Finish early: Create a Windows shutdown shortcut
The quickest way to shut down Windows is via a keyboard shortcut; plus, the fastest way to start Windows is by doing away with the log-in screen.
What's the fastest way to shut down Windows?
With a mouse, it takes at least two clicks, plus the time required for the various menus to appear.
With a keyboard, you can shut down Windows XP by pressing the Windows key (or Ctrl-Esc) and typing U twice. In Vista, the shutdown keyboard sequence is Windows key, right arrow three times, Enter.
By default, Vista goes into sleep mode when you press the Windows key, then the right arrow, and then Enter to activate the Start menu's power button. You can change this behavior--letting you shut down with two fewer keystrokes--via Vista's Advanced Power Options.
Press the Windows key, type "power options," and press Enter. Click "Choose what the power buttons do" in the left pane, select "Shut down" in the drop-down menus next to "When I press the power button," and click Save Changes.
Note that you can also access your power options by clicking "Change plan settings" underneath your current plan. Then click "Change advanced power settings," choose the plus sign next to "Power buttons and lid" (for notebooks, obviously), and then the plus sign next to "Power button action." Click the current setting to access a drop-down menu showing your other power options.
Even with the reconfigured Start menu power button, that's still too many keystrokes. The quickest Windows shutdown technique I know of is to create a shutdown shortcut and then assign the shortcut a keystroke combination. Start by right-clicking the desktop or any folder window, then choosing New > Shortcut. In the "Type the location of the item" text box, enter this line:
shutdown -s -t 0
Give the shortcut a name, and click Finish. Now navigate to the shortcut you just created, right-click it, choose Properties, and under the Shortcut key, click in the "Shortcut key" box. Type Ctrl-Alt-1, or the key combination of your choice, though I recommend starting it with Ctrl-Alt to avoid overwriting an existing shortcut. Finally, click OK. (You'll know in a minute why I selected Ctrl-Alt-1 for my shutdown shortcut.)
Now entering that keystroke combination will start Windows' shutdown program. You can create similar shortcuts/key combinations to restart Windows, log off the current user, hibernate (in XP), or sleep (in Vista.) Here are the commands to enter in the shortcut wizard's "Type the location of the item" text box for each action:
To restart: shutdown -r -t 0
To log off: shutdown -l -t 0
To hibernate XP: rundll32.exe PowrProf.dll, SetSuspendState Hibernate
To put Vista to sleep: %windir%\System32\rundll32.exe powrprof.dll,SetSuspendState
You need the "-t 0" switch to start the shutdown or restart sequence immediately. Otherwise, Windows will wait 20 seconds before closing shop.
To make the shortcuts easier to remember, I assigned the shutdown shortcut the Ctrl-Alt-1 key combination, restart the Ctrl-Alt-2 sequence, log-off Ctrl-Alt-3, and hibernate or sleep Ctrl-Alt-4. This last one is less handy, since I can put Vista to sleep by pressing the Windows key, then the right arrow and Enter, so timewise, it's a wash.
Bonus tip: Bypass the Windows log-on screen
If you're the only person who uses your PC, and you're not worried about a stranger gaining access to the system simply by turning it on, you can start Windows without having to log on. In XP, click Start > Run. In Vista, press the Windows key. In both versions, type control userpasswords2, and press Enter. Uncheck "Users must enter a username and password to use this computer," and click OK.