Nov 13 2007

Vista Assist

Five free tools can help you support the Windows OS.

Like any new operating system, Microsoft Windows Vista delivers its fair share of challenges and learning opportunities as users and IT departments adapt to its interface, features, menu layouts and more subtle nuances. New capabilities and security enhancements almost always mean new questions and new methods.

Here are a few surprisingly helpful (and free) tools, some of which you may not know you already have.

Sysinternals Autoruns

Normally, when a user needs assistance speeding up a slow system (that didn’t start out that way), technicians will start troubleshooting by going into Task Manager and looking at running processes. They typically follow that up with an examination of the usual suspects, such as the Startup group and Run/RunOnce registry keys. Other techs may go further and launch Internet Explorer to see if any spyware, adware or malware is plugged in via toolbars or pop-up windows. All techs have their own series of checkpoints, and even if your regimen is fairly standardized, this all-too-familiar procedure can be time-consuming and become easily disorganized against the backdrop of ringing phones and walk-in user requests.

The Sysinternals Autoruns program has one primary objective: to put all relevant process-related information in front of the technician in a concise, structured and easy-to-understand fashion, while letting the tech manipulate the results.

At launch, Autoruns will scan a computer for active processes, drivers, modules and dynamic-link libraries. It will also run a discovery for references to invoke applications, services, drivers, DLLs and many other routines that interact with the system. The program organizes the information into a tabbed window, sorted by 15 basic categories and one Everything tab that — predictably — will show you everything it found, all at once.

Through this same interface, you can also interact with your results. For instance, checkboxes next to each entry let you selectively disable or permanently delete whatever you want by using a menu. Registry keys listed are also interactive, letting you choose to jump to any listed key, right where it’s located in the registry, by right-clicking it and selecting the Jump To option from the context menu.

In a nutshell, Autoruns lets you get to the bottom of what’s going on in a hurry — all from a single interface. Autoruns is small (about 500 kilobytes) and clean; it runs from a solitary self-contained executable. No setup means getting to the bottom of things even faster, and no cleanup afterward is also a plus.

Autoruns come from Sysinternals, a subsidiary of Microsoft, and you can download it for free at www.sysinternals.com.

Windows Snipping Tool

One of Windows’ built-in features that has become a mainstay in nearly every IT support toolbox is the Print Screen feature, which lets support personnel either capture full-screen screenshots (PrtScrn) or single-window-specific screenshots (Alt/PrtScrn) of a computer’s display. Not only can this be a useful method of capturing error codes or other useful information, but it also can be indispensable in creating end-user (and help-desk) support documentation.

Although Print Screen might sound like a great tool to potentially help users convey information back to their IT departments during troubleshooting, many technicians aren’t receptive to the idea of helping users take and send these screenshots. Although capturing the screenshot is simple enough, launching Paint, pasting the object, saving it and then launching a mail client and attaching the file can prove to be more of a headache than addressing the issue in the first place when dealing with more inexperienced users.

Thankfully, all versions of Vista (except Home Basic Edition) now include an enhanced capture utility. The Snipping Tool simplifies the screen capture process. Once launched, users drag the cursor around the area of the screen that they want to capture. When the mouse button is released, the captured image will automatically appear in an image-editor-style interface, giving the user the option to save the image in multiple formats. Users can also e-mail an image directly from this window by clicking the Send Snip button in the utility’s toolbar. This will launch the user’s default e-mail client and automatically attach the file to the message. This may prove to be the most intuitive, easy-to-use screen capture utility offered to date, empowering users to send screenshots to support personnel with relative ease.

Windows Snipping Tool comes built-in with every version of Vista, except for Home Basic.

Windows NT Backup – Restore Utility

One of the pains that help desks may encounter when migrating users to Vista is dealing with compatibility of old backups — or rather the lack of compatibility. By default, the Vista backup/restore utility cannot restore backups created with previous versions of Windows. But unlike some versions of Windows, there is an easy workaround for this problem in Vista. The little-known Windows NT Backup – Restore Utility, available as free download from Microsoft’s Web site, is a standalone utility that will let you easily restore backups created in Windows XP or Server 2003.

One word of caution: If you decide to install and run this utility, make sure the Removable Storage Management feature is enabled in Vista. By default, this feature is disabled, and the program will exit with an error when that is detected. Step-by-step instructions for enabling this service can be found on the utility’s download page.

Windows NT Backup – Restore Utility is available for free at www.microsoft.com/downloads.


Think of this little gem as XCOPY on steroids. Command-line old-timers who still use the Command Prompt for their dirty work will love Robocopy (if they haven’t already experienced it as part of Microsoft’s popular Resource Kits). In essence, Robocopy is an intuitive, intelligent and customizable file copy/move command that’s great for moving large chunks of data with minimal effort. Just like any DOS command, you can get a pretty good idea of Robocopy’s capabilities by typing the command, followed by a /? switch. (Be prepared to read because Robocopy has more than 80 available switches.) Briefly, here are a few unique useful Robocopy abilities:

  • Because Robocopy is so customizable, it is ideal for automation via batch files or scripts. This can be useful for techs and users who want to create custom backup programs.
  • Robocopy will let you resume failed file copies — or prevent failed file copies — by setting it to “wait” during network timeouts until the destination location becomes available again.
  • It will copy only what’s changed in existing directories, which can save a lot of time, especially if you are backing up to slower media or over-limited bandwidth.

Robocopy comes built-in with Windows Vista.

Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit

If you haven’t yet taken the Vista plunge but plan to move your clients to it, you already know that its essential to make sure the OS will play nice with existing software. If you want a general idea of what to expect without investing a lot of help desk resources, Microsoft’s Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT) is a good place to start.

After the Accept All Defaults installation, the toolkit launches a brief video that explains, in layman’s terms, how ACT conceptually works. Generally, it lets testers run applications and check them as they run, in real time, for potential compatibility issues with Vista. As an added bonus, the new version of ACT (Version 5.0) lets users test for compatibility issues with upcoming Microsoft security updates. ACT has a fairly straightforward interface and does a good job of organizing report data. Although ACT isn’t a crystal ball, it does work as an effective general barometer for Vista-readiness.

Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit is available for free at www.microsoft.com/downloads.

Jason Holbert is a Tier II desktop support technician at Harcros Chemicals, a chemical distributor in Kansas City, Kan.