With every major new release of Windows since Windows 95, Microsoft has issued a set of PowerToys--small applets and applications that expand the capabilities of the OS in generally useful ways. The ultimate PowerToy, of course, is TweakUI, an all-in-one Windows configuration tool that's been a favorite of users since the first version in 1995. And now, with the release of Windows XP, Microsoft has provided a new set of PowerToys, available for free download from the Microsoft Web site. This overview of the XP PowerToys will give you an idea of which you'll want to use and which to avoid.

In the April 2002 updated release of the XP PowerToys, Microsoft finally fixed most (but not all) of the inconsistent ways they refer to these PowerToys. This release also does away with the previous all-in-one Setup program and forces you to install each Toy separately, a mind-numbing process that will likely bring on an attack of carpal tunnel syndrome in many users. Note that you must uninstall any previous version of the PowerToys before you install the updated versions.

UPDATE: In September 2004, Microsoft shipped a new PowerToy, the ClearType Tuner, and updated its HTML Slide Show Wizard. This review has been updated to reflect those changes, and to adhere to the latest SuperSite user interface. I've also taken this opportunity to clean up the review and make minor edits.

Alt-Tab Replacement

Category: Shell enhancement
As someone who constantly runs several applications, the ALT+TAB application switching functionality in Windows is one of my most often used key presses. This PowerToy replaces that functionality, using a thumbnail preview of each window in the task list, displayed in a manner that is consistent with the new Windows XP look and feel.

Here's how it works. Once you have two or more applications running, hold down the ALT key and press TAB; this displays the first application window in the task list, using an attractive thumbnail image (Figure). Release the TAB key to select that application, or hit it repeatedly until you find the application to which you'd like to switch.

It sounds great, but in practice, this PowerToy is too painful to use. The problem is speed: Generating and displaying the thumbnail images just bogs down the system, the exact opposite of what anyone using the keyboard would want when switching applications. If you're a heavy ALT+TAB user now, stay away from this Toy.

My rating:

CD Slide Show Generator

Category: Digital Media
These tool is pretty exciting, especially if you're into digital photography as I am: It generates a slideshow of digital photos or other images, complete with a front-end application to get things rolling. The CD Slide Show Generator integrates into XP's CD Recording Wizard, providing an extra step when you're trying to burn image-only CDs. This option (Figure) asks whether you'd like to add a picture viewer to the CD; if you choose yes, you can bring the CD to a non-XP PC and still view the slideshow. Very cool.

This PowerToy is highly recommended.

My rating:

ClearType Tuner (New)

Category: Shell enhancement
One of the biggest usability improvements in Windows XP was the inclusion of ClearType technology, which effectively triples the horizontal resolution of text displayed on your LCD display. (You can enable ClearType on CRT displays as well, but it's not recommended). However, XP has always lacked a way to fine-tune ClearType, a necessary feature since different displays and different eyes prefer different types of text display. On the Pocket PC platform, Microsoft has long supported a ClearType text configuration utility in its Microsoft Reader software, but with the addition of the ClearType Tuner, XP users now get OS-level ClearType tuning capabilities.

ClearType Tuner installs as a Control Panel applet called ClearType Tuning (though the applet itself is called ClearType Settings), which shows me that Microsoft still has no concept of naming consistency. But the tool itself is excellent. You can run it in two modes: Either as a wizard (Figure) that steps you through the process (Figure), or in an Advanced mode where you modify sample text until you get the effect you desire (Figure). Both appear to work very well.

If you're using ClearType on an LCD display, you need to download and install this tool immediately. Highly recommended.

My rating:

Slide Show Wizard (Updated)

Category: Digital Media
Updated in September 2004, the Slide Show Wizard (previously called the HTML Slide Show Wizard) is a standalone wizard application that generates a Web-based slideshow (Figure). You can add individual pictures and folders (Figure), though curiously the Browse for Folder dialog it uses begins in My Documents rather than the more obvious My Pictures folder (nice job following your own application style guide, Microsoft). Then, in the next step (Figure), you can name the slideshow, provide an optional author name, determine the location to which it will be saved (by default, it saves your slideshow to a folder named My Slide Show under My Documents), the picture sizes, and the like. You can choose between a simple slideshow and more advanced one that offers thumbnails. And you can determine whether the slideshow plays in a normal browser window or full screen. The finished product is quite nice looking (Figure), with a few serious exceptions. First, you must be running IE, and not a different Web browser, to display the slideshows correctly. Second, if you've upgraded to XP SP2--and you did, didn't you?--then the slideshows you create with this tool generate all kinds of Active Content Protection errors. Again, way to go, guys.

This PowerToy would be highly recommended if it actually worked properly with the latest version of XP--which, incidentally, shipped almost two months before this PowerToy) and if it worked with non-IE browsers. As it is, I cannot recommend this tool at all.

My rating:

Image Resizer

Category: Digital Media
This nifty little PowerToy allows you to resize a picture or group of pictures, without changing the originals. It works in a manner similar to the Send Pictures via Email functionality that's built into Windows XP, but with easier control over the sizing options and, of course, a nice batching functionality for resizing multiple images at the same time.

To use this PowerToy, select any image, or group of images, right-click, and select Resize Pictures. The Resize Pictures dialog will appear (Figure), giving you options to resize the images at 640x480 (Small), 800x600 (Medium), 1024x768 (Large) or 240x320 (Handheld PC-sized, for Windows CE-based Pocket PC and other handheld devices). When you resize the images, new versions are created with subtly different filenames, by default. So, for example, if you resize an image called Mark at the Beach to handheld-sized, it will be renamed Mark at the Beach (WinCE). Resized to Medium, this image would be called Mark at the Beach (Medium).

There is also an Advanced button you can use to enable more options (Figure). This includes a choice to make images smaller during conversion, but not larger (often a good idea), and one that will replace the original rather than make a copy.

This is one PowerToy I can whole-heartedly recommend, and I suspect I'll be getting a lot of use out of it.

My rating:

Open Command Window Here

Category: Shell enhancement
An update to an old favorite, this PowerToy adds an "Open Command Window Here" context menu item (via right-click) to folders in My Computer or Explorer (Figure). Just right-click a folder, choose Open Command Window Here, and you're off.

If you find yourself using the command line often, this PowerToy is must-have. I use this particular tool all the time.

My rating:

Power Calculator

Category: Application
A graphing calculator that will instantly remind every former college student of those Texas Instruments units, PowerToy Calculator provides a handy software-based alternative (Figure). Given that a laptop is probably standard equipment in most college classrooms these days, it's a great tool to have. For the rest of us, however, this one is definitely a skip. I can't imagine ever needing to use this.

My rating:

Taskbar Magnifier

Category: Shell enhancement
This PowerToy is similar to the Magnifier tool that ships with Windows XP (Start - All Programs - Accessories - Accessibility) in that in provides screen magnification capabilities. The difference, however, is that the PowerToys version sits in the Taskbar and, as a result, offers a smaller viewing area.

To activate this PowerToy, right-click the Taskbar and select Taskbar then Taskbar Magnifier (Figure). If you right-click the PowerToy, you get options for following the mouse cursor and keyboard focus (both on by default), and a setting for the zoom level (1 to 8x; 2x is the default).

I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would want to use this Toy.

My rating:

Tweak UI for Windows XP

Category: Shell enhancement
The Windows XP version of TweakUI is not only the best version ever, but it's also the most capable and worthwhile of all the PowerToys in this collection. Basically, TweakUI for Windows XP exposes a user interface for numerous system settings that are not normally exposed through the default Windows XP interface. That is, most of these options would have previously required you to edit the system Registry with REGEDIT or a similar tool, a daunting task for most users.

Unlike previous versions of TweakUI, TweakUI for Windows XP (Figure) is a standalone EXE, instead of a Control Panel applet (Note: This also means that you should delete any old copies of TweakUI before installing this version). The PowerToy features a cascading tree view of options on the left, and selecting any option will display configuration options on the right (Figure).

So what can you do with this wonderful Toy? All kinds of things, actually. You can configure various UI effects, such as menu fading, error beeping, cursor shadow, and the like. You can configure the mouse, the taskbar, and the desktop. You can edit common dialogs, and determine the location of special shell folders, such as My Music, My Pictures, and the CD Burning cache. The list goes on and on, all of it extremely useful.

I strongly recommend that all Windows XP users get this Toy and experiment with its myriad of features, as soon as it becomes available.

My rating:

Virtual Desktop Manager

Category: Shell enhancement
Many people don't realize this, but Windows NT has always had the ability to generate multiple desktop displays, even though the OS itself has never exposed this functionality in the UI. With Windows NT 4.0 and 2000, I believe, a virtual desktop manager was made available through the Resource Kit. Now, for the first time, you can get one free with XP.

The PowerToys version of this tool lets you work with up to four virtual desktops, each of which contains a copy of the Start menu, desktop, and taskbar. But each virtual desktop can be running different applications. So if you're a serious power user, you might separate groups of running applications into their own desktops.

To launch the Virtual Desktop Manager, right-click the Taskbar and choose Toolbars then Desktop Manager. This will add a new toolbar to the Taskbar, curiously called MSVDM (Figure), that lets you switch between the virtual desktops, numbered 1 through 4. It also provides a green button that lets you manage the desktops (Figure).

Personally, I view virtual desktops the same way as I view multiple monitors: It's great idea in theory, but I just can't bother in real life. Your own opinion of this Toy, however, will likely vary. At least check it out before writing it off.

My rating:

Webcam Timershot

Category: Digital Media

This is a nice Web camera tool (Figure) that offers a wealth of functionality. It can capture images from the camera at specific intervals and then save it to a location, even an FTP or Web site, automatically. The sheer number of options is impressive: Hit the little expand button and the window opens up four-fold (Figure) with options for choosing the picture taking interval, whether to resize the images, the local or Internet-based destination for saving the files, and other options.

If you've ever considered using a Web camera application, this is a great--and most importantly, free--choice.

My rating:

Conclusions

Like every set of PowerToys, this one comes includes some hits and misses. Which PowerToys, if any, you decide to install is of course a personal decision, but I recommend using this review as a guideline for this choice. But it's heartening to see Microsoft adding these kinds of functionality to Windows XP. Not only is much of it useful, but the PowerToys also show developers how to create applications that really take advantage of the new capabilities in Windows XP. And if you like the configuring XP to work the way you want it to, you will probably find many of these PowerToys interesting indeed.

--Paul Thurrott
September 4, 2001
Updated October 25, 2001; April 24, 2002; October 8, 2004

 


My rating:

Related reading

Screenshots

The new ClearType Tuner is a must-have for all LCD users.

The Slideshow Generator is quite nice.

Task Switcher: Cute thumbnails, but too slow.

Tweak UI for Windows XP: A must-have tool for every XP user.

The missing Toys

When I wrote my original review of the XP PowerToys, there were some beta Toys that were eventually dropped, the IE Find Toolbar and the Shell Audio Player (conversely, a bunch of new Toys were added, including the Taskbar Magnifier, the two slide show generators, the Virtual Desktop manager, and the Webcam Timershot. Over time, however, the Toys were re-released several times, the latest time in April 2002.

So here are my takes on Toys that were removed from the collection. You'll note that most of them got pretty low marks anyway, and I suspect this isn't a coincidence.

IE Find Toolbar
This PowerToy replaces the Internet Explorer Find dialog with an Address Bar-like toolbar (Figure) that is more easily reusable, since you don't have to keep closing and reopening the dialog. That is, it allows for repeated searching on the current page in a much easier fashion than the default. On the other hand, it also takes up space, and it requires you to use a mouse (the old dialog version was easily used with keyboard-only, by typing CTRL+F). If you're more of a mouse user than a keyboarder--the norm, I'd assume--you might find this tool useful. For me, it's fairly useless, however.

Shell Audio Player
Given the ways in which Microsoft improved Media Player for Windows XP, it's rather confusing that they would offer yet another way to play music in Windows XP. But then, here it is: Yet another way to play music in Windows XP. The Shell Audio Player is a Taskbar toolbar that allows you to play MP3 and WMA files and playlists. You enable it by right-clicking the Taskbar and choosing Toolbars then Audio Player (Figure). What this will give you is a new toolbar, with Play, Previous, Next, and Playlist Editor buttons (Figure). Note that you might have to unlock the Taskbar and resize the toolbar to view all the buttons. To play songs through the Shell Audio Player, click the Playlist Editor button to display the Playlist Editor window (Figure). This window lets you open individual songs, groups of songs, or playlists, but curiously, you cannot drag songs from the shell into it. You can also shuffle the playlist you've created, sort it by various criteria (artist, genre, and filename, but not year or album), and save it as a file (again, curiously, not in the same format as playlists created by Media Player for Windows XP, though that standalone player will read this format). You can also edit the name that appears on the toolbar if desired. The Shell Audio Player is a good idea poorly implemented. It won't load playlists saved by Media Player for Windows XP (though the reverse works), and it loses the current playlist if you move the toolbar or logoff (so remember to save that playlist first). Hopefully, this will all be fixed by the final release, but as of now, I cannot recommend this player. UPDATE: A tasbbar mode that is similar to the Shell Audio Player is now available as part of Windows Media Player 9 or WMP 10.

Super-Fast User Switcher
Windows XP is the first OS to feature Microsoft's new Fast User Switching technology, which allows multiple people to share the same computer and quickly switch between their personalized environments. With this Faster User Switcher, switching between users is even quicker, as it allows you to bypass the Welcome screen.
     To use it, two or more users need to be logged in simultaneously. Then, just hold down the Windows Key and repeatedly hit Q to cycle through the list available users (Figure). When you see the user you want to switch to, release the keys and the system will switch users. I like the idea behind this Toy, and they've now addressed the one concern I voiced during the beta test: It used to include an annoying bouncing animation that occurred each time you hit WinKey+Q. However, this is no longer the case--instead, each user name glides quickly in--so it's no longer artificially slowed down. I don't personally use Fast User Switching, but if you do, this is a great addition.