July 2005 • Vol.3 Issue 7
Page(s) 20-21When AutoPlay Won’t PlayRoadside Assistance -Commentary by Dave Methvin
AutoPlay is one of those features that people either love or hate. When you insert some type of removable media into your PC, such as a CD-ROM, flash drive, or removable disk drive, Windows make some guesses about what to do, depending on the contents of the drive. In some cases it will give you a list and let you choose. For example, if you insert a CD full of MP3 music files, Windows will offer to play them with Windows Media Player.
Often, Windows also lets you choose a default action that should always be taken when that kind of media is inserted. That way it’s not always asking you each time and just does what you want. One of the choices is “take no action” in case you prefer to have AutoPlay leave you alone. But what if you want the choice to come back after you’ve chosen Take No Action, or AutoPlay just mysteriously stops working? I recently had to diagnose a mystery like this.
There are actually two types of AutoPlay. The original AutoPlay (called V1) has been around since Windows 95 and is very basic. If you insert some media that has a file named Autorun.inf in its root directory, Windows will read that file and use it to run an associated file such as Setup.exe. This is most often used with product CDs so that they automatically install when you put the CD into the drive. An advanced form of AutoPlay (V2) was introduced in Windows XP. It lets you determine the action to be taken based on the type of device being plugged in or the type of files on the media.
AutoPlay Is Great--In Theory
The idea of AutoPlay sounds great, and there are certainly situations where you might want to use it. For example, maybe you play audio CDs in your PC. With AutoPlay enabled Windows Media Player can automatically start playing an audio CD whenever you insert it. Or when you insert a blank CD-ROM, Windows can open a folder window for burning files to that CD. If you plug in your digital camera, Windows can show you thumbnail previews of the pictures in the camera.
What if you have AutoPlay set to play your CDs but later decide to rip your CDs to the hard disk and play them that way? When you insert your audio CD to rip it, Windows Media Player will start playing it instead, and you’ll have to cancel it so that you can run the ripping software. Technically, the way it’s supposed to work is that any application that might want to avoid the default AutoPlay action (CD ripping or burning software, for example) should do some extra programming to cancel the AutoPlay actions if they occur. That assumes, of course, that the user starts the ripping software before inserting the audio CD. In practice, these restrictions surprise the user, and you end up with the unfriendly AutoPlay scenario described above.
AutoPlay can also take a while to look at the media you’ve inserted before it decides what options to offer you. For example, I have a 120GB external hard drive that plugs into the system via USB. When I plugged it into the system for the first time, Windows AutoPlay wanted to spring into action and impress me with its ability to determine what I might want to do with this drive. So it started scanning this 120GB drive to see what file types are there. But all I really want to do is back up some files to the drive, so I don’t want Windows to take the time to scan the drive at all.
AutoPlay Your Way
Fortunately, there are some ways you can fine-tune the AutoPlay process. To perform the tweaks, open My Computer, right-click the drive, and select Properties. (If it’s a removable drive, plug in the drive first so that you can right-click it.) The first thing you can do is choose a default action based on the kind of files on the drive. For example, you can have Windows play a CD full of MP3 files, but just have it open a folder window for a CD full of pictures. The default is to always prompt you each time the CD is inserted.
The rules about AutoPlay don’t always make sense, at least to me. For example, there is a choice called Mixed Content on the AutoPlay list. To me, that would mean any situation where the files on the drive weren’t exclusively music, images, or one of the other recognized types. Instead, it seems to kick in only when the files on the drive are a combination of two or more of the recognized types. If you have a drive full of only unrecognized file types, AutoPlay won’t play at all because it doesn’t consider that to be Mixed Content. Go figure.
Come Back, AutoPlay
After going through the work to get rid of AutoPlay, there may come a day when you decide you’d like to have it again. Theoretically, all you should need to do is go back to the drive’s AutoPlay tab and click Restore Defaults. Guess what? Sometimes that’s not enough. I found this out first-hand when I gave one of my old WinXP systems to a family member a few months ago. They were accustomed to using AutoPlay with some of their media, so I had to turn it back on. No matter how many Restore Defaults I tried, though, it just wasn’t cutting the mustard. Getting rid of AutoPlay was a breeze compared to getting it back.
The first thing I did was to try and figure out what settings could possibly be out of whack. That led me to two very interesting articles about AutoPlay. The first article (http://msdn.microsof...utoplay/default.aspx
) provides quite a bit of background about how AutoPlay works in WinXP. Although it’s pretty technical, the thing that struck me was the complexity of AutoPlay rules. If you can’t clearly explain the feature to a user in a few sentences, it’s a sign of trouble in my book. The second article (http://msdn.microsof...oplay2k_cookbook.asp
) offers a lot of gory detail about implementation but really didn’t help me resurrect AutoPlay.
After another hour of debugging the problem and searching the Internet, I came across a free Microsoft tool called the AutoPlay Repair Wizard. This tool basically takes the information from the two articles above and turns it into a program that mere mortals can use to bring AutoPlay back to life. When I ran it on my system, it found several Registry settings that were out of whack and made the necessary changes to fix them. If you’re having problems getting AutoPlay to play, this tool is a must-have.
As you might be able to tell, I’m not a big fan of AutoPlay. I tend to avoid the fancy wizards and special apps for removable media. Instead, I just open folder or Explorer windows and use drag and drop to move files. I like it that way because I don’t need to learn several different user interfaces that basically do the same thing. No matter where the files are located, I always try to use the same consistent way of doing things. AutoPlay encourages inconsistency, and that tends to slow me down.
by Dave Methvin