own shortcuts Windows lets you create keyboard shortcuts for launching applications. Right-click the program's icon on the Start menu, choose Properties, then enter your keys of choice in the Shortcut Key box under the Shortcut tab.

Spin cycle You can Alt-Tab between open applications and web pages on your desktop if you find this easier than trawling through a stacked list of Firefox windows and Word documents collapsed on your taskbar. XP provides a brief description under each item as you cycle through them all.

Advanced shortcut techniques For real control over shortcuts, try Active Keys. It assigns keyboard shortcuts to actions such as repositioning a window to a specific corner of the screen, pasting the date and time, emptying the Recycle Bin, or changing your media player's volume. It costs $20, but there's an Active Keys trial here.

Type to find Refreshingly, Microsoft has finally made desktop search work, so you can now just type in a filename or subject and have related documents and other items brought forth in an instant.

Seeing is believing Not sure which document you want to open? Live previews and huge thumbnail previews mean you can get the gist just by hovering over an item in Aero view or holding your cursor over it – a bit like Ask.com's binoculars feature, in fact.

Get Aerated Aero is the name for the Vista interface that lets you cycle through windows and see what's hidden by the translucent edges of onscreen panes. It isn't supported in Vista Home Basic but for such users as well as XP fans wondering what they're missing, try AbsoluteWay's TweakWindow (www.absoluteway.com).

Aero-dynamic To invoke the Aero desktop and flick through onscreen items at will, click on Windows, tab.

Get organised Use the web to make computing easier. Google Calendar (calendar.google.com) allows you to create schedules that you can share with your family and friends, but if you want more efficient ways to organise yourself then try Remember The Milk or 30 Boxes (30boxes.com). With these apps you can set up to-do lists, which can then be accessed anywhere. You can even receive reminders via email, SMS or instant message.

Faster file access with NTFS

NTFS makes Windows XP both more secure and faster. You need to have your PC formatted for NTFS if you want to be able to take advantage of the disk compression and encryption functions in Windows. To change to it from a FAT32 system, go to Start, Run, type cmd.exe and press Enter. When the Command Prompt window opens, type convert, leave a space then type in the hard drive letter followed by colon, space. Then type in /fs:ntfs.

Speak and spell: speech-recognition tools

If you like to chat you may well have a microphone (or a USB headset and VoIP handset) attached to your Vista PC. You can also use this with Vista's native speech commands to dictate text and other data into applications. Choose Start, All Programs, Accessories, Ease of Access, Windows Speech Recognition. Unlike third-party speech tools such as NaturallySpeaking or Nuance, Vista uses a single sample sentence for training and recognition, so don't expect miracles.

The accompanying tutorials are easy and are optimised for use with Outlook, Word and straightforward word processors but work less well with many other programs. It also hogs system resources, so use it only when it's going to boost productivity in other ways.

And finally...

Ensure you keep Windows up to date. The same goes for other essentials such as your antivirus and antispyware applications. Java and other web-based tools are often subject to web-borne attacks. Updates help keep these at bay. Most essential applications will update at least once each month, but you can put them on a schedule to suit you.

Schedule Windows Update You can dictate whether Windows Updates happen automatically under Control Panel, Automatic Updates, but why not schedule the most convenient time for them to happen. If you routinely shut down your PC, you can have Windows Update install updates and shut down your PC afterwards.

Update Windows now Head to windowsupdate.microsoft.com to grab any updates you've missed – you can choose what to install on a case-by-case basis. This can be a useful exercise as most users don't have Windows set to automatically install each and every update, but if you want things such as viewers and language packs, it can be worthwhile.

Quick links