Obscure Win7 tools can save you time and trouble

Michael lasky By Michael Lasky

Some of Windows 7′s best new features aren’t so easy to find.

These include a problem recorder to aid tech support, a list of the programs affected by a System Restore, more precise power adjustments for notebooks and netbooks, and keyboard shortcuts that open system resources.

Somehow, the new tools have been lost in all the Windows 7 hype. That’s a shame, because they can increase your productivity tremendously. Unfortunately, finding them is often like hunting for snipes. Here’s a quick review of my favorite, little-known Win7 features.

Win7′s troubleshooter is a boon to tech support

One of Win7′s handiest new tools is the Problem Steps Recorder, a sort of help-desk aphrodisiac. When something goes haywire with your PC, tech-support staff will usually ask you to reproduce the specific sequence of actions that led to the problem. But trying to explain what happened — and when it happened — can be difficult.

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Problem Steps Recorder to the rescue! To launch the utility, press the Windows key, type psr, and press Enter. Click Start Recorder and redo the steps that led to the problem. PSR records every mouse click and key press. It also creates screen shots and zips the lot into an MHTML file you can send as an e-mail attachment to tech support. (See Figure 1.)

Windows 7 problem steps recorder
Figure 1. Windows 7′s Problem Steps Recorder allows support staff to review the actions causing a PC glitch.

After the techs open the MHTML file, they can determine exactly what’s going on with your system.

Preview the changes before restoring your PC

The venerable System Restore app gets a welcome makeover in Win7. The XP and Vista versions of System Restore let you pick a restore point but give no indication of the apps, drivers, and settings that would be affected by the restoration’s changes. By contrast, Windows 7′s System Restore adds a new index reader that lets you see exactly what will be changed if you revert to a specific restore point.

To use this feature, press the Windows key, type system restore, and press Enter. When the applet opens, select a restore point and click Scan for affected programs. A list of the files that will be deleted, added, or changed by the action will be displayed for you to review before committing to that particular restore point. (See Figure 2; note that in this example, the restore point would affect no files or programs.)

System restore changes preview
Figure 2. Prior to applying a restore point, preview the changes that System Restore will make to files and programs.

Monitor the power used by a notebook or netbook

Windows 7′s Powercfg utility gives you insight into what’s sucking up the battery power of your notebook or netbook. Powercfg also lets you adjust your power settings and extend the machine’s battery life.

To start your new power-efficiency calculator, press the Windows key, type cmd, right-click cmd.exe, and click Run as administrator. Type powercfg -energy at the command line. Powercfg scans your system and saves its findings in the System32 folder by default as an HTML file named Energy-Report.html. To open the file, press the Windows key, type energy-report.html, and click or double-click the resulting file.

Using Powercfg and deciphering its test results can be tricky. For information on Powercfg’s reports, a How-To Geek article goes into more detail.

Fast access to Win7 resources via the keyboard

Some of Win7′s best timesavers are staring you right in the face on your keyboard, particularly via the previously underutilized Windows key. You probably already know that pressing the Windows key (Win) opens the Start menu. But now, holding the Win key in combination with other keys does a lot more.

Win7′s Windows-key combinations speed up opening system tools, navigating between files and apps, and performing other common tasks. (Note that many of these shortcuts work in XP and Vista as well.)
  • Win+Pause: Displays the System Control Panel applet.
  • Win+D: Shows the desktop.
  • Win+Spacebar: Shows the desktop without minimizing open windows (Aero Peek).
  • Win+E: Opens Windows Explorer with Computer selected.
  • Win+F: Opens a Search window for finding files or folders.
  • Win+Ctrl+F: Opens a Search window for finding computers on a network.
  • Win+G: Cycles through Gadgets (if any are installed).
  • Win+L: Locks your computer or switches users.
  • Win+M: Minimizes all windows.
  • Win+Shift+M: Restores minimized windows.
  • Win+P: Chooses a presentation display mode.
  • Win+R: Opens the Run dialog box.
  • Win+T: Cycles through and previews programs on the taskbar.
  • Win+U: Opens the Ease of Access Center (Utility Manager in XP).
  • Win+X: Opens the Windows Mobility Center (which isn’t installed by default on desktop PCs).
  • Win+(numbers 1 to 5): Starts the program pinned to the taskbar in the position indicated by the number. If the program is already running, it switches to that program.
  • Win+Shift+(numbers 1 to 5): Starts a new instance of the program pinned to the taskbar in the position indicated by the number.
  • Win+Ctrl+(numbers 1 to 5): Switches to the last active window of the program pinned to the taskbar in the position indicated by the number.
  • Win+Alt+(numbers 1 to 5): Opens the Jump List of recently accessed items for the program pinned to the taskbar in the position indicated by the number.
  • Win+Tab: Cycles through open programs by using Aero Flip 3-D. (You must have Aero working; Win7 Home Basic and Starter don’t use Aero.)
  • Win+Ctrl+Tab and then Left or Right Arrow: Opens Aero Flip 3-D to cycle through open programs.
  • Win+Ctrl+B: Switches to the program that displayed a message in the notification area.
  • Ctrl+click: Pressing Ctrl while clicking a taskbar icon will scroll through multiple windows of that icon’s application.
  • Win+Up Arrow: Maximizes the window.
  • Win+Left Arrow: Docks the active window to the left half of the screen.
  • Win+Right Arrow: Docks the active window to the right half of the screen.
  • Win+Down Arrow: Minimizes the window.
  • Win+Shift+Up Arrow: Stretches the window to the top and bottom of the screen.
  • Win+Shift+Left or Right Arrow: Moves the window from one monitor to another.
  • Win+Home: Minimizes all but the active window.
For more productivity-enhancing keyboard shortcuts, see WS senior editor Ian “Gizmo” Richards’ Dec. 3 Best Software column (paid content).

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.
= Paid content

All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-12-17:

Michael Lasky

About Michael Lasky

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.