Keep XP fresh until Windows 7 arrives

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

When Windows XP was released, wireless routers were rare, few cell phones supported e-mail, and YouTube was just a gleam in some PayPal employees’ eyes.

But like a fabled perpetual motion machine, XP keeps on going and going — and if you follow some simple guidelines, the OS will keep running in top condition until Vista’s successor is ready in 2010.

XP is an operating system with serious legs

Microsoft may not have planned it this way, but XP could end up rivaling NT and 2000 as the version of Windows with the longest lifespan. According to recent news reports, Dell, Lenovo, and other computer manufacturers will continue to sell new PCs running Windows XP well past Microsoft’s June 30 cutoff date.

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PC vendors will do so by invoking a downgrade plan that lets them ship a system with Windows XP installed as long as the customer is also paying for an upgrade to Vista Business or Ultimate editions, either of which is included in each box.

Of course, computer manufacturers aren’t the only ones looking for ways to extend XP’s usefulness. One pundit has predicted that Microsoft itself is going to fast-track Windows 7 to get customers to leapfrog over the unpopular Vista and go directly from XP to the next version. In fact, according to the technology site Ars Technica, one major American corporation, General Motors, is considering doing just that.

Eight simple rules for keeping XP rejuvenated

If you’re one of the many people who plan to stick with XP as long as possible, you need to take a few relatively painless steps to keep that aging OS perky. Here are my eight rules for extending XP’s usefulness to 2010 and beyond.

Rule 1: The latest ain’t always the greatest. As a rule, older operating systems were designed to work with older software. Unless you need some utterly indispensible feature found only in the latest Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Office 2007, stick to the preceding releases. Not only will the senior apps run faster, most of the kinks and bugs have already been worked out of them.

If your hardware and software work fine as is, don’t bother upgrading any drivers, either. At the same time, driver upgrades often smooth out minor problems that you’ve just grown used to.

One way to check for out-of-date device drivers is to use the online scanner from Driver Updates. (Note that using this service requires running an ActiveX component in Internet Explorer.)

Should you discover that one of your drivers is out of date, go to the manufacturer’s site to find and download the latest version available (but skip any beta releases). Remember to back up your system before installing the new driver in case it causes problems.

Rule 2: Make an exception for security. Set Rule 1 aside when it comes to your security software and services. Update your virus and spyware definitions frequently. Get the latest security updates for your browser and for QuickTime, Flash, and other media players as well. Some of the dangers of unpatched software are explained in the April 17 Top Story.

Rule 3: Stay young and beautiful. The last exception to Rule 1 is to make a cautious investment in a handful of utilities that improve and modernize XP. You’ll find a number of free and low-cost programs that approximate or even duplicate Vista’s best new features without having to invest in a whole new operating system.

For a guide to applications that give XP handy features of Vista’s Business edition, see my July 12, 2007, column. To read about ways to add features from Vista Enterprise or Ultimate editions to XP, check out my July 19, 2007, column.

Rule 4: Shop carefully for new hardware. If your XP system needs a processor, memory, or other hardware upgrade to keep it from bogging down on your applications, there is no reason why you can’t swap out an aging component or add some RAM.

However, since some new components are designed with Vista in mind, make sure the products you buy work as advertised under XP. Check the manufacturers’ site for XP driver downloads before you make your purchase, and look for online reviews that mention the products’ XP compatibility.

Rule 5: Don’t let startup stuff slow you down. It seems like every program you install these days wants to start along with Windows. These auto-start apps are usually represented by an icon in your system tray (the area near your clock). Even if your system has oodles of memory, these little doodads can slow you down without offering any real value.

An excellent tool for finding what gizmos are starting up each time you log into Windows is Autoruns, available from Microsoft (originally from Sysinternals). Simply uncheck the item to disable it from starting, or select an entry and delete it to effect a more permanent removal.

If you can’t figure out what a particular startup app does, right-click its entry in the Autoruns window and choose Search Online. This performs a Google search (rather than a Live search, which you might expect). Scour the results to find out whether the program has a legitimate reason for needing to run all the time.

If the Web search isn’t helpful in rooting out a program’s purpose, check the list of common startup applications maintained by Paul Collins to figure out what’s getting started with Windows.

Finally, the free version of WinPatrol can warn you whenever a program attempts to add an item to your startup list.

Clear the clutter from XP’s many cubbyholes

Rule 6: Save on disk space. A problem that plagues nearly all aging systems is the pack-rat syndrome. Just using a PC day to day causes an ever-increasing amount of data to be stored in ever-shrinking disk space. These tips will help you recover some of that precious drive capacity.
  • Eliminate hibernation files. XP’s hibernation feature stores everything currently in RAM onto your hard disk, which allows you to return to your session more quickly after a period of inactivity. Unfortunately, hibernation needs about the same amount of disk space as your current amount of RAM (for example, 1GB of disk space if you have 1GB of RAM).

    If you don’t use XP’s hibernate feature very often, you can save the space occupied by the hiberfil.sys file: choose Start, Run; type powercfg.cpl; click the Hibernate tab; uncheck Enable hibernation; and click OK.

  • Don’t let iTunes make you hear double. If you use Windows Media Player to rip CDs to your computer in the Windows Media Audio (.wma) format and then decide to give iTunes a try, beware! iTunes will convert those songs into its Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format, resulting in duplicate files for every song iTunes manages. To avoid that, use a single music format (such as .mp3) that all media players can handle.

  • Store stuff online. Another way to save on disk space is to transfer files to an online storage service. You may already store your e-mail and photos online. Yahoo’s Flickr service lets you store as many photos as you like, but unless you upgrade to a paid account, you’ll never be able to see more than the last 100.

    Google’s Picasa Web albums provide 1GB of free storage. And if you’re willing to pay, you can get a whole lot more storage space than that.

    Of course, you don’t need to limit yourself to mail and photos. A number of sites offer free or low-cost online storage. For example, Mozy gives you 2GB of free storage through its MozyHome service. MozyPro accounts start at U.S. $4.50 per gigabyte per month.

    Many sites, including ElephantDrive, Omnidrive, and Box, provide only 1GB of free storage. Each service offers larger storage options at varying prices.

    Finally, IBackup has economy plans that charge only $1 per gigabyte per month (and less for annual rates). By comparison, the popular Data Deposit Box charges $2 monthly for each gigabyte you use.

  • Offload files to a new drive. Even if you’ve purchased a new hard drive to expand your storage space, you may still be running out of room on your Windows drive. Fortunately, you can move your virtual memory paging file, Internet Explorer cache files, My Documents, and other system files to another drive or partition. For step-by-step information, see my column from the Feb. 28 issue.
Rule 7: Keep it clean. It makes no sense to hang onto useless junk files that Windows uses for its own purposes. Fortunately, Windows’ own Disk Cleanup tool can clear out this system clutter. For details on how to customize Disk Cleanup for maximum efficiency, see Fred Langa’s Mar. 13 column in the paid portion of the newsletter.

Disk Cleanup also removes the outdated restore points created by System Restore that you no longer need. In the Disk Cleanup window, click the More Options tab. Under System Restore, click Clean up and confirm that you want to delete all but the current restore point.

Unfortunately, Disk Cleanup misses certain temp files. To make a little batch file that clears these folders, open Notepad and type the following:

del /s /q “C:Documents and SettingsyournameLocal SettingsTemp*.*”

Replace yourname with the name of the account you’ve logged into and adjust the drive letter or path as needed. Save the file with a .cmd or .bat extension (for example, killtemp.bat) and put the file or a shortcut to it in your Startup group (Start, All Programs, Startup). This way, it will run each time you log in to your Windows account.

Rule 8. Do your chores. Joan Rivers described my attitude to PC maintenance when she said, “I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes, and six months later you have to start all over again.”

Odious as PC housekeeping can be, get into the disk-maintenance habit: make backups, defrag your hard disks, and check them for errors. Fortunately, you can use XP’s Scheduled Tasks utility (Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Scheduled Tasks) to automate or partially automate these chores by setting the program to give you a gentle reminder.

Did I leave something out? Let me know your favorite “rejuvenation rules” for XP — or Vista, for that matter — using the Windows Secrets contact page.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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