Top 5 Cool Vista Tricks

Even if you never have to use these, it's good just to know they're there.

Did you know miners often have to sift through anywhere from 250 to 400 tons of rock, gravel and sand to extract one carat of diamond? Once they find that elusive diamond, a master craftsman must then cut and polish it just right to bring out the diamond's hidden brilliance.

There are quite a few diamonds in the rough buried within Microsoft Vista. You just need to know where to look to bring them to the surface. Here are five of the brightest gems:

1. The Value of VHD
Vista's CompletePC backup is more valuable than you might think. After you do a CompletePC backup, you'll see a group of XML files and a large .VHD file in your backup folder. The files will be large because CompletePC backup's file compression isn't much to speak of. For example, I did a CompletePC backup of a 12GB drive and it finished just under 10GB after backup. The fact that it's a .VHD file, however, is quite valuable.

Figure 1
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Figure 1. Your CompletePC backup creates a .VHD file you can mount and use to access the backed up data.

The .VHD file format may ring a bell if you've ever worked with Virtual PC. Virtual PC images are also .VHD files. This doesn't mean you can boot a virtual system using a CompletePC backup file. If you're already running a virtual system, however, you can go into the Virtual PC configuration options and mount the CompletePC backup .VHD file to get at the files inside.

Going one step further, you can also use vhdmount.exe. VHDmount is a tool that ships with Virtual Server 2005 R2, Service Pack 1. You can use it to mount a .VHD file and access it as if it were a local drive. You don't even need to go through a virtual operating system in order to access your backed up data.

What's the practical side to all this? If you back up your system and realize you just need one lousy file, you don't have to restore the entire system. Just go in and get the file you need.

If you want to learn more about mounting .VHD files, check out an article by Ben Armstrong, manager on the Virtual Machine Team at Microsoft. He tells you how to configure your system to mount .VHD files by simply double-clicking.

2. Share Those iCalendars
This is a cool little gem. By using the iCalendar standard, you can share your calendars with anyone around the world, whether or not they're using Vista. There's a bevy of different calendar tools that use the iCalendar standard, so you can share away.

Figure 2
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Figure 2. Using iCalendar helps you keep tabs of your family, your work and your favorite TV shows. You don't even have to do it yourself-just download someone else's.

You can also export your own calendar or import someone else's. You can even publish and/or subscribe to Web-based calendars by using HTTP and WebDAV.

How does this benefit you? Well, if you've ever spent a couple of hours researching your favorite TV shows, looking up their episode guide on and adding the titles and dates to your Calendar so you don't miss a show (or know when to download the next one), then you might like to know that you can check out online sites that will give you that information for free. Others have already done the work, you just have to find it and import it or sign up for a subscription. Who would do such a thing? Check out and you'll see.

You can also create multiple levels of calendars you can turn on and off with a single click. For example, you can have a main calendar called "Family Schedule." Then beneath that, you can have individual family member schedules like "Calvin," "Hobbes" and so on. That way, you can keep track of the whole family or all of your employees.

You can also share your calendar so your staff or your family can keep you up-to-date on what's happening in their lives. You'll clearly see "Staff Meeting" days, upcoming games or whatever you need.

3. Health Check -- Stat
You know there is a new performance monitoring tool called the Reliability and Performance Monitor. You may have noticed that it's a good deal more robust than its predecessors. All this additional capability may seem overwhelming, but before you push it aside, you should know there are a couple of preconfigured diagnostics you can run on your system with little trouble. Here are a few steps you can take:

The Simple Method: From the Control Panel, find Performance Information and Tools (or type it into the Search pane from the Start orb). In the Tasks pane, you can select Advanced Tools. You'll notice a bunch of different tools. Locate the "Generate a system health report" tool. Wait about one minute while the test runs and you'll get a nicely detailed report. Even though you went through a different tool, you're still using the Reliability and Performance Monitor.

The Quick Method: If you need to do a quicker health check, open a command prompt. (It doesn't matter whether it's elevated or non-elevated. It will still ask you for UAC permissions to proceed.) Type perfmon /report and the same tool kicks off. You could also use perfmon /report "Data_Collector_Set" to run any one of the System Data Collector Sets or your own User-created Data Collector Sets.

The Admin Method: Time to take the next step. Run the tool from the Reliability and Performance Monitor itself. Open the monitor tool and you'll see the System Data Collector Sets. There are four preconfigured tests, so you can do more than an overall system diagnostic. You can do LAN diagnostics, System Performance and Wireless Diagnostics, as well as System Diagnostics.

Figure 3
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Figure 3. The System Diagnostics Report gives you a full rundown of how your system checks out.

To perform the System Diagnostics, for example, select "System Diagnostics." Then right-click and choose Start. Look down to the Reports section, open the System Diagnostics and select the report that is currently running (the latest one at the top of the list). This may sound complicated, but you have to start somewhere with the new Reliability and Performance Monitor.

Go ahead and use the quick command-line method to see the Reliability and Performance Monitor in action. It's a truly solid diagnostic tool, and it's no longer hidden beneath a ton of complexity or a million selection options.

4. You Have the Control
Parental Control is a great new feature in Windows Vista, and it's useful for much more than keeping your kids away from sketchy Web sites. You can control when and for how long someone uses a computer, what games or applications they can play and use, as well as what Web sites they can visit. Afterward, you can see an audit of all their activity both on and off the Web. It's about time this type of solution was integrated directly into the operating system.

When working with the Allow/Block settings, you should only include "Allowed" sites at first. Trying to handle the thousands of blocked sites will drive you crazy. Start a user (or your child) off with a handful of approved sites and then expand the list over time. This is the best way to prevent them from circumventing your efforts by using proxy sites or by going through Google image (or other image-viewing sites) and viewing inappropriate content.

Figure 4
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Figure 4. You can choose to "Only Allow," which is the recommended approach. You can also import a WebAllowBlockList file.

You can configure the Allow/Block sites through the Parental Control settings or by importing an Allow/Block file. First, go to your Allow or Block specific Web sites section. You can type an address in the Web site address pane and then hit Allow or Block to manually add sites. For faster progress, hit the Export button and save the file.

When you go to open the file, you'll notice it's an odd file type. It's called a WebAllowBlockList file. Aside from the Parental Control being able to open the file, you won't see any other options. Right click the file, select Open With, and then choose Notepad or some other text editor.

Now you'll see that the file isn't all that complicated to work with. Here is a simple example that includes one allowed site and one blocked site:

The numeral 1 is the code for Allow and 2 is code for Block. From here, you can add as many sites as you like. When you're done, you can import the file back into your Parental Controls.

Obviously, there are a billion possible sites you might want to block. You can do this manually or pick up a filter off the Web. In the latter case, you would then have to configure the entries to work with your Parental Control entries. For example, you can search for "URL deny lists" or "URL block lists."

One of my favorite best block lists comes from Rich Krol (get it here). You'll notice there are two XML files -- one list for porn content and one for spyware. Take the time and reconfigure these to work with the Vista format.

Keep in mind that you can create a list with only Allow settings and then choose the "Only Allow Web sites that are on the allow list" option. So when a friend asks for the list of Web sites you let your users (or your kids) visit, you can export your entire list to share.

Sometimes the mere presence of a deterrent is effective. Even if you don't filter a thing, if you let your users or your kids know that you can see every site they visit, that should scare them enough to resolve most of your worries.

5. Give Yourself High Marks
The first time many of us opened up the Windows Experience Index (WEI) and saw the pitiful score, we were ticked off-at least I was. A brand new laptop should have a higher score than a 2.9.

As you learn more about how the rating works, however, the score probably won't sting as much. To calculate the WEI, Vista takes the lowest of five scores that relate to your processor, RAM and so on. Maybe that's the goal of the WEI -- to embarrass or anger us into spending more money on better hardware.

Figure 5
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Figure 5. How is this for a WEI Score?

There are a couple of ways to increase your rating (besides shelling out thousands of dollars for upgrades). First off, run the test again. Sometimes just running it again will boost you over the three mark. I ran mine again and got a 3.1. Another tip is to turn off your Aero glass interface, which will boost performance. Or, you could go right into the .XML file that stores the results and give yourself a higher score.

The Windows System Assessment Tool (WinSAT), which is the tool that calculates the WEI, stores its output in the %systemroot%\Performance\WinSAT\DataStore. Each time you run WinSAT, it creates a new XML file and stores it in this folder with the assessment date at the beginning of the file name.

For example, a file might look like this: 2007-01-01 Assessment (Formal).WinSAT.xml. When you first open the folder, you might be shocked to see there are more than five results. In fact, WinSAT runs a variety of tests and assigns scores, but it will typically only show us the top five.

My research assistant Alan Wright took some time and tweaked the file to see if he could change it. "The first thing I would recommend is turning off the UAC for this procedure," he says. "Then open the file using WordPad (I used several editors but WordPad was the easiest to work with and didn't try to change the file format). You only have to change the top five scores to whatever number you like and close the file. When you go to look at your WEI settings again, it should show you the new number.

"If you stay below 5.9, your number will still have a blue background, but if you go too high it does change the background to grey, which isn't a big deal either way but does indicate a difference," he says. "To 'fix' this and make it go back to normal, I just deleted the file and rebooted my machine and then re-ran the test. It worked fine. I was back to my 3.1 rating. Knowing that I could tweak it, I went back in and gave myself a 4.0. That's how I feel today. Maybe tomorrow I'll be a 6.0."

Now why would you even want to do this in the first place? Well, for one thing, you learn a lot about WinSAT by playing with this. You also see that the testing process is a lot more detailed than you might have thought.

Really though, this is just one of those things that makes you smile, especially after seeing that 2.9 rating. To see some other scores that people are getting there's a site called where people are competing for the highest scores. Of course, you and I know how to win that game.

Finding the Diamonds
So there you have it -- five diverse cool tips that you may or may not use. Vista is filled with nuggets like these. You just have to dig a bit, sift through some files to find them, bring them to the surface and polish them up.


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