If you despair of editing your Windows Registry file (and you will never experience quite the level of despair if you edit it badly), yet you want to activate hidden but useful functions in Windows Vista or XP, consider WinTuner. It's simple to use, easy to understand and doesn't require any real expertise.

Let's say you simply want to change your user name. Normally, you would have to go into the Control Panel and hunt around for the function or change some arcane code in the Registry (please don't do that unless you work for Bill Gates, and even then, proceed with caution). With WinTuner, you call up a window from your desktop, click on "change user name," and enter a new name.

Or say you want to get rid of files you no longer need. Again, from the window, you select "delete unnecessary files." Or you might want to enter your password automatically. Easier done than said.

Let's say you want to have only passwords that contain numbers (not a bad idea). Just click on "activate." Or you want to find out if you got what you paid for, hardware-wise. Click on "system information" and save a trip to the Control Panel.

You can view all the functions available, or you can choose beginner or advanced. Utilities are explained in beginner's language, and you can change your mind before closing out the program. You can find out why a program crashed and even get rid of the annoying "send error report to Microsoft" message. There are dozens of other useful little tweaks that help you run Windows the way you want it to run, including ways to customize how you want your opening screen to look, and how you want to say goodbye to Windows, how you want your mouse to work and how fast you want your cursor to blink. If you make a mistake, you can restore your previous settings, and you can take WinTuner with you by installing it on a removable drive.

This one's a keeper - it's found a permanent spot on my hard drive, helping me customize Windows without venturing into the dark corners of the Windows Registry.

WinTuner will run on Windows Vista and XP. To order, send $12, plus $6 for shipping, to WashingtonCD, P.O. Box 351531, Los Angeles, CA 90035, or online at www.washingtoncd.net.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.