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Operating Systems

Ferret out Windows' system-info hiding places

Discover all the locations where Windows stores information about your PC.

How much RAM is installed in your PC? How fast is its processor? How much unused space is on its hard drive?

This and other basic information about your system is easy to find, but how do you find the date Windows was originally installed, how long since the last restart, or the model number of your display adapter? For this information you may have to dig a little deeper.

The fast way to open System Properties
The standard facts and figures about your PC are listed in System Properties. Most people get their by right-clicking My Computer (in XP) or Computer (in Vista) and choosing Properties. A faster way to open this dialog box is by pressing the Windows key (or Ctrl-Esc on keyboards without this key) and Break. Another option is to press Start > Run (in XP) or the Windows key (in Vista), type sysdm.cpl, and press Enter.

Windows Vista System Properties dialog box
Vista's System Properties dialog box shows basic information about your PC. Microsoft

Along with your version of Windows, processor type and speed, and installed RAM, you see your Windows ID, and in Vista, the computer and network names. (In XP this information is listed under the Computer Name tab.) In Vista, links in the left pane lead to Device Manager, and the Remote, System Protection, and Advanced tabs of the XP System Properties dialog box. At the bottom of the left pane are links to the Windows Update, Windows Security Center, and Performance Information and Tools Control Panel applets.

Go directly to the source with Systeminfo and System Information
You'll find the same and more information without the colorful trimmings by running either the Systeminfo command-line utility (not available in XP Home) or System Information. To open Systeminfo, click Start > All Programs > Accessories > Command Prompt, type systeminfo, and press Enter. Among the useful system data the program displays are the date Windows was installed on the PC, the time the current session started, and the number of hot fixes installed. Type exit and press Enter to close the command-prompt window

To open System Information in XP, click Start > Run, type msinfo32.exe, and press Enter; in Vista, press the Windows key, type msinfo32.exe, and press Enter. Get the inside scoop on your hardware and software by selecting an entry in the left pane (drilling down to the specific device or program), and scrolling through the listings in the right pane. For example, you can view the contents of the Internet Explorer cache in XP by selecting Internet Settings > Internet Explorer > Cache > List of Objects. You'll also find a list of Problem Devices under Storage. Unfortunately, the copy of System Information on my Vista PC doesn't include the Internet Settings and Applications categories.

Windows XP System Information utility
Windows XP's System Information utility makes it easy to find a range of information about your PC. Microsoft

The app of what's happening now
I associate Windows' Task Manager applet with trouble because it seems the only times I open the program are when something has gone wrong. There's no better way to get a snapshot of your system in a jiffy, though. To open it, press Ctrl-Shift-Break, or right-click the taskbar and choose Task Manager. In XP, you can also click Start > Run, type taskmgr.exe, and press Enter, and in Vista, you can open the program by pressing the Windows key, typing taskmgr.exe, and pressing Enter.

The Performance tab shows your CPU and page-file use in real time, as well as other information about your system's memory use. Vista's Task Manager adds a Services tab, as well as a link to the separate Services applet. Lifehacker provides a great tutorial on using Task Manager to reclaim memory and perform other system-maintenance operations.

Windows Task Manager Performance tab
The Performance tab of Windows' Task Manager applet gives a real-time look at your system. Microsoft

Management-app shortcuts
Anyone who has used Windows for a while has visited the two applets containing the details about their hardware and software: Device Manager, and its big brother, the Computer Management console, which is simply a holder for "snap-ins", or ActiveX controls that perform some function. Open Device Manager by clicking Start > Run (in XP) or pressing the Windows key (in Vista), typing devmgmt.msc, and pressing Enter. Open the entire console by typing compmgmt.msc from the same Run window. Select an item in the left pane to view information about it in the right window, or double-click it (or right-click it and choose Properties) to open its Properties dialog box.

The mother lode of system information in the Computer Management console is the Event Viewer, which I described in a previous post. You can also view the services running on your PC (the same information that's displayed when you click the Services tab in Vista's Task Manager). Victor Laurie provides a nice primer on the console's various snap-ins.

System info in XP's Help and Support Center
When something goes wrong with Windows, usually the last place I would look for help is the Help and Support Center. One useful feature in the XP version of the program is its ability to jump quickly between views of your system information. Open the app by clicking Start > Help and Support. Select "Use Tools to view your computer information and diagnose problems," and then choose a category under Tools in the left pane, such as My Computer Information. Click one of the options in the right pane, such as "View general system information about this computer" or "View the status of my system hardware and software." Links in the entries let you run various diagnostic utilities directly from the help app, or display more information.

Monday: the quick and simple way to create a letterhead in Word.