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ISSUE 492: The high-tech office- March 30 1999


Time spent on Desktop spring cleaning
can easily simplify your electronic life

My wife might be surprised to hear me say it, but really, I'm a neat freak.

Well, maybe you wouldn't think so looking at the top of my office desk, but my Desktop sure is tidy. That is, my computer Desktop.

Not for me, one of those Desktops with icons and folders strewn around, making it a chore to locate anything. And my Start Menu -- at the very top, a sub-menu titled "Check Here First," with my 10 or so most-used applications or documents. (On my Mac, it's in the Apple Menu.)

That menu contains easy-to-find links to what I use at least 90 per cent of the time. And everything else is carefully stashed away in one of a half-dozen or so sub-menus, lower down: Applications, Internet, Utilities, Reference, oh yeah -- and Games. (I'm too busy to play games. Really I am. But the computer is at home, and there's this 15-year-old, and...)

All too often, though, I find myself at other computers where this isn't the case, where even the owner has a hard time finding how to start a program, because they've installed a lot of software, and I choose the Default or Typical installation option, and clicked okay to everything.

The result is columns and columns of sub-folders, each typically containing a ReadMe icon (even if you did read it once, do you really need that icon forever?), a link to the help file (do you need this when you're not running the program?), and inside the program you don't need the icon to access help (and how helpful is it, anyway -- perhaps a subject for a future column). There's often an Uninstall icon, redundant since you can use Control Panel for the same function. And there's the program's icon -- the only one you actually need.

The result is menus that go on and on. Windows 98 made it even harder to find things. Instead of multiple columns, it gives users a single long column, with a triangle at the bottom indicating there's still more buried at the end (an old Mac trick, showing that not everything Microsoft "borrows" from Apple is an improvement). And with Windows 98, the menu items can get out of alphabetical order, making things even harder to find.

You can clean up. Start with that messy Desktop. Make folders to group those icons -- right-click on an empty spot (there still are some empty spots, I hope!). A menu pops up. Choose New, then Folder. Type in a name. Drag appropriate icons and drop them on top of the folder -- they'll disappear inside.

There's a similar trick to tidy up an out-of-control Start Menu. Right-click on the Start Button, and choose Open from the pop-up menu. You'll see a folder labeled Programs along with any icons that are currently sitting on top of the Start Menu. Make yourself a folder for your most used items, the same way you made ones on the Desktop -- again, right-click on an empty spot, this time within the window, and choose New, then Folder.

Double-click to open up that Programs folder -- you'll see icons and folders that are the contents of the main section of the Start Menu. Think of how you want to categorize them, and make yourself folders for each category, then start dragging the icons and dropping them into the appropriate folders. While you're at it, feel free to delete the icons for those never-used ReadMe, Help and Uninstall icons. When you see a program that you use often, click on Edit then Copy, navigate over to that folder you made for your personal favourites and click on Edit then Paste to get a copy there.

The changes you make will immediately be reflected in the actual Start Menu. If you make a mistake, you can immediately correct it with the Edit/Undo menu choice. Trust me. It will be easier to find the software you use, and you'll have that same inner glow that you get when you've cleaned your car.

(Mac users can do much the same, tidying the Apple Menu and their Desktops.)

And while you're tidying up, do you have a collection of boxes that your computer and monitor and printer and more came in, filling your storage? (Much worse -- do you have boxes from 20 or more computer systems?) Or do you have vague feelings of guilt from ditching the boxes, and wondering if you should have kept them?

My advice: if space permits, hang onto the boxes for a couple of months, ideally until the end of the warranty period, just in case you might want to ship something back to the manufacturer. If you've purchased an office-full of PCs, hang onto a couple of boxes -- it's unlikely you'll need to ship all 20 systems back. Flatten the boxes, but hang onto the Styrofoam inserts.

Once the warranty period is up, feel free to ditch them. For real freedom from guilt, recycle the cardboard.

And having tidied up your computer desktop and your storage space, think how good you'll feel! *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan