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I'm one of today's best-selling computer book writers, with more than 15 million books in print.

This website keeps you up-to-date on my books, and your computers. Each week, I answer a reader's question on-line.

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What are Windows XP’s most helpful, yet hidden features?

Sometimes, the most useful features of a new operating system aren’t mentioned in the billion dollar marketing campaign. Here a few of my favorite tips and tricks to help you get the most out of Windows XP. None of these are earth shakers, but I’ll bet you’ll begin incorporating at least a few of them into your own copy of XP.

Put the speaker volume control icon back on the Taskbar

In its preoccupation with keeping the Windows XP desktop free of clutter, Microsoft also removed a few essentials. For example, the programmers removed the little speaker icon from its spot next to the clock on the Taskbar. A click on the speaker icon lets you turn down the volume quickly and easily. This might not seem like much, but it’s a quick fix during late night Web surfing when a newly visited site begins blasting a loud Star Wars theme.

To place the volume control icon back next to the clock, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Control Panel from the Start menu.
  2. Click the Sounds Speech and Audio Devices icon. (Depending how your Control Panel is set up, you may need to click the Sounds and Audio Devices icon, instead.)
  3. Click “Adjust the system volume.”
  4. Click in the box marked “Place volume icon in the taskbar.”
  5. Click the OK button, and the little Speaker icon appears next to the clock, where it should be.

Update: A bug in Windows XP sometimes keeps the Volume icon from appearing, even when you’ve followed these instructions. Some have suggested logging off Windows XP and logging back on again as a temporary workaround. Others have found temporary success with this trick:

  1. Right-click a blank part of the taskbar and select Task Manager.
  2. Select explorer.exe and choose the End Task button.
  3. Click the Applications Tab, click the New Task button and type this:
  4. explorer.exe

  5. Click the OK button.

Although these certainly aren’t the best solutions, they might work for you in the short run.

Make Windows set your computer’s clock automatically

For years, little add-on utilities have let your computer visit one of the nation’s atomic clocks, read the time, and automatically set your clock to the exact second. Now, after killing off competing Web browsers, disk defragmenters, and other programs, Microsoft’s taking aim at the clock setting programs: Windows XP comes with that feature built-in. To set it, follow these steps:

  1. Double-click the clock in your Taskbar.
  2. Click the Internet Time tab.
  3. Choose the option marked “Automatically synchronize with an Internet time server.”

Windows then synchronizes your clock automatically on a weekly basis. (If you don’t have a continuous connection to the Internet, click the Update Now button whenever you’re connected, so Windows XP will know when to contact the atomic clock.) If you’re having problems with the feature, look up Time Synchronization in the Help program to see what’s wrong.

Network two computers with a single cable

Many people will buy a new computer with Windows XP already installed. Bringing a second computer into the household opens up a new opportunity: a network! By connecting the two computers, you can quickly and easily send files back and forth between them. Plus, with Windows XP’s Internet Connect Sharing feature, both computers can link to a single modem and Web surf at the same time.

Many new computers already come with a pre-installed network card. To complete the network, buy a network card for your old computer and, to save money, buy a single “crossed cable” to connect the two computers. That spares the expense of a more costly “hub” or “switchbox.”
Connect the two network cards with the special “crossed cable,” and you’ve created an inexpensive and speedy network for two computers.

Give Windows XP the familiar “classic” look

Using Windows XP’s new interface is like getting into a rental car: It’s difficult to find anything, and when you push the turn signal, the windshield wipers go on. I’m not too fond of Microsoft’s initial “Teletubbies” wallpaper, either.

Luckily, you can make Windows XP ditch its dorky duds and look just like your older, more familiar versions of Windows, as described in this tip.

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