We look at how Windows' multi-user accounts can be used as a potential alternative to setting up different versions of Windows on multiple partitions.
As this month's PC Musician is devoted to partitioning, I thought I'd take the opportunity in PC Notes to discuss another approach to creating several different versions of Windows XP on the same PC using multi-user accounts. Although this function has been available on previous versions of Windows, there weren't really enough customisation options to make it attractive for the musician. However, under Windows XP multi-user accounts are more sophisticated, and I've noticed quite a few musicians wondering about using them to create a general-purpose or games PC, and tweaking the same installation as a different user to optimise it for music purposes.
This approach is certainly easier than creating multiple partitions, and has the big advantage that you don't need to reboot your computer to switch between accounts. Indeed, Windows' Fast User Switching even lets you switch between users while applications are still running, although they'll still be occupying RAM and probably some CPU time as well, so this isn't a sensible option for the performance-conscious musician.
On the cosmetic side, each account can have its own graphic theme, visual effects settings, wallpaper and screen saver, although the screen resolution and colour depth remain global settings. You can also set up a completely different arrangement of Start Menu shortcuts, which is more useful than you might initially think: if you have children who use your PC, for instance, you could only leave the shortcuts to your music applications in your personal account, protected by a password to prevent accidental meddling.
As with Windows 98, you can selectively disable certain hardware items in Device Manager and create several Hardware Profiles, each associated with a different account. In your music account, you could remove certain USB ports, serial or parallel ports, or an on-board sound chip, for example, leaving more unique IRQs available so your main soundcard can offer its optimum level of performance. And you can also tweak which Windows Services run on individual accounts to maximise the performance from your machine when running real-time applications.
However, there are some fundamental limitations that prevent multi-user accounts from being the perfect solution for the musician who wants optimum performance and more security from accidental or deliberate tampering. While it might seem that each account has its own applications, the files are normally all stored in one labyrinthine 'Program Files' folder, so it's still quite possible for your music applications be crippled by another user deleting a few vital files, whether accidentally or deliberately.
But, more importantly, there's only ever a single Registry on a multi-user PC, which is likely to end up oversized with a great number of application entries, aborted game installations, dabbles with cover-mounted magazine demos and so on. While it might not be immediate obvious, lacklustre performance of your music applications could be the result of any one or more such installations, either due to contamination of the Registry, or because of some background task that gets installed along the way.
Even if you religiously use backup or disk imaging software to create archives of your PC when it's running well, or leave Windows XP's own System Restore enabled, you're unlikely to ever get the best possible performance from your machine in such a situation. So, sadly, multi-user accounts aren't the perfect solution, even if you're the only one using that computer. Only a multi-boot installation into separate partitions will ensure that your music applications are totally isolated from everything else, including the vast majority of viruses, children, and well-meaning friends and clients.
Multiple partitions may take considerably more effort to set up in the first place, but really are the ultimate solution for multiple users and uses, and individual Windows XP partitions can still be password-protected to provide a little more security in your absence. If you want to pay a little extra and install them on multiple caddy-mounted drives you can, although with current disk storage sizes I personally think this is overkill for most people.
If you're interested in installing different Windows XP installations in different partition of the same drive, you'll probably be interested in the latest version of Powerquest's excellent Partition Magic utility, which makes the creation and long-term management of multiple child's play.
As you can see from the screen shot, version 8 has received a graphic makeover and has many new features. The wizards that were previously displayed across the bottom of version 7's interface have been replaced by the much smarter and easier-to-use Action Panel on the left-hand side of the main 8.0 display, comprising three panes for Tasks, Operations and Operations Pending. Choosing any option from the first launches a step-by-step wizard, including two new ones to 'install another operating system' or 'create a backup partition', offering useful tips and suggestions at each stage of the process.
The Operations pane contains simpler one-stage options, including a new File Browser that lets you navigate inside hidden partitions, as well as cut, copy, paste, delete and rename files and folders, and create new folders. This is perfect for routine housekeeping, but it's a huge shame that you can't view or modify the contents of a hidden file, or even paste it outside its source partition, since this would make editing corrupted boot.ini files so much easier, and save a lot of time rebooting when you just want to see what's in a file on another hidden partition.
The Operations Pending pane is a huge improvement on the previous stand-alone Apply button, since it shows each and every action that's going to be carried out when you click on it, and offers an undo function to retrace your steps before committing yourself. A maximum partition size of 160GB is now supported, as well as Linux Ext3 partitions, while USB drive support has been extended to USB2 and Firewire, and NTFS cluster sizes can now be changed on the fly.
The Boot Magic manager utility has also been enhanced, and version 8.0 can now be installed on a FAT16 or FAT32 partition on any disk, while the new 'PQ Boot for Windows' option lets you choose a different OS to boot into next, while still in Windows, but returns to your default OS on the next reboot.
There's also a new and informative Flash tutorial covering partitioning basics that will help beginners understand the various concepts, while the new bundled Data Keeper application lets you make backups of any combination of files with optional password protection and file compression. There's certainly enough in version 8.0 to tempt existing users to upgrade, and I think it's the easiest version for newcomers to get to grips with as well. I've spotted Partition Magic 8.0 being advertised at just £33, which makes it a bargain in my book. Visit www.powerquest.com for more information.