Although Windows XP comes with some nice utilities, they represent only of a fraction of the utilities that Microsoft makes freely available. Microsoft offers a collection of Windows XP utilities known as the PowerToys. The PowerToys are designed to allow advanced users to gain more control over the Windows XP operating system. In this article, I’ll tell you which PowerToys are available, what they do, and where to get them.

Download and installation
You’ll be happy to know that all the utilities discussed here are freely available for download from Microsoft’s Web site. While you can download most of the PowerToys discussed in this article from one location, two of the PowerToys are considered part of the PowerToys Fun Pack and are available here.

Each PowerToy download consists of a single executable file. Simply double-click the executable to run the Installation Wizard and install the program. The wizard will quickly walk you through the installation—a process that should take only a minute or two and does not require a reboot.

Task Switch
If you frequently switch between applications using the Alt+Tab key combination, you’ll really like the Task Switch utility. This utility consists of a single, self-extracting 534-KB executable file. When you run the file, you’ll encounter a standard Microsoft installation program. The strange part is that when the installation completes, nothing happens. There are no desktop icons or menu choices for Task Switch. Instead, the Alt+Tab function is enhanced.

Normally, when you press Alt+Tab to switch between applications, you see a pop-up window containing icons that represent each application that you have open. There is even a brief description of the application. This works great unless you have six untitled Microsoft Word documents open, in which case you can’t tell the difference between them.

Task Switch solves this problem by actually showing you a preview of each task as you Alt+Tab between them. You can see an example of the enhanced Alt+Tab window in Figure A.

Figure A
The Alt+Tab enhancement displays a preview of the window that you are about to switch to.

Open Command Window Here
I have a couple of friends who constantly make fun of me for using the Windows command prompt so much. If you’re a command line junkie like me, though, you’ll love the Open Command Window Here PowerToy. The idea behind this tool is that you can free yourself from changing directories through tedious CD\ commands. Instead, just right-click on the location that you want to navigate to and select the Open Command Window Here prompt. When you do, Windows will open a Command Prompt window and the current directory will be set to the location that you specified.

This utility consists of a 514-KB, self-extracting executable file. Like Task Switch, no icons or menu options will appear after running the installer. The utility’s functionality is simply added to each folder’s shortcut menu.

Tweak UI
Tweak UI is a desktop customization utility that has been around in one form or another since Windows 95. Tweak UI is designed to allow you to control just about every aspect of the Windows XP user interface. For example, if you wanted to tweak the behavior of the mouse, you can control such things as hover time, the number of lines that are scrolled when you move the scroll wheel, and click speed. You can even configure the mouse to automatically activate a window when you hover over it for a period of time. Of course, these are just a few of the settings that apply to the mouse’s behavior. There are many other areas that you can control, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
Tweak UI allows you to control the behavior of just about every element of the Windows user interface.

Power Calculator
Of all of the Windows XP PowerToys, my favorite is the Power Calculator. I’m one of those math freaks who took astrophysics in college as an elective. Now that I’ve downloaded the Power Calculator, I have a new toy with which to bore my poor wife senseless.

The basic calculator that comes with Windows has a normal mode and a scientific mode. The Power Calculator goes way beyond the capabilities of the normal Windows Calculator, though. For starters, you can use the Power Calculator to graph functions. The calculator also has the ability to remember expressions and to make future evaluations based on past expressions. For example, if you tell the calculator that X=5, you can come back several calculations later and make a calculation based on X. The calculator can generate outputs in binary, hexadecimal, and decimal output. In addition, it has lots of built-in trig and logarithmic functions. The calculator even has conversion functions built in for such things as mass and velocity. You can see a screen shot of this calculator in Figure C.

Figure C
The Power Calculator goes way beyond the capabilities of the normal Windows Calculator.

Image Resizer
The Image Resizer is another utility that can’t be accessed through a menu option or desktop icon. Instead, after downloading and installing this 521-KB utility, you may access it by right-clicking an image and selecting the Resize Pictures option from the resulting shortcut menu.

As you can see in Figure D, the Image Resizer allows you to quickly change an image to fit several standard resolutions, including that used by Pocket PCs. Normally, when you resize an image, the utility creates a copy of the image and resizes the copy. There is, however, an option that you can use to resize the original image.

Figure D
The Image Resizer allows you to easily adjust the size of an image.

CD Slide Show Generator
One of the Windows features that was first introduced with Windows XP was the ability to drag and drop files to and from a CD-RW drive. The CD Slide Show Generator takes this concept one step further and allows you to create a slide show based on the images that you place on a CD. What’s cool about this utility is that if you take the CD to a computer that isn’t running Windows XP, you can still view the slide show.

Virtual Desktop Manager
The Virtual Desktop Manager is one of those utilities that I am certain that there is a good use for, but I haven’t found it yet. The utility allows you to have up to four virtual desktops, all accessible from the taskbar. Keep in mind that these are virtual desktops, not virtual machines. Therefore, any program that is running on one desktop is also running on the other desktops. However, if you minimize an application within one desktop, the application is not minimized on the other desktops.

You can install the virtual desktops by downloading and running the 550-KB installation program. When the installation completes, right-click on a blank area of your taskbar and select the Toolbars | Desktop Manager commands from the resulting shortcut menus. When you do, you’ll see icons with the numbers 1 through 4 appear in the lower-right portion of the screen. By clicking these icons, you can switch between desktops. There’s also an icon that looks like a windowpane. You can use this icon to view all four desktops at the same time. You can see an example of this in Figure E.

Figure E
You can click the icons numbered 1 through 4 to view the various virtual desktops.

Taskbar Magnifier
You’ve probably seen the Windows Magnifier utility, which lets you enlarge an area of the desktop. The Taskbar Magnifier is very similar to the Magnifier, except that the viewing area is much smaller and is located within the taskbar.

To use this utility, you must download and install the 515-KB setup file. After doing so, right-click on an empty area of your taskbar and select the Toolbars | Desktop Magnifier commands from the resulting shortcut menus. You can see a sample of the Desktop Magnifier in the lower-right corner of Figure F.

Figure F
The Taskbar Magnifier is similar to the Windows Magnifier except that the viewing area is contained within the taskbar.

HTML Slide Show Wizard
This PowerToy is similar to the CD Slide Show except that the slide show is created in HTML format. Using this utility is simple. Just download the 548-KB installation file and run the setup program. When the setup has completed, you can access the utility through the Start | All Programs | PowerToys For Windows XP | Slide Show Wizard option.

As the name implies, the Slide Show Wizard is wizard based. Just select the images that you want to include and then answer a few simple questions, as shown in Figure G, and your slide show will be created.

Figure G
The wizard requires only that you supply the images and answer a few simple questions.

Webcam Timershot
The last utility in the main PowerToys collection is the Webcam Timershot utility. This 610-KB utility simply allows you to set up a timer on your Web cam. This allows your Web cam to take a picture at specific time intervals and then save the picture to the location of your choice.

The PowerToys Fun Pack
While most of the PowerToys that I’ve shown you so far have at least some business use, the PowerToys included in the Fun Pack are designed purely for entertainment.

Windows XP Video Screen Saver PowerToy
The first utility in the Fun Pack is the Windows XP Video Screen Saver PowerToy. This utility allows you to create a screen saver based on any video file in Windows Media format or any video that was created using Windows Movie Maker 2.

Windows XP Desktop Wallpaper Changer PowerToy
The other PowerToy found in the Fun Pack is the Windows XP Desktop Wallpaper Changer PowerToy. This utility is for all of those people who get tired of using the same desktop wallpaper all of the time. You can rotate wallpapers from a bank of images according to a schedule that you set. You may rotate images every few minutes, hours, or days.