hen it comes to customising or tweaking your system there's no better place to start than the Control Panel. This is a collection of tools that enable you to do all sorts of things with your PC from adjusting display settings to removing unwanted programs from your computer.
There are over 30 Control Panels to choose from - and those are just Windows' own. Some hardware devices and programs add their own custom Control Panels, but for the purposes of this feature we're going to concentrate on the key utilities found in all versions of XP.
Accessing the Control Panel
There are two ways to access the Control Panel. If you've just installed XP then click Start and select Control Panel to see a window inviting you to pick a category. 10 are provided, covering all aspects of using your PC. Choose one and you'll see the Control Panel split into two sections: actual Control Panels like Display and System are listed at the bottom of the screen, while specific tasks like "Change the desktop background" are listed at the top - these are shortcuts to specific parts of individual Control Panels.
When it comes to customising or setting up Windows, it pays to go through each category in turn - they're all self-explanatory and you'll save time later on by setting things up properly now. Once you become more familiar with the Control Panel you may find the Category view restrictive, in which case click Switch to Classic View to view the Control Panels as a single list. Better still, follow our tip here to turn the Control Panel link on the Start menu into a drop-down menu, giving you quick and easy access to any Control Panel you choose.
If you don't want to waste much time with the Control Panel right now, just follow our advice for quickly setting up your system. We've already covered the three Control Panels (Display, Folder Options and Taskbar and Start menu) that make up Appearance and Themes so skip that category for starters.
If you're not yet connected to the Internet or a network - wireless or otherwise - then use the Network and Internet Connections category. Use the tasks to launch wizards that will step you through the process of setting up these connections; in the case of your Internet connection you may wish to use the CD supplied by your Internet Service Provider instead - it should have all the instructions you need.
If more than one person uses your PC, select User Accounts and create a separate user profile for them. A user profile is an individual set of personal preferences, document folders and other settings (including your own customised desktop, Start menu and taskbar). If you share your PC, it's the only practical way of doing so to avoid confusion and conflict - you can find out more about user accounts by viewing the box below.
Should you ever need to remove or repair a program, choose Add or Remove Programs to access the list of programs installed on your PC - select the program in question and click the appropriate button: Repair, Change or Remove.
Setting up new users
When you create a new user you're able to restrict their access to your computer. By setting them up as a Limited User, they're prevented from changing key system settings or installing new programs. This setting is perfect for younger or less experienced users as it ensures they can't accidentally mess things up.
If you have guests staying with you, you can also switch on the Guest account - this has less access than Limited Users, but allows friends and family to nip on to your PC to quickly check email, type a letter or browse the web for example. For more on creating separate users on your PC, check out our tutorial here.
Performance and maintenance
A key area of the Control Panel is the Performance and Maintenance category. This area of the Control Panel is worth returning to every couple of months or so to run the Disk Cleanup tool and select Rearrange items on your hard drive to make programs run faster to combat a program known as fragmentation.
If you run into problems installing a new device attached to your computer then you need the System Control Panel, accessible from here. Open it and switch to the Hardware tab, then click Device Manager. The problematic device should be highlighted with a yellow exclamation mark - double-click it and you should see advice or a button that will hopefully help you fix the problem.
The final category you should visit is the Security Center. Make sure you have a firewall and anti-virus software installed, and switch on Automatic Updates so Windows can download the updates required to keep it bug-free and secure. For more advice on these and other aspects of your system, use the More help and links section of this feature.
Find files on your PC with the Search Companion
1. WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
Click Start > Search to open the Search Companion. First, choose the type of file you're looking for from the list - choose Computers or people to find people in your address book or PCs on your network.
2. MEDIA FILES OR DOCUMENTS
If you choose Pictures, music or video, tick the type of media file you're looking for, then type in all or part of the filename; if you pick documents you can also select to search for files modified within a certain period (week, month or year).
3. ALL FILES AND FOLDERS
If you're not sure what you're looking for, select this option. You can search for all or part of the filename, plus look for words or phrases within the file (useful if it contains text) and choose to search a specific location on your PC - see the next step.
4. SEARCH BY LOCATION
If you opt to search a specific location (click Advanced Options if you're searching for media files or documents) you can pick a drive, group of drives (such as all your hard drives) or browse for a specific folder.
5. ADVANCED OPTIONS
You can also search for files based on their size, or pick more advanced options which let you search hidden and system folders (not usually required). When you've selected your criteria, click Search to begin.
6. REVIEW THE RESULTS
Once the results are in, they'll be displayed. You can double-click one to open it, or right-click and choose Open Containing Folder to locate it. Click Stop to end the search and then either end the search or refine it further if necessary.
Beyond the Control Panel
You'll find shortcuts to key tools by clicking Start > All Programs > Accessories - most will be found in the System Tools section. One such tool is System Restore, which lets you take snapshots of your system and restore your PC to an earlier point in time should you run into problems. Tweak its settings from the System Restore tab on the System Control Panel.
Your introduction to Windows XP is complete. By following the tips and techniques outlined here you're now in a position to start using your PC in confidence. The basics are in place, and as you get to know XP better you'll discover even more exciting and useful secrets waiting for you. What's more, you'll be able to read about them on this very site, so join us and learn more about getting the most out of your PC with the help of our Tutorials section.