How to fix your PC's worst annoyances

They say it’s the little things that count, and that goes doubly so for PCs. Modern-day computers have enough processing power to cure diseases and crunch your monthly budget numbers without breaking a sweat—but none of that matters if you’re so annoyed by interface quirks and little irritations that merely sending email is an exercise in frustration.

Windows oozes with all sorts of hackle-raising “features” that interfere with just plain using your PC. But don’t chuck your monitor across the room! By the time you’re done reading this article, your headaches should be gone.

You can click most of the images in this article to enlarge them. Got it? Good. Let’s get cracking!

Make User Account Control less annoying

Microsoft’s User Account Control—the box that pops up and asks “Do you want to allow the following program to make changes to this computer?” incessantly—has noble roots, as it’s intended to let you know when software is making administrator-level tweaks to your operating system. That makes it handy for thwarting malware, but geez, the pop-ups are annoying—especially if you stick to safe corners of the Web and run third-party security software.

If you feel confident enough to disable UAC, doing so is pretty easy. First, open the Control Panel by navigating to Start > Control Panel in any version of Windows that includes a Start button, or by heading to Windows 8’s tiled Start screen, typing Control Panel, and clicking it.

This slider lets you fine-tune UAC notifications.

Next, head to User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts > Change User Account Control settings. A new window pops up with a slider that allows you to fine-tune just how often the UAC dialog box will appear. Don’t like the way the screen dims when UAC activates? You can ditch that behavior—or you can just turn UAC off completely. (Amusingly, a UAC prompt pops up to confirm that you approve of the UAC changes.)

Delete files that refuse to be deleted

Unlocker

”I’m sorry, Dave, but I can’t let you do that.” Few things are more irritating than Windows’ refusing to delete a file or folder because some part of that item is in use. The superb Unlocker lets you seize control and snuff out those stubborn locked files.

Now, when you’re faced with a tenacious file, simply right-click it and select Unlocker from the context menu. If the file is locked down, Unlocker opens a window that details the active process (or processes) and presents you with several options. Unlocking a process removes the lock while leaving the process itself active, whereas killing a process shuts it down completely. Once you’ve unlocked or killed the pesky processes, you’re free to delete the file or folder in question.

Be careful, though: Killing critical processes and deleting files willy-nilly is a good way to create an unstable system. Use Unlocker only to delete locked programs that you know are safe to scrub.

(Warning: Although Unlocker is excellent, its default Quick settings install unwanted toolbars and muck up your browser’s homepage and search provider. Be sure to pay attention! Select Advanced at the appropriate screen and uncheck those options, or you’ll have a whole new hassle.)

Bring back the Start button

Start8 in action on a Windows 8 PC.

Windows 8 ditched the iconic Start button. The Windows 8.1 update is slated to bring it back, but that version of the button will simply drop you onto the modern-UI Start screen—Windows 8.1 won’t be bringing back the Start menu itself. (Thanks, Microsoft.)

If you’re having a hard time learning to love live tiles, you can find a ton of stellar Start-button replacement programs, all of which bring back the Start button and restore its full Windows 7-style functionality. Our favorites include Start8Classic Shell, and Pokki.

While you’re busy snagging software, grab the excellent and free VLC media player (and read our guide to mastering it) to skirt around Windows 8’s frustrating refusal to play DVDs natively.

Disable password and lock screens

Oh, how I hate thee, Windows 8 lock screen.

Passwords and lock screens make a lot of sense on portable laptops and touchscreen tablets, but on your personal desktop—safe and secure in your home—they’re just speed bumps along the road to computational bliss. I especially loathe Windows 8’s introduction of a lock screen that has to be dismissed every time your device wakes up, a function that simply doesn’t belong on non-touchscreen PCs (read: most of them).

To ditch it, press Windows-R on your keyboard to bring up the Run command box. Next, type gpedit.msc and click OK to bring up the Local Group Policy Editor. Journey to Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Control Panel > Personalization in the file tree on the left side of the window, and then double-click Do Not Display the Lock Screen. Select the Enabled radio button and click OK.

Disabling Windows 8’s user-password protection.

The method for disabling your password varies by Windows version. (Remember: Removing your password means that anyone can sit at your PC and start poking around.) In Windows 7, open the Control Panel and head to User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts > Remove your password. Just input your current password, click Remove Password, and you’re good to go.

In Windows 8, open the right-side Charms bar and then select Settings > Change PC Settings > Users. Here, click Change under the ‘Any user who has a password must enter it when waking this PC’ option, and click OK in the box that pops up. Boom! Done.

Enjoy the sound of silence

Begone, annoying Windows noises.

Windows constantly chirps, buzzing in with a cacophony of noises ranging from the lowliest “ding” to the über-annoying sound of a UAC notification. Just leave me to my Spotify playlists in peace, Windows!

To force it to do just that, right-click the volume indicator in the system tray (on the right side of the taskbar) and select Sounds from the context menu. In the new window that opens, click the Sound Scheme drop-down menu, select No Sounds, and click OK. Revel in the silence. (Hey, no one ever said all PC annoyances had to be major!)

Speed up boot times

Windows inevitably becomes bogged down as the months go by. And as more and more software and services work their tendrils into the startup process, your system’s boot time suffers in particular. Preventing unnecessary software from running at startup can drastically reduce how long your PC takes to get up and at ’em.

First, you need to see exactly which programs start along with your computer. In Windows 7, press Windows-R, type msconfig, and press Enter. In the System Configuration window that opens, click the Startup tab.

It’s a bit easier in Windows 8. Press Ctrl-Shift-Esc to bring up the Windows Task Manager, and open the Startup tab.

A list of programs set to launch at startup, as seen in Windows 8’s Task Manager.

Here, you’ll see a list of all the software that activates at your PC’s startup. Clear the logjam—and speed up your PC’s boot time—by disabling any entries that absolutely, positively don’t need to launch with Windows. In my case (see the screenshot above), I’ve disabled the startup launches for the OneNote note-taking software, the Steam gaming client, Spotify, and the Prime95 benchmarking program, since I can simply open those applications if I want to use them.

Don’t prevent a process from starting during boot if you aren’t certain that it’s superfluous, though. Once, I accidentally disabled startup activation for my laptop’s touchpad software, which was a headache all its own.

Neutering rogue startup programs is the fastest way to boost your boot times, but if you’re feeling a need for even more speed, check out PCWorld’s nitty-gritty guide to making your PC boot faster.

Clean up the context menu

Nirsoft’s ShellMenuView: ugly but powerful.

If you’ve installed enough software to slow down startup, chances are good that your PC’s right-click context menu is overflowing with options, too. Nirsoft’s excellent ShellExView and ShellMenuView tools display all the menu items that appear in your context menu, and allow you to disable the ones you don’t need.

A sample right-click context menu.

Note that both utilities drill down to a really granular level, displaying even context-menu options that appear only for certain file extensions and programs. Start with ShellMenuView, and then hunt down any stragglers with ShellExView. When you find a menu option you want to erase, select it in the list, and click the red dot in the Nirsoft toolbar to disable it. The green dot reactivates a disabled menu option. (Tip: Use Ctrl-F to quickly search for specific programs.)

Nirsoft’s tools clean up the context menu by mucking around with the Windows Registry, so be sure to back up the Registry before diving too deep.

Ensure hassle-free software updates

Keeping your plethora of programs patched and up-to-date is vital to plugging potential vulnerabilities in your system, but desktop programs don’t automatically update in applike fashion. You must actively seek out updates for your software—or worse, deal with dozens of automatic-update “helpers” popping up in your face and clogging up system resources. (I’m looking at you, Java Update.)

Secunia PSI’s interface: Looks like I need to update a few programs!

Or you could just install Secunia Personal Software Inspector. Secunia PSI inventories all the software on your PC and then keeps an eye out for updates. If an update comes along for one of your programs, Secunia attempts to apply it without bothering you. If Secunia PSI can’t apply the update automatically, it pings you to let you know that a new version of the software is available, complete with a handy-dandy download link.

Wipe away Windows’ modern look

We’ve already disabled the Windows 8 lock screen, restored its ability to play DVDs, and even brought back the Start button with the help of some third-party software. If that isn’t enough for you—if you really, truly hate everything about Microsoft’s modern UI—fear not: It is possible to bring a Windows 7 look and feel to Windows 8, but that takes a bit more work than is possible to fit into a general-advice article such as this.

Check out PCWorld’s guide to banishing the modern UI from your Windows 8 PC for step-by-step details. You might also want to read PCWorld’s 8 worst Windows 8 irritations (and how to fix them).

Bite back

What frustrates you about your PC? Vent in the comments. Who knows? If enough complaints pile up, another article may be in order.

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