Keeping up with a tradition first started in the days of Windows 95, Microsoft’s Windows XP developers have introduced a set of additional components called PowerToys for Windows XP. This set of 10 components brings a host of handy features to this already amazing operating system. Some may make certain computing tasks easier for the users that you support, while others are serious tools that will benefit IT personnel in a number of situations.

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll examine in detail those tools in PowerToys for Windows XP that will be most useful to IT personnel. I’ll also briefly describe the other included toys that’ll be great for users.

Downloading and installing the PowerToys
The PowerToys for Windows XP, which work in both Windows XP Professional and Windows XP Home Edition, are available as a free download from the Microsoft Windows XP Web site.


Keep in mind that while Microsoft ensures that the PowerToys For Windows XP work as described, it stops short of guaranteeing the package. Furthermore, the toys aren’t officially supported by Microsoft, which means that Microsoft Technical Support won’t answer questions on problems with the PowerToys. Nevertheless, I’ve been using these tools extensively for some time now and haven’t encountered any major problems.

Installing the PowerToys for Windows XP is easy. Double-click the PowerToySetup.exe installation file, and the install wizard will begin the procedure. When you get to the Setup Type page, you can choose either the Complete or Custom setup options. The Complete option will install all the PowerToys, but if you select the Custom Setup option, you’ll see the Custom Setup page, as shown in Figure A, and you can pick and choose which of the components to install. The really cool part about the Custom Setup option is that you can return to this screen from the Add/Remove Programs Control Panel tool later and alter your original choices.

Figure A
During the PowerToys for Windows XP installation, you’ll be able to choose which components you want to install.

After the installation, depending on which components you chose to install, you’ll find a submenu on your Programs menu with shortcuts to a few of the tools—the rest are incorporated into the operating system, as you’ll see in a moment.

The Virtual Desktop Manager
Like most IT professionals, chances are that when you’re really going to town on a project, you have multiple applications running. Your taskbar can get quite full, and you could find yourself spending a lot of time locating and switching between applications. In this situation, even Windows XP’s convenient stacking taskbar buttons aren’t much help.

One of the most ingenious tools in the PowerToys set is the Virtual Desktop Manager, which creates four virtual desktops on your computer. This allows you to spread out your applications on the various desktops; you can work more efficiently by grouping applications for related tasks. For example, you could have one desktop displaying your programming tools, one for database work, one for e-mail, and one for surfing the Internet.

Using the Virtual Desktop Manager
To activate the Virtual Desktop Manager, right-click on the taskbar, open the Toolbars submenu, and select Desktop Manager. You’ll see a new toolbar on the taskbar called MSVDM (Microsoft Virtual Desktop Manager), as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
When you activate the Virtual Desktop Manager, you’ll see a new toolbar called MSVDM on the taskbar.

As you can see, the MSVDM toolbar contains four blue buttons, the Quick Switch buttons, which allow you to switch between the virtual desktops with the click of a button. The green button activates the Preview feature, which creates a thumbnail view of the desktops on your screen, as shown in Figure C. You can then switch to another desktop by clicking that thumbnail. In addition, you can switch between the virtual desktops by pressing the Windows key along with the number key that corresponds to the desktop you want to access. Keep in mind that you must use the number keys at the top of your keyboard; the keys on the numeric keypad aren’t supported.

Figure C
Clicking the Preview button gives you a thumbnail view of the four virtual desktops, allowing you to choose which desktop you want to work with.

Configuring the Virtual Desktop Manager
The MSVDM toolbar takes up a lot of space on the taskbar, but you can make it smaller by removing the toolbar’s title. First, you’ll need to unlock the taskbar if it’s locked. To do so, right-click on the taskbar and uncheck the Lock The Taskbar option. Then, right-click on the MSVDM toolbar and uncheck the Show Title option. You can then recheck the Lock The Taskbar option.

Since you can switch between the virtual desktops in several ways, you can make the toolbar even smaller by removing the Quick Switch buttons. Right-click on the MSVDM toolbar and uncheck the Show Quick Switch Buttons option; the only thing that remains on the MSVDM toolbar is the green Preview button.

By default, the Virtual Desktop Manager is configured to show the same taskbar on each desktop. This allows you to easily share, or move, open applications between the desktops by clicking the application’s icon when you’re on a different desktop. While this may be helpful in some situations, it really defeats the purpose of having multiple desktops. If you want to have a different set of applications on each desktop, you can disable the sharing of applications by right-clicking on the MSVDM toolbar and deselecting the Shared Desktops command.

To keep your desktops organized, you can set different wallpaper on each desktop. You won’t set the wallpaper in the usual way by using the Desktop tab in the Display Properties dialog box—if you do, the wallpaper won’t stick. Instead, you’ll need to use the Desktop tab in the MSVDM Settings dialog box, as shown in Figure D. Access this dialog box by right-clicking on the MSVDM toolbar and selecting Configure Desktop Images.

Figure D
You’ll set wallpaper for your virtual desktops on the Desktop tab of the MSVDM Settings dialog box.

The Alt-Tab Replacement tool
If you’ve been using Windows for a while, you’re sure to be familiar with using the [Alt][Tab] key combination—once dubbed the cool switch—to change between running applications. Over the years, Microsoft has improved the interface the cool switch used to display the running applications. During the Windows 3x days, pressing the [Alt][Tab] combination brought up a single icon in the center of the screen. Then, with Windows 9x, Microsoft improved the cool switch interface so that pressing [Alt][Tab] brought up a toolbar-like window that displayed icons and titles for all the running applications.

The Alt-Tab Replacement tool takes this new interface one step further; it provides you with icons and titles for all the running applications and the title and a thumbnail view of the currently selected application, as shown in Figure E. It’s important to keep in mind that only those applications whose windows are open on the desktop will be displayed as a thumbnail. Any application that’s minimized on the taskbar will only have its title and icon displayed.

Figure E
The Alt-Tab Replacement tool’s interface allows you to see a thumbnail view of the currently selected application.

As in this tool’s predecessors, releasing the [Tab] key brings the selected application to the foreground. The Alt-Tab Replacement tool also gives you an alternative way of selecting an application from its window—you can use your mouse. Press [Alt][Tab] and click on any icon in the window to switch to that application. This can come in handy when the taskbar is crowded with icons.

The Open Command Window Here tool
Many IT folks use the command line to perform all kinds of tasks—a fact not lost on Microsoft, since they included a host of new command-line tools in Windows XP. One drawback to working from the command line—changing from one folder or directory to another using the Change Directory (CD) command—is exacerbated by the fact that using long folder names is now the norm. Typing long folder names on the command line is extra work, and with one typo, you’ll find yourself starting all over.

The Open Command Window Here tool does away with the need for the CD command and lets you open a command prompt in the folder of your choice. Once you install the PowerToys, you’ll find the Open Command Window Here command on the shortcut menu that appears when you right-click a folder icon. Selecting this command opens a command prompt window in the folder you’ve selected. What could be easier?

The toys
The rest of the PowerToys for Windows XP components are toys a user may find useful. That’s not to say that they aren’t valuable—you may find some of them extremely useful for certain tasks—they’re just not designed for the types of tasks typically performed by IT professionals.

Image Resizer
If you work with digital images in any capacity, you’ll want to investigate the Image Resizer. To use it, you right-click an image file, or a group of image files, and select the Resize Pictures command from the shortcut menu. You’ll see a dialog box that lets you select a preset range of typical screen sizes. Several advanced options also let you choose custom sizing to make images smaller during the resizing operation (but not larger). You can also opt to resize the original instead of making a copy.

If you have a PC camera on your system, you can use the TimerShot toy to program your camera to periodically snap pictures and save them to any location you specify—your hard disk, a network drive, or even a Web site. You launch TimerShot from the Start menu, and you can access and configure it from the system tray once it’s running.

HTML Slide Show Wizard
The HTML Slide Show Wizard is a piece of software that will walk you through the process of creating an HTML-based slide show of images—all you have to do is select the pictures you want to include. Once the wizard is finished, you can simply upload the files and folders to your Web site and create a link to the main file.

CD Slide Show Generator
The CD Slide Show Generator integrates into Windows XP’s CD Writing Wizard so that as you’re creating a CD of pictures, the CD Writing Wizard prompts you to add a picture viewer to the CD. When you select that option, the CD Writing Wizard adds an executable viewer to the CD and creates an AutoPlay file.

PowerToy Calculator
If you need to do some heavy-duty calculating, the PowerToy Calculator is the right tool for you. In addition to normal everyday mathematics, this calculator can perform a wide variety of advanced mathematical computations, such as those involving trigonometric problems, logarithmic functions, and velocity conversions.

Taskbar Magnifier
The last of the 11 PowerToys for Windows XP components is a real oddball. The Taskbar Magnifier creates a small, toolbar-sized magnification window on the Taskbar that shows a magnified view of whatever is under the mouse cursor. The Magnifier tool that is part of the Accessibility features does a much nicer job of presenting a magnified view to those who are sight-impaired.

PowerToys have been around for quite some time. They’ve traditionally enhanced the Windows experience for IT pros and users alike. While they’re not officially supported by Microsoft, they do have enough clout to be offered by the company for free on its Web site. I’ve covered in depth the Windows XP PowerToys that I feel will benefit the IT pro in his or her day-to-day activities, while highlighting the toys that are geared toward the users that IT pros support.