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Four hard-to-find fixes for common Windows annoyances

Switch active windows by hovering your mouse, change the duration of notification pop-ups, disable unnecessary animations, and underline menu keyboard shortcuts.

You start typing only to realize 10 seconds later that the focus is on the wrong window. You see a Windows notification pop out of the taskbar only to have it fade away before you can figure out what it means. You get distracted by all of Windows' pointless animations. You miss seeing keyboard-shortcut hints on menu entries and elsewhere in Windows dialog boxes.

You could spend hours hunting for the settings that will do away with these four Windows annoyances. At least Vista collects them all in the Ease of Access Center. These usability settings are spread far and wide in XP.

Mouse over a window to make it the focus
About once or twice a week I find myself happily typing away only to discover after crafting the perfect memo opener or e-mail retort that the focus had switched to another open window. Not only have I lost the data I thought I was entering, I might inadvertently purchase a Winnebago if I press Enter while focused on the wrong page in my browser.

You can set Vista to change the focus to whichever window you mouse over via the Ease of Access Center. Press the Windows key and U to open it.

I described the top four options (all carryovers from XP's Accessibility Control Panel applet) in a previous post. To change focus by hovering, click "Make the mouse easier to use" and check "Activate a window by hovering over it with the mouse" near the bottom of the dialog box. Click Save or Apply to activate the change.

The simplest way I know of to change this setting in XP is to use the free Tweak UI utility. After you download and install the program, open it and double-click Mouse in the left pane. Choose X-Mouse among the entries that appear, and check "Activation follows X-Mouse" in the right window.

Bonus tip: To keep programs from stealing the focus, choose Focus under General in the left pane, click "Prevent applications from stealing focus" in the right pane, and choose the number of times you want the window to flash when this happens.

Set Vista notification pop-ups to stay on screen longer
Sometimes the little windows that pop out of the taskbar to notify you of some event, such as a USB device you just plugged in being ready to use, disappear too quickly. To extend the duration of notification windows in Vista, click "Make it easier to focus on tasks" in the Ease of Access Center, scroll to the bottom of the resulting dialog box, and change the setting under "How long should Windows notification boxes stay open?" The default setting is 7 seconds, and the available options let you change this to 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, or 5 minutes. When you're done, click Save or Apply.

Windows Vista Ease of Access Center dialog box
Extend the time Vista's notification windows stay visible via this setting in the Ease of Access Center. Microsoft

The only way I know of to change the duration of notification windows in XP is to tweak the Registry. This is also how you disable notifications altogether. I'll describe the procedure in a future post.

Knock off the frivolous animations
Save some CPU cycles--and maybe your tired eyeballs--by telling Windows to do without the fancy-schmancy animations. In Vista, click "Make it easier to focus on tasks" in the Ease of Access Center (the same dialog I described above for tweaking notifications), check "Turn off all unnecessary animations (when possible)" under "Adjust time limits and flashing visuals," and click Save or Apply.

To tone down the animations in XP, right-click My Computer, choose Properties > Advanced, and click Settings in the Performance section. Under the Visual Effects tab, click "Adjust for best performance," or choose Custom and select the options you do and don't want in the window below. When you're done, click OK twice.

Show shortcut keys on menu items
Microsoft doesn't always make it easy for people who prefer to navigate around Windows and their applications using keyboard shortcuts. To make the key hints visible on menus in Vista, click "Make the keyboard easier to use" in the Ease of Access Center, check "Underline keyboard shortcuts and access keys" under "Make it easier to use keyboard shortcuts," and click Save or Apply.

Windows Vista Ease of Access Center dialog box
See hints for shortcut keys on Vista menus by choosing this option in the Ease of Access Center. Microsoft

Add the shortcut-key hints to XP by right-clicking the desktop (or pressing Shift-F10 while on the desktop), choosing Properties, clicking Appearance > Effects, unchecking "Hide underlined letters for keyboard navigation until I press the Alt key," and clicking OK twice.