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Windows 7 Tips and Tweaks

revised 19 Nov 2013

Copyright © 2010–2013 by Stan Brown, Oak Road Systems

Summary: You could say that I was late to upgrade from Windows XP, or you could say that my caution paid off because I avoided the disaster that was Vista. After five and a half years with Windows XP, I bought a new laptop and joined the Windows 7 world in June 2010. Generally I’m liking the changes, but of course any new OS needs to be customized.

This page is a partial list of the tweaks I had to go out and find. If it was easy to do, or if it was in the books I consulted, then I didn’t bother to record it here. You can think of this page as my own personal list of “hard-to-find stuff I’ll want to do again if I have to reinstall Windows”.

Contents:

Caution: Except as noted, I’ve tried everything on this page. If something here trashes your system please don’t blame me, but please do let me know so that I can add a warning.

Running Programs

Use the Start Button and Search Window

In Windows XP I spent a lot of time creating shortcuts to various files or programs that I used frequently, because the “Recent” list wasn’t long enough and wasn’t arranged as I like. That’s not necessary in Windows 7.

Instead, I just click the Windows orb (the start button) (or press the Windows logo key on my keyboard), and type a few letters of the file or program name. Windows brings up a matching list as I type. Then I click on the entry I want: done! Or I use the arrow keys and press Enter.

I don’t even have to type the beginning of the file name. For example, I have a file called TV_Shows. If I type shows, that’s enough for Windows to bring up that file.

I haven’t quite sussed out the search algorithm yet. It does seem that the first time I open a given file, it doesn’t come up in the search. But after that it does.

Prevent Automatic Reboot

Amazingly, Windows defaults to rebooting without warning after doing an automatic update. If that happens, you lose what you’ve been working on. You can curb that behavior.

Open regedit and navigate to

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\WindowsUpdate\Auto Update

If NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers is already there, set it to 1. If it’s not there, create it as a 32-bit DWORD and set it to 1.

Now you’ll still get the popups asking your permission to update. You can “snooze” the popup if you want. Or you can follow this procedure to disable Windows Update entirely for the current session.

Run a Second Instance of a Program

Some applications set themselves up to run only one instance. If I click on the taskbar for an open program, or even press the shortcut keys I assigned, all that happens is that the already-open instance comes to the front and is given focus.

But sometimes I really do want a second instance—two Vim windows to edit two unrelated files, for example. I can create a second instance by shift-clicking the taskbar icon for the program.

Run a Command with Elevated Privilege

Assuming you have UAC set to the default, sometimes you’ll have to run a program with elevated privilege. Usually Windows itself will prompt you, but that doesn’t happen with something you run from the command prompt, like the convert command, which converts a partition from FAT to NTFS.

In such a case the Windows help system advises you to right-click on a shortcut to the command prompt and select Run As Administrator, but this doesn’t work! The UAC dialog appeared (“Do you want to allow the following program to make changed to this computer?”) and I answered Yes, but convert still said I had insufficient privilege.

To get elevated privilege truly, you have to Ctrl-Shift-click the shortcut: press and hold the Ctrl and Shift keys, click the shortcut, and release those keys.

I’ve no idea why there are two routes to get elevated privilege, and they have different results, but that’s the case, at least in my Windows 7 Home Premium. A Usenet article i49d74$2bb$1@news.albasani.net posted in alt.windows7.general on 2010-08-15 by Jeff Layman (but unfortunately not archived by Google) sheds some light, or adds to the mystery:

convert will run in the second one, but not the first. Bizarre!

Startup File for the Command Prompt

If you want some commands to execute automatically every time you open a command prompt, put them in a batch file. Then open regedit and navigate to

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Command Processor

or

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Command Processor

(Use HKLM to make the change for all users, or HKCU for just the current user.)

Create the value Autorun as a string and set it to equal the path and name of the batch file that you created. It’s effective immediately: no need to log off or reboot.

Modify the Start Menu

But say you do want to modify the All Programs part of the start menu. For instance, you may have some program that you always want to run as administrator, so you want to insert a shortcut with administrator privileges in the start menu. That shortcut should go in one of two folders:

Games are an exception. For games, right-click the Games item of the start menu and select open, then drag any shortcuts into the folder. Don’t have a Games item? Right-click the start button and select Properties » Start Menu » Customize.

You can easily add shortcuts of your own to the Send to menu, or remove most unwanted shortcuts. Click the start button, type shell:sendto, and the SendTo folder will open.

By the way, you can see an enhanced Send to menu by holding down the Shift key while you right-click any item and then click Send to.

Trim Bloated Context Menus

It seems like every program you install adds one or more entries to the context menu (right-click menu) of files. Sometimes that’s nice, but an awful lot of them are just clutter.

There’s a nice set of two programs free programs from Nirsoft to deal with these: ShellMenuView and ShellExView. (Some context-menu items are handled internally as shell menu, others as shell extensions. Hence the two utilities.)

You could also do it yourself by editing the registry, as explained in How to Clean Up Your Messy Windows Context Menu from the How-To Geek. Usually I’m a fan of Registry hacks instead of separate utilities, but in this case I prefer the utilities.

Trim Bloated Open with Menus

Explorer’s Open menu and Open with right-click menu for a given type of file include all the programs you’ve used to open that file type, even by mistake. To remove the ones you don’t want, open regedit and navigate to

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\FileExts

then select the particular extension, expand the OpenWithList key under it, and delete the pointers to programs that you don’t want to appear in the Open with list.

File Handling

Lose the “Use Web Service to Find Program” Prompt When You Double-Click a File

When you double-click a file and Windows doesn’t know what to do with it, you get a two-way choice, “Use the Web service to find the correct program” or “Select a program from a list of installed programs”. I don’t know about you, but I never want to go out on the Web to find a program to open a file on my computer. So I take the second choice, click OK, and then get the list of programs I wanted to see in the first place.

Thanks to Skip the Annoying “Use the Web service to find the correct program” Dialog, you can get rid of that preliminary dialog and have Windows jump right to the list of open-with possibilities when you double-click that file. Open regedit and navigate to

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Explorer

Create the value NoInternetOpenWith as a 32-bit DWORD (unless it’s already there), and set its value to 1.

The change is effective immediately: no need to reboot or even to log off and on again.

Sort File and Folder Names Numerically (or not)

Before Windows XP, file and folder names sorted alphabetically in Explorer and in common dialogs. Starting with XP, and continuing through Windows 7, ABC10 now sorts after ABC2, rather than before. Some people like that, but I prefer a strict character-by-character sort.

A simple Registry edit controls this behavior. Open regedit and navigate to

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\Currentversion\Policies\Explorer

or, in 64-bit Windows,

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\WOW6432Node\Microsoft\Windows\Currentversion\Policies\Explorer

If the value NoStrCmpLogical isn’t there, create it as a 32-bit DWORD. Set it to 1 to make file and folder names sort character by character, or 0 to make them sort the Windows 7 default way. The change is effective when you log off and log on; or if you close Explorer.exe in task Manager and then restart it.

Instead of using the GUI Registry Editor, you could open a command prompt as administrator and execute this command (all on one line):

reg add HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\Currentversion\Policies\Explorer
/v NoStrCmpLogical /t REG_DWORD /d 1

A nice feature is that the same command works in 32- and 64-bit Windows, with no need for WOW6432Node.

Microsoft’s article The sort order for files and folders whose names contain numerals is different in Windows Vista, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003 than it is in Windows 2000 says you can do this on a per-user basis by accessing the key within HKEY_CURRENT_USER rather than HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE. (The article tries to direct you to the Windows 7 Solution Center, but searching for filename sort order brings you right back.) I haven’t tried to do it for just one user, yet.

Resize All Columns to Fit

You have a Details view of a folder in Explorer, but the columns are too narrow and information is cut off. Instead of painstakingly resizing each one, press Ctrl-<Numpad+>—that’s the Ctrl key and the + on the numeric keypad together—and all columns will be resized to fit the data that they contain.

This works in Windows Explorer and also in a wide range of applications. It even shrinks columns that are too wide, taking up more space than their data needs.

Don’t have a numeric keypad? See How to Resize All Window Columns with a Single Keystroke for a technique to remap some other key combination.

“Copy as Path”

Need the full path of a file so that you can paste it into some application? Hold the Shift key, right-click, and select Copy as path. That copies the path and file name onto the clipboard, and you can then paste it wherever.

In Windows 7, the shift-right-click menu often gives more choices than the plain right-click menu.

Show the Full File Names

By default, Windows strips off .TXT, .EXE, .DOCX, and such from file names that Explorer displays to you. This can be quite confusing when you have files with the same name and different extensions. To fix this:

  1. Launch Explorer. (Windows key plus E, or double-click Computer.)
  2. Press Alt-T, then release the Alt key and press letter O. This brings up a Folder Options dialog.
  3. Select the View tab.
  4. Locate “Hide extensions for known file types” and remove the check mark.
  5. Click OK.

I saved a File to C:\ and Now It’s Not There!

You don’t actually have privilege to write to the root folder of the C: drive, so if a program tries to do it you will probably find that the file has been written to

%SystemDrive%\Users\%username%\AppData\Local\VirtualStore

(also known as %LocalAppData%\VirtualStore )

or a subfolder. Click the start button and paste that location, including percent signs, into the search window. An Explorer window will open on that location.

Libraries

I spent a lot of time trying to see how this feature was an improvement over my folder hierarchy. Microsoft’s own Organizing with Windows 7 Libraries didn’t help, and neither did the books. Finally, with some discussion in the newsgroup, I came to the conclusion that libraries don’t have much to offer me because I am the only computer user in the house and I’m already fairly well organized.

How to Disable “Libraries” Feature in Windows 7? gives you scripts to disable the Libraries feature, to leave the feature in place but simply remove its icon from Windows Explorer, and to restore Windows 7’s default behavior. I haven’t tried them yet, but the author is a Microsoft MVP and that usually means reliable information.

Keyboard

Fix the Caps Lock Key

This is a very personal thing, but I tend to hit the Caps Lock key without realizing it, and then find myself writing about the dUKE OF yORK. Windows 7 lets you remap keys through the System Registry, just as Windows XP did. Since I tend to hit Caps Lock when I meant to hit Shift, I like to remap the Caps Lock key to act like another Shift key.

AutoHotkey

If you want to do it yourself, see the next section. But it’s easier to use the free program AutoHotkey. I also use it to correct the typos I commonly make—things like testbook for textbook—and to send long sequences of keystrokes to multiple windows. It’s best in class, in my opinion.

There’s a nice article on Lifehacker, The Best Time-Saving AutoHotkey Tricks You Should Be Using.

Do It Yourself

AutoHotkey (above) is easier, but sometimes it can’t help you—when you’re logging into Windows, for instance. So I chose to apply a Registry edit that changes Caps Lock to Shift from the moment Windows boots. The How-To Geek’s article Disable Caps Lock Key in Windows 7 or Vista explains how, and supplies the Registry edit to do it. (Other options on that page include changing Caps Lock to Ctrl and disabling it entirely.)

Shortcut Keys

The most comprehensive list I know is here. It’s worth scrolling down to “Windows logo key keyboard shortcuts” to see all the new combinations with the Windows logo key.

If that list is too intimidating, try Lifehacker’s Master List of New Windows 7 Shortcuts, which focuses just on the new ones.

Enter Unicode Characters

Use Numeric Codes for Characters

There are a number of methods, assuming that the current font actually has the character you’re trying to enter. Here are two methods should work in almost any application:

For more details on these methods, and for other methods, see How to Enter Unicode Characters in Microsoft Windows at Fileformat.info.

For a list of the Unicode characters you’re most likely to need, with their numeric codes, see Using Special Characters from Windows Glyph List 4 (WGL4) in HTML. Remember to use decimal values with leading zeroes to make four digits, or hex values with leading +.

Use Key Combinations

Don’t assume you necessarily have to enter Unicode numbers. There are other possibilities.

Missing Keys? Use OSK

My Dell laptop unaccountably is missing the Pause/Break key as well as Scroll Lock. Some other laptop keyboards are missing some keys like PrtSc or PrintScreen, and some third-party keyboards don’t have the Windows key. You can bring up an on-screen keyboard that has all the keys: click the start button, type OSK and press Enter. Be sure to use the Settings menu to set up your preferences.

Thanks to Shenan Stanley, who published this tip in a Windows XP newsgroup; it still works in Windows 7.

Screen

Keep your Layout of Desktop Icons

I haven’t tried this yet, but I was given a recommendation of Save and Restore Desktop Icon Layout in Windows Vista. Though it says “Vista”, it works also in Windows 7, I’m told.

Change Size of Desktop Icons

Here’s a very cool trick. If you have a wheel on your mouse, click on the desktop and then press and hold the Ctrl key while turning the mouse wheel to shrink or enlarge your icons.

That’s method 3 in Change Desktop Icon Size in Windows 7. If you don’t have a mouse wheel, you can still use method 1 or 2.

Internet

Web Surf More Safely

Even if you don’t knowingly browse sleazy sites, you can still get ads popping up and have unwanted cookies silently stored on your computer. Even worse, merely visiting some sites can install malware on your computer. I clicked one link carelessly last week, and this week’s malware scan showed cookies from several shady sites.

Of course you have antivirus and antispyware software installed, but an additional line of defense is simply to block your computer from those sites. The easy mechanism for this is the HOSTS file, stored by default in %WINDIR%\System32\Drivers\etc. The file that comes with Windows is just a stub, but lots of folks will give you a HOSTS file that blocks known offending sites.

I chose Blocking Unwanted Parasites with a Hosts File at the MVPs site, which happened to be first in the Google results. It has excellent step-by-step instructions, with pictures, that show you exactly how to install it in Windows 7, Vista, or XP.

By the way, it doesn’t matter which browser you use. The HOSTS file works at the level of Windows that all Internet access depends on.

Turn Wireless On or Off

Every laptop has its own special key combination to enable or disable the wireless adapter. Is there any way to do it from within Windows? The answer is yes, thanks to some help I got in the alt.windows7.general newsgroup.

First, execute this command:

netsh interface show interface

to find the name of your wireless interface. Mine is “Wireless Network Connection”, but yours might be different.

Then, set up a pair of batch files. One contains this line:

netsh interface set interface "Wireless Network Connection" disabled

and the other contains this line:

netsh interface set interface "Wireless Network Connection" enabled

(Again, use your adapter’s name in Windows, which won’t necessarily be “Wireless Network Connection”.)

Finally, set up shortcuts to the two batch files, and set properties of each shortcut to run as administrator. If you wish, assign key shortcut keys in Properties as well.

Now you can turn wireless on or off by double-clicking a shortcut or pressing your chosen key combination.

See also: An alternative, using wmic, is discussed in this thread.

Performance

Faster Indexing and Faster Results

The How-To Geek suggests that you can make the start button search only applications, not documents. If you don’t see that searches are slow, I wouldn’t mess with your present settings. But if searches are slow, you can follow the procedure in Make Windows 7 Start Menu Search Find Your Applications Faster.

I personally like the convenience of hitting the windows key (or clicking the start button) and typing the first few characters of a document’s file name, so I would not make the change above. But the same article has a second section, “Increase Search Speed by Tweaking Search Locations”, that explains how to limit the locations that are indexed, and that may be worth doing.

It obviously takes longer to index the contents of files than just their names. If you use good file naming conventions, you can restrict your search to the names of files and make your searches faster. To do that, click the start button, type indexing and select Indexing Options » Advanced » File Types. Set the radio button at the bottom for Index Properties Only and click OK, then Close.

Curb Unneeded Services

This topic got much too long for this collection of short tips, so please look for it here: Curb Unneeded Services in Windows 7.

System Configuration

“God Mode”

There are lots and lots of configuration dialogs in Windows 7. They’re not all in Control Panel, and just finding the one you want isn’t trivial. Sometimes it would be nice to have a sort of super control panel where all configuration dialogs are collected. Well, you can create one yourself, and pretty easily too.

  1. Sweep the following line with your mouse and press Ctrl-C for copy:
    .{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}
    Be sure you capture that leading dot and the trailing brace, but no extra characters.
  2. Right-click an empty area of the desktop or of any folder and select New » Folder.
  3. Windows is now waiting for you to name the folder. Type your desired name and, before pressing Enter, press Ctrl-V for paste.
  4. Windows removes the long CLSID and leaves just the name you gave the folder. Windows also gives the folder a special icon.

Now when you double-click that folder you have skillions of configuration dialogs all in one place. (For my Windows 7 Home Premium, “skillions” equals 270. Your number may be different.)

The list may be intimidating. Try View » Details and then View » Group by. (If you don’t have the File-Edit-View menu at the top of the window, press the Alt key to make it visible.)

I found the key piece of information, the CLSID, in Ina Fried’s article Understanding Windows 7’s “GodMode”.

The How-To Geek explains why this works, and gives some other “magic” CLSIDs, in Enable the Secret “How-To Geek” Mode in Windows 7.

Ultimate Windows Tweaker

A front end to Windows 7 configuration is the free Ultimate Windows Tweaker, a Tweak UI for Windows 7 & Vista from The Windows Club (Microsoft MVPs). This application is ready to run; there’s nothing to install.

One caution: there’s a Close button but no OK button. In this application, Close means cancel; you have to click Apply to give effect to your changes.

Prepare against Disaster

Get a List of Device Drivers

If you have to replace your hard drive, unless you have a current backup you’ll have a tough time figuring out which device drivers you need. The time to make that list is now, while your system is healthy. The How-To Geek drew my attention to two methods:

Resources

Usenet Newsgroup

I’m a fan of Usenet newsgroups, finding them a lot more convenient to access with one client than a whole bunch of single-issue forums, each with a different login and a different interface.

The newsgroup alt.windows7.general is a great place to ask questions at all levels, if your own research can’t find an answer.

Unfortunately there aren’t searchable archives. For some unknown reason, Google has chosen not to archive this one newsgroup.

Web Sites

First and foremost, there’s Google. Sometimes a search drowned me in irrelevant results (as when I tried to find what a folder called “Desktop Icons” was doing on my desktop), but usually I found what I needed relatively quickly.

Here are some useful Web sites I discovered in my searches, and that I’ve returned to:

Books

Help with the Command Line

In theory, you can get help on commands by typing commandname /?, but in fact the help you get that way is rudimentary at best. Here are resources for the command line:

What’s New


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