Have you ever wondered how to type special characters that do not appear on the keys of your keyboard? I’m talking of things such as:

è é ç

These are all pretty standard French characters, but it’s not at all obvious (in Windows, at any rate) how to type them.

Likewise, symbols such as © (copyright) and ¥ (yen) may also be needed from time to time.

These characters, and many others, are accessible from the Windows “Character Map”, but you may well need some computer help to find it! Once you have found it, here is the Character Map for the font Calibri in Windows 7. It is very much the same in Windows XP and Vista. Note that some fonts (like the one illustrated) contain more characters than can be contained in the fixed-size window, so there is a scroll bar at the right.

A window showing Windows Character Map

It can be a little bit tricky to find the Character Map and a bit tricky to use it until you know how it works, so let’s take those as two separate tasks:

1) Creating a Shortcut to the Character Map

There are several ways to launch the Character Map (see, for instance, my blog on Run Commands ), but the easiest thing to do is to create a shortcut on your desktop. The Character Map will then be accessible at any time by just double-clicking on this shortcut. Here are the steps. They are the same for Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7:

1.1) Go to your Desktop and right-click on a blank part of the screen (your cursor must not be on top of an icon that’s already there)
1.2) Left-click on the option that says “New”
1.3) Left-click on the option that says “Shortcut”
1.4) In the space where it says “Type the location of the item:”, type in the following:

C:\Windows\System32\charmap.exe

1.5) Click on the “Next” button
1.6) Type in a name for this shortcut (such as “Character Map”) or leave the default name that it offers
1.7) Click on the “Finish” button

Your shortcut has now been created. If you double-click on it you should see the Character Map window displayed as above.

As this may be the first time that you have created a shortcut on your desktop it’s worth just noting the fact that what we have done here is to place an icon (or shortcut or button – they all mean just about the same in this context) on your desktop that “points” to a program. This means that we don’t have to find that program again: we just need to double-click on the shortcut and it will always open that program. The location of the program and its name are contained in the text you typed in (C:\Windows\System32\charmap.exe). There are many ways that you can personalise your computer setup with shortcuts like this and you don’t need to be a computer geek or computer specialist to start taking advantage of them. It just takes a bit of computer training and a bit of practice. In most cases it is easier to create a shortcut than in this instance.

2) Grabbing Characters from the Character Map

Back to the main point. Now that we have access to the Character Map we need to know how to use it.

2.1) Select your font by clicking the triangle next to “Font:”. Note that different characters are available in different fonts.
2.2) Select your character(s) by double-clicking on it/them. As you double-click on them you will see them build up in the space next to “Characters to copy:”
2.3) Click on the “Copy” button. This will put the selected characters into the Windows clipboard (an area of memory where Windows puts data prior to copying or moving it to somewhere else).
2.4) Return to the program into which you wish to place the special character(s).
2.5) Type Ctrl v to insert the characters. Note that “Ctrl v” (pronounced “control vee”) means depressing the key marked “Control” or “Ctrl” and, while that key is down, hitting the letter v. If the application you are using has a “paste” command then that will do exactly the same thing. See my blog on basic keyboard shortcuts for further information on this.
2.6) If you select your special characters from “character sets” that your program can not handle then they may appear in your documents as question marks. If this happens, go back to the character map, tick the box next to “Advanced View” and then select “Windows: Western” from the list next to “Character Set”. Then choose your characters again.

Voilà !

3) Wingdings and Webdings

If you scroll down to the end of the list of fonts (see (2.1) above) you will probably see several fonts called Wingdings, Wingdings2, etc listed at the bottom. These are special fonts that produce entirely different characters that are more like icons than letters. These can be inserted into “normal” text in just the same way as other characters. Here are just a few examples from the Wingdings font:

4 wingdings - yin yang, telephone, envelope, clock

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

Combinatin lock superimposed on a laptopI have been asked several times recently, in relation to IT support, whether it is possible to password-protect sensitive data in Windows. Considering how long Windows has been around, you would think that by now there would be a simple way of protecting a file or a folder so that the contents can be neither listed nor opened without a specific password.

There isn’t.

This is one of those omissions that truly astonish me. Another such omission is that there’s nothing in Windows to allow you to synchronise the contents of two folders with anything resembling sophistication or control. That’s another matter, though. Let’s stick with passwords, for today.

So what can you do if you’ve got some files that you want to access regularly but don’t want others to see?

  • You can add a password at the bios level so that Windows won’t even load up without the correct password. This prevents anyone from starting your machine but the hard drive could be removed and connected as an external drive to a different machine. The files could then be accessed just as if they’d been stored on a flash drive. Also, a bios password does not protect you at all if the machine is already switched on and you leave it unattended. I use a bios password on my netbook computer so if I leave it on the tube one day at least no-one can just switch it on and get at everything on it without any effort.
  • You can add a user account in Windows with its own password. This is ok as long as you keep all the data you want to keep private in your “Documents” folder. If you are in a semi-public place (eg an office) you may also wish to activate a screensaver so that the password is required before resuming activity.
  • There are ways in Windows to allow or deny access to files, but these can be subverted by someone logging on as an administrator and the files are still visible even if the contents are inaccessible.
  • You can store your sensitive files on a USB flash drive and not on your hard drive. The flash drive itself is, of course, vulnerable to loss, theft etc.

TrueCrypt

TrueCrypt logoIf you really want to go industrial-strength in hiding certain content, then I recommend a program called TrueCrypt. With this, you create a special, password-protected, file of a chosen size (it can be huge). You put anything you want to keep private in this special file. This is achieved by “mounting” the file so that Windows sees the file as a new hard drive of the size you specified when creating the file. You can then access this “virtual drive” – and the sensitive files on it – in the normal way. When you want to hide the contents you just “dismount” the virtual drive. Prying eyes can only see that there’s a (possibly huge) file present but they can’t access it without knowing that it has to be “mounted” with the TrueCrypt program and without knowing the password you allocated to it. If you are really, really, paranoid you can even create a Truecrypt file within another one.

There are several benefits to the TrueCrypt approach:

  • No-one knows what’s in the file. They don’t know how many files are hidden, of what type or size, or the names of the files, or anything.
  • A casual snooper would not even know that they have found a file with hidden contents. All they see is a filename and you could give the file a completely meaningless name – such as “system execution derivatives” (??)
  • Even if the file is suspected to hide private data the snooper would then need to know (a) that TrueCrypt is the program needed to access it and (b) the password to mount the file.
  • You only need to remember one password (to mount the TrueCrypt volume) and not separate passwords for each file in it.
  • It’s free (but users are invited to donate).

There are some minor downsides:

  • It takes a few minutes of concentration and application of grey matter to get your head around how TrueCrypt works. After that, though, everything’s easy.
  • You can not back up the individual files that are inside the TrueCrypt volume without making those backups vulnerable to snoopers. Therefore, you have to back up the entire TrueCrypt volume. That’s no problem in itself (it’s just an ordinary file in this respect) but it’s a BIG file. If you’ve allocated, say, 2gb, as a TrueCrypt file then it’s going to need the time and space to back up a 2gb file even if you’ve only put a single 1mb file inside it. You can create your own compromise, of course, by creating two or more smaller TrueCrypt files.

I’ve been using TrueCrypt for a year or two now and I don’t recall ever having a single problem with it.

TrueCrypt is available for Windows and for Macs.

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

“Run commands” can make your Windows usage more productive.

There are often several ways of achieving the same end in Windows. An example of this is “run commands”. A “run command” is a an instruction to run a specific program or utility. It is an alternative to finding the program name or icon in Windows that would have achieved the same end. The advantage, of run commands, of course, is that you don’t have to hunt around Windows to find them.

As an example – in Windows 7 we can change the appearance of the desktop by navigating to the “personalization” screen as follows:

  • Start button
  • Control Panel option
  • View by small icons or large icons
  • Personalization

This can be achieved with a run command:

  • Start button
  • Run option
  • type in “control desktop” and then click on OK

In this case “control desktop” is the run command. There are well over a hundred of these. In each case, they are executed by opening the “Start menu”, clicking on the “run” option and then typing in the specfic command. I find that that it is worth remembering a few that I use often and, just as importantly, knowing where I can find a list containing many more. This can often cut down the frustration of not being able to find a particular command in Windows that you know is there but which you can’t find. In these cases, scanning through a list of run commands can be quicker and less frustrating.

If the “run” command does not appear on your Windows 7 start menu, you can configure it to do so by following Microsoft’s instructions.

Windows 7 Run Box

Windows 7 Run Box

Also, you can bring up the run box even if it does not appear on your start menu by depressing the key with the Window logo (if your keyboard has one) and typing the letter r. This brings up the “run box” ready to type the command into.

 

Windows remembers the previous run commands that you have issued and these can be accessed by clicking on the triangle at the right of the text-input area. This means that you don’t have to remember the name of the command if you have used it before: you just have to recognise it as the one you want when you see it.

I’ve sifted through lists of these run commands and selected 25 that you may find useful. I’ve tested these in Windows 7 but they may not all work in earlier versions of Windows. You can find more comprehensive lists and more information here.

Description Run Command
Add/Remove Programs appwiz.cpl
Administrative Tools control admintools
Calculator calc
Character map charmap
Computer Management compmgmt.msc
Control Panel control
Date and Time Properties timedate.cpl
Device Manager devmgmt.msc
Disk Cleanup Utility cleanmgr
Display Properties desk.cpl
Fonts control fonts
Malicious Software Removal Tool mrt
Notepad notepad
Power Configuration powercfg.cpl
Printers and Faxes control printers
Regional Settings intl.cpl
Security Center wscui.cpl
System Configuration Utility msconfig
System Information msinfo32
Task Manager taskmgr
Ease of Access Centre utilman
Windows Explorer explorer
Windows Firewall firewall.cpl
Windows Magnifier magnify
About Windows winver

It is sometimes a good idea to uninstall software that you don’t use.

Why?

It may be using valuable resources on your computer that can affect performance. On the other hand, it may be annoying you because you don’t like it, or it ate your doctoral thesis, or was installed without permission by a 13 year old and now keeps insisting on checking for updates.

What does it mean to uninstall a program?

When you put a new program on your computer it is not just a case of copying the program files to a place where you can find them. The operating system (Windows) needs to put the files in a logical place, take note of where they are, make the program accessible, record information about the program so that it knows what to do with it each time you run it, and so forth. All of this is taken care of by the process of “installing” the program.
This means that if you subsequently wish to remove a program you need to set in motion a process that will “back-track” or “unpick” all of these steps. This includes, but is by no means limited to, deleting the files that were copied onto your computer when you installed the program. Note, by the way, that I refer to “files” in the plural: a single “program” is almost always composed of many individual files. This process of removing the files, settings, and other traces that make up a program is called “uninstalling”.

What you must not do

You must not just look on your computer for any files with the name of the program you want to remove and delete it/them. This would almost certainly leave you in a worse position than you were in before. There could be many situations in which Windows goes looking for a program file you have deleted and won’t know what to do when it can’t find it. At best you will see an error message and at worst your whole system will freeze. And what makes this worse is that you may also have broken the normal method for removing that program properly.
Another thing that it is tempting to do is to delete the icon on the desktop that launches the program. By all means do this if you just wish to reclaim some space on your desktop, but be aware that deleting a shortcut does not in any way delete or uninstall the program to which it is connected. Deleting a shortcut does just that – the program itself is left intact and the shortcut could be re-created at any time.

Correctly Removing (Uninstalling) Programs

The term usually used for removing a computer programs is “uninstalling”. Without hesitation, I would recommend that the first – and probably only – method you use is the Windows uninstall routine. This varies slightly depending on the version of Windows you are using.

Windows XP

Windows XP Control Panel and Run buttons

Windows XP Control Panel and Run buttons

  1. Click on the “Start” button and launch “Add or Remove Programs” by either of the two following methods:
  • Click on the “Run” option.
  • Type appwiz.cpl into the box and press the Enter key.

or

  • Click on the “Control Panel” option.
  • Double-click on “Add or Remove Programs”.
  1. Find the program you wish to remove by searching through the alphabetical list.
  2. Click on the program name.
  3. Click on the “Remove” button or “Change/Remove” button that will appear to the right of the selected program name.
  4. Follow the prompts.

Windows Vista

  1. Click on the “Start” button and launch “Add or Remove Programs” by either of the two following methods:
  • Type appwiz.cpl into the “search” box and press the “Enter” key.

or

  • Click on the “Control Panel” option.
  • Click on “Classic View” (at the top lefthand side of the screen).
  • Double-click on “Programs and Features”.
  1. Find the program you wish to remove by searching through the alphabetical list.
  2. Click on the program name.
  3. Click on the “Uninstall” button that is above the list of program names.
  4. Follow the prompts.

Windows 7

Windows 7 Start Button and Search box

Windows 7 Start Button and Search box

  1. Click on the “Start” button and launch “Add or Remove Programs” by either of the two following methods:
  • Type appwiz.cpl into the “search” box and press the “Enter” key.

or

  • Click on the “Control Panel” option.
  • Click on the triangle next to “View by” (at the top righthand side of the screen) and select either “Small icons” or “Large icons”.
  • Double-click on “Programs and Features”.
  1. Find the program you wish to remove by searching through the alphabetical list.
  2. Click on the program name.
  3. Click on the “Uninstall” button that is above the list of program names.
  4. Follow the prompts.

What if it doesn’t work?

Sometimes a program will not appear on the list, or clicking on the button to remove it will result in an error message indicating that the program can not be uninstalled. In that case, the next thing to try is to locate the “unwise” file in the program folder in which the program resides. This is getting slightly more hazardous as you need to be sure you are in the right folder (so that the right program will be uninstalled) and it is also possible that the uninstallation process will remove one or more files that are shared with other programs.

If there is no “unwise” file associated with the program, then the next step would be to install and run a utility such as Revo Uninstaller. To be honest, though, unless the program that you are trying to remove is definitely causing problems to the rest of the system, it may be better to leave it installed than to try these last two methods – unless you want to take the risk of learning more about computers (the hard way) than you had bargained for.

In a recent post – “Load Programs at Startup” – I mentioned that there are several ways that programs can be started automatically and that an entry in the msconfig file is one such way. Let’s look at that in detail.

In general, the more programs your computer has open then the slower it is likely to be and the more prone to crashes and freezes. Also, the more of these that open when you start the computer, the longer the startup process takes. It makes sense, therefore, to see if there are un-necessary items that can be prevented from automatically opening when you start the computer. We are not going to delete or un-install anything: just prevent some un-ncecessary automatic opening at the time you start the computer.

Any item listed in the msconfig file with a tick against it is opened when the computer starts. Items can be added to the msconfig file as part of genuine program installations and also when you install devices such as printers. It is very common for new items to be added to the msconfig file that are just un-necessary. They make the computer slower to boot up and slower to use. Examples include Hewlett Packard programs that automatically check to see if new software has been released to use with your printer. Pointless and a waste of resources.

So, what is being loaded from mscconfig when we start the computer?

We need to access the msconfig file and this is slightly different depending the version of Windows:

  • Windows 7 – click on the windows Start button, type msconfig, and click on the “msconfig.exe” entry that is then listed.
  • Windows Vista – as for Windows 7 except that you may have to confirm that you wish to make changes to your computer
  • Windows XP – click on the Start button, then click on “run” and type “msconfig” in the box that comes up. Then click on “OK”.

Msconfig startup items

Whichever operating system you are using, you are then presented with a window in which there are tabs across the top. One of these tabs is called “startup”. Click on that tab. A list of entries is presented. There are ticks in boxes against the items that are currently being loaded at startup. To disable an item just click on the tick and it will be removed. This is a startup list under Windows 7:

In this list, you can see that I have disabled everything from “AcroTray” downwards. Note that this is one of those silly Windows that is much smaller than it needs to be to see everything, and that we can’t make it any bigger. Don’t ask me why. If I want to widen one of the columns (such as the first column, that is headed “Startup Item”) then I point my mouse at the vertical dividing line between the column headings “Startup Item” and “Manufacturer” and drag that line rightwards. Note also that after you re-boot the computer it will have re-ordered the items such that the disabled items all appear below the enabled ones.

What can we remove?

If in doubt, it’s probably best to leave an item enabled. Items that suggest updating software can usually be unticked as can references to winamp, quicktime, itunes, adobe reader and acrobat manager, HP software updates, windows messenger (unless you use it, of course). Also, items sometimes apear more than once. You can untick all duplicate items.

It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of unwanted software that you didn’t knowingly install is activated via msconfig and can be easily removed by unticking the entry.

Click on the “OK” button to close msconfig. It will then tell you that a re-boot is necessary to bring the changes into effect. Note that when you re-boot after disabling items in the msconfig box it is usual for Windows to display a completely un-necessary message telling you that changes have been made. This only happens after the first re-boot following changes to msconfig.

What if we get it wrong?

We will know we’ve got it wrong if something fails to work or if we get some kind of error message. Correcting the problem is just a question of repeating the steps to access msconfig and clicking on the box next to the amended entry so that it now has a tick in it again. A re-boot is then necessary.

In Windows, there are several ways in which a program can be set to start automatically when the system is started. These include:

  • An entry in the Startup folder
  • An entry in the msconfig file
  • An entry in the registry

Today, we are only interested in adding or removing items from the Startup folder. We are definitely not going to touch the registry. You should not touch the registry unless you have an idea of the risks involved. You could render your entire computer unusable if you get it wrong.

So, an example of what we are interested in here is that you may wish to open Microsoft Word and your email program automatically whenever you switch on your computer.

The way that we do this is to add shortcuts for each of those programs in the “Startup” folder. These shortcuts will then be executed when Windows opens in the same way as if they had been manually opened.

First we need to open the shortcuts folder:

  • Click on the start button (bottom lefthand corner of screen)
  • Click on the “All programs” option
  • Look through the list for a yellow folder labelled “Startup”
  • Right-click (that’s a right-click, not the normal left-click) on this folder name and then left-click on the “open” command. This will open a window showing all the items that are currently in the startup folder.

Now we need to add a shortcut in the opened folder that points to the program we want to load:

There are two different ways we can do this:

Via the Start Button

  • Click on the Start button
  • Click on “All Programs”
  • Left-click on the program you wish to add to the startup folder and drag it to the opened “Startup” window. Dragging means using the mouse to move the cursor to the destination, while holding down the left mouse button.
  • When your cursor is in the Startup folder, release the left button. There is now a shortcut in the Startup folder.
  • Close the Startup folder in the usual way by clicking on the “X” in the top right-hand corner

.

Via the Desktop

  • Right-click on the desktop item and then left-click on “create shortcut”. You will then see a second item on the desktop with the same icon as the first.
  • Drag the new shortcut into the open Startup window.
  • Close the Startup folder in the usual way by clicking on the “X” in the top right-hand corner.

There is also a third way of finding the program so that you can create a shortcut from it, and that is to open the “Program Files” folder and search from there. This is usually located in c:\program files (accessed from the “My Computer” or “Computer” icon).

One thing to be careful of is that you are looking for a program icon with the correct name and not a folder of the same name. For instance, you can see in this example that I have a folder called “CD-LabelPrint”:

Folder list

If I create a shortcut of the folder and place it in Startup it means that the folder will open up automatically when I start the computer but the program will not launch. It is perfectly legitimate to automatically open a folder in this way but it is not what I wanted to do.

What I should have done is clicked on the folder called “CD-LabelPrint” and then created the shortcut from the program of the same name (as shown below).

Folder and file list

We can extend this somewhat by adding that if you always want to open a specific document when you start your computer (for instance, a particular Excel worksheet or Word document), then you can create a shortcut to that document and place it in the Startup folder. When you start the computer, the program that normally opens that document will be launched and it will open the document whose shortcut is in the Startup folder.

Finally, you can remove items from the startup folder by just deleting them. This will not delete the programs, just the shortcut that you placed in the folder.

When I train clients who are new to computers, I like to mention keyboard shortcuts. The basic facts I like to get across at this stage are:

  • keyboard shortcuts are a matter of choice – they are an alternative way of achieving something that can be done with the mouse
  • there are far too many of them to learn all at once, so don’t even try
  • a few shortcuts are very useful as they work in the same way in most programs and are often used

The common ones I mention first are:
Ctrl a = Select all (eg all the text of a document or every file in a listing)
Ctrl c = copy (put a copy of whatever is currently selected into a memory area called the “clipboard”)
Ctl v = paste (put a copy of whatever is in the clipboard into the current cursor location)
Ctrl x = delete (delete whatever is currently selected from the current location but put it in the clipboard)

Note that these shortcuts are executed by depressing the key marked “Ctrl” (the “Control” key) and then, while the Control key is down, touching the letter that goes with it (eg a,c,v,x). These commands can also usually be carried out by right-clicking on the mouse and then selecting the relevant command that appears on the “context menu” that pops up.

I usually advise my trainees not to worry too much about shortcuts to begin with as there are probably more urgent things to learn, but that if they find themselves repeating what seems to be an awkward task there may be a shortcut for it, so it’s worth looking.

The moral here, though, is that I should practise what I preach. A few days ago I was having a phone conversation with a fairly novice trainee and it was important that she could navigate back to her desktop so that we could then start a remote control session. No way could she get to the desktop. It started to get quite frustrating. If only I’d remembered that there’s a shortcut for getting back to the desktop wherever you are. Simply depress the windows key (the one with the Windows logo on – see image) and then press d. Easy. Repeating the command takes you back where you were before.Winkey

So, I think I’ll run an occasional item on this blog of a few useful shortcuts at a time that it may be worth committing to memory (assuming your memory is better than mine).

In the meantime, you can find a full list of shortcut keys that use the Windows key at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_key.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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