Ten fixes for Vista's worst features

Windows Vista is loaded with features, but they don't all work as they should. Here's how to tweak, modify, cope with, or work around the operating system's biggest blunders.

Just ask anyone who's seen Spiderman 3: Good ideas seldom survive bad execution.

The developers at Microsoft had some great ideas while designing Vista, but poor implementation turned many of those great concepts into lousy, annoying features. To be fair, Vista inherited most of these well-intentioned flaws from earlier versions of Windows — but it either failed to fix them or didn't even try.

Here are ten of Vista's most irritating flops, along with quick fixes and workarounds. Let's start with one that's absolutely unique to Vista, and almost universally hated by those who use it.

User Account Control


People do some things in Windows — such as install destructive applications or edit the Registry — that deserve a stern "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" warning. Such situations may even warrant your having to prove you're an administrator before you're allowed to continue.

But Vista's User Account Control (UAC) fails to offer enough feedback to users; often it gives you no way to know why a given act is considered dangerous. Even worse, Vista's designers went overboard, forcing people to click through a UAC prompt to set the clock or manually start a backup. The result: People get annoyed and learn to ignore UAC, effectively removing any protection it might provide.

Here are three imperfect ways to stop UAC annoyances. One minor problem they all share is that every so often, when you boot, Vista will warn you that the UAC is off. You can just ignore the warnings, in much the same way you've already learned to ignore UAC itself.

1. Just turn it off: This easy fix works well in an administrator account, but it renders standard accounts almost unusable. Select Start, Control Panel, User Accounts, and click Turn User Account Control on or off. Select Continue at the UAC prompt, and on the next screen, uncheck Use User Account Control (UAC) to help protect your computer. Click OK and reboot.


2. Use TweakUAC : This free program can turn UAC off for administrator accounts while leaving it on for everyone else, which is a relatively safe and convenient compromise. Just run the program, select Switch UAC to the quiet mode, and click OK.


3. Fine-tune your system's UAC settings: This works only in Vista Business or Ultimate. Select Start, type secpol.msc, and press Enter. Navigate the left pane to the Security Settings\Local Policy\Security Options folder. In the right pane, scroll down to the bottom for nine options controlling how UAC behaves. If you're not sure what these settings change, see the helpful guide at Walker News.

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The One-Way Firewall

Windows' built-in firewall has always suffered from the same flaw: Though it blocks suspicious stuff that comes in, it does nothing about what your PC sends out. Since an infected PC can mass-mail spam and forward your credit card numbers to someone without your better interest in mind, that's an important shortcoming.


Vista supposedly fixed this problem with the addition of a firewall capable of watching and blocking outbound traffic. But that capability is turned off by default. And Vista's designers forgot to put the controls that turn it on in a place where you're likely to look for it: the Windows Firewall Settings dialog box.

Here are two solutions.

1. Go to the secret place where you can turn on outgoing protection: Click Start, type firewall, and select Windows Firewall with Advanced Security. Click Windows Firewall Properties. The first three of the resulting dialog box's four tabs contain an Outbound Connections drop-down menu. In all three, select Block.


2. Get another, better firewall: Even with two-way protection enabled, Windows' firewall is a feeble guardian. On the other hand, the free Comodo Firewall Pro came out tops in independent testing, even compared with well-known commercial products such as Norton Internet Security (according to Matousec's Firewall Challenge).

System Restore

Here's a great idea: Give Windows a built-in, automated backup application. Restoring a system backup should fix such problems as corrupted boot files, virus infections, Trojan horse installations, and Windows' own natural, gradual deterioration — all without adversely affecting your data.


But you can't permanently save a System Restore backup (called a restore point) to external media. Thus, while System Restore can usually return Windows to, say, last Wednesday's state, it's generally useless for bringing everything back to the perfect condition your PC was in last year. What's more, restoring your system depends on having multiple restore points, such that one corrupt backup makes subsequent ones useless.

The best solution would be a system-backup program that leaves your data alone while backing up everything else to a removable disk — preferably a bootable one. I've yet to find such a program.


Genie Backup Manager Home comes closer than anything else I've found. Genie's Disaster Recovery option insists on backing up everything on the drive, but you can restore the system while keeping the data unchanged by deselecting your data folders when you restore a Disaster Recovery backup. You can try this US$50 general-purpose backup program before you buy it.

Every other reliable system-backup program I know of is image-based, meaning that it restores the entire drive — your data as well as the system. That's fine if you're recovering from a hard-drive crash, but if you want to restore last month's Windows installation while keeping today's documents, you'll need to fully restore one backup and then selectively restore another.

On the other hand, some image-backup programs are free. If you have Vista Business or Ultimate, you already have one. To access it, select Start, All Programs, Accessories, Backup Status and Configuration, Complete PC Backup. Another free option worth considering is DriveImage XML, which works best if you get it as part of the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows — which is also free. Just remember to back up your data separately.

Which brings us to the next topic…

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Data Backup

Backing up your data is far more important than backing up your system, and you should do it every day. The lack of a system backup could cost you a couple of hours reinstalling Windows and your applications. Having no up-to-date data backup could cost you your family photos, your bank account information, or even your job.


Microsoft has a long tradition of bundling lousy backup programs with Windows. Vista's backup program improves on older versions, but not by much; for instance, you can back up files by type, but not by location.

Here are some solutions.

1. Use bundled software: Since an external hard drive is the best medium to back your files up to, and since most such drives come with backup software, use the backup program that came with your drive. It's almost certainly better than Vista's.

2. Do it online: Uploading your data over the Internet is slow, but it's easy and adds protection by putting hundreds of miles between your hard drive and your backup. I recommend Mozy Home. It's free for a 2GB backup, or $5 a month for unlimited storage from a single PC.

3. Use the best software: For my money, that's the same Genie Backup Manager I recommended in the last tip. Amazingly simple to use considering its versatility, it handles scheduled and manual backups with ease, and can even purge your backup media of old backups on a regular schedule. But the home version costs $50, and the Professional one is $70.


4. Find a bargain: The $25 Argentum Backup doesn't do a full system backup, but it does make data backups very straightforward. Since it either simply copies your files or compresses them into .zip archives, you don't actually need Argentum Backup to restore them.

Programs and Features Uninstaller

Installing a Windows program generally means letting its installation routine dig its claws deep into the operating system. Removing the program usually involves running an uninstaller that eliminates the application's functionality but leaves the claws behind.


Vista took the old Control Panel applet called 'Add and Remove Programs' and renamed it 'Programs and Features', but the developers didn't otherwise change it. All this program does is launch the unwanted application's usually-inadequate uninstaller.

For a better option, download the free Revo Uninstaller. Better yet, download the portable version that doesn't need to be installed (and thus uninstalled) itself. Like Vista's Programs and Features, Revo offers a convenient interface for launching your installed programs' own uninstallers. But after Revo does that job, it cleans up the mess that the uninstaller left behind.

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Windows Explorer's Address Bar Drop-Down Menu

Microsoft did a lot of things right in Vista's version of Windows Explorer, but the address bar's drop-down menu of recently visited folders isn't one of them.


First problem: It lists only folders you went to via the address bar. Worst problem: It also lists Web pages. If you're like most users, it will list more Web sites than folders. Personally, if I want to revisit a Web page, I'll use my browser, not my file manager.

Luckily, you have alternatives.


1. Use the other recent folders list: Click the down arrow to left of the address bar for a list of recent folders — but only very recent folders. Close and reopen Explorer, and the list will be a blank slate.

2. Use favorite folders, instead: You can easily place a shortcut to any folder into Explorer's top-left pane (something Vista does right). All you need do is drag and drop. Use this function wisely, and the lack of a convenient recent-folders option won't hurt so much.


3. Improve Windows Explorer: I recommend FileBox eXtender, a free add-on by Hyperionics Technology. It adds drop-down Recent and Favorites menus to Windows Explorer. Hint: FileBox eXtender works best if you check its Keys & Menus tab's Add folders from Windows… option.

Recent Items List

This clumsy execution of an otherwise good idea dates back to Windows 95 — and it still hasn't been fixed. Sure, it's great to have an automatically updated, conveniently located list of files you've recently used.


But Windows' designers failed to realize that there are some file types you go back to, and others you don't. Personally, I'm very likely to return to a recently opened .doc file, and very unlikely to do so with a .jpg. Yet if I've just been editing some photos, they'll crowd my .doc files off the menu. A professional photographer would likely have that situation reversed. But a few simple user-defined parameters could solve both of our problems.

Since Microsoft hasn't provided those parameters, use Flexigensoft's free ActualDoc. This powerful tool gives you separate recent lists for documents, pictures, and other file types in either its full window or its system tray pop-up menu. It can also password-protect the lists to preserve your privacy. The €20 Pro version adds user-defined categories and other tools.

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Sloppy Screen Shots

Vista made a significant improvement over XP in taking screen shots by adding a Snipping Tool that can capture a single window, a rectangle, or a free-form shape. But it still can't show what the mouse pointer is doing, and it lacks a timer. Without a timer, it's pretty hard to capture a drop-down menu.


I take my screen shots (and I take a lot of them) with NTWind Software's $25 WinSnap. Yes, it can capture the mouse pointer, and you can set a delay (in milliseconds, if you want to be precise). One particularly cool feature: It can capture the multiple windows in an application while ignoring everything else on the screen (although this doesn't always work). It even has tools for handling the color and look of the shot. And it's portable, so you don't have to install it.

Dragging Folders, Files, and Programs to the Start Menu

Here's a case where Vista's developers took a feature that worked beautifully in Windows XP, and ruined it. In XP, if you wanted Start-menu access to a program, file, or folder, all you needed to do was drag the item to the Start button and then to your desired location in the Start menu; Windows would then create a shortcut.

Try that in Vista, and it actually moves the file, program, or folder to the Start-menu folder. I'd be hard-pressed to imagine a situation where that's desirable.

No real solutions are available, but here are a couple of kludgy workarounds.

1. Drop it on the Start button rather than in the menu: This action creates a shortcut, but it appears on the left pane, rather than in the All Programs section. And if the item is a folder, the shortcut doesn't act as a cascading submenu.

2. Use the context menu: Right-drag rather than left-drag the object to the desired location in the Start menu. When you release the button, select Create Shortcuts Here from the resulting menu.

Folders in the Start Menu's Right Pane

Vista's redesigned Start menu added another great place for easily accessing a few important folders: the Start menu's right pane. The icons are big and convenient, and you can set each icon to act as a link or a menu.

But the only folders you can put there are the few that Microsoft permits you to put there (Documents, Music, and so on).

Here are two fixes.

1. Make your special folder an official special folder: You can tell Windows that the folder you really want access to is your photo or music folder, and get it on the pane that way. For details, see "Can I add XP-like expanding folder shortcuts to Vista's Start menu?"


2. Use Vista Start Menu: Dennis Nazarenko's free program (there's also a Pro version that costs $20) replaces Windows' Start menu with a larger, more versatile, and — to be honest — ugly alternative. You can control what folders and other items appear on the main menu. Other cool features include keyboard shortcut labels that, by default, are visible only when you bring up the menu with the keyboard. You can download Vista Start Menu.