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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
Windows 7 includes a little-known new feature called Virtual Wi-Fi, which effectively turns your PC or laptop into a software-based router. Any other Wi-Fi-enabled devices within range – a desktop, laptop, an iPod perhaps – will “see” you as a new network and, once logged on, immediately be able to share your internet connection.
Windows 7 has changed Control Panel a little, but it’s still too difficult to locate all the applets and options that you might need. God Mode, however, while not being particularly godlike, does offer an easier way to access everything you could want from a single folder.
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 a taskbar button, though, and you’ll now see its jumplist menu. That’s a useful new feature, but not much help if you want to access the minimize, maximize, or move options that used to be available. Fortunately there’s an easy way to get the old context menu back – just hold down Ctrl and Shift as you right-click the taskbar button.
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.
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. Jamie Thompson takes this even further, with a theme that always displays the latest BBC news and weather on your desktop. And MakeUseOfhave a quick and easy tutorial showing how RSS can get you those gorgeous Bing photographs as your wallpaper.
Changing the Windows log-on screen used to involve some complicated and potentially dangerous hacks, but not any more – Windows 7 makes it easy.
First, browse to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Authentication\LogonUI\Background in REGEDIT, double-click the DWORD key called OEMBackground (not there? Create it) and set its value to 1.
Now find a background image you’d like to use. Make sure it’s less than 256KB in size, and matches the aspect ratio of your screen as it’ll be stretched to fit.
Next, copy that image into the %windir%\system32\oobe\info\backgrounds folder (create the info\backgrounds folders if they don’t exist). Rename the image to backgroundDefault.jpg, reboot, and you should now have a custom log-on image.
Alternatively, use a free tweaking tool to handle everything for you. Logon Changer displays a preview so you can see how the log-on screen will look without rebooting, while the Logon Screen Rotator accepts multiple images and will display a different one every time you log on.
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.
Windows 7 now combines taskbar buttons in a way that saves space, but also makes it more difficult to tell at a glance whether an icon represents a running application or a shortcut. If you prefer a more traditional approach, then right-click the taskbar, select Properties, and set Taskbar Buttons to “Combine when taskbar is full”. You’ll now get a clear and separate button for each running application, making them much easier to identify.
One problem with the previous tip is the buttons will gobble up valuable taskbar real estate, but you can reduce the impact of this by removing their text captions. Launch REGEDIT, browse to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics, add a string called MinWidth, set it to 54, and reboot to see the results.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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 [shark007.net/win7codecs.html] has been released, and installing it could get your troublesome multimedia files playing again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With Windows 7 we finally see system tray icons behave in a similar way to everything else on the taskbar. So if you want to rearrange them, then go right ahead, just drag and drop them into the order you like. You can even move important icons outside of the tray, drop them onto the desktop, then put them back when you no longer need to keep an eye on them.
Windows 7 includes new power options that will help to improve your notebook’s battery life. To see them, click Start, type Power Options and click the Power Options link, then click Change Plan Settings for your current plan and select Change Advanced Settings. Expand Multimedia Settings, for instance, and you’ll see a new “playing video” setting that can be set to optimise power savings rather than performance. Browse through the other settings and ensure they’re set up to suit your needs.
Windows 7 won’t create memory.dmp crash files if you’ve less than 25GB of free hard drive space, annoying if you’ve installed the Windows debugging tools and want to diagnose your crashes. You can turn this feature off, though: browse to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\CrashControl, create a new DWORD value called AlwaysKeepMemoryDump, set it to 1, and the crash dump file will now always be saved.
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.
Windows 7 supports several useful new keyboard shortcuts.
Display/ hide the Explorer preview pane
Display gadgets in front of other windows
Zoom in, where appropriate
Zoom out, where appropriate
Maximise the current window
Minimise the current window
Snap to the left hand side of the screen
Snap to the right hand side of the screen
Minimise/ restore everything except the current window
When working at the command line you’ll often need to access files, which usually means typing lengthy paths and hoping you’ve got them right. But Windows 7 offers an easier way. Simply drag and drop the file onto your command window and the full path will appear, complete with quotes and ready to be used.
Right-click an icon on your taskbar, perhaps Notepad, and you’ll see a jumplist menu that provides easy access to the documents you’ve been working on recently. But maybe there’s another document that you’d like to be always available? Then drag and drop it onto the taskbar icon, and it’ll be pinned to the top of the jumplist for easier access. Click the pin to the right of the file name, or right-click it and select “Unpin from this list” when you need to remove it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just like Vista, Windows 7 will display a suitably stern warning if it thinks your antivirus, firewall or other security settings are incorrect.
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
The Windows 7 Explorer has a couple of potential annoyances. Launching Computer will no longer display system folders like Control Panel or Recycle Bin, for instance. And if you’re drilling down through a complicated folder structure in the right-hand pane of Explorer, the left-hand tree won’t always expand to follow what you’re doing, which can make it more difficult to see exactly where you are. Fortunately there’s a quick fix: click Organize > Folder and Search Options, check “Show all folders” and “Automatically expand to current folder”, and click OK.
If you hold down Shift while right-clicking a file in Explorer, then you’ll find the Send To file now includes all your main user folders: Contacts, Documents, Downloads, Music and more. Choose any of these and your file will be moved there immediately.
If you’re regularly working on the same folder in Explorer then select it in the right-hand page, right-click Favourites on the left-hand menu, and select Add to Favourites. It’ll then appear at the bottom of the favourites list for easy one-click access later.
By default Windows 7 will permanently consume a chunk of your hard drive with its hibernation file, but if you never use sleep, and always turn your PC off, then this will never actually be used. To disable hibernation and recover a little hard drive space, launch REGEDIT, browse to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Power, then set both HibernateEnabled and HiberFileSizePerfect to zero.