Over the years of using Windows 7 — and now Windows 8 — I’ve acquired numerous useful tricks for navigating Windows, printing and filing documents, and other sundry computing tasks.
Here’s a quick list of my favorites — some, relatively obvious; others, not so much.
Most of the following tips work in Windows 7 and are, thankfully, carried over to Windows 8. (In the few exceptions where the tip is exclusive to either Win7 or Win8, it’s noted.)
Work faster within Windows
- Rename multiple files quickly. Highlight the files you want to rename and then tap the F2 key. Rename the first file and hit Enter. Each file will get the new name along with a sequential number in parentheses. If you change your mind, press Ctrl + Z to undo the renaming.
- Use check boxes to select multiple files. By default, we use CTRL + click to cherry-pick multiple individual files to copy, move, or delete in Windows Explorer. But as we all know, we occasionally slip with our clicks and have to start over — or undo an unintended copy/move/delete. Clicking check boxes next to each file can be quicker, but the check boxes are hidden until you make a simple settings change.
Windows 7: In Windows Explorer, click Organize and then select Folder and search options. Next, click the View tab. In the Advanced settings list, check the box next to Use check boxes to select items. Click OK. Now, when you hover your mouse over a file, a check box appears. Click on the boxes next to the files you want to copy, move, or delete.
Windows 8: From the Desktop, click the folder icon in the Taskbar to open the Libraries folder. Select the View tab and click Options (on the far right). Select the View tab in the Folder Options dialog box and scroll down to Use check boxes to select items.
- Run multiple copies of applications from the taskbar. The Windows taskbar doesn’t just launch applications; you can also use it to launch a second instance of an app. Simply hold down the Shift key while clicking the application’s icon.
- Do the app backflip in Win8. In Windows 7 we can toggle through all open apps by pressing Alt + Tab repeatedly. That still works in Windows 8, but within the tiled Start window, you can view thumbnails of open apps in a left-side sidebar, where they can be accessed quickly or closed.
With more than one Metro-style app open, hover your mouse or finger over the top-left corner of the Start screen. A small thumbnail will appear. Tapping the thumbnail rotates through open Metro-style apps. Holding the thumbnail open and swiping down slightly along the left screen edge opens the sidebar of open apps (Figure 1). (The Desktop, and all open apps within, are considered one application.) This is particularly handy when you’re switching from one app to another. If you want to close an app, right-click its thumbnail and select Close.
Of course, if you have a touchpad, you can rotate though apps by simply swiping in from the left edge of the pad or touchscreen.
Make Windows run more efficiently
- Rearrange the notification area icons. The notification area (or system tray) icons can be rearranged in any order simply by dragging and dropping them as you wish. Hidden icons (click the notification area’s small up-arrow to view them) can be dragged onto the notification area bar so they’re visible full-time.
- Shake the desktop free of clutter. With multiple apps open on your desktop, clutter can easily rule the day. This gets annoying if you’re working on one program and want to minimize all other open apps. In Win7 and Win8, using the shake feature, you can minimize every open window except the one you’re currently using. Just click and hold the title bar of the window you want to stay open, then shake it up and down or side to side. The other windows will minimize to the taskbar. Want those windows back? Shake the title bar again.
In Windows 7, you must have an Aero theme selected as well as sufficient graphics hardware (which might eliminate some notebooks). Windows 8 doesn’t have Aero. The shake feature works only with desktop apps — not native, Metro-style apps. If you like to hug the keyboard, Windows key + Home does the same job.
- Upgrade to a larger-capacity hard drive. According to Consumer Reports research, on PCs with smaller hard drives that are more than half full, programs and disk operations such as copying and backing up can slow down because the drive heads have to move farther across the spinning disks to read and write data. That’s why it’s a good plan to get a larger hard drive than you think you might need when buying a new PC. Or get a solid-state drive, which has no moving parts. (Disk defragging and compression can also improve system performance.)
- Call Problem Steps Recorder to the rescue. If Windows or an application gives you trouble, go to the Win7 Start menu search box and enter PSR to launch the Problem Steps Recorder (Figure 2). In Win8, simply type PSR in the Start screen and click Steps Recorder.
Next, click Start Record; it’ll record each succeeding mouse click, screen tap, and key press and also take screen shots. When you click Stop Record, Windows assembles all this recorded info into a tidy, zipped MHTML file. The file can then be emailed to tech support to see where the problem occurred, possibly saving you hours of step-by-step troubleshooting.
- Save memory with font management. Prior to Windows 7, font management in Windows barely existed. In Win7 and Win8, the Fonts folder offers a what-you-see-is-what-you-get preview of fonts installed on your system. Fonts are organized by families of similar fonts. A check box next to each font lets you hide it from view — or delete it outright. You can also right-click on each font to get the same options. The hide option saves memory because visible fonts are loaded into background memory when applications open.
To open the Fonts folder, simply type Font into Win7’s Start menu search box. In Win8, type Fonts in the Start screen, select Settings in the Search sidebar, and click Fonts in the results.
- Keep a clean screen. Monitors need cleaning from time to time; touchscreens need cleaning frequently. But you don’t necessarily need special cleaning fluids to clean your display. A small drop of eyeglass cleaner or rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol on a microfiber (lint-free) cloth will do the trick. You can even use a dab of dishwashing liquid on a damp cloth. Just remember: Never clean displays with ammonia-based cleaners.
Enhancing the Start menu
- Search the Internet from the Start menu. We’re familiar with using Win7’s Start menu search box or Win8’s Charms-based Search for finding things on our PCs. But with a few tweaks, you can also search the Internet without opening a browser. To enable this feature, you must have administrator rights and be running Windows 7 Pro, Ultimate, or Enterprise Edition.
First, type GPEDIT.MSC in the search box and press Enter. That opens Windows’ local Group Policy Editor. Once there, go to User Configuration/Administrative Templates. Click Start Menu and Taskbar, then double-click Add Search Internet link to Start Menu. In the dialog box that appears, select Enabled; then click OK and close the Group Policy Editor. Now type in a Web address, and your default browser should open and take you to the page.
- Customize the Shut down button in Win7. The default action of the Start menu’s Shut down button is to turn off your PC. If you want the button to have another default action — Switch user, Log off, Restart, etc. — right-click it and select Properties. In the dialog box that opens, click the Start menu tab and select the new default action from the Power button action drop-down list. Press OK. The button should change when you restart Windows.
- Use Win8’s hidden power-user’s menu. Although there’s no Start button in Windows 8, you still can access a power-user’s menu (Figure 3), hidden where the Start button was located. From the Start screen, hover the cursor in the bottom-left corner until you see the thumbnail of the Desktop. Then right-click that thumbnail to get a mini start menu filled with frequently used apps and utilities. But the faster option is to simply press Windows + X on either the Start screen or the Desktop. Now, if MS had just added a shutdown button to the menu, it would be even more useful.
- Swipe-close a Windows 8 app. I don’t know why Microsoft decided to make closing an app a secret in Windows 8. Sure, you can minimize it so it ostensibly uses minimal resources; but if you just want to close it, you have to give it the Alt-F4 salute. Or place the cursor at the screen until it turns into a hand. Click and drag the cursor down the screen; the app will shrink to a thumbnail — and then whoosh, it’s gone.
Make printing easier and less costly
- Save your printer ink. Here’s an odd fact. Research by Consumer Reports found that printers use more ink when using the Arial font, the default font in Microsoft Office prior to Version 2007. Times New Roman and the new default font, Calibri, use less ink. To save even more, use grayscale or black-only mode whenever possible.
Go to Devices and Printers, either from the Start menu or the Control Panel, and right-click your chosen printer. Select Printing preferences. If the printer’s properties allow it, select Fast, Draft, or Custom mode and then click Apply.
- Don’t shut off your printer. Leave it in standby mode. Many ink-jet printers use more ink when the printer is powered on than when left in standby. And most modern printers use just a trickle of power in standby mode.
- Print with Charms in Win8. Window 8’s tiled interface can drive former XP and Win7 users crazy because it has little in common with the former versions of the OS. For example, print buttons in native apps are often MIA. Instead, you need to open the Charms menu (Windows key + C), select Devices, and then Printer.
Keep your system secure
- Remember: Longer passwords are stronger passwords. I know, I know — we’ve all heard this mantra. But how many of us have followed through? One trick I’ve used is to take the first letter of each word in an easy-to-remember sentence and make at least one letter a capital while adding one special character as well. For example, the sentence (and I don’t recommend using it) “I have changed my password” becomes Ihcmpassw0rd. (Note that the “o” in “password” is changed to a numeric “0.”)
- Protect your portable data. USB flash drives, while convenient, are easy to lose. If they hold any sensitive data, you could have a serious problem. We typically don’t recommend using Microsoft’s BitLocker encryption app for your hard drive, but you can use it on a flash drive if your version of Windows includes BitLocker. To activate it, right-click your USB flash drive letter, select Turn on BitLocker (see Figure 4), and follow the instructions to protect your private files.
- Choose your Win8 sign-in account — Local or Domain? When you first set up Windows 8, you’re asked, by default, to sign in with a Microsoft account. (Use SkyDrive, a Windows Phone, Xbox Live, Hotmail, or Outlook.com, and you have a Microsoft account.) Using an MS account with Win8 gives you access to free online storage, mobile entertainment, and the downloadable apps in the Windows Store. In fact, you must have a Microsoft account to shop for paid or free apps in the Windows Store.
But if you don’t want to sign in with an MS account, you can reset Win8 to a local account (Figure 5). From the Charms Search bar, select Settings and type user to open User accounts. Click the Switch to a local account box to make the change. Note: If you’re signed in as a local user, you’ll have to sign in separately for Hotmail, SkyDrive, and other online services.