hen you load Windows XP for the first time you'll find yourself at what is commonly termed the desktop. As the name implies, think of this as your office desk. When you first take delivery of it it's clean and ready for action, but it won't take you long to start filling it up with shortcuts, files and folders. You can change its appearance, add shortcuts to key parts of your system, plus make use of ancillary parts like the Start menu, taskbar and Notification area.
The Start button
To keep things as clutter-free as possible, Windows XP hides a lot of functionality on its Start menu, accessed by clicking the green Start button to the bottom left of your screen. This pops up a menu containing shortcuts to just about any part of your system. The annotated screenshot opposite reveals its key components.
To open a program for the first time, click Start followed by the All Programs link at the bottom of the menu. A pop-up menu will appear enabling you select programs or open more folders to locate other tools. Once selected, the program in question will open.
The second or third time you want to launch that program, take a look in the left-hand portion of the Start menu first - the most frequently accessed shortcuts are stored here to save you the bother of opening the All Programs menu again. If you have a program you use regularly you can go one step further and "pin" it to the Start menu permanently - to do this, just drag the shortcut from the bottom list above the thin grey dividing line so it sits beneath your Internet browser and email program.
Annotation: The Start menu revealed
A. PINNED PROGRAMS
Both your default Web browser and email are permanently displayed here, plus any programs you drag from the Most Frequently Used List below. Remove unwanted entries here by right-clicking the icon and choosing "Remove from this list".
B. MOST FREQUENTLY USED LIST
Windows monitors what programs you open and use, and the most frequently accessed ones are displayed here for easy access via the Start menu.
C. ALL PROGRAMS
The majority of programs installed on your computer can be accessed from this collapsible folder, as can Windows Update and other useful shortcuts.
D. FILES AND FOLDERS
Frequently used folders like My Documents, My Music and My Computer are placed here for easy access: My Recent Documents offers a shortcut to those documents and files you most recently opened or edited.
E. SYSTEM TOOLS
By default only the Control Panel is listed in the top-most section, but you can customise the Start menu to also access your network, dial-up connections and any printers or faxes from here. Below this you'll find easy access to the Help and Support Center, the Search dialog (for finding files and folders) and the Start > Run box.
F. LOG OFF/TURN OFF COMPUTER
Quickly log off or switch users, or turn off, restart, go into hibernation or standby.
The right-hand side of the Start menu gives you access to other parts of your system. The options in the top right refer to commonly used folders on your PC - the My Computer link gives you access to all of your drives and ultimately your folders and files. This involves Windows Explorer, which is described in detail elsewhere in this feature.
Below this are two more sections: Control Panel covers all kinds of useful settings and programs, and you can find out more on page five of this feature. Set Program Access and Defaults lets you choose which Internet programs and media player to use as your default - click this and you'll see three options: Microsoft, Non-Microsoft and Custom. Click the arrow next to each to see what the current defaults are, and if you pick Custom you can choose from those programs installed on your system which ones are to be the default.
Below this are three more useful options: Help and Support will offer answers to your questions, Search lets you find files and folders on any attached drive (see the step-by-step guide here) and the Run box lets you type in shortcuts to programs, settings and other dialogs. This latter option is of most use to advanced users, but you'll find some useful shortcuts listed here.
10 useful Run shortcuts
Type the following into the Start > Run box for instant access to remote parts of your system
regedit - Registry Editor
msconfig - System Configuration Utility
notepad - Notepad
calc- Windows Calculator
. (period) - your personal Documents and Settings folder
devmgmt.msc - Device Manager
services.msc - Services console
gpedit.msc - Group Policy Editor (Windows XP Professional only)
cmd - Command Prompt window
sendto - the Send To folder
Customise the Start menu
It won't take you long to get to grips with the Start menu, and you'll quickly discover that different parts of it are more useful than others. Once you've reached this stage, it's time to customise the menu to tailor it to your needs.
To do so, right-click the Start button and choose Properties. If you've upgraded from an earlier version of Windows, you may wish to return to a more "classic" and less functional menu, in which case choose Classic Start menu and click Apply. Whichever menu you opt for, you can tweak it further by clicking the non-greyed out Customise button. If you're sticking with the default XP menu you'll see two tabs appear. The General tab is where you customise the left-hand side of the Start menu - you can increase or decrease the number of frequently accessed programs displayed here, and if the menu ends up too tall select Small icons to bring it back down to size. At the bottom of the screen you can change the web browser and email program displayed from the current system default to another choice if you so wish.
More clever tweaks
The Advanced tab is potentially of more interest. Here you can define exactly what gets displayed on the right-hand side of the Start menu, enabling you to eliminate unused shortcuts and replace them with potentially more useful ones. When you've familiarised yourself with the Control Panel, select Display as a menu under its entry - this gives you quick and easy access to any Control Panel directly from the Start menu. Once done, work your way through the list ticking and unticking the boxes to add or remove items.
If you'd like to access your recently opened documents, tick the box marked List my most recently opened documents to add it to the Start menu. This menu lists the last 15 documents opened by programs, whether they're data files, Office documents or images, so if you have trouble remembering where you've saved something then it's worth using.
Quickly change the picture associated with your user account by clicking it at the top of the Start menu.
Prevent individual programs appearing in the left-hand list in the Start menu by right-clicking and choosing Remove from this list.
Stop XP from highlighting newly installed programs by unticking the appropriate option from the Advanced tab of Start menu properties.