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Windows XP is the latest Microsoft operating system for personal computers and the biggest overhaul of Windows since Windows 95. XP inherits its core from Windows 2000, Microsoft’s corporate operating system, but its improved interface and new features make it a fit for everyone at home, school, or work.

Windows XP debuted in 2001, and Microsoft has since released improvements to make XP more reliable and secure. This edition of Windows XP: Visual QuickStart Guide covers Service Pack 2 (released in August 2004) and Windows Media Player 10 (released a month later). I also give new security and privacy tips; recommend third-party add-ins, utilities, and programs; and describe recent updates to the free XP programs.

✓ Tip

What Windows Does

Windows—like every operating system, Microsoft or otherwise—is software that controls:

The user interface. Windows manages the appearance, behavior, and interaction of the windows, buttons, icons, folders, menus, and other visual elements on your computer screen, either directly or indirectly through another program.

Storage. Windows’ file system allocates space for and gives access to files—programs and documents—stored on disk or in memory.

Other software. Windows is a launching platform for programs. When you run Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, The Sims, or any other Windows program, it relies on the services and building blocks that Windows provides for basic operations such as drawing a user interface, saving files, and sharing hardware.

Peripheral devices. Windows controls peripheral hardware such as your mouse, keyboard, monitor, printer, drives, digital camera, and MP3 player.

Networks and security. Windows controls the interaction of a group of computers and peripheral devices connected by a communications link such as Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Windows also protects your system and data from harm or loss.

System resources. Windows handles the allocation and use of your computer’s low-level hardware resources such as memory (RAM) and central processing unit (CPU) time.

Task scheduling. Windows acts like a traffic cop, setting priorities and allocating time slices to the processes running on your PC.


Many of the third-party programs that I recommend in this book are shareware. Shareware is software that you download from the internet without paying for ahead of time (as you do for proprietary or shrink-wrapped software). After a free tryout period, usually 30 days, you’re expected to pay for the program if you keep using it. You can copy shareware and pass it along to others, but they too are expected to pay a fee if they use the product. Sometimes, paying the fee gets you a key code that unlocks expanded features or turns off nag messages.

Shareware is inexpensive because usually only one programmer writes it and offers it directly to customers, bypassing middleman markups and packaging expenses. Some programs are free. If a popular free program—particularly a file-sharing program—isn’t labeled “public domain” or “open source” (www.opensource.org), you should check it for spyware. See “Securing Your Computer” in Chapter 12.

I give the shareware programs’ home web sites, but you also can download them from www.download.com or www.tucows.com. To keep up to date with the latest software releases, I read www.betanews.com (or www.microsoft-watch.com for Microsoft products).

The Editions of Windows XP

Table i.1 lists the editions of Windows XP (so far); this book covers the Home and Professional editions.

Table i.1. Windows XP Editions
HomeMinimal budget edition usually bundled with home and small-business PCs
ProfessionalIncludes everything in Home Edition, plus components for power users and network administrators
Media CenterPro Edition plus digital-media support for video, audio, pictures, movies, and recorded TV (meant more for living rooms than offices)
Tablet PCPro Edition plus digital-ink support that lets you use a stylus to write on Tablet PC screens directly
64-BitPro Edition plus support for high-end systems using Intel or AMD 64-bit processors

In general XP Home and Pro look and work alike, so most discussions apply to both editions equally. You’ll see this symbol wherever I discuss a Pro feature not offered in Home (Table i.2 on the next page).

Table i.2. Features Unique to XP Pro
Pro FeatureLets You Do This
Domain membershipJoin a large group of networked computers that’s administered as a unit. (Home Edition PCs can use domain servers and printers but can’t be domain members themselves.)
Dynamic disksTreat multiple hard disks as a single large disk.
Encrypting file systemEncrypt files and folders to keep them safe from intruders.
Internet Information ServicesHost and manage simple web sites.
Multilingual supportDynamically change the language used for input, spell checking, help files, user-interface elements, and other text.
Multiprocessor supportRecognize and use a second processor automatically. (Home Edition will run on a two-processor system but will use only one processor.)
Offline filesMake network files available offline by storing shared files on your laptop so that they’re accessible when you’re not connected to the network. Reconnecting to the network updates your changes to the network files.
Remote DesktopControl a remote computer, via internet or LAN, from another computer. Use your home PC to work with all your work PC’s data and programs remotely, for example.
Roaming user profilesHave your personal settings and desktop appear on any networked computer you log on to (not just your personal PC).
User managementUse Group Policy to define and enforce complex disk-, folder-, and file-level security policies by user. (Home Edition has only two simple security levels.)

To find out which edition you’re running, choose Start > Control Panel > Performance and Maintenance > System > General tab (or press Windows logo key+Break) (Figure i.1).

Figure i.1. This PC is running Windows XP Professional Edition with Service Pack 2 installed; CPU and memory information also appear.

What’s New in Windows XP

If you’re familiar with earlier versions of Windows, the following new XP features are the ones that you’ll find notable.


Windows XP’s updated user interface includes a redesigned Start menu and Control Panel, as well as cosmetic changes.

Cleaner desktop. The default desktop is austere (Figure i.2). You can add other icons or run Desktop Cleanup Wizard to remove rarely used ones.

Figure i.2. The Recycle Bin keeps a lonely vigil on the default desktop. If you upgraded to XP, your desktop retained its old personality. On a new PC, the manufacturer may have changed the background and scattered extra icons.

Redesigned Start menu. The new Start menu (Figure i.3) has two columns: programs on the left and system features such as Help and Support, My Documents, and Control Panel on the right. You can let it manage itself or customize it to your liking. See Chapter 2.

Figure i.3. The new Start menu centralizes commands in two columns, not one.

Uncluttered taskbar. The Windows XP taskbar is dynamic. An overflow of buttons is redistributed to hidden rows, which can be scrolled. If you have several documents open in the same program, button grouping lets you control all the documents with one menulike button. Icons in the system tray, now called the notification area, hide themselves if you haven’t used them recently, preventing the tray from becoming comically crowded. See Chapter 2.

Simplified theme selection. You can customize Windows XP’s look by using themes—style-coordinated groups of controls and backgrounds. Like before, you can download new themes and change individual elements such as colors, and save the edited theme under a new name.

Categorized Control Panel. Control Panel presents a new category view (Figure i.4) that groups control utility programs by what they do. This view reduces clutter but makes you click through an extra layer to get where you’re going. Veterans can choose classic view to display all the programs individually.

Figure i.4. Control Panel’s new Category view groups items by function. See “Using Control Panel” in Chapter 4.

Visual effects. Windows XP’s graphical user interface adds animation, shadows, fades, slides, translucence, and other effects. You can turn these effects off if they distract you or slow your computer.

Relive the past. Windows XP has vivid icons, windows, buttons, and colors, but you can restore the less fashionable look of Windows 2000/98/Me (Figure i.5).

Figure i.5. Feeling nostalgic? Revert to the classic Windows interface. See “Restoring the Old Windows Look” in Chapter 4.

Files and folders

Windows XP’s file and folder tools let you organize your stuff efficiently. See Chapter 5.

Task pane. The new task pane (Figure i.6) provides shortcuts to related folders and locations, lets you perform common tasks easily, and displays details about the selected icon(s). See “Displaying Links to Common Tasks” in Chapter 5.

Figure i.6. The new task pane provides links that are relevant to the selection or current folder’s contents.

Compressed folders. Windows XP can Zip- or NTFS-compress folders, conserving disk space. Windows Explorer displays the contents of compressed folders just as it does normal folders. See “Compressing Files and Folders” in Chapter 5.

Offline files. You can store copies of your network files on your laptop’s local disk and continue to work with them when you’re disconnected from the network. Windows resynchronizes the files automatically when you reconnect. See “Making Network Files and Folders Available Offline” in Chapter 5.

Digital media

Microsoft has tried to make Windows XP a one-stop multimedia operating system.

Music, photos, and movies. Windows Media Player (Chapter 10) plays CDs and DVDs; copies files to portable music players; receives internet radio; helps you organize media files; and lets you shop at online music, audio, and video stores (Figure i.7). The Scanner and Camera Wizard (Chapter 9) links your scanner or digital camera to your PC and its hard drive. Windows Movie Maker (Chapter 11) lets you transfer and edit recorded video from your analog camcorder or digital video camera.

Figure i.7. Windows Media Player plays and manages your digital music and movies.

Rip and burn. Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player let you compile and create (burn) recordable data and music CDs.

Internet and communications

Windows XP comes with a suite of programs that you’ll need after you connect to the internet (Chapter 12).

Web and email. Updated versions of Internet Explorer (Chapter 13) and Outlook Express (Chapter 14) improve your privacy and security.

Windows Messenger. Use Windows Messenger (Chapter 15) to see who’s online, chat with instant messages, play games, and send and receive files (Figure i.8).

Figure i.8. Windows Messenger lets you chat online.

Connection security and sharing. Windows XP’s built-in firewall establishes a barrier between your machine or network and the outside world, with no need for third-party software (Chapter 12). If you’ve set up a home or small-office network, you can use Internet Connection Sharing to let all the computers in that network share one connection (Chapter 17).


Windows XP inherits Windows 2000’s stability and adds a few new tricks and bug fixes.

Protected memory. Windows XP prevents poorly written programs from invading or overwriting memory. An errant program may crash, but it won’t bring down other programs or freeze your computer, which was common for Windows 95/98/Me.

Windows File Protection. Windows File Protection keeps crucial system files safe from being overwritten by outdated or unstable versions. This feature is familiar to users of Windows 2000/NT but a vast improvement over the internal recklessness of 95/98/Me.

System Restore. System Restore (Figure i.9) records the state of your system both periodically and when you make changes such as installing programs or changing device drivers. If a change causes a severe system problem such as inability to boot your computer, you can roll back to a previous state without losing your personal data. The Windows 2000 version of this feature, called Last Known Good, was hard to use correctly; System Restore is easier. See “Restoring Your System” in Chapter 19.

Figure i.9. System Restore restores your computer to a previous state without losing your personal files.

Networking and user accounts

Windows XP is a true multiuser OS system with built-in privacy and security measures.

Automated network configuration. Windows XP makes it easy—much easier than in previous versions—to set up your own Ethernet or wireless network or to join an existing one. The Network Setup Wizard walks you through the steps that configure your internet connection and local network settings automatically. See Chapter 17.

Welcome screen. The Welcome screen lists the account of each authorized user. Each user can click his or her name, type a password, and start a session with a personalized desktop and access to private files. See “Logging On and Logging Off” in Chapter 1.

Fast User Switching. You can switch to another user account without actually logging off yourself—to, say, let someone check email—and then get back on quickly. See “Logging On and Logging Off” in Chapter 1.

Security features. Password-protected user accounts and file and folder permissions let you share your computer while you protect your personal files and prevent unwelcome software installation or viral infection. (And you can’t press Esc to bypass logon, the way you could in Windows 95/98/Me.) See Chapter 16.

Forgotten-password recovery. Use the Forgotten Password Wizard to recover (or change) a forgotten password and create a password reset disk. See “Setting up User Accounts” in Chapter 16.

Remote Desktop. Use your home computer to control your office computer (or vice versa) over a network or the internet. You can control the remote computer as though you were sitting at it (Figure i.10).

Figure i.10. Remote Desktop lets you control your computer from another computer. This screen shows the desktop of a remote computer on the desktop of a local one. See “Controlling a Computer with Remote Desktop” in Chapter 18.

Installation and update

Several new features make Windows XP easier to install and keep up to date.

Product activation. Windows XP includes an invasive copy-protection scheme that prevents you from installing one copy of the OS on more than one machine at a time (Figure i.11). Bulk-purchased corporate copies of Windows XP are exempt from activation, and many new PCs come with a preactivated copy. See “Activating Windows XP” in the appendix.

Figure i.11. Windows product activation is a controversial new “feature” designed to enforce Microsoft’s licensing policies and reduce piracy.

Files and Settings Transfer Wizard. This wizard streamlines the process of moving selected files and personal settings from your old PC to your new one. See “Transferring Existing Files and Settings” in the appendix.

Device-driver library. XP’s vast collection of built-in drivers increases the chance that a new Plug and Play device—say, a printer, scanner, or camera—will work out of the box.

Automatic updating. Windows Update uses your internet connection periodically to deliver and install the latest bug fixes, device drivers, and enhancements that are stored on Microsoft’s web site. You can control this process. See “Updating Windows XP” in Chapter 19.

Uninstall Windows XP. If you decide to scrap Windows XP after installation, you can revert to your previous Windows 98/Me installation. You can’t roll back to a Windows NT/2000 installation, however. See “Uninstalling Windows XP” in the appendix.

No more DOS. Windows XP, unlike Windows 95/98/Me, isn’t stacked on top of rickety DOS. You can’t boot into DOS directly, even by using a DOS boot floppy.

Help and support

Windows XP offers more help—and more types of help—than its predecessors. You can use the expanded help system to search the help files stored on your disk or use it as a gateway to find help online.

Help and Support Center. Use online tutorials, tours, and troubleshooting guides to learn about Windows XP (Figure i.12). Use your internet connection to search Microsoft’s support web site or participate in Windows newsgroups. See Chapter 3.

Figure i.12. Help and Support Center is a comprehensive source of local and online information about Windows XP.

Remote Assistance. Get live help from a friend or colleague who can view your screen or even take control of your computer (Figure i.13). See Chapter 3.

Figure i.13. Remote Assistance lets you invite someone you trust to view your screen or even work on your computer.

Service Pack 2

Over time, Microsoft releases major updates to Windows XP. These updates, called Service Packs, contain fixes and enhancements, and the latest one—Service Pack 2—is all about security and privacy. SP2:

  • Provides convenient, all-in-one access to the most up-to-date drivers, tools, security updates, patches, and other changes, including the Service Pack 1 changes

  • Protects you from viruses, spyware, spam, crackers, and your own ignorance

  • Attempts to reduce the bad press that Microsoft gets for releasing operating systems riddled with security holes

To find out if you have SP2, click Start; choose My Computer; then choose Help > About Windows (Figure i.14). If you need to install SP2, see “Updating Windows XP” in Chapter 19.

Figure i.14. The About Windows message box tells you if Service Pack 2 is installed.


When computer insiders call someone a hacker, it’s not an insult. Though the term has negative connotations in the mainstream press and common usage, it actually acknowledges the person’s advanced computer skills and ethos. Hackers generally aren’t malicious, though some practice “electronic civil disobedience” to, say, expose flaws in electronic voting machines. In fact, hackers who discover security holes often report them quietly to software makers to be fixed before becoming common knowledge.

Cracker is the correct term for someone who breaks into systems to steal data and passwords, cause trouble, or turn a profit.

For more information, search for “hacker vs cracker” in Google. Look especially at Eric Raymond’s The Jargon File (www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html).

Security Center. Security Center monitors your settings for three important security components: Firewall, Automatic Updates, and Virus Protection (Figure i.15). See “Securing Your Computer” in Chapter 12.

Figure i.15. Security Center posts startup and notification-area warnings if a security feature is turned off or misconfigured.

Windows Firewall. XP’s original firewall—Internet Connection Firewall—was not only weak, but also turned off by default. SP2 renames ICF to Windows Firewall, gives it a significant upgrade, and turns it on by default (Figure i.16). See “Securing Your Computer” in Chapter 12.

Figure i.16. A firewall helps protect your computer against viruses, intruders, and other security threats. Don’t go online without one.

Automatic Updates. The new default settings for Control Panel’s Automatic Updates program make it less likely that you’ll miss or skip a critical security update from Microsoft and risk infection (Figure i.17). See “Updating Windows XP” in Chapter 19.

Figure i.17. Automatic Updates lets Windows check for the latest critical updates periodically and install them automatically.

Internet Explorer enhancements. Internet Explorer now includes a pop-up blocker that lets you suppress uninvited pop-up ads (Figure i.18), an add-on manager for controlling browser plug-ins, an information bar that appears when you do something dangerous, and other new security features. See Chapter 13.

Figure i.18. Internet Explorer finally gets a pop-up blocker.

Email privacy update. The new default settings for Outlook Express are designed to help protect your computer against viruses and worms and to reduce the amount of spam that you receive. See Chapter 14.

Wireless networking. The new Wireless Network Setup Wizard improves wireless support. It also simplifies the process of discovering and connecting to wireless networks in your home or on the road (Figure i.19). See Chapter 17.

Figure i.19. Use this wizard to set up or connect to your wireless network at home, or to connect to an existing one elsewhere.

Under-the-hood improvements. SP2 also includes features of lesser renown (such as easier Bluetooth connections and the latest DirectX updates for gamers), but it’s the invisible fixes—like buffer-overflow protection—that offer strong, low-level security. If you’re inclined to geekiness, read Changes to Functionality in Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2 at http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=28022.

Many bug fixes. If a particular bug has been bothering you, check whether Microsoft has squashed it: Go to http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=811113, “List of Fixes Included in Windows XP Service Pack 2.”

✓ Tip

Upgrading to Windows XP

In the preceding section you saw that Windows XP offers many new features, but if you’re jumping to XP from Windows 98 or Me, the biggest improvement is increased stability: The blue screens of death seldom appear. If you’re switching from Windows 2000 Pro, XP will seem like an incremental upgrade (the NTFS file system stays the same), but take a look at Remote Desktop Connection, System Restore, Roll Back Driver, Wireless Network Setup Wizard, Fast User Switching, and Simple file sharing.

A Windows XP version upgrade costs much less than the full version. Table i.3 tells you which Windows versions qualify for an upgrade to XP Home or Pro.

Table i.3. Upgrading from Earlier Windows Versions
Current VersionTo XP HomeTo XP Pro
Windows 98/Windows 98 SE
Windows Me
Windows NT Workstation 4.0
Windows 2000 Professional
Windows XP Home 
Windows XP Professional 

✓ Tip

  • Windows 95, Windows 3.1, and Windows NT 3.51 don’t qualify for an upgrade. Neither does any evaluation or server version. If you want to upgrade from a Windows server, Microsoft says to look at Windows Server 2003.

Not Eligible to Upgrade?

If you don’t qualify for an upgrade because you’re a first-time Windows customer or you own an ancient Windows version (Windows 95 or 3.1, for example), Microsoft suggests that you buy the full version, either shrink-wrapped or with a new PC.


Instead, buy the XP upgrade version and get an older qualifying Windows version (one of the first four entries in Table i.3). So many unused copies of Windows 98, Me, NT 4, and 2000 are lying around that you shouldn’t have trouble finding someone to give you one, but you can buy one at a computer swap meet or through online classified ads such as www.craigslist.org. Don’t pay more than $10 (U.S.).

Install the qualifying version on your PC and then apply the XP upgrade, first making sure that your hardware meets XP’s system requirements (see the appendix). Don’t throw out the qualifying version; you may need it to reinstall XP someday.

Switching from a Mac

If you’re a Mac OS 8/9/10 user moving to Windows, don’t worry—the disorientation won’t last long. Many of the differences between Windows and Mac OS are superficial. To get started, see Table i.4 for some analogous features and programs. Some substitutes aren’t equivalent but are XP’s closest approximations.

Table i.4. Switching from Mac OS?
Mac FeatureXP EquivalentMac ProgramXP Equivalent
AliasShortcutAddress BookAddress Book
Apple menuStart menuAdium XTrillian
Application menuTaskbar (or Alt+Tab)Adobe Creative SuiteAdobe Creative Suite
Command keyCtrl key (usually)Apple PreviewAdobe Reader
Control PanelStart > Control PanelDVD PlayerWindows Media Player
DockTaskbar (or Alt+Tab)FaxFax
Drive (HD) iconsStart > My ComputeriCalMicrosoft Outlook
Eject DiskPushbutton on driveiChatWindows Messenger
Fast User SwitchingFast User SwitchingiMovieWindows Movie Maker
Find FinderStart > Search Desktop/Windows ExploreriTunesWindows Media Player or iTunes
FoldersFolders or directoriesKey CapsCharacter Map
Force Quit (Command+Option+Esc)Task Manager (Ctrl+Alt+Delete)Macromedia DreamweaverMacromedia Dreamweaver
Get InfoRight-click icon > PropertiesMailMicrosoft Outlook Express
NetworkStart > My Computer > My Network PlacesMicrosoft Entourage Microsoft Office 2004Microsoft Outlook Microsoft Office 2003
One-button mouseTwo-button mouse (left button for normal clicks, right button for a shortcut menu)Safari SherlockMicrosoft Internet Explorer Start > Search
Option keyAlt key (usually)SimpleText/TextEditNotepad/WordPad
PrintersStart > Control Panel > Printers and FaxesStuffIt TerminalWinZip Command Prompt
Quit (Command+Q)File > Exit (Alt+F4)TransmitCuteFTP
RestartStart > Turn Off ComputerUnisonForte Agent Newsreader
Shut DownStart > Turn Off Computer  
System PreferencesStart > Control Panel  
TrashRecycle Bin  

✓ Tip

  • If you’re a longtime Mac user switching to Windows, try David Coursey’s Mac OS X for Windows Users: A Switchers’ Guide (Peachpit Press, 2003) or David Pogue’s Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press, 2003). These books actually were written for Windows users switching to Macs, but you can read them “backward.”

About This Book

This book is for you if you’re new to Windows, upgrading to XP from a previous Windows version, or need a quick reference at hand. My audience is beginning and intermediate Windows XP users, including people who are purchasing XP along with their first computers. Windows veterans can look up specific tasks quickly and find tricks, shortcuts, and secret lore. Wherever possible, I give step-by-step instructions for using features and programs.

If you’re new to Windows, start with Chapters 1 and 2 to learn the basics of logging on, looking around, and making it work. After that I cover the material task by task, with plenty of screen shots.

✓ Tip

  • Many of the tasks in this book require that you have an Administrator user account. If you’re the only user, or if you installed Windows or maintain it, you’re an administrator. Otherwise, see “Setting up User Accounts” in Chapter 16.

Conventions used in this book

Commands. I use shorthand instructions rather than list steps separately. Here’s a command that opens a nested folder:

  • Choose Start > My Computer > Local Disk (C:) > Documents and Settings > All Users.

This sequence means: Click the Start button (on the taskbar, in the bottom-left corner of the desktop) to reveal the Start menu; then click My Computer. Inside the window titled My Computer, double-click the drive icon labeled Local Disk (C:) to open it. Inside that window, double-click the icon Documents and Settings to open it. Inside that window, double-click the icon All Users to open it.

Each shorthand element (between the > symbols) refers to an icon, window, menu, button, check box, link, or some other user-interface component; just look for the component whose label matches the element name. Whenever a particular step is unclear or ambiguous, I spell it out rather than use shorthand.

Here’s a command that launches the Notepad program:

  • Choose Start > All Programs > Accessories > Notepad.

And one that shows filename extensions:

  • Choose Start > Control Panel > Appearance and Themes > Folder Options > View tab > uncheck Hide Extensions for Known File Types > OK.

Keyboard shortcuts. Use keyboard shortcuts so that you don’t waste time moving your hand from keyboard to mouse repeatedly. These shortcuts involve the modifier keys that sit at the bottom corners of the keyboard’s main section. Press these keys—Shift, Ctrl (Control), and Alt (Alternate)—together with other keys to change the action. The C key pressed by itself types a lowercase c; pressed along with the Shift key, it types an uppercase C; and pressed along with the Ctrl key, it issues the Copy command.

Modifier keys are joined to other keys with a plus sign. Ctrl+C, for example, means “Press the Ctrl key; hold it down while you press the C key; then release both keys.” A three-key combination such as Ctrl+Alt+Delete means “Hold down the first two keys while you press the third one; then release all three.” The modifiers always are listed first.

The Windows logo key, next to the Alt key on most PC keyboards, pulls up the Start menu when pressed by itself, but it also can be used as a modifier. Windows logo key+D, for example, minimizes all windows. When I give a Windows-logo-key shortcut, mentally add “if my keyboard has one,” because not all keyboards do.

✓ Tip

  • Use XP’s Help and Support Center to view or print a list of keyboard shortcuts: Choose Start > Help and Support and then search for Windows keyboard shortcuts overview. Click a heading in the result page for a list of keyboard shortcuts.

Corrections and comments

I welcome email to fehily@pacbell.net with questions, suggestions, corrections, and gripes related to this book.

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