Underused tools hiding in Windows 7 and 8

Michael Lasky

Back in Windows’ younger and simpler days, its coders hid small programs and features — called Easter eggs — in the OS for others to find.

Microsoft eventually banned those unofficial applets, but there are still some relatively hidden features in Win7/8 that users find helpful. Here are my favorites.

Hiding messages and images in plain sight

Wikipedia has a nice description of computer-based Easter eggs. In short, the term refers to hidden text, messages, images , and other bits of quirky material embedded in all kinds of software. It might even be a small video game concealed within an otherwise serious application. For those in the know, the fun was finding these digital eggs. You’ll find a list of Easter eggs in Microsoft products on another Wikipedia page.

Microsoft declared a ban on Easter eggs as part of its 2005 Trustworthy Computing policy (more info). In an Oct. 21, 2005, blog post, Microsoft developer Larry Osterman gave various reasons for the ban on unofficial code in the company’s products. But security was likely the main concern. The undocumented code in an Easter egg might be a benign bit of fun, but it might also allow malware into Windows or another MS application.

Easter eggs — and any other unofficial code — were finally eliminated with Windows 7 (see Figure 1). Even so, there are still some stealth productivity tricks buried in Win7 and Win8.1, activated by various methods such as digging deep into menus or cutting and pasting random phrases. Here are some that are hiding in plain sight.

No Easter eggs

Figure 1. A bit of JavaScript code is supposed to launch a hidden flight-simulator Easter egg in the original Win8 (more info), but this is the message I get in Win7 and Win8.1.

Command Central: Windows functions in one place

How did an essentially undocumented trick, designed for IT administrators and commonly called GodMode, go viral on the Internet? Certainly the all-powerful connotation of the name aroused interest. But it’s this function’s one-stop list of Windows tools that wins over most users.

Whatever you wish to call this function, it conveniently consolidates into one folder a veritable switchboard of configurable Windows options and commands. The 256 items (sorted into 45 categories) are typically buried under layers of Control Panel menus or in right-click submenus — or otherwise submerged in the vast number of admin tools in Windows.

To create this folder, take the following steps:

  • Right-click a free spot on the desktop and select New/Folder.
  • Give the new folder any name you wish, as long as it’s followed by a period and the following string of characters: {ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

    For example, the file name could be something similar to this: All Commands.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

  • Double-click to open the folder, and it should be populated with more than 250 functions.

    All commands folder

    Figure 2. A few of the 250+ Windows commands included in the so-called GodMode folder

Of course, any one of these functions can be called up from the Windows search bar. But if you don’t recall a specific function’s name, good luck with that route. Your new all-commands folder should make a needed tool quick to find and easy to launch.

Pin folders and icons to the Win8 Start screen

As with many long-time Windows users still tied to a keyboard and mouse, I rarely venture into Windows 8′s Modern UI. But the Win8 Start screen can be a good place to organize folders and other frequently used sites and apps. Sure, with Win8.1 you can now pin native Win8 apps to the Desktop taskbar, but that’s extremely limited real estate.

So the Pin to Start function, available by right-clicking any folder or application icon, can be particularly handy. As an example, right-click the aforementioned All Commands (GodMode) folder you created on the Win8 Desktop and click Pin to Start. You’ll now find on the Start screen a new movable tile labeled All Commands. Clicking the tile instantly returns you to the Desktop, with the All Commands folder open — no need to clutter up your Desktop or taskbar.

A related trick is one that’s often overlooked. You easily create shortcuts to frequently visited websites. For example, I’m constantly opening the Windows Secrets site in my browser. On a desktop system with big dual screens, I can leave the browser open at all times. But on a laptop’s small screen, that’s a bit more difficult. By creating a shortcut to Windows Secrets, I no longer have to perform a three-click tango of opening a browser, clicking the Favorites/Bookmark menu, and then selecting Windows Secrets from the list.

Creating a shortcut to a website is easy: right-click anywhere on the desktop, select New/Shortcut, and then type the website’s address into the location box. Click Next and give the shortcut a name. Click Finish when you’re done.

Keep in mind that the shortcut can live only on the desktop. Unlike apps, shortcuts for websites can’t be pinned to the Start screen or the taskbar (although files, folders, and website shortcuts can be pinned to associated apps that are pinned to the taskbar).

Calculator: Do much more than simple arithmetic

Another overlooked Windows 7/8 tool is the seemingly simple Calculator. It does much more than add/subtract/divide/multiply; Microsoft has effectively hidden the app’s many advanced functions under the View menu. There you’ll find options for scientific, programming, and statistical calculations.

Even less known is a units-conversion screen associated with each type of calculator (see Figure 3). You can make quick conversions in 11 different units of measurement, ranging from Angle to Weight/Mass. A related Date calculation quickly gives you the number of days or the years/months/weeks/days between any two calendar dates, starting with the year 1700.

Calculator conversions

Figure 3. The Calculator app included with Windows 7 and 8 lets you do units conversions and other advanced calculations.

Clicking the Worksheets option lets you calculate mortgages, vehicle leases, or fuel economy.

Track Windows problems with Reliability Monitor

When Windows freezes or an application suddenly stops working, the event is logged by the operating system. It can be difficult to troubleshoot those failures, but Windows’ built-in Reliability Monitor can help.

The Reliability Monitor resides under Windows’ Action Center, but the easiest way to find it is via Windows’ search bar. (It’s included under the Action Center section of the all-commands folder discussed above, but — oddly — you won’t find it in Windows’ Administrative Tools folder.) Click the View reliability history link to launch Reliability Monitor.

After you click the link, the application will take a few seconds or minutes to generate a report. It then displays a graph based on date and a stability scale of 1 to 10. Below the graph, a details section lists events, failures, warnings, and other information triggered by applications and Windows. The Action column in the details list includes links to possible solutions.

Here’s a real-world application. After a recent update, my Windows 8.1 laptop kept freezing. The only solution was a hard reboot. A check with Reliability Monitor pinpointed Microsoft OneDrive as the culprit. Although the solutions link did not provide an answer, at least I knew the source of the problem — which gave me a starting point for possible fixes.

Powercfg utility traces laptop power woes

About 95 percent of the time, my work laptop is plugged into AC power. But recently, whenever I take it on the road, I invariably lose battery power quickly. (An HP portable, it can’t be switched to hibernate mode.)

Activating Win7/8′s Power Efficiency Report can help detect the root of power-management issues. Even if you don’t think there’s a power problem, running this report periodically is a great forewarned-is-forearmed strategy.

To run a report, start at an administrator-level Windows command prompt. (Type command into the Windows search box. Right-click Command Prompt and select Run as administrator.)

Enter powercfg /energy at the prompt (include a space before the slash) and press Enter. Windows will take about a minute to assemble the report and then save it as C:\Windows\System32\energy-report.html (see Figure 4). Use Explorer’s search box to locate the file quickly.

Power command

Figure 4. Use a command-prompt window to run a system-energy report.

The report will open in your default browser. My report, shown in Figure 5, provided the answer to my battery issue. The battery was charging to just 36 percent of its original capacity. No wonder I had to be near an AC outlet wherever I traveled with the machine. In addition to the aging battery, the report listed eight other errors and seven warnings. Most of those were remedied via adjustments to Windows’ power-management tools.

Power report

Figure 5. This Windows Power Efficiency Diagnostics Report shows a battery that won't fully charge.

Win7′s Virtual WiFi creates a free hotspot

Most Windows 7 systems include the inconspicuous Microsoft Virtual WiFi Miniport adapter. It’s a software-based access point that uses a wired or wireless connection to create a local hotspot.

This lesser-known feature is particularly handy — and economical — in locations in which you’re charged for each Wi-Fi connection. With Virtual WiFi, multiple mobile devices can share one Internet connection.

To check whether your version of Windows supports virtual Wi-Fi, type view network connections into the Windows search box. Click the View network connections link and see whether Wireless Network Connection 2 is listed. (The listing will also say Microsoft Virtual WiFi Miniport Adapter.) (See Figure 6.)

Figure 6. You can create a virtual Wi-Fi hotspot; start by selecting Wireless Network Connection 2.

Next, you’ll need a third-party program to configure your hotspot. The most popular application is Connectify (site). You can choose between the limited free version and one of the paid pro versions. There are, of course, a number of alternative free programs; find them either via a Web search or at the alternativeTo site. Note: Some of these hotspot apps require you to temporarily change virus-protection and firewall settings. But that’s a relatively minor hoop to jump through to get a free personal hotspot.

Windows is a huge and complicated operating system. But knowing a few hidden features can help with productivity and system management. If you have any favorites, I invite you to post them in the Lounge, using the link below.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-08-07:

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.