Blog Archives

The Mac-Like Windows Desktop [Featured Desktop]

Reader Mango Sango’s Windows desktop pulls together a bunch of system customization applications that completely transform the interface into something more Mac-like, but still unique and impressive to look at.

The desktop is a combination of:

This desktop not your style? Why waste time complaining? Instead, get started creating your own killer desktop with the easy-install Rainmeter 1.1 package and show the world what you can do. If you get stuck and need some help, join up with the Lifehacker Desktop Customization Google Group to collaborate on new ideas for desktop configurations.

Once you’ve created your own beautifully tweaked (and hopefully productive) desktop, post it over in the Lifehacker Desktop Show and Tell Flickr Group complete with a description of the programs and tweaks you used (and preferably links as well!), and we just might feature it here.






Understanding the Windows Pagefile and Why You Shouldn’t Disable It [Mythbusting]

As a tech writer, I regularly cringe at all the bad tweaking advice out there, and disabling the system pagefile is often a source of contention among geeks. Let’s examine some of the pagefile myths and debunk them once and for all.

What is a Pagefile and How Do I Adjust It?

Before we get into the details, let’s review what the pagefile actually does. When your system runs low on RAM because an application like Firefox is taking too much memory, Windows moves the least used “pages” of memory out to a hidden file named pagefile.sys in the root of one of your drives to free up more RAM for the applications you are actually using. What this actually means to you is that if you’ve had an application minimized for a while, and you are heavily using other applications, Windows is going to move some of the memory from the minimized application to the pagefile since it’s not being accessed recently. This can often cause restoring that application to take a little longer, and your hard drive may grind for a bit.

If you want to take a look at your own pagefile settings, launch sysdm.cpl from the Start menu search or run box (Win+R) and navigate to Advanced –> Settings –> Advanced –> Change. From this screen you can change the paging file size (see image above), set the system to not use a paging file at all, or just leave it up to Windows to deal with—which is what I'd recommend in most cases.

Why Do People Say We Should Disable It?

Look at any tweaking site anywhere, and you'll receive many different opinions on how to deal with the pagefile—some sites will tell you to make it huge, others will tell you to completely disable it. The logic goes something like this: Windows is inefficient at using the pagefile, and if you have plenty of memory you should just disable it since RAM is a lot faster than your hard drive. By disabling it, you are forcing Windows to keep everything in much faster RAM all the time.

The problem with this logic is that it only really affects a single scenario: switching to an open application that you haven’t used in a while won’t ever grind the hard drive when the pagefile is disabled. It’s not going to actually make your PC faster, since Windows will never page the application you are currently working with anyway.

Disabling the Pagefile Can Lead to System Problems

The big problem with disabling your pagefile is that once you've exhausted the available RAM, your apps are going to start crashing, since there's no virtual memory for Windows to allocate—and worst case, your actual system will crash or become very unstable. When that application crashes, it's going down hard—there's no time to save your work or do anything else.

In addition to applications crashing anytime you run up against the memory limit, you'll also come across a lot of applications that simply won't run properly if the pagefile is disabled. For instance, you really won't want to run a virtual machine on a box with no pagefile, and some defrag utilities will also fail. You'll also notice some other strange, indefinable behavior when your pagefile is disabled—in my experience, a lot of things just don't always work right.

Less Space for File Buffers and SuperFetch

If you’ve got plenty of RAM in your PC, and your workload really isn’t that huge, you may never run into application crashing errors with the pagefile disabled, but you’re also taking away from memory that Windows could be using for read and write caching for your actual documents and other files. If your drive is spending a lot of time thrashing, you might want to consider increasing the amount of memory Windows uses for the filesystem cache, rather than disabling the pagefile.

Windows 7 includes a file caching mechanism called SuperFetch that caches the most frequently accessed application files in RAM so your applications will open more quickly. It's one of the many reasons why Windows 7 feels so much more "snappy" than previous versions—and disabling the pagefile takes away RAM that Windows could be using for caching. Note: SuperFetch was actually introduced in Windows Vista.

Put the Pagefile on a Different Drive, Not Partition

The next piece of bad advice that you’ll see or hear from would-be system tweakers is to create a separate partition for your pagefile-which is generally pointless when the partition is on the same hard drive. What you should actually do is move your pagefile to a completely different physical drive to split up the workload.

What Size should my Pagefile Be?

Seems like every IT guy I've ever talked to has stated the "fact" that your pagefile needs to be 1.5 to 2x your physical RAM—so if you have a 4GB system, you should have an 8GB pagefile. The problem with this logic is that if you are opening 12 GB worth of in-use applications, your system is going to be extremely slow, and your hard drive is going to grind to the point where your PC will be fairly unusable. You simply will not increase or decrease performance by having a gigantic pagefile; you'll just use up more drive space.

Mark Russinovich, the well-known Windows expert and author of the Sysinternals tools, says that if you want to optimize your pagefile size to fit your actual needs, you should follow a much different formula: The Minimum should be Peak Commit – Physical RAM, and the Maximum should be double that.

For example, if your system has 4GB of RAM and your peak memory usage was 5GB (including virtual memory), you should set your pagefile to at least 1GB and the maximum as 2GB to give you a buffer to keep you safe in case a RAM-hungry application needs it. If you have 8GB of RAM and a max 3GB of memory usage, you should still have a pagefile, but you would probably be fine with a 1 GB size. Note: If your system is configured for crash dumps you'll need to have a larger pagefile or Windows won't be able to write out the process memory in the event of a crash—though it's not very useful for most end-users.

The other size-related advice is to set the minimum and maximum size as the same so you won’t have to deal with fragmentation if Windows increases the size of the pagefile. This advice is rather silly, considering that most defrag software will defragment the pagefile even if Windows increases the size, which doesn’t happen very often.

The Bottom Line: Should You Disable It?

As we’ve seen, the only tangible benefit of disabling the pagefile is that restoring minimized applications you haven’t used in a while is going to be faster. This comes at the price of not being able to actually use all your RAM for fear of your applications crashing and burning once you hit the limit, and experiencing a lot of weird system issues in certain applications.

The vast majority of users should never disable the pagefile or mess with the pagefile settings—just let Windows deal with the pagefile and use the available RAM for file caching, processes, and Superfetch. If you really want to speed up your PC, your best options are these:

On my Windows 7 system with 6GB of RAM and a Windows-managed pagefile, every application opens quickly, and even the applications I haven’t used in a while still open almost instantaneously. I’m regularly running it up to 80-90% RAM usage, with dozens of application windows open, and I don’t see a slowdown anywhere.

If you want to read more extremely detailed information about how virtual memory and your pagefile really work, be sure to check out Mark Russinovich’s article on the subject, which is where much of this information was sourced.


Don't agree with my conclusions? Voice your opinion in the comments, or even better—run some benchmarks to prove your point.

The How-To Geek has tested pagefile settings extensively and thinks everybody should just upgrade to Windows 7 already. His geeky articles can be found daily here on Lifehacker, How-To Geek, and Twitter.






Make Google Chrome Open with Permanently Pinned Tabs [Google Chrome]

Like using the pinned tabs feature in Chrome but wish you could make your pinned tabs permanent? Combine the --pinned-tab-count command switch magic and a list of your favorite pinned web sites to do just that.

Note: We highlighted this tip in a tips box post a few weeks ago, but here’s a more thorough guide for Windows users who like the idea. If you’re using Firefox, check out the very cool App Tabs extension.

Before

Normally you have to use the “Tab Context Menu” to create pinned tabs in Chrome, then repeat the same actions again the next time that you open the browser. Doing so once in a while is okay, but it quickly gets tedious if you have to do it every time.

Setting Up Permanent Tabs

To get started you will need to locate and right click on your shortcut(s) for Google Chrome. Select “Properties”.

Once you have clicked through, you will see the “Properties” window with the “Shortcut” tab displayed. Now you are ready to modify the “Target Path”.

There will be two parts to this:

In the address area for “Target:” you will need to add the following command to the end of the target path making certain to leave a single space in between the final quote mark and the “pinned tab count command”. Enter the number of permanent pinned tabs that you would like to have in place of the “x”…for our example we chose “5”.

It should look like this:

Now for the second part. You will need to add the URL for each website that you would like to have as a permanently pinned tab after the “pinned tab count command”. Make certain to leave a single space in between each URL and the “pinned tab count command” as shown below.

Once you have that finished, click “Apply”, then “OK”.

After

Once you start Chrome (and each time thereafter) you will have a very nice set of permanently pinned tabs ready to go.

Accessing the “Tab Context Menu” you can still temporarily turn the permanent tabs back into “normal ones” by clicking on “Pin tab Command” to “deselect” it. You will also be able to close the tabs in the normal fashion if you do not need them at the moment.


If you love using pinned tabs in Google Chrome and have been wanting to make them permanent, then you should definitely give this a try.






Scribbly Takes Notes and Emails Them to You [Downloads]

Windows/Mac/Linux (with Adobe AIR): Note-taking application Scribbly lives in your system tray and lets you quickly write notes or reminders to yourself, and then will email them to you with a single click.

Once you've installed the application, you can simply click the system tray icon to bring up the single note-taking window, type in whatever note you'd like to send to yourself, and then send it off with the click of a button—you'll need to set your email address in the settings, of course. The notes persist even after you minimize the application to the tray, so you can use it to take little notes throughout the day, and then email them to yourself before you go home.

The application is very simple, but where it could be really useful is when you combine it with Gmail’s plus-addressing feature—just add something like username+notes@gmail.com to your email address in the settings, and then setup a Gmail filter to automatically put those notes into a separate label for storage. It's a useful feature that makes it worth a look, at least. Scribbly is a free download for all platforms with Adobe AIR.

Scribbly [Adobe AIR Marketplace via Digital Inspiration]






Device Doctor is a Free Driver Update Scanner with Promise [Downloads]

Windows only: Driver update utility Device Doctor finds outdated drivers on your PC, and helps you download the latest version—without charging you a dime.

Using the utility, which can be installed or used as a portable application, is about as easy as it gets—just click the Begin Scan button, wait a couple of seconds, and you will be shown a list of drivers that can be updated. The download button for each driver will take you to their web site, where you can download the drivers for free, without signing up for anything at all. Most of the drivers come with setup programs, but some of them are nothing more than zip files, and would need to be installed manually—hopefully something they can improve on in the future.

During our testing, we used the application on half a dozen PCs, and had varied results—on our XP test system, Device Doctor worked well and accurately found new drivers, but for Windows 7 we didn't have as much luck, with a few incorrect drivers being thrown at us. That said, Windows 7 was only released recently, so expect that support to improve in the future.

Device Doctor isn’t perfect yet, but as a completely free, portable application that you can toss on your thumb drive, it’s well worth a look. It might even save you some time searching for new drivers while you are fixing mom’s PC.

Device Doctor is a free download for Windows only. Be sure to check out the full How-To Geek review for a more in-depth look, as well as instructions on installing drivers manually.






Sumatra 1.0 is a Blazing Fast Replacement for Adobe Reader [Downloads]

Windows only: The Sumatra PDF Viewer is a tiny, open-source, portable, and, most of all, lightning-quick replacement for the bloated Adobe Reader we’ve all learned to replace. It’s only a 1.2 MB download, so why not give it a try?

Sumatra opened every PDF we threw at it without any issues, along with a table of contents in the left pane if available. You can head into the Options to choose the default layout and zoom, or choose whether to have the sidebar display automatically. Want to copy text to the clipboard? Just hold down the Ctrl key and select the text with your mouse, then use Ctrl+C to copy it. There’s even a full set of hotkeys, including Gmail-style navigation. It’s not as full-featured as Reader or Foxit, but if all you are doing is reading PDFs, it’s definitely worth a look.

With giant hard drives and dirt-cheap memory these days, perhaps the biggest reason to switch to an alternative to Adobe Reader isn't even the bloat anymore—it's the non-stop security holes that seem to plague the popular reader, leaving you vulnerable to drive-by attacks. If Sumatra isn’t for you, at least check out one of the other five best PDF readers.

Sumatra is a free download for Windows only. If you plan to keep Adobe Reader installed, be sure to check out the manual for instructions on using Sumatra as your default viewer when reading PDFs from the web.






You’re Backing Up Your Data the Wrong Way [Backup]

Time and time again, people tell me that they’ve bought an external hard drive to back up their pictures, music, and documents. Great, right? Sadly, that’s not always the case.

There’s one simple rule about backups that everybody needs to fully understand: Your files should exist in at least Two places, or it's no longer a backup—and your data is at risk. Too often people delete the files from their primary PC, assuming they are backed up.

It’s time to educate people on proper backup strategy, so we’ll run through your options and talk about the pros and cons. These days, you’ve got plenty of choices on the Windows side of things, Mac users have Time Machine, and there’s online backup for anybody.

Backing Up to a Local Source

When it comes to local backup applications, it’s really a matter of preference, since most of them do the job adequately without a lot of fuss. The Backup and Restore application built into Windows 7 or Vista is a perfectly acceptable choice, and will handle most backups with ease. My personal choice is a paid version of SyncBack SE, but there’s plenty of other choices for Windows, and all of them do the job.

The most important thing to remember when backing up your data is that you can’t delete it from your main system once it’s been backed up to an external drive. By doing that, you’ve left yourself with only a single copy of your important files, on an external drive that has just as much chance of dying as your internal PC hard drive. Think it can’t happen to you? One of my external drives died last week.

Backing Up to an Online Source

There’s quite a few online backup services to choose from, and while the great thing about online backup is that you don’t have to deal with external drives, you’re leaving your data in somebody else’s hands, and restoring all of your files can take an extremely long time, since you’ll have to download all of the files again. If you don’t have a ton of personal files, online backup is a great choice, if you don’t mind putting your faith in somebody else to keep your data secure.

Backing Up a Total System Image

Without question, the easiest form of backup to restore from is a complete image of your system. We’ve already covered a list of the best free system restore tools, and Gina walked through how to hot image your PC hard drive with DriveImage XML, but if you really want an easy experience you might want to check out one of the paid tools like Acronis True Image.

These tools are the best way to recover from a total system failure, but they usually aren’t quite as easy to restore a single file from, which is a much more likely scenario. There’s been dozens of times that I’ve needed to restore an older version of a document, and was able to easily grab the previous version from Dropbox or my external drive.

What Should You Back Up?

When you’re backing up your files, there’s no reason to make a backup of every single thing on your hard drive-in fact, it would be a huge waste of space to back up your Windows folder if you have to reinstall the whole system in order to restore the backups again. Here’s a couple of pointers to help you choose what you really need to back up, and what you don’t:

  • Your entire Users folder: either at C:UsersUsername for Windows 7 or Vista, or C:Documents and Settings for Windows XP. This folder should contain all of your documents, settings, etc.
  • Your Data Folders: If you’ve created other data on your hard drives, you should include those as well.

What you don’t need to back up?

  • Your Program Files Folder: There’s simply no reason to back up your installed applications when they all have to be re-installed if you had to restore your machine. It’s a waste of space to do so.
  • Your Windows Folder: The only real good reason to back up your Windows folder is just in case you can’t find the same drivers again. On the other hand, there are any number of tools to back up your drivers, and you should do that once in a while instead of backing up the entire Windows folder.

Best Backup Strategy: Combo

Your best bet is to combine a number of different methods into your backup strategy.

  • Create a System Image: Use one of the many system restore tools to create a complete image of your PC, which will protect you in case of a catastrophic system failure. You’ll want to back this up to your external drive.
  • Use a Backup Tool: Just pick one, any one, and start using it. Back up your data to an external drive, another PC, or anywhere else. Just make sure you don’t delete the data from the primary PC.
  • Use an Online Backup for Important Files: Even though you are backing up to an external drive, you might want to start using something like Dropbox or Mozy to back up your most important files.

Just remember, all of your files need to be in at least Two places at once. You don’t want to get Journalspaced.


Do you always keep your data in more than one place? Share your backup strategy in the comments.

The How-To Geek backs up data to his Samba server with rsync’d drives. His geeky articles can be found daily here on Lifehacker, How-To Geek, and Twitter.






Close All Windows from the Windows 7 Taskbar [Downloads]

Close All Windows is a simple application that forces all your open windows to quit immediately, and the Addictive Tips blog points out that you can also pin it to the Windows 7 taskbar for quick access.

All you really have to do is download the application, save it into a permanent location somewhere on your drive, and then pin it to the taskbar using a simple right-click -> Pin to Taskbar—just make sure that you don't double-click the application, or all your windows will immediately close. Unlike some of the other similar applications we’ve written about, this one has no interface, but it has a higher resolution icon that looks good pinned to the taskbar. If you are looking for a way to immediately close all your running applications, this could do the trick nicely.

Close All Windows is a free download, works on all versions of Windows, but will need to be pinned to the Quick Launch instead of the taskbar in XP or Vista.

Close All Windows [NTWind Software via Addictive Tips]






The Master List of New Windows 7 Shortcuts [Windows 7]

Windows 7 adds loads of great shortcuts for switching between apps, moving windows around your screen, moving them to another monitor altogether, and much more. Here’s a quick-reference master list of the best new Windows 7 shortcuts.

We’re nuts for keyboard shortcuts here at Lifehacker, and Windows 7 brings a handful of great new ones to add to your muscle memory. It’s also got a few handy mouse-based shortcuts you’d do well to add to your repertoire. So let’s get shortcuttin’.

Window Management Shortcuts

One of the best changes in Windows 7 is the ability to “snap” windows to the side of the screen, maximize them by dragging to the top of the screen, or even move them to another monitor with a shortcut key. Check out the video for a demonstration of how some of the keys work.

The full list of keyboard shortcuts includes:

  • Win+Home: Clear all but the active window.
  • Win+Space: All windows become transparent so you can see through to the desktop.
  • Win+Up arrow: Maximize the active window.
  • Shift+Win+Up arrow: Maximize the active window vertically.
  • Win+Down arrow: Minimize the window/Restore the window if it’s maximized.
  • Win+Left/Right arrows: Dock the window to each side of the monitor.
  • Shift+Win+Left/Right arrows: Move the window to the monitor on the left or right.

You can also interact with windows by dragging them with the mouse:

  • Drag window to the top: Maximize
  • Drag window left/right: Dock the window to fill half of the screen.
  • Shake window back/forth: Minimize everything but the current window.
  • Double-Click Top Window Border (edge): Maximize window vertically.


Taskbar Shortcuts

In Windows 7, using the Windows key along with the numbers 1-9 will let you interact with the applications pinned to the taskbar in those positions – for example, the Windows key + 4 combination would launch Outlook in this example, or Win+Alt+4 can be used to get quick access to the Outlook Jump List from the keyboard.

You can use any of these shortcut combinations to launch the applications in their respective position on the taskbar, or more:

  • Win+number (1-9): Starts the application pinned to the taskbar in that position, or switches to that program.
  • Shift+Win+number (1-9): Starts a new instance of the application pinned to the taskbar in that position.
  • Ctrl+Win+number (1-9): Cycles through open windows for the application pinned to the taskbar in that position.
  • Alt+Win+number (1-9): Opens the Jump List for the application pinned to the taskbar.
  • Win+T: Focus and scroll through items on the taskbar.
  • Win+B: Focuses the System Tray icons

In addition, you can interact with the taskbar using your mouse and a modifier key:

  • Shift+Click on a taskbar button: Open a program or quickly open another instance of a program.
  • Ctrl+Shift+Click on a taskbar button: Open a program as an administrator.
  • Shift+Right-click on a taskbar button: Show the window menu for the program (like XP does).
  • Shift+Right-click on a grouped taskbar button: Show the window menu for the group.
  • Ctrl+Click on a grouped taskbar button: Cycle through the windows of the group.

More Useful Hotkeys You Should Know

The new hotkey goodness didn't stop with the taskbar and moving windows around—one of the best new hotkeys in Windows 7 is the fact that you can create a new folder with a hotkey. Just open up any Windows Explorer window, hit the Ctrl+Shift+N shortcut key sequence, and you’ll be rewarded with a shiny “New Folder” ready for you to rename.

Here’s a few more interesting hotkeys for you:

  • Ctrl+Shift+N: Creates a new folder in Windows Explorer.
  • Alt+Up: Goes up a folder level in Windows Explorer.
  • Alt+P: Toggles the preview pane in Windows Explorer.
  • Shift+Right-Click on a file: Adds Copy as Path, which copies the path of a file to the clipboard.
  • Shift+Right-Click on a file: Adds extra hidden items to the Send To menu.
  • Shift+Right-Click on a folder: Adds Command Prompt Here, which lets you easily open a command prompt in that folder.
  • Win+P: Adjust presentation settings for your display.
  • Win+(+/-): Zoom in/out.
  • Win+G: Cycle between the Windows Gadgets on your screen.

Windows 7 definitely makes it a lot easier to interact with your PC from your keyboard—so what are your favorite shortcuts, and how do they save you time? Share your experience in the comments.

The How-To Geek is quickly wearing out the keyboard on his new Windows 7 laptop. His geeky articles can be found daily here on Lifehacker, How-To Geek, and Twitter.






Duplicate a Google Chrome Tab with a Shortcut Key [Google Chrome]

If you frequently use the Duplicate tab function in your browser and also love using your keyboard shortcuts, you might be interested to know that there’s an easy way to do this in Google Chrome.

Normally, you can simply right-click on the tab and use the Duplicate item on the menu to make a copy of the tab, but there’s no easy way to do this from the keyboard (that we know of). What you can do instead is use a shortcut key combination to highlight the location bar, and then create a new tab from that URL.

Just use the Alt+D shortcut key to put the focus into the address bar, and then use Alt+Enter to open that URL in a new tab. The trick is that you don't have to move your thumb off the Alt key—just push down Alt, then hit D and Enter in quick succession to duplicate the current tab in a new tab. Readers will note that this method also works in Firefox, and duplicates the tab without duplicating the tab history—probably saving some memory usage while you are at it.






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