How to do 15 common PC tasks faster – part one

Time isn’t money; it’s much more precious than that. Whether you’re doing something creative like making a podcast or building a blog, or slogging through chores such as backing up data, removing viruses, or calibrating your high-def TV screen, you want to get things done and move on to the fun.
I have a ton of time-saving tips, including tricks to help you clear space on your hard drive, e-mail massive files, make money from your Web site, and even calculate the mileage on your jogging route.

The quickest way to tackle many tasks is to use applications that probably already exist on your PC. However, for occasions when Windows’ built-in tools aren’t enough, I’ve listed some great, free programs that are just a download away.

But enough of this dilly-dallying, already. Let’s get on with the tips!

Move your media files to an external drive

Hard drive filling up? Nothing frees space faster than moving your music library to an external or second internal drive. First, close any music-playing software. In XP, open My Documents and drag the My Music folder to the external drive. Windows will figure out that you’re moving a special folder and will change its own settings accordingly. (If you don’t use the My Music folder, just drag the folder you use to the drive.

Windows doesn’t have to treat it as a special folder because, well, it isn’t.)

In Vista, click Start, right-click Music, and then select Properties. Click the Location tab. Change the path to a folder on your new hard drive and click OK. If Windows asks whether you want to create a new folder, click Yes. When Windows inquires whether you want to move all of the files, click Yes again.

If you use Windows Media Player, open it after the move and press F3. Select the new Music folder and let the application search for files.

Back up your data

Back in the March issue, I recommended using MozyHome as the easiest way to back up your PC’s data. Easy, yes. But also horribly slow.

For fast backups, invest in an external hard drive whose capacity is slightly larger than your internal hard drive’s. If your PC has an eSATA port, buy an eSATA drive to take advantage of its fast data-transfer speeds. Otherwise, USB or FireWire will do.

For a quick, one-time data backup, plug in the external drive. When it’s up and Windows recognizes it, press Windows-R, type %userprofile%, and press Enter. Drag the Documents (or My Documents) folder to the external drive.

If you have Vista, you should also drag the Music, Pictures, Saved Games, and Videos folders (XP users don’t have to worry about those because they’re inside Documents). If you don’t store your data within the Microsoft-sanctioned folders, you’ll need to drag any other folders you use to the external drive as well.

Want automation? Select an external drive that comes with a backup program (most do), and use that.
Reinstall Windows

So your PC is acting wonky and you need to reinstall Windows. Starting from scratch can take hours. The faster solution is to back up your data (as described in the item above) and then use the recovery tool that accompanied your PC. The tool usually comes either as a bundled CD or DVD or as a hidden partition that you can access at boot time. Consult your computer’s documentation to see which setup applies.

Recovery tools usually work by overwriting the data on your hard drive with a fresh image of the factory-default software. Windows will be back up and running quickly, but it won’t have the programs you installed on it, or your settings. Restore your personal files from the backup you made before starting this process, and then reinstall any applications you need.

Open a favorite folder

If you go to a certain folder all the time, put it in your Favorites folder, so you can always reach it from the Start menu. This setup is especially convenient if you normally don’t use Internet Explorer, because you won’t see your favorite folders mixed up with your favorite Web sites.

To place it in Favorites, drag the beloved folder from Windows Explorer to the Start button, and from there to the Favorites menu. In Windows XP, you also have the option of opening the folder and then clicking Favorites, Add to Favorites from inside the Explorer window.

E-mail huge files

E-mailing a hilarious video to friends may not endear you to them if it arrives as a 6MB file.

After all, if they use a POP-based e-mail program such as Outlook, they’ll have to download the entire message before they can even see that it’s from you–or before they can download the next message in the queue. If any of the recipients are on a slow connection, they may never speak to you again.

My rule of thumb: Never e-mail more than 1MB of content without the express permission of the recipient. As an alternative, try YouSendIt, a brain-dead-simple take on the FTP transfer. The service is free for any file under 100MB, and individual files can be downloaded up to 100 times.

You don’t even have to sign up and enter a password (though the service offers additional features if you do, and even more if you pay). Just enter both e-mail addresses, point to the file, and click the Send button.

Create a bootable rescue disc

How can you reach your precious data files when Windows refuses to boot? Use a friend’s PC to download Puppy Linux. It comes as an .iso CD-image file that you can use to burn a bootable CD. (And if your PC hasn’t yet bitten the dust, it’s good to make a rescue disc before it does.)

Chances are you or your friend will already have software on the working PC that can burn Puppy Linux to a CD. Double-click the file, and the software (possibly Nero, or Roxio’s Easy Media Creator) should launch. If Windows informs you that it doesn’t know what to do with an .iso file, you should download and install a free burner such as ISO Recorder.

This Puppy isn’t the most powerful version of Linux by a long shot, but it handles NTFS drives well and is easy for Windows users to figure out. Once you have used the bootable CD to access your problematic machine, you can copy files from the hard drive to an external drive, or even edit .doc and .xls files.

Build a Web site

No matter how much time you spend online, you can’t consider yourself a true Netizen until you have your own Web site. And these days, it’s hard to beat a blog for quick and easy updating of your content and for versatile design.

If you prefer simplicity but don’t want to compromise on class, go with a free blogging service such as or With either service, you fill out a form and select a template that controls the look of your blog–and off you go.
One more nicety: You can post entries that you’ve composed in Word 2007 directly to your Blogger or WordPress blog. Just click the Office button and select Publish, Blog.

Change your monitor’s resolution

As a general rule, you should keep your monitor adjusted to its highest resolution. There are exceptions, however. Some programs, especially games, run better with fewer pixels displayed.

And if your laptop becomes confused (as mine does) when you plug it into an external monitor, you may find yourself having to revisit the Settings tab of Windows’ Display Properties box annoyingly often.

That’s why I recommend MultiRes. This simple, free utility creates a system tray icon from which you can select any available resolution, screen depth, and refresh rate for your display.

Copy your events calendar to your not-so-smart phone

Even if your cell phone doesn’t qualify as “smart” by today’s standards, you can use it to track your busy schedule. From Outlook or Google Calendar, you can send appointment reminders to your cell phone as text messages.

When creating an appointment in Outlook, click the Invite Attendees button (Forward in Office 2007). In the To field, enter your phone’s e-mail address, such as [email protected] (the @ portion of the address, of course, will vary from carrier to carrier).

Alternatively, Outlook 2007 users can work with SMS Link for Microsoft Office Outlook 2007, which permits them to send appointments, contacts, and tasks to their cell phone as text messages.

Google Calendar directly supports SMS, so you don’t have to pretend that your phone is an e-mail account. To set the feature up, just click Settings, Mobile Setup and follow the instructions.

When you’re in the process of setting up an appointment, select SMS as your reminder. You can arrange to have more than one reminder scheduled, and you can set them to alert you up to a week ahead of the actual appointment time.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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