The verdict is in: Windows 7 is Microsoft's best operating system ever. It's stocked with genuinely handy interface upgrades (hello, Aero Snap), long-overdue networking improvements (we love you, homegroups), touchscreen support (long live tablet PCs), and the best Windows Media Center experience yet (ClearQAM support at last).
Like every operating system, though, Windows 7 can benefit from a few tweaks here, some add-ons there, and a smattering of OS-enhancing apps and utilities. We've rounded up 27 of them, each one designed to make Windows 7 faster, easier, safer, or more fun. And because we know that many people still run Windows XP or Vista, we've identified the tips that work with those versions as well.
Make It Faster
Is Windows 7 really speedier than Vista or XP? Different Windows 7 performance tests have yielded varying results, but ultimately it depends on your hardware and the apps you run. Of course, with a few simple tricks, you can wring better performance from any system.
Works in: Vista, 7 The old saw still holds true: Windows loves RAM. The more memory that you supply, the less the OS has to rely on the comparatively poky hard drive. But if you want Windows to address more than 3GB of memory, you have to run the 64-bit version. If you're buying Windows 7 as an upgrade, you should find a 64-bit installation disc in the box; ignore the 32-bit disc entirely. In addition to recognizing more RAM, 64-bit Windows makes better use of your PC's processor, giving you the best Windows experience possible.
Boot More Quickly
Works in: XP, Vista, 7 Does Windows 7 really boot more rapidly than other versions of Windows? Yes, a little. But the more programs you install, the slower your system will start (something that's true of all Windows editions). Many apps force Windows to run them at startup--a situation not unlike a dozen cars trying to merge into one lane.
Startup Delayer is a great tool that tells the startup programs you select to sit tight, be patient, and run a little later--after some of the traffic has cleared. The end result is that your PC boots much more quickly.
The utility presents you with a list of all the programs that start when your system does. To set a delay for any of them, just drag the item to the white bar at the bottom of the window. You'll see a line representing the app; drag it left or right to decrease or increase the delay.
Startup Delayer is a freebie, and it's one of the best ways we know of to speed up a slow-booting PC. Even one that runs Windows 7.
Switch to Chrome
Works in: XP, Vista, 7 Quick--what's the single most-used app on your PC? The Web browser, of course. So it's no surprise that one way to make your Windows experience faster is to switch to the swiftest browser, and that's Google Chrome. As we reported in "Browser Speed Tests," Chrome loads pages faster than Firefox 3.5 (which ran a close second), Internet Explorer 8, Opera 10, and Safari 4. Granted, the advantage may amount to only a second or two, but those seconds add up.
Tweak Your Power Settings
Works in: Vista, 7 Using Windows' power-management features to save energy makes sense--but you shouldn't do it at the expense of productivity. For example, if you're working on a desktop PC (or using a plugged-in laptop as your desktop), you don't need your hard drive to turn off after 5 minutes, your processor to throttle back when idle, or your video playback to be ‘optimized for power savings'. Since you're not trying to preserve battery life on this machine, you should crank every performance setting to maximum.
By default, Windows Vista and 7 both come configured for ‘Balanced' performance. To crank things up a bit, click Start, type power, and select Power Options. Choose the High performance plan. (If you don't see it listed, click Show additional plans.) Now your machine will run with desktop-optimized power settings. If you want to tweak individual settings, such as how long the hard drive should sit idle before shutting down, click Change plan settings, Change advanced power settings.
Turn Off the Eye Candy
Works in: Vista, 7 Everybody loves bells and whistles, but Windows' eye candy come at a price--especially on older PCs with single-core processors or minimal RAM. If you're more concerned with zippy performance than you are with transparent windows and animated controls, consider turning off the visual effects.
Open the Control Panel, type visual in the Search field, and click Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows. Choose Adjust for best performance, and then click Apply. After a few seconds you'll see a decidedly plainer Windows interface--and enjoy a much snappier response. If the look is too stark, you can choose the Custom option and then select any effects you want to restore. Just remember: The more you enable, the greater the performance hit.
Works in: XP, Vista, 7 To this day many PC manufacturers insist on stuffing new systems with unnecessary, unwanted software that consumes drive space and slows startup. We're talking security suites you may not require, games you might not want, and vendor-branded utilities that are more nuisance than necessity.
Kick that junk to the curb. You can venture into the Control Panel and click Uninstall a program, or use one of our favorite freebies, Revo Uninstaller, to make a clean sweep; the utility not only uninstalls software, but also removes leftover files and Registry entries. Just make sure not to firebomb anything important, like Adobe Flash Player or Microsoft .Net Framework.
Expert Tip: Eliminate the Aero Peek Delay
Works in: 7 Aero Peek, one of Windows 7's most celebrated enhancements, temporarily turns all your windows transparent when you mouse over the Show Desktop button. However, if you accept the default settings, the effect takes nearly a full second to kick in. Why wait? A simple Registry hack will enable instantaneous transparency.
Press the Windows key to open the Start menu, type regedit in the search box, and press Enter. In the Registry, navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\ Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ Explorer\Advanced. Right-click an empty area in the right pane, and choose New, DWORD (32-bit) Value. Name it DesktopLivePreviewHoverTime. By default, Windows will assign a value of 0, which is exactly what you want. Now just restart your computer (or log off and back on). The next time you mouse over Show Desktop, you'll be Peeking at light speed.
Expert Tip: Run Performance Monitor
Works in: 7 If you like charts, numbers, and data sets, Windows 7 has just the tool for you. Performance Monitor tracks your PC's hardware and applications in real time, generating all kinds of data that you can review and compare. It's aimed more at system administrators than at everyday users, but if you're trying to confirm a sneaking suspicion that, say, iTunes is single-handedly tanking your system's performance, it can help.
To access Performance Monitor, press the Windows key, type perfmon, and press Enter. You can start assessing your system by expanding the Monitoring Tools folder and clicking Performance Monitor. From there you'll probably need to delve into the built-in help files, as the tool isn't exactly user-friendly. For more, check out the Microsoft Developer Network blog post on using Performance Monitor.