Let’s be realistic: Windows 7 is pretty much going to be like Windows Vista with a fresh coat of UI paint and a few needed bug fixes. Granted, some of the new interface tweaks are pretty slick, which is why software developers have already started cranking out copycat tweaks for Windows Vista (and, in some cases, XP). If you don’t feel like waiting until the end of 2009, you can trick out your current version of Windows to look and act much like Microsoft’s lucky 7.
(Note: Some of the homebrew utilities mentioned below are unsupported and/or still in their beta-testing stage. I’ve used them all successfully, but proceed at your own risk.)
User Account Control
Vista’s most vilified feature, User Account Control, will be a little less obnoxious in Windows 7: You can choose from four security levels that dictate how often UAC will bug you. Norton User Account Control, a free (and “experimental”) download from Symantec’s Norton Labs, extends similar courtesies to Vista users, replacing the stock UAC with a version that delivers fewer duplicate intrusions, a ‘Don’t Ask Me Again’ option, and useful details about the nature of the security alert. Alternatively, check out UAC Snooze, a system tray utility that puts Vista’s UAC to sleep for a designated period of time–helpful if you’re planning to do some system tweaking and you don’t want to be bothered every step of the way.
Windows 7 has drawn raves for its overhauled taskbar, which sports big, inviting icons and lets you “pin” frequently used applications and documents. Well, guess what: You can get an almost identical taskbar in Vista with just a few clicks.
For starters, right-click the taskbar and then click Toolbars, Quick Launch. You’ll see a batch of small icons next to the Start button. Next, make sure the taskbar is unlocked by right-clicking it again and clearing the check mark next to Lock the Taskbar. That action adds a handle to the right side of the Quick Launch toolbar; drag it to the right to make more room for icons.
Finally, make the icons larger and more 7-ish by right-clicking the taskbar a third time and choosing View, Large Icons. (Make sure to click in an open area, not directly on an icon.) To add programs, folders, or even documents to your new and improved taskbar, just drag and drop ’em.
You can take one last, optional, step: When you mouse over a taskbar icon in Windows 7, it produces a pop-up thumbnail preview of the corresponding program (if that app is running, that is). To get the same effect in Vista, install EnhanceMyVista Free, click Customization, Taskbar, and then enable Iconize your Taskbar.
The Taskbar, Part 2
Speaking of “iconizing,” Windows 7 uses nothing but icons on the taskbar, even for programs that are currently running. If you like the idea of doing away with the text that traditionally accompanies taskbar program icons, a simple Registry tweak will make it happen.
1. Click Start, type regedit, and press Enter.
2. Find and click the HKEY_CURRENT_USERControl PanelDesktopWindowMetrics value.
3. In the right pane, right-click in an open space and choose New, String Value.
4. Name the new string MinWidth, and then set the value to -255.
5. Exit the Registry Editor, and restart your system.
Presto! Now you’ll have only icons in your taskbar. If you don’t like the look after all, return to the Registry and delete the newly created entry.
I love keyboard shortcuts, and Windows 7 brings a bunch of new ones to the party. For example, you can press Windows-Space to make all your open windows transparent or Windows-Home to minimize all windows except the one you’re using.
Sound good? Then grab the tiny Windows 7 Shortcuts utility, which adds half a dozen of 7’s best shortcuts to XP and Vista. Here’s what you get in addition to the two mentioned above:
Windows-Up Arrow: Maximizes the current window.
Windows-Down Arrow: Minimizes the current window or restores it to its previous size if already maximized.
Windows-Left Arrow: Docks the current window to the left side of the screen.
Windows-Right Arrow: Docks the current window to the right side of the screen.
A Versatile Calculator
Windows 7 sports a seriously spiffy new calculator. The number-cruncher includes Programmer, Statistic, and Scientific modes, and comes with handy templates for figuring stuff like mortgage payments and gas mileage. To take the new Calculator for a test drive in Vista, just extract the .zip file and run calc.exe–you have nothing to install.
Windows 7 makes window management much easier than any previous version of the OS has, starting with docking: Just drag a window to the left or right side of the screen to “dock” it there at half the screen width–a terrific option in these days of wide-screen monitors. (You can drag the window away again to restore it to its former size.) AeroSnap brings this desirable capability to both Vista and XP. It even maximizes windows dragged to the top of the screen, just as Windows 7 does.
The upcoming OS also promises to give users the shakes: When you click and “shake” any open window, all other windows automatically minimize. Shake the lone window again, and the rest pop back open. Lifehacker’s AeroShake utility lets Vista and XP users get their shake on, too, though the implementation isn’t quite as smooth.
Finally, you can try Aero Peek, which mimics Windows 7’s new “show desktop” feature: Mouse over an icon in the system tray, and all your open windows immediately turn transparent. Aero Peek doesn’t give you that transparency, and you have to click to activate it, but it does leave behind “ghost” images of where your windows were. (A second click restores them.) Personally, I’m just as happy with pressing Windows-D, which minimizes and restores all open windows in much the same way, but if you want a more Windows 7-esque experience, Aero Peek is your answer.
The ‘Shut Down’ button
When you click the Windows 7 Start button, you’ll see an actual ‘Shut Down’ button rather than a cryptic icon–which, by default in Vista, puts your system to sleep instead of turning it off. Though you can’t easily change the look of the button, you can change its function. Here’s how.
1. Click Start, type Power Options, and press Enter.
2. Click Change plan settings for your selected power plan, and then click Change advanced power settings.
3. Expand the ‘Power buttons and lid’ tree, then the ‘Start menu power button’ tree.
4. Change the setting from Sleep to Shut down.
5. Click OK, and then close the remaining windows.
Now, when you click Vista’s little power icon in the Start menu, it will truly shut down your PC.
Windows 7 can burn ISO images to CDs, so you can crank out your own bootable discs. To do likewise in Windows XP or Vista, just install ISO Recorder. It’s free, and it offers more features than Windows 7’s burn tool does.