Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jon's Top 8 Windows XP Customizations

Although I am currently in the process of building a new PC for home, which will run 64-bit Vista and will become my new primary home PC, as of now (October 2008), I am still running Windows XP as my primary operating system both at home and at work. In recent years, I've accumulated a collection of software that in one way or another enhances the basic, low-level Windows XP user experience, and allows me to be more productive (or to just enjoy using my machines more!)

This post details my Top 8 Windows XP customizations. Some of these may apply to Vista as well; once I have my new machine up and running with Vista for a while, I'll reprise this post and report which of these customizations are still useful under Vista, and which ones are no longer needed. There might also be some new additions to the list; time will tell!

Note: Large applications such as Firefox are outside the scope of this list; I'm focusing in here on items that modify the behavior of Windows itself, or are otherwise basic utilities or tools that tweak the way that I use Windows.

#8: WindowSpace

Author: Alexander Avdonin
Supported Operating Systems: Vista, XP, 2000; 32-bit and 64-bit versions available
Price: US $34.90 (30-day free trial available)

WindowSpace provides the cool feature of having windows "snap" to the edges of the screen, and to other windows, as you drag or resize windows using the mouse as you normally would. This is nice for taking advantage of the real estate of your screen area; before using WindowSpace, I would typically leave "dead space" between the borders of my non-maximized windows and the edges of my screen, because it was a nuisance to try to position a window exactly against an edge of the screen. Alexander really nailed the feel of how the "snap" behavior works; it feels very natural and intuitive. It also works just fine with multiple monitors.

WindowSpace also provides some handy global hotkeys for resizing a window via the keyboard such that it is positioned against a desired edge of the current screen, and for other functionality related to window positioning and sizing, which can be remappend, and enabled or disabled.

#7: Windows Search 4

Author: Microsoft
Supported Operating Systems: 2003, XP
Price: Free

This is essentially the nice, fast desktop search built into Vista, back-ported to Windows XP.

I have had an occasional issue with Windows Search 4 not finding an item that I know is present on my local hard drive (including items that have been around for a while, so it isn't an issue of the Windows Search indexer just not yet having added a newly-created document to its index); but for the most part, this is a great (and free!) improvement over the default local search functionality that ships with Windows XP.

Note: Windows Search 4 does by default add a somewhat unsightly, screen-real-estate-consuming search field to the Windows Taskbar; I posted previously about how to hide the search field. I use the Win+F ("find") shortcut key to bring up Windows Search when I need it.

#6: XP Black ("Zune") Style/Theme

Homepage: None; direct download link:
Author: Microsoft
Supported Operating Systems: XP
Price: Free

Rather than a utility or functionality enhancement, this just plain makes Windows XP look cooler. This Black (or "Zune") style gives you another alternative to the default blue XP style (and the built-in silver and olive alternative styles) and the gray "classic" style. It was apparently developed by Microsoft to promote their Zune portable media player (hence the name). Even if you're not a Zune fan (I'm not a Zune owner, myself), this black style makes Windows XP look a lot sharper.

Zune Theme

The theme doesn't currently seem to have a homepage anywhere on the Microsoft site, but you can still download the file directly from the Microsoft site, here: (ZuneDesktopTheme.msi; 1.6 MB)

#5: ClipPath

Author: Suresh Online
Supported Operating Systems: XP, 2000, NT, ME, 98, 95
Price: Freeware

ClipPath adds an option to the right-click menu of Windows Explorer when a file or folder is clicked: "Clip Path" (to the clipboard). This is very useful to essentially get a reference to a filesystem file on the clipboard, which you can then paste directly into the "File | Open" dialog of another application (rather than using the dialog's GUI to drill all the way back through the filesystem to the file's location).

I previously discussed ClipPath in a Utility of the Day post.

#4: TaskSwitchXP

Author: Alexander Avdonin
Supported Operating Systems: 2003, XP
Price: Freeware

TaskSwitchXP is a great improvement to the default Alt+Tab interface provided in Windows XP. It supports several nice enhancements over the basic XP Alt+Tab interface:

  • Display of the full Titlebar text of all applications (not just the selected one), in addition to the application's icon;
  • A preview of the appearance of the selected application's window;
  • Allows an application to be selected via a mouse click (instead of only via Alt+Tab and Alt+Shift+Tab);
  • Better support for many (22 or more) open applications.

#3: Ditto

Author: Open Source (project admin: Maloney)
Supported Operating Systems: Vista(?), XP, 2000, NT, 98, 95
Price: Freeware

Ditto enhances the Windows clipboard such that when an item is placed on the clipboard, whatever was on the clipboard previously isn't lost, but is instead saved into a persistent storage area. A global Ditto Paste hotkey (I use Ctrl+Alt+V) can be set up to bring up Ditto's paste interface, which allows you to quickly paste an item that was stored to the clipboard recently, or even to do a search on older clipboard items and paste one of those. I didn't use Ditto heavily right after I installed it, but I've found that over time, I've come to rely on and take advantage of the productivity benefits of old clipboard items not being erased when something new gets saved to the clipboad.

I previously posted about Ditto in a Utility of the Day post.

#2: Taskbar Shuffle

Author: Jay E.
Supported Operating Systems: Vista, XP, 2000, NT, 98, 95; 32-bit versions only
Price: Freeware

I originally downloaded this utility for one reason: I wanted the ability to close applications from the Windows Taskbar by middle-clicking them (just like you can do in Firefox and other tabbed applications); after all, what is the Windows Taskbar if not a tabbed view of the system's open Windows applications? Taskbar Shuffle enables this middle-click-to-close behavior for taskbar tabs. Much easier than doing right-click | Close on many open applications (especially for those applications that put the "Close" option somewhere non-standard on the right-click menu).

I've since started also Taskbar Shuffle for its primary purpose: Moving taskbar buttons around on the taskbar via drag-drop. The most obvious use case for this is moving my mail client back to its position at the top-left corner of the taskbar (where I always expect it to be!) after it crashes and I re-open it.

Unfortunately, Taskbar Shuffle doesn't currenly support 64-bit versions of Windows. Taskix is an alternative which apparently has very similar functionality to Taskbar Shuffle and does support 64-bit Windows (including Vista), but I haven't tried it out yet myself.

Update 7/1/2009: A 64-bit version is now available! Nice! Go check it out.

I previously covered Taskbar Shuffle in a Utility of the Day post.

#1: PureText

Author: Steve Miller
Supported Operating Systems: Vista, 2003, XP, 2000, NT, ME, 98, 95
Price: Freeware

PureText does just one thing, and does it very well: It sets up a global hotkey for "Paste unformatted text."  It takes the text that you previously copied to the clipboard and pastes it into the current application, but without any rich text markup that might be stored in the clipboard along with the text. 

I typically use this at least on a daily basis, sometimes many times per day. For example:

  • Paste some code from Visual Studio or Eclipse into MS Word, without getting the font and background color from the IDE.
  • Paste text from Word into another document (such as an email, a Powerpoint presentation slide, or a cell in an Excel sheet) in the current font of the target document, instead of the font from the Word document.

PureText allows you to assign the hotkey that will be used for this operation.  I use the default of Win+V.

The net result of the operation is like pasting the text into a plain notepad.exe window, and then re-copying and pasting it from Notepad into the target document; or like the MS Office menu option Edit | Paste Special | As Unformatted Text; but in a single, easy, step.  Also, unlike the MS Office solution, PureText works regardless of the target application of the Paste is.


In my experience with these utilities, each of them has been rock-solid stable. I place a premium on stability of my system, and have had nothing but good experiences with each one of these customizations.

I hope this list of utilities is useful; if a utility on this list is new to you and sounds interesting, I'd encourage you to "be bold" and go ahead and give it a try. If you end up seeing a net productivity benefit, great! If not, the uninstallers are there for a reason. :-)

1 comment:

  1. Nice apps, if only there was an app that combined the PureText functionality and X style copy-paste(highlight to copy, middle-click to paste)...


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