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Win7 Secrets Revealed

Some of the lesser known things you can do with the new Windows

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Add network support

By default Windows Live MovieMaker won't let you import files over a network, but a quick Registry tweak will change this. Run REGEDIT, browse to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows Live\Movie Maker, add a DWORD value called AllowNetworkFiles and set it to 1 to add network support.

Activate XP mode

If you've old but important software that no longer runs under Windows 7, then you could try using XP Mode, a virtual copy of XP that runs in a window on your Windows 7 desktop. But there's a big potential problem, as XP Mode only works with systems that have hardware virtualisation (AMD-V or Intel VT) built-in and turned on. If you've a compatible CPU then this may just be a matter of enabling the option in your BIOS set-up program, however some high profile brands, including Sony Vaio, disable the setting for "security reasons". And that blocks XP Mode from working, too.

A safe approach might be to use VirtualBox, a virtualisation tool that doesn't insist on hardware support, but then you will need to find a licensed copy of XP (or whatever other Windows version your software requires) for its virtual machine.

Display the old taskbar button context menu

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.

Customise the log-on screen

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Keyboard shortcuts

Windows 7 supports several useful new keyboard shortcuts.

Alt+P
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

Parallel defrags

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.

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