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How-To Geek

Lesson 1: Understanding Windows Administration Tools

Windows has many different administration tools, but do you know what even half of them do? In this edition of Geek School, we are going to teach you all about how to use these tools, as well as when to use each one.

Windows administration is more than just creating user accounts or running defrag once in a while. It’s more than clearing out caches and making sure there aren’t any viruses.

To become a pro at administering Windows, you need to know about all of the tools available to you, how they work, and how to use them. There’s so much going on under the hood that you just can’t see by pulling out Task Manager. When do you use Performance Monitor, or Resource Monitor… or switch to the SysInternals tools instead? These are the things you need to know to use Windows like a pro.

Note: while most of the screenshots in this series will be from Windows 8.1, almost everything can be equally applied to Windows 7 as well. We’ll try and note anything that is specifically for a particular version. And if you are using Windows 8 instead of 8.1, you should just upgrade already, because it’s free.

Quickly Accessing Admin Tools

One of the most important skills you can learn as a computer geek is not to be an expert at each and every tool, but rather knowing which tool you need to use, and how to easily access that tool on any computer. On your own computer, you can make shortcuts or a special launcher, or any number of other methods. But what about when you are trying to fix mom’s computer? You’ll want to learn how to get to the tools the regular way.

Say what you will about Windows 8, but it makes accessing some of the powerful Windows administration tools really easy – just move your mouse into the lower left-hand corner and right-click to bring up the context menu. The resulting “Power Tools” menu has all sorts of great stuff on it, including things we’ll be covering in this series like Event Viewer, Disk Management, and Computer Management.

The Computer Management panel is especially useful, because it contains many of the other items in the list. You can just open up that one panel to deal with Task Scheduler, Event Viewer, Performance Monitor, Device Manager, Disk Management, and even the Services panel.

You can access all of those tools on the left-hand side of the window, and the tool itself will display on the right-hand side. You can also use the buttons in the toolbar if you want to turn off the left-hand or right-hand panes to give yourself more space on the screen to work with.

If you are still using Windows 7, you can easily access all of these tools using the Start Menu search box instead, or you can learn the file name and use the Run dialog instead. For instance, to launch Event Viewer directly, you can just type the following into the Run dialog or the Start Menu search box:

eventvwr

This trick also works for Windows 8, or Vista, or even XP if you still use that, so it is really useful to learn the best way to access the tools quickly. We’ll make sure that we explain how to launch each tool as we cover them.

We’ll be covering these tools and more in this series, but first we should stop and introduce you to many of the tools and their purpose, because the other half of the battle is knowing which tool you need to use for each situation.

Task Scheduler

This tool is used internally by Windows to run many tasks that only need to be run occasionally rather than always running. One of the biggest changes under the hood of more recent versions of Windows has been the switch from housing functionality in a service that is always running and moving them to scheduled tasks instead. You can also schedule your own tasks to run in this panel.

This is also a very important place to look when you are troubleshooting crapware that seems to launch out of nowhere, even though you’ve cleared out the regular auto-start locations. As users have become more knowledgeable about how to clean out the auto-start locations, crapware has become better at hiding their startup location, and this is a prime target for that.

Event Viewer

Most people don’t know how to use Event Viewer, or haven’t even heard of it, but it’s a great troubleshooting tool that can help you figure out when a component is having a problem behind the scenes. The trick is in understanding how to use it, as well as understanding when you don’t have to worry.

Recently, fake tech support phone scammers have been using Event Viewer as a way to prove that your computer is full of viruses and Trojans. What they do is get you to open up Event Viewer and then filter by just the critical and other error messages, and then tell you that the list is only showing the bad things because your computer is infected. Never mind that they made you filter just the bad stuff.

Many of the events in the list will look really scary with big red warning icons, but the reality is that much of the time, it isn’t a big problem. If you happened to turn your computer off without letting it fully shut down, you might get a bunch of warnings of all types. If you run something that takes up a lot of system resources, like a video game, you’ll get events that say your performance is bad. Later in this series, we’ll try and help you through the minefield of understanding what you need to worry about.

Disk Management

When you need to create or delete partitions, initialize a new disk, or even stripe a partition across multiple disks, this is the utility that you’ll need to use. It’s also very useful for figuring out why a USB drive isn’t showing up on your computer – you’ll open up Disk Management and check to see whether the drive or partition is showing up at all.

One of the lesser-known things you can do with Disk Management is change the drive letter for any of your non-system drives. If you have a second hard drive and you want it to be W: instead of D: or you want to make sure a particular USB flash drive shows up as U: instead of the default, you can change those settings in here.

Dealing with Services

The services panel is fairly self-explanatory, with a list of services that are running or not running, the ability to stop and start them, and a few more options. It doesn’t really require explanation for most geeks.

But what does require explanation is how all these services really work, which ones you should disable (hint: you might be wrong), and how to really administrate them. We’ll take a look at removing services from the list entirely, and how those dependency and other options work.

Did you know that you can also manage services from the command line?

Registry Editor

You are probably already aware of the Registry Editor, and you might have even hacked a few registry keys at one time or another. There is a lot more to the registry than just tweaking a setting, though, so in this part of the series we’ll take a deeper dive to help you understand what you need to know so you can edit with confidence.

And it’s worth noting here that registry cleaners are pointless under almost all circumstances, and registry defraggers really aren’t necessary.

Resource Monitor

This tool is a newer addition to Windows that you won’t find in XP, and it is a powerful way to see what processes are using resources on your computer. Instead of just looking at memory usage or CPU time, as you can in Task Manager already, this utility allows you to see an in-depth look at what is using your resources, whether that is hard drive, network, memory, or CPU.

Performance Monitor

This tool is yet another way to track resource usage over time, and it is meant for much more advanced users. We’ll cover how and why you want to use it, and how to get the most out of it.

Group Policy Editor

Note: the Group Policy Editor is only available in the Professional version of Windows, which is sad because it has a lot of really useful functionality. You can use this tool to tweak settings that aren’t available normally except through registry hacks. In fact, Group Policy is how a lot of your favorite registry hacks were found in the first place.

Device Manager

Long gone are the days of geeks using Device Manager every time they touch a computer. Plug and Play, which used to be known as “Plug and Pray”, has improved dramatically to the point where you rarely have to think about drivers or device support unless you are a hard-core gamer.

There are still some important things to know about how devices work in Windows, how to remove or update drivers, or how to see hidden devices so you can remove the drivers for devices that aren’t plugged into the computer anymore.

File History and System Restore

Under the hood, the NTFS file system that Windows uses has a really powerful feature known as Shadow Copy, which works a lot like a versioning system. Essentially, you can take a “snapshot” of a point in time, and access or save files from that exact moment in time, even if the files continue to be modified after that.

This technology is how all backup utilities work, so they can access files that are locked by other applications, and is also how the System Restore and File History features work under the hood. In previous versions of Windows Pro there was a feature called “Previous Versions”, where you could access these snapshots to restore particular files.

The new File History feature in Windows 8 saves out versions of certain files, similar to the way Apple’s Time Machine backups work – you need to setup a secondary backup drive and Windows will save the backups of the files.

And, of course, you can still access manually or automatically created snapshots if you need to. We’ll demystify all of these things when we cover the topic later in the series.

Advanced Firewall

The basic firewall utility that comes with Windows is really simple and barely worth talking about, but the advanced firewall interface is quite powerful. You can customize your settings as much as you want.

The Command Line

If you want to be a real IT pro, you’ll need to learn the basics of the command line, as well as which utilities that you should turn to for each task. There are a ton of utilities that are more difficult to use than their GUI-based counterparts, but then again, there are a lot of utilities that are easier as well.

And Everything Else

We’ll end up covering more than just the topics in this list. Have you ever wondered what on earth that ODBC connections panel is for?

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/28/14