If you’re like most Windows users, you rarely ever use the Windows key on your keyboard since you can use the mouse for most Windows key shortcuts, such as opening the Start menu. But wouldn’t it be great if you could customize the Windows key to perform other operations? Well you can, with an awesome freeware utility called WinKey from Copernic Technologies. This utility, which is compatible with Windows 95/98/Me/NT/2000/XP, lets you assign almost any task you can imagine to a Windows key combination. You can use it to open specific folders, open documents, run executables, and even connect to your favorite Web site. And, best of all, it leaves the native Windows key shortcuts in place.

Getting started
When you install WinKey, the program immediately launches in configuration mode, as shown in Figure A. As you can see, WinKey comes preconfigured with a set of sample WinKey shortcuts. For example, you’ll find WinKey shortcuts to such Windows tools as Control Panel, the Registry Editor, and the Printer folder. During installation, WinKey also creates shortcuts to all of your disk drives. It even creates a shortcut to the WinKey Web site.

Figure A
As soon as the installation is complete, WinKey launches in configuration mode.

You’ll also discover that, in addition to placing an icon on your Start menu and on the desktop, WinKey also establishes a shortcut ([Windows][F9]) for itself and places an icon in the system tray. Once you configure your custom WinKey shortcuts, WinKey basically becomes a “set-and-forget”type of utility that runs in the background. As such, you really don’t need four ways to access the WinKey configuration screen. Therefore, I recommend that you disable the system tray icon from the Options menu, delete the desktop icon, and replace the WinKey shortcut with one of your own. You can then just use the shortcut on the Start menu to access the WinKey configuration screen.

The WinKey installation procedure places a shortcut to the main WinKey executable file, the part that runs in the background, in the Startup folder. That way, WinKey is ready to serve you each time you boot up your system. While it runs in the background, WinKey uses about 290 KB of memory and requires an immeasurably small amount of CPU time. If at any time you want to remove WinKey from memory, you can use the Unload command on the File menu.

The system tray icon

Before you delete WinKey’s system tray icon, you should understand its other features so that you can decide whether it makes sense in your situation to delete it. As I mentioned, when you double-click WinKey’s system tray icon, you’ll see the WinKey configuration screen. However, if you single-click on WinKey’s system tray icon, you’ll see a pop-up menu containing two items that will allow you to unload WinKey from memory and to remove the WinKey icon from the system tray.

Task Manager bonus
If you install WinKey in Windows 95/98/Me, you’ll receive a bonus utility called Task Manager. This utility works similarly to the Task Manager found in Windows NT/2000/XP in that it can display individual running processes and allow you to terminate them. It can also list all modules associated with a running process, as shown in Figure B. As you can imagine, this can be extremely useful information to have when you’re troubleshooting a problem application. By default, Task Manager is assigned to this keystroke combination: [Windows][F10].

Figure B
This utility allows Windows 95/98/Me users to get Task Manager as a bonus utility.

Creating WinKey shortcuts
Creating a WinKey shortcut is a snap. To begin with, Copernic boasts that WinKey can support about 200 WinKey shortcuts. I suppose that to reach that many shortcuts you’d need to create some really tricky keystroke combinations involving multiple keys. Even if you did create that many, you’d need to have a crib sheet just keep track of them all. Realistically, a dozen or so WinKey shortcuts should be sufficient in most cases.

To make the basic keystroke combinations available for your custom WinKey shortcuts, you may want to delete some of the defaults that you feel you won’t use. To do so, simply select the WinKey shortcut and click the Remove button.

To create a WinKey shortcut, click the Add button. When you do, you’ll see the Shortcut Properties dialog box, as shown in Figure C, and can begin configuring your custom WinKey shortcut.

Figure C
Configuring your custom shortcut keys is easy in the Shortcut Properties dialog box.

You can type a name of a file, a drive letter, or a path to a folder in the Command text box. If you don’t know exactly where the file is to which you want to create a WinKey shortcut, you can click the File button. If you’re not sure of the exact path to a folder in which you want to create a WinKey shortcut, you can click the Folder button. Both are adjacent to the Command text box.

Next, click the Shortcut Key drop-down list and you’ll see the available keystroke combinations. Notice that this list doesn’t contain those keystroke combinations that are assigned to native Windows key shortcuts so that you can’t overwrite them. If you choose a keystroke combination that’s already in use, WinKey will display a confirmation dialog box when you click OK.

If you’re creating a WinKey shortcut to an executable file, you can use the Parameters text box to supply any additional parameters that you want to include on the command line. In the event that the application needs access to related files in a particular folder, you can use the Start In text box to specify the exact folder from which you want the application to launch. Finally, you can use the Run drop-down list to specify how you want the window to display the item—a standard window (Normal), full screen (Maximized), or as a button on the taskbar (Minimized).

Once you’ve configured all the WinKey shortcut settings, just click OK. You’ll then see your new shortcut appear in the list. You can create as many WinKey shortcuts as you’d like. When you’re finished, you can close the configuration screen. The background portion of the utility will automatically kick in, and you can begin using your WinKey shortcuts.

Example uses for WinKey
As you can see, configuring WinKey shortcuts is very easy. Just to show you how useful WinKey is, let’s take a look at some ways that you can really take advantage of WinKey’s power.

In Windows 2000 and Windows XP, the Task Manager is a very useful tool. However, it’s a bit difficult to access—you must either press [Ctrl][Alt][Delete] or right-click an empty spot on the taskbar and select the Task Manager command. To make Task Manager easy to access, you can create a WinKey shortcut to the Task Manager executable file, Taskmgr.exe, in the C:\Windows\System32 folder and assign it to the keystroke combination [Windows]T.

The Services Console in Windows 2000 and Windows XP helps you manage the services on your computer, set up recovery actions to run if a service fails, and create custom names and descriptions for services so you can easily identify them. However, to access this tool, you have to open the Control Panel, double-click Administrative Tools, and then double-click Services. To make the Services Console easy to access, create a WinKey shortcut to its file Services.msc in the C:\Windows\System32 folder. Then, put the /s switch in the Parameters text box and assign the shortcut to the keystroke combination [Windows]S, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
A handy use for a WinKey shortcut is to provide quick access to the Services Console.

Another good use for WinKey is to create a keyboard shortcut to a remote folder shared over the network. That way you can instantly access the shared folder whenever you need to, no matter what’s on your screen—no more minimizing windows to track down shortcut icons.

As you can see, the possibilities are virtually endless. Just take a few moments to think about the tasks that you perform on a day-to-day basis and consider whether you can make those operations that much easier by assigning them to a WinKey shortcut.

Don’t forget about the native Windows key shortcuts
As I mentioned, WinKey leaves the native Windows key shortcuts in place. Many of them are extremely handy—if you can just remember what they are and then use them frequently. If you ever need a reminder of exactly what the native Windows key shortcuts are, you can access a crib sheet dialog box while you’re in the WinKey configuration screen by double-clicking the Standard Shortcuts item at the top of the Shortcut Key column. The dialog box even provides you with a Print command, so you can print a hard copy of the crib sheet.

For your convenience, the complete list of current native Windows key shortcuts is listed in Table A.
Table A

Keystroke combination

Windows Key  Open Start menu
Windows Key + E Launch Windows Explorer
Windows Key + R Open the Run dialog
Windows Key + Break Open System Properties dialog box
Windows Key + F Launch Find: All Files
Windows Key + Ctrl + F Launch Find: Computer
Windows Key + M Minimize all windows
Windows Key + D Show/Hide Desktop
Windows Key + Shift + M Undo minimize all windows
Windows Key + Tab Cycle through buttons on taskbar
Windows Key + F1 Launch Windows Help
Windows Key + B Switch focus to taskbar
*Windows Key + L Lock desktop or switch users
*Windows Key + U Launch Accessibilities Utility Manager

Native Windows key shortcuts

*Only available in Windows XP