Six awesome built-in Windows utilities no one knows about

At a Glance
  • Windows 8 isn't for everyone. If you're mostly a desktop PC user comfortable with Windows 7, upgrading to Windows 8 is probably not worthwhile. If you're a mobile user who needs easy access to the...

Windows 8 may not be the easiest operating system to use, but no one can accuse it of being stingy. If you poke deep inside the new OS, you'll find a generous assortment of software tools, many of which make third-party utilities redundant.

One built-in tool helps you calibrate your PC’s display. Another helps you investigate system-stability problems. And yet another lets you record on-screen actions to create tutorials for Windows applications. All of these utilities are free and come preloaded in Windows 8, with no hidden add-on costs. (You should be aware, though, that the Hyper-V virtual machine manager requires Windows 8 Pro or Enterprise, not the standard version of Windows 8.)

Have we left out any worthy built-in utilities? Read our list, and let us know in the comments section of this article.

Windows reliability history

In the Windows 8 Start screen, type reliability, click Settings, and then select View Reliability History. You’ll go to the Windows desktop, and a window with a timeline will appear. You can also access the Reliability Monitor from the Windows Control Panel, by going to System and Security > Action Center.

You can narrow down dates and specific apps for troubleshooting when you use the reliability history.

The chart is interactive. If you click a column, you’ll see detail text below. In my particular case, the reliability history let me know when my Asus AI Suite stopped working—and, in fact, that one program was the source of many of my Windows 8 app crashes. I have to note that I never once saw an error message when the apps crashed, and when I uninstalled AI Suite, I suffered far fewer stability issues.

Reliability Monitor doesn’t just report problems. It also keeps track of when you’ve installed or updated applications and drivers, so you can pinpoint exact dates and use that knowledge for troubleshooting and system repair. For example, once you know the precise date of a troublesome driver installation, you can roll back your machine via Windows System Restore to a date before that driver started wreaking havoc.

DirectX diagnostics

While I'm on the topic of troubleshooting, let’s take a look at the DirectX Diagnostic Tool, also known as DXDiag. In previous versions of Windows, DXDiag was installed whenever you installed DirectX, which usually occurred when you installed a game. But now that DirectX is part and parcel of the Windows 8 operating system, DXDiag is included from the get-go.

DXDiag gives you detailed information on the state of your DirectX-capable hardware and drivers.

DXDiag pops up a wealth of useful information for evaluating DirectX problems. Under the Display tab, you’ll see the installed GPU, the display interface (DVI, HDMI, or the like), your graphics memory allotment, and so on. The Sound tab gives you information related to the audio device and drivers. DXDiag offers a deeper level of detail than you might find in Device Manager, and it's all specific to DirectX-capable devices.

And, hey, if nothing else, it’s useful if you need to talk to tech support.

Display calibration

Out of the box, your PC monitor is usually too bright, and the colors are typically oversaturated. That may not be an issue if all you do is spreadsheet work, but if you’re editing photos or video, or even just watching movies, you'll want to fine-tune the colors for accuracy.

Sure, you could spend $60 or more for color-calibration software and hardware, and that might be money well spent if you’re a graphics professional or a movie buff who's finicky about faithful color reproduction. But the color-calibration tool built into Windows can give you most of what you need, and you don't have to shell out the cash for additional software.

Checking the color cast of the grayscale settings is just one of the steps in calibrating your display.

Type calibrate into the search box, and select Settings. You want to pick Calibrate Display Color, which is usually the top option. The color calibrator’s welcome screen includes a link to a help-center tutorial. All you really need to do, however, is walk through the steps and read the explanatory text. The first time you do this, don’t skip any of the steps. The steps are, in order: gamma settings, brightness adjustment, contrast adjustment, and color balance. (For more detail, check out “How to Calibrate Your Monitor.”)

Application steps capture

Steps Recorder lets you record each individual step of a particular Windows task. You can't record actions inside a game, but you can capture steps in standard Windows applications this way.

In earlier versions of Windows, this utility was called “Problem Steps Recorder.” Apparently, Microsoft viewed this program mostly as a tool for packaging up user inputs for troubleshooting. The Windows 8 version, however, lets users view the steps and keep a record. To run Steps Recorder, type Steps in the search box, and select Steps Recorder. You’ll get a very simple, small window.

The user interface for Steps Recorder is pretty sparse, and reflects the basic nature of the tool.

Through Steps Recorder you can capture screenshots with every action you perform: each mouse click, key press, and so on. If you’re typing in a text editor (such as Microsoft Word), only the complete text will be shown, not every keystroke. After you stop the recording, you can review what you’ve captured and do simple edits. The tool saves the whole affair in a .zip file, but saves the actual content as an MHTML (Mime HTML) file, which combines different types of content into a single HTML file.

Steps Recorder creates an MHTML file containing screenshots and descriptive text of the Windows user steps it records.

Steps Recorder is no replacement for a sophisticated screen-capture tool such as Camtasia, but it’s useful for quick-and-dirty tutorials when you need to communicate a small set of simple, discrete Windows actions.

Task scheduling

Task Scheduler is just what it sounds like: It helps you set schedules for running specific Windows applications. A typical example might be when you want to schedule a backup to run. However, Task Scheduler also lets you create complex scripts of tasks, which can run in order and at particular times.

For example, Microsoft uses Task Scheduler to set up the daily upload of information on how you use Windows to the Windows Experience team. You run Task Scheduler by typing Schedule, selecting Settings, and then clicking Schedule Tasks.

You can create scripts of tasks, and then run them at specific times, using Task Scheduler.

Some third parties misuse Task Scheduler to load and run apps on startup, when simply tapping into the Startup folder might be a better approach. So even if you don’t plan on ever creating a task script, it’s worthwhile to visit Task Scheduler on occasion to see what applications may have touched it.

Virtual machine creation and management

The Windows 8 Pro and Enterprise versions include the Hyper-V virtual machine manager that was originally built into Windows Server. However, it isn't installed by default. If you want to use Hyper-V, go to the Control Panel, click Programs, and select Turn Windows Features on or off. Choose Hyper-V and click the OK button. After Hyper-V is installed, you’ll need to reboot the PC.

You end up with two applications: Hyper-V (the virtual machine manager that runs the VM software) and the Hyper-V Manager, where you create or remove virtual machines and .VHD (virtual hard drive) files. Once you've created a VM, you can install any OS you want, including Windows 3.1 through Windows 8, Linux, BSD, and others.

Create virtual machines and virtual hard drives using Hyper-V Manager in Windows 8 Pro or Enterprise.

Note that the Windows 8 version leaves out a few features built into the server version, including GPU virtualization (no 3D acceleration in Windows 8 VMs) and some exotic networking features (such as fibre channel support). If you were a user of the Windows XP Mode feature in Windows 7, which used the older Windows Virtual PC, then Hyper-V can fill in the gap. However, unlike with XP Mode, you’ll need a valid Windows XP license key to install Windows XP into a virtual machine.

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At a Glance
  • Windows 8 isn't for everyone. If you're mostly a desktop PC user comfortable with Windows 7, upgrading to Windows 8 is probably not worthwhile. If you're a mobile user who needs easy access to the complete Microsoft ecosystem, including SkyDrive, Windows 8 is definitely a good fit. If your needs lie somewhere between those two extremes, give Windows 8 a close look; the cost is low, but you'll need to learn your way around the new Start screen and make sure that your existing software runs well in the new OS. Read the full review

    Pros

    • New, improved file system
    • Easier recovery from system problems
    • Better integration with the cloud

    Cons

    • The missing Start menu will drive some people nuts
    • Overly aggressive when it comes to selling apps and content
    • Some aspects of the OS are unnecessarily confusing
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