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Friday, 16 October 2009

50 Windows 7 Tips

They said Windows 7 was just a cosmetic upgrade, a more polished version of Vista with little to offer beyond the new wallpaper.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Look beyond the headlines about interface tweaks and you'll find Windows 7 is crammed with lesser known, but still important, new and enhanced features, which taken together deliver improved performance and productivity, better troubleshooting, stronger security and a whole lot more.

Read on for 50 ways in which Windows 7 will make a real difference to your PC.

1. Problem Steps Recorder
As the local PC guru you're probably very used to friends and family asking for help with their computer problems, yet having no idea how to clearly describe what's going on. It's frustrating, but Microsoft feels your pain, and Windows 7 will include an excellent new solution in the Problem Steps Recorder.

When any app starts misbehaving under Windows 7 then all your friends need do is click Start, type PSR and press Enter, then click Start Record. If they then work through whatever they're doing then the Problem Steps Recorder will record every click and keypress, take screen grabs, and package everything up into a single zipped MHTML file when they're finished, ready for emailing to you. It's quick, easy and effective, and will save you hours of troubleshooting time.

2. Burn images
Windows 7 finally introduces a feature that other operating systems have had for years - the ability to burn ISO images to CDs or DVDs. And it couldn't be much easier to use. Just double-click the ISO image, choose the drive with the blank disc, click Burn and watch as your disc is created.

3. Create and mount VHD files
Microsoft's Virtual PC creates its virtual machine hard drives in VHD files, and Windows 7 can now mount these directly so you can access them in the host system. Click Start, type diskmgmt.msc and press Enter, then click Action > Attach VHD and choose the file you'd like to mount. It will then appear as a virtual drive in Explorer and can be accessed, copied or written just like any other drive.

Click Action > Create VHD and you can now create a new virtual drive of your own (right-click it, select Initialise Disk, and after it's set up right-click the unallocated space and select New Simple Volume to set this up). Again, you'll be left with a virtual drive that behaves just like any other, where you can drag and drop files, install programs, test partitioning software or do whatever you like. But it's actually just this VHD file on your real hard drive which you can easily back up or share with others. Right-click the disk (that's the left-hand label that says "Disk 2" or whatever) and select Detach VHD to remove it.

The command line DISKPART utility has also been upgraded with tools to detach a VHD file, and an EXPAND command to increase a virtual disk's maximum size. Don't play around with this unless you know what you're doing, though - it's all too easy to trash your system.

4. Troubleshoot problems
If some part of Windows 7 is behaving strangely, and you don't know why, then click Control Panel > Find and fix problems (or 'Troubleshooting') to access the new troubleshooting packs. These are simple wizards that will resolve common problems, check your settings, clean up your system and more.

5. Startup repair
If you've downloaded Windows 7 (and even if you haven't) it's a good idea to create a system repair disc straight away in case you run into problems booting the OS later on. Click Start > Maintenance > Create a System Repair Disc, and let Windows 7 build a bootable emergency disc. If the worst does happen then it could be the only way to get your PC running again.

6. Take control
Tired of the kids installing dubious software or running applications you'd rather they left alone? AppLocker is a new Windows 7 feature that ensures users can only run the programs you specify. Don't worry, that's easier to set up than it sounds: you can create a rule to allow everything signed by a particular publisher, so choose Microsoft, say, and that one rule will let you run all signed Microsoft applications. Launch GPEDIT.MSC and go to Computer Configuration > Windows Settings > Security Settings > Application Control Policies > AppLocker to get a feel for how this works.

7. Calculate more
At first glance the Windows 7 calculator looks just like Vista's version, but explore the Mode menu and you'll see powerful new Statistics and Programmer views. And if you're clueless about bitwise manipulation, then try the Options menu instead. This offers many different unit conversions (length, weight, volume and more), date calculations (how many days between two dates?), and spreadsheet-type templates to help you calculate vehicle mileage, mortgage rates and more.

Don't take any Windows 7 applet at face value, then - there are some very powerful new features hidden in the background. Be sure to explore every option in all Windows applets to ensure you don't miss anything important.

8. Switch to a projector
Windows 7 now provides a standard way to switch your display from one monitor to another, or a projector - just press Win+P or run DisplaySwitch.exe and choose your preferred display. (This will have no effect if you've only one display connected.)

9. Get a power efficiency report
If you have a laptop, you can use the efficiency calculator to get Windows 7 to generate loads of useful information about its power consumption. Used in the right way, this can help you make huge gains in terms of battery life and performance. To do this you must open a command prompt as an administrator by typing 'cmd' in Start Search, and when the cmd icon appears, right-click it and choose Run as administrator.

Then at the command line, just type in 'powercfg -energy' (without quotes) and hit Return, and Windows 7 will scan your system looking for ways to improve power efficiency. It will then publish the results in an HTML file, usually in the System32 folder. Just follow the path it gives you to find your report.

10. Understanding System Restore
Using System Restore in previous versions of Windows has been something of a gamble. There's no way of telling which applications or drivers it might affect - you just have to try it and see.

Windows 7 is different. Right-click Computer, select Properties > System Protection > System Restore > Next, and choose the restore point you'd like to use. Click the new button to 'Scan for affected programs' and Windows will tell you which (if any) programs and drivers will be deleted or recovered by selecting this restore point.

11. Set the time zone
System administrators will appreciate the new command line tzutil.exe utility, which lets you set a PC's time zone from scripts. If you wanted to set a PC to Greenwich Mean Time, for instance, you'd use the command

tzutil /s "gmt standard time"

The command "tzutil /g" displays the current time zone, "tzutil /l" lists all possible time zones, and "tzutil /?" displays details on how the command works.

12. Calibrate your screen
The colours you see on your screen will vary depending on your monitor, graphics cards settings, lighting and more, yet most people use the same default Windows colour profile. And that means a digital photo you think looks perfect might appear very poor to everybody else. Fortunately Windows 7 now provides a Display Colour Calibration Wizard that helps you properly set up your brightness, contrast and colour settings, and a ClearType tuner to ensure text is crisp and sharp. Click Start, type DCCW and press Enter to give it a try.

13. Right-click everything
At first glance Windows 7 bears a striking resemblance to Vista, but there's an easy way to begin spotting the differences - just right-click things.

Right-click an empty part of the desktop, for instance, and you'll find a menu entry to set your screen resolution. No need to go browsing through the display settings any more.

Right-click the Explorer icon on the taskbar for speedy access to common system folders: Documents, Pictures, the Windows folder, and more.

And if you don't plan on using Internet Explorer then you probably won't want its icon permanently displayed on the taskbar. Right-click the icon, select 'Unpin this program from the taskbar', then go install Firefox, instead.

14. Desktop slideshow
Windows 7 comes with some very attractive new wallpapers, and it's not always easy to decide which one you like the best. So why not let choose a few, and let Windows display them all in a desktop slideshow? Right-click an empty part of the desktop, select Personalise > Desktop Background, then hold down Ctrl as you click on the images you like. Choose how often you'd like the images to be changed (anything from daily to once every 10 seconds), select Shuffle if you'd like the backgrounds to appear in a random order, then click Save Changes and enjoy the show.

15. RSS-powered wallpaper
And if a slideshow based on your standard wallpaper isn't enough, then you can always create a theme that extracts images from an RSS feed. For example, Long Zheng has created a few sample themes to illustrate how it works. And Jamie Thompson takes this even further, with a theme that always displays the latest BBC news and weather on your desktop.

16. Recover screen space
The new Windows 7 taskbar acts as one big quick launch toolbar that can hold whatever program shortcuts you like (just right-click one and select Pin To Taskbar). And that's fine, except it does consume a little more screen real estate than we'd like. Shrink it to a more manageable size by right-clicking the Start orb, then Properties > Taskbar > Use small icons > OK.

17. Restore the Quick Launch Toolbar
If you're unhappy with the new taskbar, even after shrinking it, then it only takes a moment to restore the old Quick Launch Toolbar.

Right-click the taskbar, choose Toolbars > New Toolbar, type "%UserProfile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch" (less the quotes) into the Folder box and click Select Folder.

Now right-click the taskbar, clear 'Lock the taskbar', and you should see the Quick Launch toolbar, probably to the right. Right-click its divider, clear Show Text and Show Title to minimise the space it takes up. Complete the job by right-clicking the bar and selecting View > Small Icons for the true retro look.

18. Custom power switch
By default, Windows 7 displays a plain text 'Shut down' button on the Start menu, but it only takes a moment to change this action to something else. If you reboot your PC a few times every day then that might make more sense as a default action: right-click the Start orb, select Properties and set the 'Power boot action' to 'Restart' to make it happen.

19. Auto arrange your desktop
If your Windows 7 desktop has icons scattered everywhere then you could right-click it and select View > Auto arrange, just as in Vista. But a simpler solution is just to press and hold down F5, and Windows will automatically arrange its icons for you.

20. Disable smart window arrangement
Windows 7 features interesting new ways to intelligently arrange your windows, so that (for example) if you drag a window to the top of the screen then it will maximise. We like the new system, but if you find it distracting then it's easily disabled. Run REGEDIT, go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop, set WindowArrangementActive to 0, reboot, and your windows will behave just as they always did.

21. Browse your tasks
If you prefer the keyboard over the mouse, you will love browsing the taskbar using this nifty shortcut. Press Windows and T, and you move the focus to the left-most icon on the taskbar. Then use your arrow keys to change the focus to other icons, and you get a live preview of every window.

22. Display your drives
Click Computer in Windows 7 and you might see a strange lack of drives, but don't panic, it's just Microsoft trying to be helpful: drives like memory card readers are no longer displayed if they're empty. We think it's an improvement, but if you disagree then it's easy to get your empty drives back. Launch Explorer, click Tools > Folder Options > View and clear 'Hide empty drives in the computer folder'.

23. See more detail
The new and improved Windows 7 magnifier offers a much easier way to zoom in on any area of the screen. Launch it and you can now define a scale factor and docking position, and once activated it can track your keyboard focus around the screen. Press Tab as you move around a dialog box, say, and it'll automatically zoom in on the currently active control.

24. Hiding the Windows Live Messenger icon
If you use Windows Live Messenger a lot, you'll have noticed that the icon now resides on the taskbar, where you can easily change status and quickly send an IM to someone. If you prefer to keep Windows Live Messenger in the system tray, where it's been for previous releases, just close Windows Live Messenger, edit the shortcut properties and set the application to run in Windows Vista compatibility mode.

25. Customise UAC
Windows Vista's User Account Control was a good idea in practice, but poor implementation put many people off - it raised far too many alerts. Fortunately Windows 7 displays less warnings by default, and lets you further fine-tune UAC to suit your preferred balance between security and a pop-up free life (Start > Control Panel > Change User Account Control Settings).

26. Use Sticky Notes
The Sticky Notes app is both simpler and more useful in Windows 7. Launch StikyNot.exe and you can type notes at the keyboard; right-click a note to change its colour; click the + sign on the note title bar to add another note; and click a note and press Alt + 4 to close the note windows (your notes are automatically saved).

27. Open folder in new process
By default Windows 7 opens folders in the same process. This saves system resources, but means one folder crash can bring down the entire shell. If your system seems unstable, or you're doing something in Explorer that regularly seems to causes crashes, then open Computer, hold down Shift, right-click on your drive and select Open in New Process. The folder will now be launched in a separate process, and so a crash is less likely to affect anything else.

28. Watch more videos
Windows Media Player 12 is a powerful program, but it still won't play all the audio and video files you'll find online. Fortunately the first freeware Windows 7 codecs package [] has been released, and installing it could get your troublesome multimedia files playing again.

29. Preview fonts
Open the Fonts window in Windows XP and Vista and you'll see the font names, probably with icons to tell you whether they're TrueType or OpenType, but that's about it. Windows 7 sees some useful font-related improvements.

Open the new fonts window and you'll find a little preview for every font, giving you a quick idea of how they're going to look.

The tedium of scrolling through multiple entries for each family, like Times New Roman, Times New Roman Bold, Times New Roman Bold Italic and so on, has finally ended. There's now just a single entry for each font (though you can still see all other members of the family).

And there's a new OpenType font, Gabriola, added to the mix. It's an attractive script font, well worth a try the next time you need a stylish document that stands out from the crowd.

30. Restore your gadgets
Windows 7 has tightened up its security by refusing to run gadgets if UAC has been turned off, so limiting the damage malicious unsigned gadgets can do to your system. If you've disabled UAC, miss your gadgets and are happy to accept the security risk, though, there's an easy Registry way to get everything back to normal. Run REGEDIT, go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Sidebar\Settings, create a new DWORD value called AllowElevatedProcess and set it to 1. Your gadgets should start working again right away.

31. New WordPad formats
By default WordPad will save documents in Rich Text Format, just as before. But browse the Save As Format list and you'll see you can also save (or open, actually) files in the Office 2007 .docx or OpenDocument .odt formats.

32. Protect your data
USB flash drives are convenient, portable, and very easy to lose. Which is a problem, especially if they're carrying sensitive data. Fortunately Windows 7 has the solution: encrypt your documents with an extension of Microsoft's BitLocker technology, and only someone with the password will be able to access it. Right-click your USB flash drive, select Turn on BitLocker and follow the instructions to protect your private files.

33. Minimise quickly with shake
If you have multiple windows open on your desktop and things are getting too cluttered, it used to be a time-consuming process to close them all down. In Windows 7 you can use the Aero Shake feature to minimise everything in seconds, using a cool mouse gesture. Grab the title bar of the window you wish to keep open and give it a shake, and rejoice in a clear desktop area.

34. Configure your favourite music
The Windows 7 Media Centre now comes with an option to play your favourite music, which by default creates a changing list of songs based on your ratings, how often you play them, and when they were added (it's assumed you'll prefer songs you've added in the last 30 days). If this doesn't work then you can tweak how Media Centre decides what a "favourite" tune is- click Tasks > Settings > Music > Favourite Music and configure the program to suit your needs.

35. Customise System Restore
There was very little you could do to configure System Restore in Vista, but Windows 7 improves the situation with a couple of useful setup options.

Click the Start orb, right-click Computer and select Properties > System Protection > Configure, and set the Max Usage value to a size that suits your needs (larger to hold more restore points, smaller to save disk space).

And if you don't need System Restore to save Windows settings then choose the "Only restore previous versions of files" option. Windows 7 won't back up your Registry, which means you'll squeeze more restore points and file backups into the available disk space. System Restore is much less likely to get an unbootable PC working again, though, so use this trick at your own risk.

36. Run As
Hold down Shift, right-click any program shortcut, and you'll see an option to run the program as a different user, handy if you're logged in to the kids' limited account and need to run something with higher privileges. This isn't really a new feature - Windows XP had a Run As option that did the same thing - but Microsoft stripped it out of Vista, so it's good to see it's had a change of heart.

37. Search privacy
By default Windows 7 will remember your PC search queries, and display the most recent examples when searching in Windows Explorer. If you're sharing a PC and don't want everyone to see your searches, then launch GPEDIT.MSC, go to User Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Windows Explorer, double-click "Turn off display of recent search entries..." and click Enabled > OK.

38. Tweak PC volume
By default Windows 7 will now automatically reduce the volume of your PC's sounds whenever it detects you're making or receiving PC-based phone calls. If this proves annoying (or maybe you'd like it to turn off other sounds altogether) then you can easily change the settings accordingly. Just right-click the speaker icon in your taskbar, select Sounds > Communications, and tell Windows what you'd like it to do.

39. Find bottlenecks
From what we've seen so far Windows 7 is already performing better than Vista, but if your PC seems sluggish then it's now much easier to uncover the bottleneck. Click Start, type RESMON and press Enter to launch the Resource Monitor, then click the CPU, Memory, Disk or Network tabs. Windows 7 will immediately show which processes are hogging the most system resources.

The CPU view is particularly useful, and provides something like a more powerful version of Task Manager. If a program has locked up, for example, then right-click its name in the list and select Analyze Process. Windows will then try to tell you why it's hanging - the program might be waiting for another process, perhaps - which could give you the information you need to fix the problem.

40. Keyboard shortcuts
Windows 7 supports several useful new keyboard shortcuts.

Display/ hide the Explorer preview pane

Windows Logo+G
Display gadgets in front of other windows

Windows Logo++ (plus key)
Zoom in, where appropriate

Windows Logo+- (minus key)
Zoom out, where appropriate

Windows Logo+Up
Maximise the current window

Windows Logo+Down
Minimise the current window

Windows Logo+Left
Snap to the left hand side of the screen

Windows Logo+Right
Snap to the right hand side of the screen

Windows Logo+Home
Minimise/ restore everything except the current window

41. Faster program launches
If you've launched one instance of a program but want to start another, then don't work your way back through the Start menu. It's much quicker to just hold down Shift and click on the program's icon (or middle-click it), and Windows 7 will start a new instance for you.

42. Speedy video access
Want faster access to your Videos folder? Windows 7 now lets you add it to the Start menu. Just right-click the Start orb, click Properties > Start Menu > Customize, and set the Videos option to "Display as a link". If you've a TV tuner that works with Windows 7 then you'll appreciate the new option to display the Recorded TV folder on the Start menu, too.

43. Run web searches
The Windows 7 search tool can now be easily extended to search online resources, just as long as someone creates an appropriate search connector. To add Flickr support, say, visit I Started Something, click Download the Connector, choose the Open option and watch as it's downloaded (the file is tiny, it'll only take a moment). A "Flickr Search" option will be added to your Searches folder, and you'll be able to search images from your desktop.

A multitude of other ready-made searches, such as Google and YouTube, can be downloaded from the website.

44. Schedule Media Centre downloads
You can now tell Windows Media Centre to download data at a specific time, perhaps overnight, a useful way to prevent it sapping your bandwidth for the rest of the day. Launch Media Centre, go to Tasks > Settings > General > Automatic Download Options, and set the download start and stop times that you'd like it to use.

45. Multi-threaded Robocopies
Anyone who's ever used the excellent command-line robocopy tool will appreciate the new switches introduced with Windows 7. Our favourite, /MT, can improve speed by carrying out multi-threaded copies with the number of threads you specify (you can have up to 128, though that might be going a little too far). Enter robocopy /? at a command line for the full details.

46. Really remove the sidebar
At first glance you might think Windows 7 has got rid of the sidebar, but don't be fooled. Gadgets are still hosted by the Sidebar.exe process, it's just that this is now launched automatically when Windows boots. If you don't plan on ever using gadgets then you could delete the Sidebar Registry entry at HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run, and recover a small amount of RAM. That might be a little risky, though, as we're not quite sure what else the sidebar process does in Windows 7. The safest approach is to disable it temporarily by launching MSCONFIG.EXE, clicking the Startup tab and clearing the box next to the Startup entry. Now reboot and test Windows 7 for a day or two to confirm everything is still working, before finally deleting the sidebar registry entry.

47. Load IE faster
Some Internet Explorer add-ons can take a while to start, dragging down the browser's performance, but at least IE8 can now point a finger at the worst resource hogs. Click Tools > Manage Add-ons, check the Load Time in the right-hand column, and you'll immediately see which browser extensions are slowing you down.

48. An Alt+Tab alternative
You want to access one of the five Explorer windows you have open, but there are so many other programs running that Alt+Tab makes it hard to pick out what you need. The solution? Hold down the Ctrl key while you click on the Explorer icon. Windows 7 will then cycle through the Explorer windows only, a much quicker way to locate the right one. And of course this works with any application that has multiple windows open.

49. Block annoying alerts
Just like Vista, Windows 7 will display a suitably stern warning if it thinks your antivirus, firewall or other security settings are incorrect.

But unlike Vista, if you disagree then you can now turn off alerts on individual topics. If you no longer want to see warnings just because you've dared to turn off the Windows firewall, say, then click Control Panel > System and Security > Action Centre > Change Action Centre settings, clear the Network Firewall box and click OK.

50. Parallel defrags
The standard Windows 7 defragger offers a little more control than we saw in Vista, and the command line version also has some interesting new features. The /r switch will defrag multiple drives in parallel, for instance (they'll obviously need to be physically separate drives for this to be useful). The /h switch runs the defrag at a higher than normal priority, and the /u switch provides regular progress reports so you can see exactly what's going on. Enter the command

defrag /c /h /u /r

in a command window to speedily defrag a system with multiple drives, or enter defrag /? to view the new options for yourself.