Whack Application Weeds
Like Windows itself, the applications you use daily get cluttered over time. You need liberation from your overstuffed inbox, from too-smart menus that hide the commands you want, and from layers of toolbars you never use. Here's how to clip or remove what you don't want.
Get Security Simply
PC security is crucial these days. Enabling every security feature on your PC, however, can handcuff your productivity. For example, enabling password protection on Windows XP's screen saver lets you walk away from your PC without worry that someone might view sensitive information. But during a phone call, say, you might have to enter your screen-saver password if your attention wanders from the computer. There's a grace period between when the screen saver kicks in and when it starts demanding a password; the default is 5 to 10 seconds.
If you find that you often miss the cutoff and have to enter your screen-saver password repeatedly, you can change this grace period to something more reasonable. Microsoft's free Tweak UI PowerToys for Windows XP can do the trick. Start Tweak UI, then click the plus sign next to Logon in the left pane, and click the Screen Saver category that appears beneath it. You'll be able to change the grace period to as long as 99999 seconds, but something in the range of 30 to 60 seconds is all you need.
Windows XP Service Pack 2 adds several cool security features you might not have seen before, most notably the Windows Firewall. When you install SP2, a small icon that looks like a shield appears in the system tray. It links to the Security Center Control Panel, which lets you manage settings that turn Automatic Updates and the Windows Firewall on and off. But if you use your own software firewall (which we recommend; see last month's "Windows XP's Big Fix" at for more on this point and about SP2), Microsoft recommends that you turn off its built-in one. If you do that, you'll get lots of confusing little balloon alerts from the system tray telling you to turn on the firewall. To end those alerts, double-click the icon to open the Security Center, click the link on the left that reads Change the way Security Center alerts me, and then uncheck the Firewall Alert check box.
This same tip can also save you from the weekly nag alert that Automatic Updates sends out. If you update Windows manually, and if you have disabled Automatic Updates, uncheck the Automatic Updates check box, as well.
Pare Application Menus
Documents and e-mail constitute only half the complicated-application problem. Microsoft Office and many other programs employ menus that hide infrequently used commands. Designed to help users simplify their experience of using the application, the feature ironically makes it more difficult to find menu commands you use less frequently. If this bothers you, you can just disable these so-called personalized menus in Outlook, Word, Excel, or Access by choosing Tools, Customize, checking Always show full menus, and clicking Close.
Sometimes you might not want to see the entire menu. Some applications, such as Internet Explorer and Outlook, let you drag and drop (or resize) toolbars to minimize the space they take up. Other programs, such as the Mozilla browser, allow you to collapse seldom-used elements. After you move or resize your Internet Explorer toolbars, lock them in place by right-clicking a toolbar or menu bar and selecting Lock the Toolbars.
Slim the 800-Pound Inbox
When your inbox contains hundreds--or thousands--of messages, you're less likely to act on those that need attention, and finding a particular e-mail takes forever. But you can take remedial action.
First, use good spam-filtering tools to cull the most egregious junk and virus-laden bombs. PC World's editors gave a World Class award to Cloudmark SpamNet (reviewed in this roundup). You might need to keep some messages for future reference, but they don't need to languish in your inbox. Move them to subfolders. Delete ruthlessly. And use your e-mail application's archive feature to transfer messages that are older than a certain date (say, six months ago) to an archive file.