Customizing Windows with Tweak UI

Far be it from us to tell Microsoft which utilities they should or should not ship with their products, but sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. Although the Msconfig utility does a great job of allowing you to quickly and effectively control your PC’s startup environment, Microsoft does have another great program that allows you to tweak and tune to a greater degree – Tweak UI. Originally released as a “Power Toy” for Windows 95, the program provides you with the ability to get under the hood of your Windows system, changing settings normally hidden from view.

While the Windows 95/98/ME version doesn’t allow you to specifically control which programs load at boot time, Tweak UI does provide a few nifty features that will spare you the pain of digging through the Registry or endlessly clicking through the Windows interface. Among our favorite features are those found on the Paranoia tab, shown above. Settings here allow you to automatically clear your Documents, Internet Explorer, and Run command history at logon, and the name of the last user who logged on to the system, all giving you a little more privacy. Both the Windows 95/98/ME and Windows XP versions of the tool are available for download from the Microsoft website.

Alternative Startup Manager Programs for Windows

Given the popularity of customizing or ‘tweaking’ a system to better meet individual needs, it’s little surprise that a variety of third party startup manager programs exist. Of the different freeware and shareware programs available, two of out favorites are Xteq X-Start from Xteq Systems, and Startup Control Panel by Mike Lin. X-Start is a full-blown tweaking utility that is free for non-commercial use, and allows you to tweak just about every element of a Windows system, including relevant startup and shutdown settings. The explanations provided for each setting are particular helpful, as is the wizard feature that will walk an inexperienced user through the settings step-by-step.

If it’s a more simple utility that you’re after, then Startup Control Panel is probably your best bet. This utility, illustrated above, adds an additional applet to Control Panel called Startup. Accessing the applet provides you with a quick and easy way to both enable and disable startup options according to their system location. While many utilities provide a myriad of complex options, Startup Control Panel does an excellent job of keeping things simple for users just looking to control their startup environment.

Configuring Advanced Windows Startup Settings with MSCONFIG

Msconfig goes a long way beyond simply allowing you to control startup items. The program also allows you to make changes to common Windows startup files such as Config.sys, Autoexec.bat, Win.ini, and System.ini. The ability to selectively enable, disable, and edit these files through the Msconfig interface helps to avoid syntax errors and makes it easy to return files to a previous state.

For troubleshooting purposes, Msconfig allows you to backup and restore your current or previous settings, as well as control which files should be processed or advanced elements configured in order to troubleshoot the startup process, as shown below. For example, you might choose to process only certain system files when the PC next starts in order to test changes, or disable scandisk after a bad shutdown.

Controlling Which Programs Start Automatically with MSCONFIG

For those who would rather stay out of the Registry, a much simpler solution exists in the form on the Microsoft System Configuration Utility (Msconfig). This easy-to-use utility included with most Windows versions provides you with a graphical interface allowing you to control a variety of system startup options, including which programs and services are configured to load automatically. The main area of interest in the program is the Startup tab, which provides a list of all startup items, allowing you to easily enable or disable individual entries. For an overview of using the Msconfig utility to control startup settings, see the steps below.

Unfortunately, Msconfig is not available for all Microsoft operating systems, notably Windows 2000. If you’re running Windows 2000, your best bet is to either use one of the alternative startup managers listed in the next section, or to use the version included with Windows XP, which is small enough to copy over to a floppy disk. Note that the Windows XP version will display a series of error messages when loaded on a 2000 system – just click through them and you’ll eventually be able to configure your startup items without issue.

Step 1: From the Run command, open Msconfig. This opens the application to the General tab, as shown above. Click the Create Backup button to backup your current settings.

Step 2: Click on the Startup tab. Scroll through the list of items configured to start automatically, selectively unchecking items that you no longer wish to have started when Windows loads.

Step 3: Click OK to close Msconfig. Click Yes when prompted to reboot your PC with the new settings. Once complete, verify that the unnecessary applications are no longer loaded by viewing the System Tray (or the Task Manager Processes tab on Windows 2000/XP)

Changing Program Startup Settings in the Windows Registry

If the Startup folder doesn’t seem to hold the key to all those utilities that launch automatically, the answer is almost always found in the Windows Registry. Although you should generally avoid manually editing the Registry except when necessary, this is generally the place where you’ll find the definitive answer to what Windows is loading automatically. Later in this article we’ll take a look at various utilities that allow you to control your PC’s startup environment. Ultimately, each of these tools simply provides a prettier interface from which you can more safely edit Registry values.

The Windows Registry is by its nature a complex beast, which is part of the reason why Microsoft generally recommends staying out of it. Prior to making any Registry changes, always ensure that you’ve backed it up.

The two main tools used to interact with the Registry are Regedit.exe and Regedt32.exe. The settings that control which utilities always run automatically at startup tend to be stored in 4 different locations – 2 under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE, and another 2 under HKEY_CURRENT_USER. In both cases, the most common place to look for startup settings is under the \Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ folder (or key), where you’ll find two very important folders, namely Run and RunServices. Both folders will contain values that specify the path to programs or services to be launched automatically.

To remove a program or service from starting automatically, simply delete the value associated with the offending program. However, be sure to note exactly which programs you need to remove prior to taking this action – you won’t be prompted to save any of your changes, and mistakenly deleting a required application or service may render your system unbootable.

Managing Windows Startup Programs

It doesn’t take very long for the number of programs installed on your PC to get out of control. Between utilities to block pop-up windows, instant messaging programs and download managers, your Windows system tray can quickly become a distorted rainbow of icons whose purpose may be a mystery. Unfortunately, as more and more utilities are designed to start automatically upon loading Windows, system performance tends to suffer. Not only do these utilities lengthen the time that your system takes to load, they also consume valuable memory space, often needlessly. The good news is that regaining control of your PC is possible without the need to uninstall programs used only occasionally. With a quick look at the Windows startup process and few different utilities, you can be back in control of your system in no time.

The Startup Folder

When a Windows system boots, shortcuts to programs contained in your Startup folder are launched automatically. Many installed programs will automatically add a shortcut to this folder as part of their installation process. For example, if you have Microsoft Office installed, chances are good that you’ll find a shortcut to the Office toolbar stored in this folder. When the shortcuts contained in this folder are deleted, the particular program will no longer launch automatically. Although having some programs load automatically is useful, a number of those placed in the Startup folder are more obscure and probably not of much use to you on a daily basis.

The first key to dealing with the Startup folder is finding it. On a Windows 95/98/ME system, this folder is accessible from the Start menu, in the Program Files – Startup section. Pointing to this location will display a list of shortcuts to programs set to run automatically. In Windows 98 or ME, you can simply right-click on the Start menu shortcut and delete them. However, on a system running Windows 95, you’ll need to access the actual Startup folder and delete the individual icons, located at C:\WINDOWS\Start Menu\Programs\StartUp by default. Of course, you can also add shortcuts to this folder if you goal is to have a particular shortcut launch automatically.

On a Windows 2000 or XP system, the location of the Startup folder will vary because of the use of profiles for different users. The first place to check for startup shortcuts is the C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Start Menu\Programs\Startup folder. Shortcuts found in this folder are launched for all users on the PC, and most installed applications will use this folder rather than the one associated with an individual user. However, it’s still worth checking the C:\Documents and Settings\username\Start Menu\Programs\Startup folder, since an annoying shortcut or two may be buried away in there as well.

Configuring Windows File Protection Using Group Policy

If you’re running Windows XP Professional, a few different WFP-related settings can be configured using the Group Policy MMC. To access this tool, open the Run command, type gpedit.msc, and click OK. WFP settings are found under Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > System > Windows File Protection.

The four main configurable settings found in this section include:

Set Windows File Protection scanning – allows you to control whether system file scanning will occur during startup.

Hide the file scan progress window – controls whether the scan progress window appears when commands like sfc /scannow are issued.

Limit Windows File Protection cache size – Allows you to set a maximum size, in MB, for the size of the dllcache folder. This setting is configures the same setting as the sfc /cachesize command.

Specify the Windows File Protection cache location – Allows you to control the location of the folder where system files are cached, typically %systemroot%\system32\dllcache by default. This method of changing the setting is recommended over editing the Registry directly.

In a similar manner, driver signing options can also be configured from the Group Policy MMC. This setting is found under Computer Configuration > Windows Settings > Local Policies > Security Options. Change the setting of the Devices: Unsigned driver installation behavior to configure your system to Ignore, Warn, or Block when unsigned driver installation is attempted.

Configuring Driver Signing Options on Windows XP

Another key way to promote system stability with XP is to use signed driver files only. Any software or hardware that has been certified for XP will include the Designed for Windows XP logo, and will include a digital signature from Microsoft. By default, XP is configured to prompt you with a warning message any time that you attempt to install drivers that do not include this signature. However, in the spirit of compatibility, you are still given the option of using the unsigned driver, since many older applications and drivers (especially those for outdated hardware) may not have a signed version available. In general, these tend to be the same files that lead to system stability issues such as crashes, error messages, and so forth. If you receive a warning message about an unsigned driver, it’s always a good idea to check the manufacturer’s Web Site for an updated (and hopefully signed) driver.

You can control how Windows XP reacts to the attempted installation of unsigned drivers via the System applet in Control Panel. From the Hardware tab, click the Driver Signing option to control these settings. The default setting is Warn, meaning that Windows will prompt you for the action you wish to take. More risky is the Ignore option, which will always allow you to proceed with the action, and we don’t recommend this setting. The Block option will never allow unsigned drivers to be installed, but this can be a little restrictive – however, in cases where you want to stop others from wreaking havoc on your system, it’s not a bad default option, and can always be changed when necessary.

Using SIGVERIF to Identify Unsigned System and Driver Files

Although the SFC utility will scan to ensure that proper versions of system files are present, it will not explicitly identify which files were replaced. Both system files and drivers provided by Microsoft are digitally signed, which makes it possible to identify any unsigned files that may exist. While WFP will ensure that system file versions are correct, it’s also possible that unsigned driver files (drivers not explicitly tested and approved by Microsoft) can also cause system instability issues. To help identify both unsigned system and driver files, Windows XP includes a utility called the File Signature Verification utility (sigverif.exe).

The easiest way to access this tool is to open sigverif.exe from the Run command or the command line. This tool is graphical, and by default will scan within the WINDOWS directory. Initiating a scan is as simple as opening the tool and pressing the Start button, although Advanced settings allow you to specify exactly which directories and file types should be scanned, as well what information should be logged. Once completed, the tool will either display a message stating that all files have been scanned and verified as digitally signed, or will display a list of unsigned files. For more information on using this tool, see the steps below.

Step 1: Click Start, and then click Run. In the Open text box, type sigverif.exe and click OK. This will open the File Signature Versification window. To perform a default scan, simply press the Start button and wait for the process to complete.

Step 2: To perform a more advanced scan, click the Advanced button. This will open the Advanced File Signature Verification Settings window. Choose an appropriate option on the Search tab, and then click the Logging tab. By default, the tool will log its finding to a file called SIGVERIF.TXT in the Windows directory.

Step 3: Once scanning options are configured, click OK, and then click Start. After the scan completes, you’ll be presented with a list of unsigned files is any have been found or a message stating all is well. To review the SIGVERIF.TXT file, click the View Log button on the Logging tab in the Advanced section.

The Windows XP DLLCACHE Folder

The folder in which Windows XP stores protected system files is called dllcache and is stored in the WINDOWS\system32 directory. Because of the importance of this folder, it is marked with both the System and Hidden attributes, making it completely hidden in the Windows Explorer interface by default. If you want to be able to view the folder through the Explorer interface, open My Computer, access Tools > Folder Options, click the View tab and then select the Show hidden files and folders option, and uncheck the Hide protected operating system files option. Keeping hidden system files hidden is highly recommended, so consider opening this folder from the Run command instead – in the Open text box, type %systemroot%\system32\dllcache and press OK.

Although there is no maximum size for the dllcache folder by default, the amount of available disk space will impact how many files it is capable of caching. If a maximum size in MB hasn’t been specified with the sfc /cachesize command, the dllcache folder will can consume disk space up until the point that only 600 MB plus the maximum size of your paging file is available – after this, no additional files will be cached. On bigger volumes this won’t be an issue, but on smaller disks the number of files that can be stored in the folder will be minimal. Thus, if WFP needs to replace files, you’ll be prompted for your CD often, which can quickly get annoying. If you have lots of available disk space, moving the dllcache folder to a new location (such as a different partition) makes it possible to cache all system files, and avoid these annoying CD prompts.

The only way to change the location of the dllcache folder is via the Registry. To do so, open Regedit.exe and create a new value of type REG_EXPAND_SZ in the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon folder called SFCDllCacheDir that specifies the path to your preferred caching location, for example d:\systemfilecache.