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Published in The National on September 15, 2000

Windows mastery

There is more than meets the eye with the Windows operating system. Tok IT shows you some of the tricks that make using the OS a wee bit simpler, and definitely more fun.

By Daniel Lam
Over 90 per cent of the world's computers run on the Windows family of operating systems. It started with Windows 95. Then came Windows 98, a major improvement over its predecessor. But many of the things that make Windows 98 better are often hidden.

Here are some tips and tricks with Windows 98 (and a few that work with Windows 95, too) that you can try at home or at work.

Faster, better performance

  • Shortcuts on the desktop (Windows 95, 98) - Shortcuts are a way to access frequently used files or applications. Create a shortcut by dragging them onto the desktop while holding down the right mouse button and then selecting Create Shortcut(s) Here. Thereafter, just double-(left)click on the shortcut to access it.
  • Shortcuts on the Toolbar (Windows 95 with Internet Explorer installed, Windows 98) - If the desktop gets all-too-cluttered up with icons, left-click on one of them and drag it to the Windows toolbar (the area between the Start button and the taskbar), thereby creating an icon there. To get rid of an icon on the toolbar, right-click on one and select Delete.
  • Early Start-up (Windows 98) - If you use a particular program on a regular basis, you can get it to run automatically soon after switching on the computer and after the operating system finishes booting up.

    Open the Windows Explorer (Start, Programs, Windows Explorer) and locate the StartUp folder (usually C:\WINDOWS\Start Menu\Programs\StartUp). Right-click and drag the application onto the StartUp folder and select Create Shortcut(s) Here.

    Thereafter, the program will run first thing after you switch on the computer.

    To get rid of the icon (if you are tired of seeing the program running before you can do anything else), locate it, right-click on it and select Delete.
  • Faster Loading of Programs (Windows 98) - This trick won't make a program run any faster but it can make them load more quickly. Windows 98 came with the Intel Application Launch Accelerator, a tool included with Disk Defragmenter, which arranges the files of your most commonly-used software on the hard disk in an order which they will load fastest.

    Go to Start, Programs, Accessories, Systems Tools, Disk Defragmenter. When the utility's screen comes up, click on Settings and make sure the "Rearrange program files so my programs start faster" option is checked. Click OK, OK again at the utility screen and wait for an hour or so.
  • Running Defragmenter After Hours (Windows 98) - Okay, you would like to run Defragmenter but can't spare the time. Fine, the operating system comes with a Maintenance Wizard, which can run three maintenance utilities (Disk Defragmenter, ScanDisk and Disk Cleanup) on a schedule you set.

    Go to Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools and select Maintenance Wizard. Choose a time when you won't be using the computer (you have to leave it switched on, of course) and when that time comes, the utilities will run.
  • Trimming the Speed Hogs (Windows 98) - Over time your computer has a tendency of getting slower and slower starting up. Don't blame your computer hardware straight away! It could be all the software you have been installing. Software applications like to install things that start up when you start up Windows ... these things hog processor time, although you may not know it. Individually, these little hogs use up very little of precious processing power, but collectively they can slow the computer down.

    First check your system tray (the box on the right side of the toolbar, giving you the time, date, etc). The more icons you see there, the more systems resources are used up.

    Wait, there's more. Go to Start, Run, key in "msconfig" and click OK. In the System Configuration Utility dialogue box, click on the Startup tab and scroll through the list of items for unnecessary tools (these include monitor programs like anti-virus software).

    Uncheck any program you DON'T want to run at start-up. Then click Apply (you may have to restart the computer for the changes to take effect).

    If you change your mind later, you can run the disabled items by going to Start, Program, Disabled Startup Items and selecting the appropriate one. To have the disabled item run at start-up again, return to the System Configuration Utility and re-check the item.




Published in The National on September 22, 2000

This is my desktop

Tired of how your PC desktop looks? Tok IT looks up a few Windows 9x librams, and here is what we found.

By Daniel Lam
Last week Tok IT featured several tips to help improve your computer's performance. This week we delve on customising the way the desktop looks and feels.

Pasting your wallpaper
Your desktop probably features a wallpaper (in the form of a picture or pictures) that came with Windows 95/98. You can always elect to change it by right clicking anywhere on your desktop (but not on an icon) and selecting Properties.

Click on the Background tab and select the wallpaper you want (you can preview it on the preview screen at the top).

If the wallpapers are not up to your standards and you have an image or picture saved on your computer that you would like for a wallpaper, click on Browse and locate the image (if the image is saved on your Desktop, it can usually be found in C:\Windows\Desktop). Once selected, click Open, then click Apply, then OK.

Not only that ... if you have access to the Internet and encounter an image which you would like for a wallpaper, right-click on the image and select Set as Wallpaper.

Changing the Scheme of Things
Did you know you can also change the overall appearance of your desktop, from the colour of the title bars to the font used on menus, windows, etc? Right-click on the desktop and click on the Appearance tab. Again, you can preview the result in the preview window on top, so experiment!

My Mouse is better than your Mouse
The mouse pointer doesn't have to look the same all the time (pointer, hourglass and all). Go to Start, Settings, Control Panel and double-click on Mouse. Click on the Pointers tab and experiment on the possibilities.

If you have Microsoft Plus! (Windows 95 can have Plus! 95, while Windows 98 already comes with Plus! 95 ... but you can get Plus! 98 for even more cool stuff), you get more options, but even if you don't, the ones Windows comes with are quite sufficient.

Don't forget to click on the Pointers tab as well and decide whether you want the pointer to leave a trail or not.

Taskbar Mayhem
By default the Windows Taskbar is at the bottom of the screen. Left-click and hold on it and drag it to either side of the screen or to the top of the screen to latch it there instead.

You can also enlarge the Taskbar by moving the pointer to the edge of the bar until it turns into a two-headed arrow, then left-click and drag. The Taskbar can take up to half your screen this way. You can also reduce the size of the Taskbar this way.

Need more room on my Desktop
If you have a monitor that sports a viewing screen of 15 inches or more (most 14 or 15-inch monitors actually have much smaller viewable areas ... as much as two inches smaller!), you can increase the resolution of the screen.

Right-click on the desktop and select Properties. Click on the Settings tab and adjust the Screen Area ... please note that the higher the resolution, the smaller the desktop icons. That means if you try this on, say, a 14 or 15-inch monitor, you'll start to squint pretty soon. On 17-inch monitors (viewable area around 15 inches or so), a resolution of 1024 x 600 is fine. On 19-inch monitors, go for the highest your video card can support!

Icon change the look
Some desktop icons can be changed. Right-click on an icon and select Properties. If it has a Change Icon button, click on this to browse for a new icon.

If the icons you find are not what you are looking for, try making your own! Go to Start, Programs, Accessories, Paint and open a small (32 x 32 pixels) image. Have fun with it, and when you are done name it as an ICO (for Icon) file (like, say, MyOwn.ico or Cool.ico or something).

When the opportunity presents itself, or when you choose to change the icon for something, browse for your masterpiece and voila! it appears on your desktop.

Explorer Makeover
When you open an Explorer window (the kind where you see folders and files, etc), all you see is boring squares and white. You can change that, too. Try this yourself by right-clicking on the desktop and creating a new folder. Open the folder and click on View and select As Web Page to check it. Then select Customise This Folder.

You would then be faced with three options: Create or edit an HTML document; Add a background picture; or Remove Customisation.

The first option requires basic HTML (hypertext markup language) coding skills, which would require plenty of detail, so we won't consider that. Select instead to add a background picture. Then click Next.

You will then have to choose the background picture you want. Choose one of those on the list or browse for one (it must be a GIF, JPEG or Windows Bitmap image). Once you have selected one, adjust the Text colour to make it visible over bright background images. Also, you may have to resize the background picture to fit.

In any case, once that is done, click Next, then Finish and you Explorer makeover is complete.

Yes, to undo all the customisations, go to View, Customise this Folder and Remove Customisation.




Published in The National on November 17, 2000

Getting the Word around

If you do any word processing on a Windows PC, chances are that you use Microsoft Word. This week Tok IT shows you some tips on getting around Word.

By Daniel Lam
In a world where practically all computers run on the Windows operating system, Microsoft Word reigns supreme over all other word processors.

Its competitors have been relegated to also-ran status for years now. But that doesn't mean Word is the friendliest program of all time: It's powerful, but with that power comes complexity - and some downright perplexing problems.

After sifting through various sourcebooks, guidebooks and the like, I have compiled quite a few tips for the Word user.

Upgrading your Word
When upgrading to a new version of Word, you may wonder whether you should install it in a new folder or let the new version overwrite the old one.

Here the answer is straightforward. Unless the new version of Word is a prerelease beta (that is, an incomplete version), there's little reason to keep two versions on your PC.

Word's setup program will retain your current preferences and settings, and new versions can read existing document files with no problems.

Your new edition of Word will also let you save documents in older Word formats, for compatibility with other versions.

Benefits of letting the installation overwrite your old version include conservation of valuable hard disk space and a correct update of your current Windows Registry.

Beginning with the 97 edition, Word's setup program can detect and delete older installations, so there's no need to remove your old copy of Word before installing the new one.

Keeping to your preferences
If you customise your own documents, from macros to toolbars, autocorrect features, etc, one problem that may occur happens after your computer crashes and your friendly PC technician says "Format and reinstall!" Have no fear ... Word stores all customised settings, including styles, interface changes, macros, and more, in the default document template.

You can locate this file, called, within Word by selecting Tools, Options and then clicking the File Locations tab. The folder where is stored is shown to the right of the User Templates listing.

Copy this file to a floppy disk or other backup medium and make a new copy whenever you add macros or make changes to Word's interface.

Then, if your computer's hard disk crashes, you can restore your settings by copying the file from the floppy disk back into the User Templates folder.

Note that you can also use this method to transfer your preferences from one machine to the other.

Trimming ever-expanding files
If Word seems to create huge document files, which grow every time you edit them, even if you have deleted things, then pretty soon your already precious hard disk space may get even dearer.

Two factors can dramatically increase the size of your documents. The first relates to graphics, the second to one of Word's default settings.

If your documents include graphics, you can minimise file sizes by doing this:

  • In Word 97, when you select Insert, Picture, From File to add an image, select "Link to File" in the Insert Picture dialog box, and then deselect "Save with Document". Choose your graphics file and click OK.

  • In Word 2000, select your graphics file in the Insert Picture dialog box, click the arrow next to the Insert button, and select "Link to File."

    This tells Word not to include the whole graphics file inside the document.

    Please note that if you do this with documents you have to send to others, the graphics won't appear in the recipient's file.

    Word's Fast Save option also causes file bloat. Fast Save works by including your additions in saved files without removing text you've deleted.

    The thing is, although deleted sections no longer appear in the document, they're still hanging around in the now-gargantuan file.

    To turn off Fast Save, select Tools, Options and click the Save tab in the Options dialog box. Remove the check mark next to "Allow fast saves", and then click OK.

Change the settings
Sometimes you may find reason to dislike Word's default font and font size, or you may prefer different margins for my documents.

To change your default document font, open a new document and select Format, Font.

Select a new font and size in the Font dialog box, and then click Default.

Word will now ask whether you want these changes to apply to all new documents using the "NORMAL template" (that's

Click Yes to make the change permanent. The change will apply to Word's Normal style and to all styles based on Normal.

To change Word's default page margins, select File, Page Setup. Click the Margins tab and make your changes, and then click Default.

Click Yes when Word asks you to confirm the changes. Note that you can also change other settings affecting page layout (including paper orientation and line numbering) in the same dialog box.

Editor's nightmare
For those who often edit documents created by others, you may have encountered documents with non-standard fonts and font sizes, making your editing chores a bigger hassle than it normally is (believe me, I know).

There is a simple way to force documents to use your default fonts.

When you open a document and find unusual or unwanted fonts, it usually means the creator of the document has changed the fonts assigned to Word's default styles.

To fix this, close the document, select File, New, select Blank Document, and click OK to create a new blank document.

With the blank document on the screen, select Insert, File. Locate and select the document you want to open, and then click OK or Insert. Word will apply your style settings to the document.

If the file still displays odd fonts, it's because the creator used the Font dialog box or Formatting toolbar to muck with them.

In that case, press Ctrl-A to select the entire document, and choose a more desirable font from the Formatting toolbar.

Font sizes and other attributes, such as italics and bold, will remain unchanged if there is more than one font size in the document.

Next: Playing with Word




Published in The National on December 1, 2000

Playing with Word

By Daniel Lam
In the
previous instalment (on Nov 17, 2000) we looked at stuff like preferences, cutting down document file sizes and so on.

Formatting Issues
When you are using bullets, numbers or dashes to mark the start of a list, you would find that each time you start a new paragraph (within the same list), Word automatically inserts a bullet/number/dash.

This gets irritating if you want to insert multiple paragraphs are each bullet/number/dash.

Here's a little known trick ... Shift+Enter.

Start the list as usual, then key in the first paragraph. Then, when you are ready to go to paragraph two, press Shift+Enter (press Shift+Enter again if you wish to insert a blank space between paragraphs).

Shift+Enter allows you to start a new paragraph without inserting the next number or bullet in the list. When you DO want a bullet/number/dash, just press Enter.

Shrink to fit
What happens when you type away on the computer and find that the text takes up, say, just over a page and you'd rather fit it nicely on one page?

You could reduce the font size (which may require several tries), or you could shrink to fit.

Shrink to fit actually does pretty much the same thing, but it is faster.

Finish the document you are writing, then select File, Print Preview. The fourth icon from the right on the Print Preview toolbar is the Shrink to Fit icon.

Clicking on that icon will cause the text to shrink just enough to take up one less page (minimum of one page left, of course).

Use Shrink to Fit only when needed, though, and only when text runs just slightly over the page limit, because otherwise the font size will shrink too much.

Spelling and Grammar
One feature of word processors today is that users can add words to the program's dictionary, thereby creating your own (that means the program would recognise that Wabag is NOT wag, nor is Jimi Jimmy).

In Word, pressing the F7 key brings up the Spelling and Grammar utility.

When Word says that a particular word is incorrect, but you know it is (say, the name of a place like Sepik, which is NOT septic), just click on Add to include the "offending" word and make it right.

What if you accidentally Add a word?

No problem. Words added during spelling checks are stored in a special dictionary file, custom.dic.

Select Tools, Options and click on Spelling and Grammar. Click on the Dictionaries button.

In the Custom Dictionaries dialog box, make sure the custom.dic box is checked and then click Edit.

Word will open the file. Search for the erroneous entries and delete them; then select File, Close and click Yes in the confirmation dialog box.

You can also add words to the dictionary while editing it. It's a great way to add jargon and specialised vocabulary.

One thing though ... when you edit custom.dic, Word turns off the automatic spelling checker and neglects to turn it back on.

Once you've closed custom.dic, select Tools, Options again and select "Check spelling as you type" under the Spelling and Grammar tab, and then click OK.

Turn off irritating features
Word has features that annoy people, too. For example, the automatic spelling and grammar checkers have a tendency of replacing "USA" with the United States of America every time I type it in.

It's fine most times, but not when I am trying to keep the text within one page. And what about automatic conversion of URLs to hyperlinks?

To turn off the automatic spelling and grammar checkers in Word, select Tools, Options, and then click the Spelling and Grammar tab in the Options dialog box.

Remove the check marks beside "Check spelling as you type" and "Check grammar as you type". Then click OK.

Turning off the URL-conversion function is a two-step process.

First, select Tools, AutoCorrect.

Under the "AutoFormat As You Type" tab in the AutoCorrect dialog box, clear the check box next to "Internet and network paths with hyperlinks".

Next, click the AutoFormat tab and deselect the same option.

Notice as well the other settings under each of these tabs-you may find other things you want to change to make Word work with you instead of against you. Click OK to finish the job.

Next: Having the last Word




Published in The National on December 8, 2000

Having the last Word

By Daniel Lam
LAST week we looked at how to disable Word's week we looked at how to disable Word's AutoCorrect feature. But if you have a habit of making typos, then it may be a good idea to keep the feature switched on. For example, words like "taht" and "minsiter" (should be "that" and minister") appear on a regular basis when I am working on reporter's copy, so the AutoCorrect feature comes in handy. But Word does not automatically correct ALL words, especially those that are specific to PNG.Here's where Word is pretty flexible in ... you can add your own words to the AutoCorrect list.

Go to Tools and select AutoCorrect. Click on the AutoCorrect tab. In the "Replace text" box, type a misspelled word. Then type the correct spelling in the "With text" box. Click Add. Do the same for other words, and click OK when you're done. You can also add new words to the AutoCorrect list without using the dialog box. When Word flags a word as misspelled with a wavy red underline, right-click the word. 

If the correct spelling appears as a suggestion, select AutoCorrect from the pop-up menu, and then click the correct spelling. Word automatically updates its list and will correct the word from then on.

Note that corrections are case-sensitive. 

Selecting made easy
One problem that occurs when I work on huge text files is having to copy/cut a particular section of text in order to paste it elsewhere. Often the section to be copied/cut extends beyond one page, and if I were to highlight the text using the mouse (click and drag), I would often face the problem of the screen scrolling too fast, thereby selecting too much text. I would have to back up, which is a waste of time.

There is a way around it, actually.

Make sure the cursor is at the start or end of the body of text you plan to highlight, then use the scroll bar to move up or down the text until you reach the desired end (or start) of the selection.

Press and hold the Shift key and left-click to select it all. Easy, no?

Where are the shortcuts?
While writing these Word tips, I had a bit of help from Word's own Help system. One way Help can help you is by giving you access to a list of keyboard shortcuts.

There are two ways you can access the list: the easy way and the hard (and riskier) way.

First, the easy way. Select Help, Microsoft Word Help (or press F1). Then enter "shortcut keys" in the search window, and then click Search.

In Word 97, click "Shortcut keys" in the Help window. In Word 2000, click "Keyboard shortcuts".

Choose a category of shortcuts to view a list of available keys, and then select Options, Print Topic in Word 97, or click the printer icon in Word 2000 if you want a printed list of shortcuts in that category.

The second method lets you print a list of all shortcut keystrokes at once.

Select Tools, Macro, Macros. In the Macros dialog box, select Word Commands in the "Macros in" list.

Scroll down the Macro name list, and click ListCommands. Click Run. In the List Commands dialog box that appears, select "Current menu and keyboard settings", and then click OK.

Word will create a new document containing a table showing every available shortcut. You can save this as a document or print it for quick reference.




Published in The National on August 31, 2001

Keeping Windows up and running smoothly

The "blue screen of death" is not a sight unfamiliar to Windows PC users. Tok IT runs through some PC help books to come up with tips to help you stabilise the operating system.

By Daniel Lam
They say there are two constants in life: death and taxes. There should be a third constant ... Windows crashes. Almost everyone who uses a computer running on Microsoft's dominant operating system would have experienced a systems crash one way or the other.

Sad to say, but there is no way one can make Windows 100 per cent stable ... not even the extremely stable NT-based operating systems can lay claim to that. But PC users can minimise the glitches that lead to crashes.

Keep it lean
For starters, try to install as few programs and applications as possible. Seriously. The more programs you have installed, the more entries there are in the Windows Registry, and the more likely problems will crop up.

In the era of multi-gigabyte hard drives, it is too easy to install a multitude of programs ... after all, "I've got plenty of hard disk space".

I am reminded of an analogy I gave my significant other on this: hard disk space is like a highway ... the bigger the hard disk's capacity, the wider the road. But the more cars there are on the road, the higher the chance for accidents, no?

But don't be mean
Always, always have plenty of Random Access Memory (RAM) in your system. You can never have too much RAM. When I assembled my first PC years ago, I installed an adequate 4MB of RAM, which became insufficient within one week (yes, one week!). And it ran on MS-DOS. With Windows 95, I pumped the RAM up to 16MB. Was it enough? No. 

I used to tell people that if you are running Windows 98, 64MB RAM is good enough. Not anymore (sigh), especially if you like to run mid-range gaming software. Now the decent minimum is 128MB.

Why do we need RAM? Because RAM is where the PC's processor leaves vital data for quick retrieval when needed. RAM is volatile memory ... it retains data only so long as the computer is powered up.

If your computer regularly slows down when you are doing something with it, then insufficient RAM may be the problem.

Multi-tasking multi-problems
Windows (in all its incarnations) is supposed to be capable of multitasking. Multitasking means actively running several applications at the same time. 

Yes, and no.

Windows can handle it, but becomes less stable the more programs you run at a time.

For example, when I tried to run Norton Anti-Virus, work using Microsoft Word AND searching the World Wide Web for something, all at the same time, Windows hung on me. It doesn't happen all the time (I still have a habit of running several applications simultaneously), but it simply illustrates that it can happen.

Minimising the applications don't really help ... any open application drains the computer's resources.

Beta not try it first
Thanks to the Internet, it is possible for avid PC users to obtain beta (test or draft versions) copies of programs.

My advice: don't do it. 

Beta software, be they games or applications, is released for public consumption for a reason ... the software company wants the general public to help find problems with the program. And there are members of the PC community who delight on such things ... they enjoy looking for bugs in programs. And they often possess the necessary computer skills to handle the potential problems that occur.

Unless you are one of these fellows, installing beta programs is an invitation for trouble.

Even shareware or freeware programs are a no-no. The reason why they are cheap or free is because the programmers lack the resources to test them properly.

Almost like conspiracy theories that biological weapons are always released to test their efficacy, before they are even acknowledged as such.

Do you have the hardware?
Cheap hardware manufactured in some dusty workshop located in some alley in some third world country are likely to be problematic. Of course, we have no way of telling, do we?

If possible, go for branded goods ... the reason why they are well-known is because they are good and reliable enough.

My first computer, assembled by yours truly, contained parts from unheard of companies. Only the processor (a 486) was made by a well-known company (AMD). It didn't have a long lifespan despite my continued investments in it.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Many PC users enjoy tweaking with their system. I know I do. But if what you want is a stable machine, don't.

That means that if your system is running well, there's no need to install a utility program that claims to make it run better or more reliably.

That also means you don't need products that claim to make your system better, faster, stronger (?).

In fact, such utilities may even cause more problems to your system. 

Example: my 486 started crashing after I installed a utility package from a well-known software company. I formatted the hard drive, installed everything from scratch, omitting the utilities, and the system was stable again.

Be prepared
Excrement happens. Even if you did all of the above, Windows could still give up on you. So what do you do?

Back up, back up, back up!

Whether it is to a floppy diskette, a second hard drive or other media, having back ups will contribute a lot towards saving the day should your system call it quits.