Windows 7 may be building up some hype with its beta release, but as plenty of PC users will tell you, sometimes newer isn’t better. Many PCs simply don’t have the horsepower to run the new operating system, and even more users might be scared away because of memories of the processor-and RAM-hungry Vista release.
If you’ve got Windows XP, worry not – you can keep it running on your hardware for years to come. As with an old car, though, if you plan to keep XP around for a while, you’re going to have to spend some time maintaining it. Think of us as your virtual mechanics. We’ll give you tips, tweaks and tricks so that you’ll be able to keep XP running smoothly, at top performance, for smooth operation and long life.
But what if you suffer from Vista envy, and you’re interested in more than just maintaining XP as it is? No problem — we’ll also show you how to get many of Vista’s goodies, such as greatly improved security, transparent windows, Windows Flip 3D and the Network Map, all without having to spend the money to upgrade or get new hardware.
So, if you’ve got better things to do with your time and money than upgrade to Vista, read on. There’s still plenty of life in your old operating system.
Editor’s note: Many of the tips in this story involve installing software or altering system settings. We’re assuming that any such changes you make will be to your own computer. Always check with your IT department before altering a company-owned machine.
How long will Microsoft support XP?
Windows XP has been extremely successful; market research firm IDC estimates that Windows XP (Home and Pro) had a worldwide installed base of 538 million copies at the end of 2006. As long as those XP computers are functional and perform well, users find it difficult to justify the purchase of Vista or a new Vista-based PC.
Microsoft Corp.’s support policies reflect this reality. The company’s standard life-cycle policy provides bug fixes and security patches (known as mainstream support) for five years after initial release, and security-patch-only support (known as extended support) for an additional five years. Although Microsoft often doesn’t provide extended support for its consumer products, the company says that XP Home and XP Pro will get identical support periods.
Microsoft’s support road map currently says that extended support for Windows XP ends in April 2014. You need to be on the latest service pack within one year of its release for continued support, which at this point means you must be running XP Service Pack 2.
So the earliest date that XP SP2 support will end is 2014, but history has shown that Microsoft often gives customers a reprieve as these dates draw near. For example, support for Windows 98 was to be dropped in January 2004, but Microsoft extended it by two and a half years to July 2006.
XP’s life would also be extended if Microsoft were to issue an XP service pack on or after 2013. Microsoft has a tentative date for XP Service Pack 3 in the first half of 2008. If SP3 is released anywhere near on schedule and turns out to be the last service pack for XP, it won’t affect XP’s 2014 end-of-support date.
Get Vista’s security improvements in XP
With Windows Vista, Microsoft finally got serious about security, baking many important security measures right into the operating system. But that doesn’t mean you should simply shrug and accept XP’s inferior security; some free and low-cost tools for XP provide much of the same security that Vista offers.
Windows Defender is exactly the same on XP and Vista.
Windows Vista is protected from spyware by Microsoft’s Windows Defender — and the same program is available as a free download for Windows XP users as well. Windows Defender is exactly the same on Vista as it is on XP, so you’re not losing anything by not moving to Vista.
It’s a good idea to have more than one piece of antispyware on your PC, whether you use Vista or XP. So double up for safety and add Lavasoft AB’s Ad-Aware or Spybot Search & Destroy — or even both — to your arsenal.
Vista features hardware-based encryption for laptops, called BitLocker encryption. It uses a hardware-based key and password protection so that if your laptop is stolen, no one will be able to view any of the data.
You can get much the same functionality from Kensington Computer Products Group’s PC Key ($70). You use a special USB key and password combo to encrypt the hard drive; if someone gets your laptop, they won’t be able to read anything.
As for a firewall, XP’s built-in firewall has one major limitation compared with Vista’s — it doesn’t include outbound protection. There’s a great deal of debate about whether Vista’s firewall includes true outbound protection, but if you want a firewall with true, configurable outbound protection for XP, get the free Comodo Firewall Pro.
Get inbound and outbound protection from Comodo
As Computerworld online editorial director Scot Finnie points out in Slim is in for Windows desktop firewalls, Comodo Group earns the top firewall rating for security from the independent testing site Matousec and offers a good balance between security and convenience.
Windows Vista includes built-in parental controls that let you filter Web sites and otherwise limit how your children use the computer. You can get similar technology for XP, although you’ll have to pay for it.
There are quite a few programs and services out there, but two good bets are SafeBrowse.com’s Safe Eyes, which costs $50 for use on three computers, and Webroot Software Inc.’s Child Safe, $40 for use on three computers.
Vista security features you can’t get in XP
Note that there are some Vista security features you won’t be able to replicate on Windows XP, such as Internet Explorer’s Protected Mode, which protects your system from malware that enters via the browser. (GreenBorder Technologies used to offer a protected-mode add-on for both IE and Firefox, but the software is no longer available for download. The company has been purchased by Google Inc., so it’s possible this technology will reappear in a Google product in the future.)
Another Vista feature that you can’t replicate in XP but that you probably won’t miss at all is User Account Control, a universally reviled security measure that seeks users’ permission before taking many actions, such as running a program or opening a dialog box. Many Vista users turn it off because of its intrusiveness.
Get Vista’s eye candy in XP
Besides security, one of Vista’s main attractions is its new Aero interface featuring transparent windows, eye-popping animations and cool new ways to navigate. But you don’t have to upgrade to Vista to get many of these features.
Using freeware or low-cost shareware, you can transform your XP computer into a Vista lookalike.
Keep in mind, though, that adding all this eye candy can slow down your machine, depending on your system configuration. So be prepared to scale back on some of it if you find your PC becomes sluggish.
Sidebar and Gadgets
One of Windows Vista’s niftiest features is the Sidebar and its Gadgets — little applets capable of gathering, displaying and using live information from the Internet or from your PC. But there are plenty of ways to get the same things for free on Windows XP.
Desktop Sidebar gives XP a full-blown sidebar like Vista’s, with numerous built-in gadgets, including a clock, weather gadget, performance monitor, mail checker, media player, stock tracker and more.
Two other good choices from well-known search companies are Google Desktop Gadgets and Yahoo Widgets. To use Yahoo Widgets, you’ll first have to download the software. It comes with a variety of widgets, such as a weather checker, CPU monitor, stock checker and so on.
But you’re not stuck with just those — there are more than 4,000 widgets available. In fact, you’ll have a greater choice of Yahoo Widgets than you’d have it you were using Gadgets for the Vista Sidebar. Yahoo Widgets run in a Sidebar-like application, but can also be placed anywhere on your Windows desktop.
Google’s Desktop Gadgets require that you download and use Google Desktop, which may be problematic for some people because Google Desktop is a big piece of software, primarily used for searching your PC. It includes a live indexer that runs all the time, which could possibly slow down your PC. But if you’re already a Google Desktop user or want a good searching tool, the Gadgets are a nice bonus.
They live in a sidebar that looks and works a lot like Windows Vista’s Sidebar. You’ll find plenty of Gadgets, including Real Simple Syndication readers, a stock checker, to-do list creator, weather watcher and more — although not as many as Yahoo Widgets.
Windows Flip and Windows Flip 3D replacements
Two of the more useful new features in Windows Vista are Windows Flip and Windows Flip 3D. With them, when you switch between windows or applications using Alt-Tab (for Windows Flip), or Windows key-Tab (for Windows Flip 3D), you can see a preview of the windows, making it easier to decide to which window you want to switch. As the name suggests, Windows Flip 3D shows you the open windows in a three-dimensional view, a very nice piece of eye candy.
You can get the same features in Windows XP using a couple of software add-ons. Microsoft’s free Alt-Tab Replacement Power Toy is your best choice for the Windows Flip replacement. It’s two-dimensional only.
Preview windows with the Alt-Tab Replacement Power Toy.
If you must have the 3-D look, you’ll have to pay for it. Top Desk is shareware from Otaku Software that gives you the equivalent of Windows Flip 3D on XP. You can try it for free for 14 days. If you want to use it after that, you’ll have to fork over $18.
Transparent windows and other interface tweaks
For many people, the niftiest feature of Vista’s Aero interface is its transparent windows. You can get the same thing in XP, with AbsoluteWay’s TweakWindow. In fact, TweakWindow gives you far more transparency-related features than Windows Vista. You can make entire windows — not just borders — transparent, and you have a great deal of control over the degree of transparency.
There are plenty of other extras as well, such as the ability to hide windows, to control transparency on a window-by-window basis, and even turn windows into “ghost” windows that stay on top of other windows, are transparent, and let you click through to other windows beneath them. It’s shareware; registration costs $21.
TweakWindow’s “ghost” window feature.
If you want to go the whole hog and replace your entire desktop and interface, you can download and use Stardock Corp.’s WindowBlinds. It lets you make all kinds of changes to XP’s user interface, including transparent windows and a lot more. Install the program, and you can apply a skin that makes it look like Vista, such as the Arrow skin. WindowBlinds is shareware, and costs $20 to register.
The Vista Transformation Pack makes XP look like Vista.
You can get much the same thing for free with Softpedia’s Vista Transformation Pack. It changes the Start button, the Control Panel, system dialogs and more so that XP looks like Vista. The programs aren’t exact duplicates, so you get some things with WindowBlinds that you don’t get with Vista Transformation Pack, and vice versa.
For instance, Vista Tranformation Pack won’t give you transparent windows or Vista applets. But you can use the two programs in concert with each other to get all their features.
Be aware that installing the Vista Transformation Pack is not for the weak of heart. Follow the installation instructions extremely carefully — they’ll take some time. And just to be safe, we suggest creating a Restore Point before you begin, because you’ll be mucking about with system files.
When you first install the Vista Transformation Pack, it may not look like Vista. To get the Vista look, right-click the Desktop, choose Properties –> Appearance, and from the “Windows and buttons” drop-down list choose Windows Aero.
You can also use Vista wallpaper by clicking the Desktop tab and scrolling through the backgrounds. Note that the Vista wallpaper will have odd numbers, such as “img19,” instead of names.
Get other Vista goodies
Vista includes a lot of other goodies as well, and you can get most of them for free or via shareware.
Vista’s built-in search is vastly improved over XP’s and may well be the operating system’s biggest productivity booster. You can get the equivalent with any one of a number of free desktop search programs, including Google Desktop, Copernic Desktop Search or Microsoft’s own Windows Desktop Search.
Vista includes plenty of networking improvements over XP, including the superb Network Map that displays every object on a network and provides detailed information about it. You can’t get the exact equivalent of this in XP, but you can come close with free Network Magic from Pure Networks Inc.
It includes a Vista-like network map, as well as plenty of other extras, such as wizards that walk you through the process of adding network devices and fixing broken network connections. In fact, in some ways, it goes beyond what Vista does, including creating reports of your network activity and testing bandwidth. There are also for-pay versions of the software, but you don’t really need them, unless you want advanced features such as remote access to your network’s files.
Get a network map and more with Network Magic.
Finally, if for some bizarre reason you’re a big fan of the Windows Vista boot and log-on screens, you can mimic them in XP with some free tools from Stardock. First, download Logon Studio, which lets you customize your log-on screen. Once you do that, you can apply a Vista-like log-on screen called Vista Reaction. To mimic Vista’s boot screen, get BootSkin and use the Real Vista boot screen.
Tweak XP settings for faster performance
Although there are good reasons to switch to Windows Vista, faster performance isn’t one of them. Vista adds several new features designed to improve its speed, but they are mainly intended to buy back the performance lost by Vista’s increased resource hunger. A few simple tweaks to an existing XP setup can make it fly.
Limit XP’s visual effects for a speed boost.
Lose the eye candy.
All the animations and visual effects that XP uses can sap performance, particularly on low-end systems. Yes, we know we just told you ways to add more eye candy to XP, but users’ tastes vary — as do their machines’ capabilities. If you prefer fast over frilly, you can turn off XP’s eye candy to gain speed.
Go to Control Panel –> System –> Advanced tab, and in the Performance area, click the Settings button. On the Visual Effects tab, choose the Custom option, and clear as many of the check boxes as you can stand — the more check boxes you clear, the faster your system can run.
Most people won’t notice much of a difference in appearance as long as these two boxes remain checked: “Smooth edges of screen fonts” and “Use visual styles on windows and buttons.” Click OK twice, and you’re done.
Tweak XP’s Internet settings with TCP Optimizer.
Optimize your Internet connection.
A computer without a fast Internet connection isn’t much of a computer nowadays. Vista automatically tunes the Internet connection for best performance, but you can get performance that is nearly as fast on XP by using a connection tuning tool. The TCP Optimizer tool from SpeedGuide.net is free and easy to use.
Just choose Optimal Settings near the bottom of the main screen, select the rated speed of your Internet connection using the slider bar, click Apply changes, click OK, and then reboot your computer. If the tuning causes any problems, you can restore the previous settings from the backups that TCP Optimizer keeps each time you make changes.
Limit Windows’ junk-file caches.
Disk performance is a serious limiting factor for the performance of most systems. As the drive fills, it becomes slower due to the additional disk head motion required to access the files that are spread across the disk. A full drive is a slow drive, so the best way to increase performance is to uninstall unneeded applications and delete the junk files that Windows keeps around long after they have served their purpose.
By default, XP’s System Restore feature uses 12% of the total space on every partition to save restore point files and settings. For example, with a 200GB disk broken into two 100GB partitions, it will use 12GB on each partition to hold system-restore files. With its standard settings, XP creates a restore point every day. The actual size of a restore point varies, but they are typically something less than 50MB. That means the default settings allow for about 200 days of restore points, which is much more than anyone needs.
There are quite a few System Restore settings you can adjust through Windows Registry edits, but one simple change through the user interface provides most of the benefits. Go to Control Panel –> System –> System Restore tab. Move the slider until it shows that about 1,000MB (1GB) of disk space will be used for restore points; the exact number is not critical, and it’s hard to get a precise number since it’s expressed as a percentage of the total disk space.
Reduce the disk space System Restore uses.
On today’s large drives, you’ll often need to move the slider to just 1% or 2%. As soon as you click the OK button, XP will delete old restore points to bring the size down to your requested disk space setting — and it’ll stay there, continually swapping out old restore points as it adds new ones but staying under the size you’ve set.
The Recycle Bin is another space hog; by default, it uses 10% of the drive, up to a maximum of 4GB. It’s handy to have the Recycle Bin to recover accidentally deleted files, but 4GB is overkill on most systems. If you’re a compulsive desktop cleaner and tend to empty the Recycle Bin regularly, you can leave the setting as is. Otherwise, it’s best to reduce the size a bit. Right-click the Recycle Bin and select Properties, then adjust the size to suit your garbage-retention needs, for example, something around 1 GB.
Rein in the Recycle Bin too.
Unlike System Restore, the Recycle Bin Properties dialog doesn’t make it easy to do the math. The slider is shown in percent of the size of the drive, but it doesn’t show the actual size. Once you have selected a size with the slider, you can click on the individual drive tabs to see the actual amount of disk space that will be used. Don’t get too aggressive, though; if you delete a file that’s larger than the size of the Recycle Bin in the future, it will be permanently deleted rather than recycled (though you will receive a warning before it disappears).
Perform weekly maintenance for smooth operation
A typical Windows XP setup will be awash in junk — and noticeably slower — just a few months after it’s taken out of the box. Many people reformat and reinstall Windows, or even buy new computers, in search of their original level of performance. But just a bit of regular maintenance can keep a system performing at a near-new level. We recommend performing the following steps once a week.
1. Back up important data.
Inexpensive USB flash drives and external hard drives have removed any excuse that it’s too difficult or expensive to do backups. For the best data protection, use an image backup program such as Acronis True Image. It lets you selectively retrieve files from the backup image, or you can restore the entire data set to a new drive in case of a catastrophic drive failure. For quick drag-and-drop backups of critical files, keep a USB flash drive near the computer.
2. Do a full virus and spyware scan.
Most antivirus and antispyware software provides some real-time protection, but problems can still fall through the cracks. Many of these programs let you schedule an automatic scan on a weekly basis, but if yours doesn’t scan automatically, do a manual scan as part of your weekly maintenance. If the scan detects problems, they should be fixed before trying any of the update and cleanup steps below.
3. Make sure your software is up to date.
Perhaps the most important maintenance step is to use Microsoft Update. It replaces the older Windows Update and provides patches for all Microsoft products including Windows and Office. Most home users should have automatic updates enabled for security patches; go to Control Panel –> Automatic Updates to check the settings.
Microsoft does not make all updates available through the automatic route, however. You’ll see noncritical security updates and new drivers only by going to the Microsoft Update site. Internet Explorer is the only browser supported there, so start IE and go to http://update.microsoft.com to have your system scanned and see what updates you’re missing.
Choose the Custom option to see all available updates for your computer. This list will include upgrades to products that are bundled with Windows, such as Windows Media Player, but it’s not necessary to install them if you don’t use those products. It also includes updated device drivers; these driver updates often fix problems, so it is a good idea to install them.
To keep the rest of your software up to date, just about every major product now includes an automatic updater that regularly checks for new versions of the software. It’s especially important to keep any Internet-related software up to date, since these are often the “attack surface” used by security exploits. This includes Sun Java, Adobe Reader, Apple software such as QuickTime and iTunes, and browsers such as Firefox and Opera. All of these programs have automatic update features that are enabled by default.
For software that doesn’t have an updater, check at least every month to ensure there are no critical updates. Sites like VersionTracker also offer one-stop checks for software updates.
Selecting files to delete with Disk Cleanup. (Click for larger view.)
4. Clean the disk.
The next step is disk cleanup. Windows accumulates junk files on a regular basis from sources such as Internet caches and temporary files. Use Windows’ built-in Disk Cleanup tool (Programs –> Accessories –> System Tools –> Disk Cleanup) to get rid of them. In most cases, the default settings for Disk Cleanup are the ones to use; we never recommend using the Compress Old Files option.
The Windows Disk Cleanup tool automatically cleans the Internet Explorer cache if you have that box checked, but it won’t clear the cache of non-Microsoft applications and browsers such as Firefox or Opera. If Firefox is installed, clean its cache through the Tools –> Clear Private Data menu. In Opera, choose Tools –> Delete private data. (The CCleaner program described below can clean all these caches.)
You’ll also want to take a look in Control Panel –> Add/Remove Programs to see if there are any applications that you no longer need. Many people install trial software but forget to remove it after they decide it’s not worth buying. (You don’t have to perform this step every week unless you frequently install trial software; once a month is fine for most people.) To remove a program you no longer want, select it, click the Remove button, and click Yes.
For even more thorough cleansing, try CCleaner, a free disk cleanup tool from Piriform Ltd. This utility can remove files that are otherwise difficult to get rid of, such as the backups of security patches that are created each time you run Microsoft Update.
CCleaner can clean much more than Windows’ built-in Disk Cleanup can, but it can also remove things such as browser cookies that you may not want to be removed. Use it carefully.
The free CCleaner does a thorough disk-cleaning job.
5. Defragment the disk.
With all unneeded files out of the way, now is the perfect time to defragment the drive. The built-in Windows defragmenter (Programs –> Accessories –> System Tools –> Disk Defragmenter) does a respectable job of bringing order back to the files. Choose Action –> Defragment from the menu to run it.
Use Disk Defragmenter weekly.
On a severely fragmented drive, you may need to run the program several times to fully defrag the files. Be sure to close as many programs as possible during the defragmentation process, including e-mail and even virus scanners, because files that are in use cannot be defragmented.
By following these tips, you can keep your machine in tip-top shape and even get some of Vista’s advantages while sticking with Windows XP for at least seven more years. Maybe by then there’ll be a more compelling reason to give up XP than ho-hum Vista.
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld, and the author of more than 35 books, including Windows Vista in a Nutshell. Dave Methvin is chief technology officer of PC Pitstop, a free site that automatically diagnoses and fixes common PC problems.