Windows XP comes with a set of local administration tools that, while not always overlooked, are often underrated. Some of these tools may be familiar to the administrator, while others may be completely new (you'd be surprised how many admins don't know about the "Manage" context menu) or may have unexpected functions.
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The Computer Management console
One of the many features Windows XP has inherited from Windows 2000 is the "Manage" context menu. To bring it up, right-click on My Computer and select Manage (the same action is used in Windows 2000). This opens an MMC window with three main branches: System Tools, Storage, and Services and Applications.
System Tools contains a few of the more commonly used system information tools: the Event Viewer (further subdivided into Application, Security and System logs), Shared Folders, Local Users and Groups, Performance Logs and Alerts, and Device Manager. The Storage branch contains the Removable Storage manager (used for defining removable media, used by programs like the NTBACKUP tool), the Disk Defragmenter and the ,00.html>Disk Management console. If you install a third-party disk defragmentation tool (such as Raxco's PerfectDisk or Executive Software's Diskeeper), it will usually replace the built-in defragmenter in the Computer Management console, but the original program can still be accessed with the DEFRAG command.
The Services and Applications branch contains the Services console -- which lets you stop, start and administer system services -- and the Indexing Service, which when activated indexes the contents of the system drives for fast text searching. This feature isn't used often, since it can affect system performance; if it's not needed, the Indexing Service should be disabled.
Each of these consoles is functionally the same as its standalone counterpart; the only difference is that each console runs in the context of the Computer Management MMC console, rather than as a standalone window.
Earlier versions of Windows contained a system information tool called MSINFO. It's since been eclipsed by a far more advanced version of the tool named, appropriately enough, MSINFO32. Type MSINFO32 at the command line and you'll be presented with a System Summary that breaks down your PC's configuration into several categories: the main system summary, hardware resources, components, software, Internet (and Internet Explorer) settings and any Microsoft applications (specifically, Office) that are installed. All the views can be printed or exported to text files for easy analysis.
The Tools menu of the program sports some exceptionally useful administration items. Net Diagnostics scans all the network settings -- your defined mail and news connections, the local loopback, and so forth -- and compiles a report about your system's overall network configuration, which can be saved to a file. If the network doesn't seem to be behaving correctly, this is one way to perform a slew of local diagnostics in one swoop.
Also in the Tools menu is System Restore, DXDIAG (covered later in this piece), Dr. Watson (which should be familiar) and the File Signature Verification tool. This checks the digital signatures on a slew of critical files to make sure they are all valid. Files that have been changed or replaced with unsigned versions will be reported (although, as noted below with DXDIAG, an unsigned file may not always be illegitimate).
Finally, every mode in MSINFO32 can be searched: There's a "Find" text box along the bottom that lets you text-search everything accessed through the program.
The system configuration utility
Type MSCONFIG at a command line or into the Start -> Run dialog, and you'll be presented with the System Configuration Utility. Microsoft provides this tool as a way of diagnosing and fixing problems with booting and system startup.
The General tab lets you control how Windows starts on the next reboot -- Normal, Diagnostic or Selective. If there is a suspected problem with something loaded at boot time, using Diagnostic or Selective startup can help ferret out the problem. The Launch System Restore button fires up the System Restore Wizard -- which, when enabled, can allow rollback to a less problematic point in time -- and the Expand File button lets you extract original files, if needed, from the Windows installation sources. The SYSTEM.INI and WIN.INI tabs let you make changes to those files, which are provided mainly for backward compatibility.
The Service tab resembles the Services list in Computer Management but has a couple of additional features: You can enable or disable all listed services with one click, and you can also show only non-MS services -- the better to see whether there are any such services that may be creating problems. Startup allows you to selectively disable elements in the system Startup folder (although not delete them), so troublesome programs loading at login can be disabled cleanly this way.
The DirectX diagnostic tool
The DXDIAG application, originally only provided with DirectX as part of a download, is now shipped standard with Windows. DXDIAG prints a summary report of all the DirectX components -- needed files, display drivers, sound drivers, music controls, input devices, network components, and so on -- and can run full diagnostic tests on each component to ensure that it is working correctly. It also reports back some generic system information.
If you're using multimedia drivers that haven't been WHQL-certified (many cutting- or bleeding-edge video drivers are like this), uncheck the "Check for WHQL" box on the System tab to suppress superfluous errors.
The Registry Editor
The Registry Editor in Windows 2000 came in two incarnations: REGEDIT and REGEDT32. The former was a part of the original REGEDIT from Windows 9x; the latter was a rewritten version, which contained extensions specifically for Windows 2000 -- the ability to edit permissions on registry keys, for instance. Both versions have been merged into REGEDIT for Windows XP, although you can call up the same program by typing either REGEDIT or REGEDT32.
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