Not all PowerToys are right for everyone. But find the ones that make sense for you, and your Windows tasks will be a whole lot easier.

Shortly after the release of Windows XP, the original PowerToys utilities were released, making Windows XP one of the most easily configurable operating systems ever. Now, a number of years later, Windows XP still holds the lion’s share of the operating system market, and the need for the PowerToys utilities hasn’t decreased. Windows XP may be giving way to the shiny new Windows 7, but certain PowerToys remain especially useful for the venerable operating system. Although Microsoft makes the blanket statement that these PowerToys are XP-only, some actually do run under other operating systems.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: TweakUI

Over the years, TweakUI (Figure A) has arguably become the most popular of the PowerToys, allowing users to access hidden system settings that include Autologon details, default desktop icon placement, Alt-Tab dialog display behavior, Taskbar button grouping, Start menu frequently used programs listsm, and a whole lot more. TweakUI also provides a link to the local group policy editor, from which it’s possible to make hundreds of granular configuration changes to a Windows XP system.

Figure A

The TweakUI console

TweakUI can help to correct poorly behaving applications by preventing them from stealing the focus from the current window. Nothing is more annoying than working away only to have a complete unrelated window pop up over your workspace.

Through the use of TweakUI, you can customize the Start menu by deciding exactly what should be included, such as a link to My Documents, document history, and Internet Explorer Favorites. Speaking of Internet Explorer, TweakUI allows you to define Internet search providers and the program that will be used to view document source. Note: TweakUI runs on Windows XP SP1+ and Windows Server 2003.

My thoughts: This is an incredibly useful PowerToy that no XP-supporting IT pro should be without.
Score: 5 out of 5.

2: SyncToy

Keeping folders synchronized between devices can be a real challenge. Imagine, for instance, the case of the “mobile” executive who wants to take files on a flash drive home to work on them. In the morning, said executive brings the files back to the office and copies the updated versions to the corporate file server. As you might imagine, it wouldn’t be very long before file versions became spaghetti. What if this exec forgot to update the corporate file server one morning and edited the same file twice? Disaster would ensue.

To use SyncToy, you must install the .NET Framework 2.0 followed by SyncToy, after which you must create a folder pair (Figure B). The folder pair consists of a “left folder” and a “right folder,” and three synchronization methods are available:

  • Synchronize. Under this method, files and folders are fully synchronized in both directions. If a file is deleted in the right folder, it’s also deleted in the left. and vice versa.
  • Echo. File operations, such as file creation, rename, and deletion, that take place in the left folder are automatically repeated in the right folder.
  • Contribute. This is the same as the Echo method, except file deletions are not synchronized.

Figure B

A SyncToy folder pair

If necessary, you can also exclude certain files from synchronization based on filename or even file attribute. For example, would you like to exclude system files from synchronization? You can do that with SyncToy.

SyncToy is one PowerToy that has stayed current, and version 2.1 runs on Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. It supports both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems.

My thoughts: Personally, I find SyncToy to be of relatively limited use, but that’s mainly because I use other method to sync files. For people who want to make sure that multiple copies of files stay in sync, this tool can be a lifesaver.
Score: 3 out of 5.

3: Open Command Window From Here

Third on my list of useful PowerToys is Open Command Window From Here. For IT pros, use of the command prompt has not gone away. In fact, many IT pros spend considerable time with the command prompt and usually need to execute commands from a specific directory. However, locating that directory is often easier with the Windows GUI-based tools — after which, you must type the full path to the directory at the command prompt. With the Open Command Window From Here utility, having to retype the full path to the directory is a thing of the past.

This PowerToy adds a Windows shell extension to a folder’s shortcut menu, allowing you to open a command prompt that is already changed to the selected directory (Figure C).
My thoughts: I LOVE this utility. It’s a real timesaver.
Score: 5 out of 5.

Figure C

Once selected, a command window opens to this directory.

4: Alt-Tab Replacement

The Alt-Tab key combination is used even more than the well-known Ctrl-Alt-Del. After all, switching between open applications is a pretty common task. But how do you know that you’ve really selected the right window? It’s not exactly an efficient use of time to try to figure out which one of 20 Internet Explorer sessions you’re trying to find.

The Alt-Tab Replacement PowerToy, as the name suggests, replaces Windows XP’s native task-switching capabilities with a more full-featured tool that provides a reasonably good-size look at the selected target. The main drawback I’ve seen with this tool is that it doesn’t show you the contents of minimized windows. When you Alt-Tab to a minimized window, you see a minimized title bar, regardless of what the window really holds.

My thoughts: This is more of a nicety than a must-have.
Score: 3 out of 5.

5: Image Resizer

Different size photos are used for different purposes. For example, you might want to have a 1280 X 1024 version of a picture for desktop backgrounds but need a scaled down version for use on the Web. In this case, you’d want to maintain both size photo sets for these different uses. The Image Resizer adds a shortcut menu shell extension to Windows XP that gives you on-the-fly image resizing capabilities. As you can see in Figure D, a list of image sizing options that range from 240×320 to 1024×768. If you need a different size, simply use the Custom option.
My thoughts: This is useful, particularly for those that work with images relatively regularly.
Score: 4 out of 5.

Figure D

Choose image resize options

6: Virtual Desktop Manager

UNIX and Linux users have long enjoyed the ability to use multiple desktop screens. With the Virtual Desktop Manager PowerToy, Microsoft brings this capability to Windows by providing three virtual desktops. If your desktop is a mass of disjointed icons, you can use the Virtual Desktop Manager to organize them into as many as four task-based groups. Figure E shows the Preview view that ships with this tool. Figure F shows the Taskbar tool that is added with the installation of this PowerToy.
My thoughts: I’m a one-desktop kind of guy, but I can definitely see value for others with this tool.
Score: 3 out of 5.

Figure E

The Preview view

Figure F

The Taskbar addition

7: ClearType Tuner

ClearType is Microsoft’s method for smoothing the rough edges around text and make reading the screen easier on the eyes. As you switch between LCD monitors, you’ll note that the text display varies due to differences in the way the LCD screens operate. Even on the same monitor, when different people use the display, personal preferences might make the default ClearType settings good for one person but unpleasant for another.

The ClearType Tuner aims to address these issues by installing a Control Panel applet that lets you adjust ClearType settings to those you prefer or to those that are optimal for a particular monitor. You can use the applet in one of two ways. First, you can run through a wizard that reminds me of a visit to the eye doctor: You get a couple of screens and have to pick which display looks better. Second, you can use an advanced mode that lets you adjust settings directly.

My thoughts: I’m not sure too many people would miss this tool if it didn’t exist.
Score: 2 out of 5.

8: Power Calculator

The calculator included in Windows XP is pretty limited in its capabilities. If you’ve run up against the limits of this native tool, download the Power Calculator, which allows you to evaluate functions and even graph the results of your work. Just type simple expressions, and the Calculator will evaluate them and display the results on the screen. Figure G shows some expressions I entered, along with the results.
My thoughts: For the typical IT pro, this is a relatively useless tool. For others, it might have some utility.
Score: 1 out of 5.

Figure G

The free graphing calculator from Microsoft

9: Taskbar Magnifier

Being able to zoom in on a specific portion of the screen can be a boon, particular for those with visual impairments. The Taskbar Magnifier adds a small display to the Taskbar that magnifies what’s under the mouse pointer. Figure H says it all. (I expanded the Taskbar so you can actually see a little more of what the Magnifier is about.)
My thoughts: Umm… I don’t think useless begins to describe this utility. There are many better ways to achieve this goal.
Score: 0 out of 5.

Figure H

The Taskbar Magnifier

10: HTML Slide Show Wizard

Do you have a Web site? Do you want to show a slide show of all your pictures? That’s where the HTML Slide Show Wizard comes in. This wizard walks you through the process of creating a slideshow, with a number of slideshow creation options to choose from (Figure I). A slideshow has forward and back controls to allow the viewer to scroll between pictures. Slideshows can be configured to show just the picture (Simple) or to show thumbnail-type views of every picture (Advanced) and more. The wizard also lets you size every picture the same for consistency.
My thoughts: For Web people, this is a great tool, but it may not fit 100% of use cases.
Score: 3 out of 5.

Figure I

The Slide Show Wizard

11. Webcam Timershot

Would you like to implement a poor man’s monitoring solution in your server room? Do you want to record yourself all day long while you make funny faces? If you answered yes to either one of these questions, the Webcam Timershot is the PowerToy for you! If your Windows XP computer has a Web cam attached, you can use Timershot to take photos from the Web cam on a periodic basis. By default, Timershot will take a picture every 10 minutes and save it to a specific location (Figure J).
My thoughts: Well, it’s nifty, but beyond watching the babysitter to make sure she doesn’t do something stupid, I can’t see a whole lot of benefit to it.
Score: 3 out of 5 (only because it’s kind of cool).

Figure J

A look at Timershot

12: Color Control Panel Applet

Those of you who are professional photographers or who do a lot of print work are a whole lot more in tune with your computer’s color settings than most of us. It’s critical to your success that onscreen and print colors match up as best as possible. For you, Microsoft has developed the Color Control Panel Applet, a utility that allows media professionals to easily switch between display color profiles. This Control Panel interface manages ICC color profiles and ICM 2.0 color settings across the system.

According to Microsoft’s product page, this tool can:

  • Install and uninstall ICC color profiles Inspect, rename, and compare two different color profiles.
  • View a 3D graphics plot of color profile color gamuts.
  • Associate color profiles with devices, such as printers, monitors, and scanners.
  • Apply custom color gamut adjustments to one or more displays on the fly.
  • Set up display calibration reminders at intervals you specify.

My thoughts: Honestly, I can’t really assess this one since I’m not the kind of person who would use this tool. If you are, provide your thoughts in the article comments.

13: RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer

Every time a photo is converted between formats, particularly when converted to non-lossless formats like JPEG, some quality is lost. For serious photo pros, this can be a concern because there can be a loss of subtle color variations and detail that make a photo perfect. So the ability to manipulate images in the native RAW format is desirable because all the detail is preserved. Without the right tool, Windows XP can’t view thumbnails and previews for RAW images in Windows.

The Microsoft RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer PowerToy extends Windows XP’s photo previewing functionality by providing the same level of previewing and thumbnail support for most Canon and Nikon digital camera RAW formats as those available for other image formats. This makes the use of RAW files as easy as other image formats.

My thoughts: Again, I can’t really assess this one since I’m not the kind of person who would use this tool. If you are, provide your thoughts in the article comments.

Check out the 10 Things newsletter

Get the key facts on a wide range of technologies, techniques, strategies, and skills with the help of the concise need-to-know lists featured in TechRepublic’s 10 Things newsletter, delivered every Friday. Automatically sign up today.