Essential Windows Tricks

Make It Easier

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham
When is an operating system easy to use? When it works the way you want it to work. Here's how to make your Windows life simpler and more productive.

Close All Your Apps in a Flash

Works in: XP, Vista, 7 Done working for the day? Don't try to close all your open programs individually. Instead, close them all in one fell swoop with a click of the Close All Windows icon. Unlike the Show Desktop function, which merely minimizes all open windows, Close All Windows terminates each running program. Don't worry about losing your work: If an open document needs saving, the program will prompt you--the same as if you had clicked the red Close button up in the corner.

To make the best use of Close All Windows, pin it to your taskbar. (Windows XP and Vista users can add it to the Quick Launch toolbar.)

Move the Taskbar

Works in: Vista, 7 Widescreen monitors are great for watching movies and organizing windows side by side, but much of the time all that screen real estate goes to waste. Why not move the Windows taskbar to the side of the screen? This may sound crazy at first (and you'll need a few days to get used to the results). But since Web pages, Word documents, and the like run top-to-bottom, the more vertical space you can give them, the better.

By relocating the taskbar to the left side (or the right, if you prefer), you're freeing up vertical space for the stuff you use every day while making smarter use of wasted horizontal space.

To give this a whirl, right-click an empty area of the taskbar and clear the check mark next to Lock the taskbar. Next, left-click and hold on an empty area of the taskbar, and then drag it to the left (or right) side of the screen. Once you get close, you'll see it lock in, at which point you can release the mouse button.

Vista users may want to extend the width of the taskbar (by clicking and dragging the right edge) to better see the labels for currently running programs. But Windows 7 users can keep the taskbar narrow, as the new OS doesn't use taskbar labels anyway.

Tweak the Taskbar

Works in: 7 Jump Lists, program pinning, rich thumbnail previews--the Windows 7 taskbar definitely offers some nice amenities. However, since it's "your" Windows (at least according to Microsoft's recent ads), you should be able to make the taskbar work exactly the way you want it to.

7 Taskbar Tweaker lets you adjust Windows 7 taskbar settings to suit your work style.
Enter 7 Taskbar Tweaker, a free program that...well, the name pretty much says it all. This little utility offers six taskbar adjustments, including one that replaces the Jump List with the old-fashioned window menu when you right-click a running program.

Other options include disabling thumbnail previews, turning off window grouping, opening (rather than pinning) a file that you've dragged to a taskbar program, and cycling through windows when you left-click a grouped button. Our favorite tweak reassigns the middle mouse button to close or focus a window instead of opening a new instance of the program.

Reload All Your Apps After a Reboot

Works in: XP, Vista, 7 Windows XP, Vista, and 7 have at least one thing in common: They always urge you to reboot after installing new updates and patches. Afterward, you'd think the OS would be courteous enough to restore your currently running programs, much as Firefox and Internet Explorer 8 restore tabs after a crash or restart--but, alas, no.

Thankfully, Cache My Work can reopen your apps after a reboot. It's especially handy for those times when you step away from your PC for a while only to discover upon your return that Windows has restarted without even asking you.

The no-cost utility builds a checklist of "cacheable" programs that are currently running. Check off the ones you want to restore, click Save, and you're done. (The tool also gives you the option of restoring Windows Explorer windows, a nice touch.)

Install Apps in a Flash

Works in: XP, Vista, 7 So you just made the move to a Windows 7 PC, and now you need to install all your software. Talk about a hassle, what with digging out the CDs, downloading programs from various sites, and then babysitting your system while you install one app after another. There has to be an easier way.

There is. Ninite, an awesome free service, automatically downloads and installs a variety of popular no-fee apps. All you do is scroll through Ninite's list of 70-plus programs, checking off the ones you want. The service offers the most current versions of nearly every popular freebie, including Firefox, iTunes, Microsoft Security Essentials, OpenOffice, Picasa, Skype, and Steam.

Once you've made your picks, click Get Installer to download a small executable file. Run that file and sit back while Ninite goes to work. How long it takes depends on how many programs you've selected. We chose a baker's dozen (including the trial version of Office 2007 Standard, which we already own--now we just have to type in the security key), and Ninite was done in all of 10 minutes. That makes the service a must-have for anyone setting up shop on a new PC.

Expert Tip: Turn Your PC Into a Wi-Fi Hotspot

Works in: 7 Say you have a broadband card in your laptop, but no way to share its whiz-bang wireless connection with your iPod Touch or another PC. Or maybe you've paid for a hotel's Wi-Fi service but you don't want to pay again just to connect other devices.

You need Connectify, a clever utility that turns your Internet-connected PC into the equivalent of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Though at press time it was an early-stage beta, it worked quite well on our test systems. After installing the program, just click the Connectify icon in the system tray, choose the connection you want to share, and then enter a name and password for your wireless network.

Now fire up your other devices and look for the new connection. Join it, enter the password, and you're off to the Internet races. Just keep in mind that because Connectify is still in development, it may not work perfectly with every device. On the plus side, it's free while in beta, and it may remain an ad-supported freebie once it's finished.

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