Windows has always been the PC gamer's operating system of choice. As with its predecessor, Windows 7 builds on the franchise's gaming pedigree by bringing games and performance tools to the forefront. Behind the scenes, Windows 7's improved resource management delivers some performance enhancements in your favorite games. Here's how to get the best experience from the new OS.
Start Me Up
If you hate fun--or play only occasionally--you can hide the Games menu. Click the Start Menu, and right-click an empty area in its upper-right corner. Select Properties. Click the Start Menu tab, and pick Customize. Click the radio button under Games labeled Don't display this item to excise it from the Start Menu. Click OK, and then Apply.
Otherwise, access the games by clicking the Start Menu and then Games. The Games browser will show a list of Microsoft's preinstalled freebies and most of your installations. Some of my titles--especially those I downloaded--didn't appear in this menu. To add one manually, just drag the game application into the Games browser. (Before you release, an annotation by the mouse will say that it will create a link.)
The Games browser might include titles that you just don't play, such as Minesweeper. Put those away by going to the right-click menu and choosing Hide This Game or Remove From List.
Once the Games browser shows the titles you want, you can just begin playing by double-clicking like normal. But the browser includes several other features that can improve the process.
Click a game, and the Preview Pane will show more details in most situations. The left tab gives the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) score. You can use these details to decide which games are appropriate for your kids; click the rating for more information.
The right tab shows the required, recommended, and current Windows Experience Index scores. This rating has been updated since Windows Vista, but follows the same idea, scoring your system speed for the game based on the processor, RAM, video card, and other factors. It's not a foolproof way to decide if a game will run well; these ratings don't even appear on game boxes. But you can use them as a rough guide.
The ESRB details and hardware requirements are downloaded for each game, but unfortunately, these details might be absent in some situations. For example, all of my manually added games--and even some that Windows 7 automatically recognized as games--lacked these scores.
Game updates weren't working at press time either, but I like the idea. You can right-click a title, and choose Check online for updates to be sure that you're running the latest version.
These problems may eventually get fixes via Windows updates; however, at the time of writing, my results remained glitchy.
Jump to Game-Related Areas Quickly
You'll likely need to tweak certain settings to create the best results for gaming. The Games browser thoughtfully puts these frequently visited destinations into the Tools menu. Click Tools to begin.
Pick Hardware to go to the Hardware and Sound Control Panel. Click Display Devices to adjust your screen resolution. (From there, click the Advanced settings text to update video card drivers.) Input Devices configures and tests gamepads and joysticks. Audio Devices sets the system volume, speaker, and microphone settings. Windows Firewall lets you disable security settings if certain games can't get online. And Programs and Features lets you uninstall a game when you've had enough.
Activate Parental Controls
Parental Controls settings let you restrict certain user accounts from playing games that exceed a specified ESRB rating. While we recommend actually seeing what your kids play--try playing with them--this can help manage which games they can access when you're away. Click Parental Controls to begin, opening up the Parental Controls area of the User Accounts and Family Safety Control Panel.
Parental Controls settings work by giving different levels of permission to different users; each family member will need their own user account. When you first open the area, you'll likely see only your user account, unless you've already set up multiple log-ins. Click Create a new user account if needed, enter the name, and click Create account.
Click one of the user account names to adjust the settings. Choose the radio button for On, enforce current settings, then click Games. In the next screen, click Set game ratings. Pick one of the ESRB ratings. Also, click Block games with no rating to restrict access to unknown titles if desired.
Pick any of the additional options to block games with certain content, such as Mild Drug Reference or Blood and Gore. If your game otherwise fits the age rating but triggers one of these flags, it'll be blocked. Note that nearly all games that go online earn the "Online Interactions Are Not Rated by the ESRB" warning. (So if you block that, you'll probably block everything.) Click OK.
If Windows 7 doesn't enable ESRB ratings for all of your games--this happened to me in a few cases--use Block or Allow specific games to make manual adjustments. Click OK a few times to return to the Parental Controls screen.
If your normal account lacks a password, be sure to enable one. These controls lose their purpose if your kids can just access games through your user name. Click User Accounts in the lower-left, and follow those instructions to enter your password.
Update Your Windows Experience Index
The Games browser uses Windows Experience Index benchmarks to gauge how well games will run. Results are rough, but you can rerun the score to improve the stats in certain situations.
Be sure that you have the latest video card driver. From the Games area, open Tools, Display Devices. Click Advanced settings. Click the Adapter tab if needed, and pick Properties. Open the Driver tab.
Click Update Driver and Search automatically for updated driver software. In some cases, however, your video card company could have an update that Windows doesn't find. Manually compare the driver version number listed there with the latest software available from your graphics card Web site, and download those files if needed.
Open the Performance Information and Tools Control Panel to view your Windows Experience Index scores. Click Re-run the assessment after you install new hardware or update drivers. Your score might change, better reflecting the games you can run.
For more information about Windows 7, sign up for PC World's Windows News and Tips newsletter. And for comprehensive, straightforward advice and tips that can help you get the most out of the new operating system, order PC World's Windows 7 Superguide, on CD-ROM or in a convenient, downloadable PDF file.