Windows 7 tricks: 20 top tips and tweaks

Here are 20 ways to get around the Windows 7 interface and make it act the way you want.

Just got your hands on Windows 7 and want to bend it to your will? No problem. We've got plenty of tips, hacks and secrets to keep you busy for a long time, including automatically opening Windows Explorer to a folder of your choice, speeding up taskbar thumbnails, finding hidden desktop themes, forcing User Account Control to act the way you'd like, keeping your Explorer searches secret from others, and more.

So check out these tips. If you like them, we'll keep more coming.

General tips

We'll start with a few nifty tips that can make your desktop more interesting, make it easier to get around and increase your computer's power efficiency.

Use hidden international wallpapers and themes

When you first install Windows 7, it asks for your language, time and currency. Based on your responses, it installs a set of wallpapers and themes. If you choose English (United States) for your time and currency format, for example, the available desktop backgrounds and themes will include a United States section with scenery from locations such as Maine, the Southwest and so on.

Hidden, though, are background scenery and themes from other English-speaking countries -- Australia, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. Normally, you can't access those backgrounds or themes, but there is a simple way you can install and use them:

1. In the search box in the Start menu, type C:\Windows\Globalization\MCT and press Enter. (Note: If Windows 7 is installed in a drive other than C:, use that letter instead.)

2. Windows Explorer will launch and show you a list of subfolders under C:\Windows\Globalization\MCT: MCT-AU, MCT-CA, MCT-GB, MCT-US, and MCT-ZA. Each subfolder has wallpapers for a specific country: AU for Australia, CA for Canada, GB for Great Britain, US for the United States, and ZA for South Africa.

Windows 7 South Africa theme

A South Africa theme, ready to use.

Click to view larger image.

For any of the countries whose wallpaper and themes you want to use, go into its Theme folder, for example, C:\Windows\Globalization\MCT\MCT-ZA\Theme. Double-click the theme you see there (for example ZA).

3. That will install a shortcut to the theme and wallpapers in the Personalization section of Control Panel.

You can now use them as you would any other theme or background, by right-clicking the desktop, choosing Personalize, and choosing a background or theme. They will be listed in their own section.

Shake your desktop free of clutter

If you frequently run multiple programs simultaneously, your desktop can get extremely cluttered. This can get annoying if you're working on one program and want to minimize all the other windows -- in previous versions of Windows you had to minimize them individually.

With Windows 7's "shake" feature, though, you can minimize every window except the one in which you're currently working -- in a single step. Click and hold the title bar of the window you want to keep on the desktop; while still holding the title bar, shake it quickly back and forth until all of the other windows minimize to the taskbar. Then let go. To make them return, shake the title bar again.

You can accomplish the same thing by pressing the Window key-Home key combination -- although doing that is not nearly as much fun.

Get a power efficiency report

Have a laptop and want to get more battery life out of it? Windows 7 includes a hidden built-in tool that will examine your laptop's energy use and make recommendations on how to improve it. To use it:

1. Run a command prompt as an administrator. To do this, type cmd in the search box, and when the cmd icon appears, right-click it and choose "Run as administrator."

2. At the command line, type in the following:

powercfg -energy -output \<i>Folder</i>\Energy_Report.html

where \Folder represents the folder where you want the report to be placed.

Windows 7 power efficiency report

A laptop's power efficiency report.

Click to view larger image.

3. For about a minute, Windows 7 will examine the behavior of your laptop. It will then analyze it and create a report in HTML format in the folder you specified. Double-click the file, and you'll get a report -- follow its recommendations for ways to improve power performance.

Modify UAC

The User Account Control security feature was one of the most reviled additions to Windows Vista, with good reason -- its constant warning messages asking for permission to continue many operations drove users around the bend.

UAC has been significantly improved in Windows 7 so that it's not as intrusive as in Vista, but you can still tweak it if you like.

Here's how to turn UAC on or off, and make it less or more intrusive than the default:

1. Go to the Control Panel --> User Accounts and Family Safety.

2. Click User Accounts, then click Change User Account Control settings.

3. From the screen that appears, use the slider to select the level of protection you want. Here are the four levels and what they mean:

Modifying User Account Control UAC

Modifying UAC. Click to view larger image.

Always notify me. Think of this as UAC Classic. It works like Vista's UAC: When you make changes to your system, when software is installed or when a program tries to make a change to your system, an annoying prompt appears.

Default -- Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer. This is, obviously, the default; make a change yourself and UAC leaves you alone. When a program makes a change, a prompt appears and your desktop goes dark, just like it does in Vista. Otherwise, UAC sits there silently.

Notify me only when programs try to make changes to my computer (do not dim my desktop). This setting is identical to the default setting, with one difference: It won't dim your desktop so that you only see the UAC prompt asking you to take action. This presents a slightly elevated security risk over the default setting, because theoretically a program could allow a malicious program to interfere with the UAC prompt.

Never notify me when: In this one, UAC is completely turned off. This is, of course, an insecure option and not recommended for most users.

After you make the selection, click OK. Depending on the selection you made, you may need to restart your system for it to take effect.

Start Menu tips

Many people overlook the Start Menu, rarely using it except as a jumping off point to run an application or get to the Control Panel. But there's actually plenty you can do with it.

Search the Internet from the Start Menu

Note: This tip relies on the Group Policy Editor, which isn't available in some versions of Windows 7. Thus, this tip will not work if you have the Home Premium, Starter, or Home Basic editions of Windows 7.

The Start Menu's search box is a convenient way to search through your PC -- but you can also have it do double-duty and perform Internet searches as well. To enable this feature:

1. In the Start Menu search box, type GPEDIT.MSC and press Enter to run the Group Policy Editor.

2. Go to User Configuration --> Administrative Templates --> Start Menu and Taskbar.

Enabling Internet search from the Start Menu

Enabling Internet search from the Start Menu.

Click to view larger image.

3. Double-click "Add Search Internet link to Start Menu," and from the screen that appears, select Enabled. Then click OK and close the Group Policy Editor.

4. From now on, when you type a search term in the Search box on the Start Menu, a "Search the Internet" link will appear. Click the link to launch the search in your default browser with your default search engine.

Customize the Shut down button

The default action of the Start Menu's Shut down button is to turn off your PC. If you want to use the button for another action, such as restarting your PC, you click the arrow to the right of the Shut down button and select an action from the drop-down menu.

What if you rarely shut your PC down completely but frequently restart it? You can change the Shut down button's default action to be Restart -- or Switch user, Log off, Lock, Sleep or Hibernate.

To change your default, right-click the Start button and select Properties. On the Start Menu tab, click the "Power button action" drop-down menu and select which action you want to be the default. Then click OK, and OK again.

Add a Videos link to the Start Menu

The Windows 7 Start Menu includes links to your Pictures and Music folders, but not to your Videos folder. If you watch a lot of videos and want a link to them on your Start Menu, here's what you can do:

Displaying Videos folder on Start Menu

Displaying the Videos folder on the Start Menu.

Click to view larger image.

1. Right-click the Start button and select Properties.

2. On the screen that appears, go to the Start Menu tab and click Customize.

3. In the dialog box that appears, scroll to the bottom, look for the Videos section, select "Display as a link," and click OK and then OK again.

If you'd prefer that Videos display as a menu, with links to files and submenus, instead select "Display as a menu."

Windows Explorer tips

Windows Explorer is the heart and soul of the Windows interface, and overall it works quite well. But you can make it better.

Use check boxes to select multiple files

In order to select multiple files for an operation such as copying, moving or deleting in Windows Explorer, you generally use the keyboard and the mouse, Ctrl-clicking every file you want to select.

But if you're mouse-centric, there's a way to select multiple files in Windows 7 using only your mouse, via check boxes. To do it:

Selecting multiple files using your mouse and check boxes

Selecting multiple files using your mouse and check boxes.

Click to view larger image.

1. In Windows Explorer, click Organize, and then select "Folder and search options."

2. Click the View tab.

3. In Advanced Settings, scroll down and check the box next to "Use check boxes to select items." Click OK.

4. From now on, when you hover your mouse over a file in Windows Explorer, a check box will appear next to it; click it to select the file. Once a file is selected, the checked box remains next to it; if you uncheck it, the box will disappear when you move your mouse away.

Open a command prompt at any folder

Command prompt fans will welcome this tip. With it, when you're in Windows Explorer, you can open a command prompt to any folder. This tip does exactly what the Windows XP PowerToy "Open Command Window Here" does.

To use it, hold down the Shift key and right-click a folder, then choose "Open command window here" from the context menu that appears. (Note that this tip doesn't work in the Documents folder.)

Protect the privacy of your Explorer searches

Note: This tip relies on the Group Policy Editor, which isn't available in some versions of Windows 7. Thus, this tip will not work if you have the Home Premium, Starter, or Home Basic editions of Windows 7.

When you search through your PC from Windows Explorer, you can see the most recent searches that have been performed. If you share a PC and don't want others to see what you've searched for, you can turn off the recent searches feature:

1. In the Start menu's Search box, type GPEDIT.MSC and press Enter to launch the Group Policy Editor.

Protecting search privacy

Select "Enabled" to protect search privacy.

Click to view larger image.

2. Go to User Configuration --> Administrative Templates --> Windows Components --> Windows Explorer.

3. Double-click "Turn off display of recent search entries in the Windows Explorer search box" and select Enabled from the screen that appears. Then click OK. The recent searches feature will now be turned off.

Set a new Windows Explorer launch folder

When you run Windows Explorer, it always opens to the Libraries folder. That's fine if you use Microsoft's default file organization, which designates Libraries as the overall container for your folders.

But what if you don't? You might prefer to have Windows Explorer open to Computer or any other folder you choose. Here's how to do it:

Changing the default Explorer location

Changing the default Explorer location.

Click to view larger image.

1. Right-click the Windows Explorer icon on the taskbar (it's the one that looks like a folder), and then right-click the Windows Explorer icon from the context menu that appears and select Properties. The Windows Explorer Properties dialog box appears.

2. You'll have to edit the Target field on the Shortcut tab of this dialog box in order to change the default location at which Explorer opens.

If you want Explorer to open to a specific folder, simply enter the name of the folder, substituting your folder name for Folder, below, like this:

%windir%\explorer.exe c:\<i>Folder</i>

So to open Explorer to the folder named Budget, you would type this in the Target field:

%windir%\explorer.exe c:\Budget

If you want Explorer to open to special, pre-set locations, such as Computer, you'll need to enter special syntax in the Target field. Following is a list of three common locations and the syntax to use, followed by the syntax for the Libraries folder in case you ever want to revert to the default.

  • Computer: %windir%\explorer.exe ::{20D04FE0-3AEA-1069-A2D8-08002B30309D}
  • My Documents:%windir%\explorer.exe ::{450D8FBA-AD25-11D0-98A8-0800361B1103}
  • Network: %windir%\explorer.exe ::{208D2C60-3AEA-1069-A2D7-08002B30309D}
  • Libraries: %SystemRoot%\explorer.exe

3. After you've changed the Target field, click OK. Next time you launch Windows Explorer, it will open to the new location you've designated.

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