Get Windows 7's features on your Vista or XP PC

25th Dec 2008 | 12:00

Get Windows 7's features on your Vista or XP PC

Why wait for Windows 7 - install its best features right now!

Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer recently told the world that "Windows 7 will be Vista, but a lot better."

That sounds great, unless you bought Windows Vista believing that it was 'a lot better' than your version of XP and just found out that you may have to wait until 2010 to get the improvements that you were expecting in the first place.

But another way to read Ballmer's comment is that Windows 7 will be 'Vista plus fixes' rather than wide-ranging core changes. If that's true then there's no need to wait for these improvements.

Nearly all of the Windows 7 features that we know about so far can be delivered with a few OS tweaks and third-party tools for free. In some cases, you can do them even if you're still using Windows XP.

Boot time

Issues with Windows Vista generally begin when you turn your PC on and discover that it takes longer to start up than your previous XP system did. That's disappointing, especially as Microsoft claims that new Vista technologies should improve boot times. Apparently Windows 7 will seek to dramatically reduce the number of services started when your system boots, but you can do this yourself by disabling the programs that you don't need.

To declutter your boot process, open 'services.msc' and scroll down the list to see what services are currently selected to launch at startup. It's quite unlikely that you'll need the Distributed Link Tracking Client (which tracks files across a network), Tablet PC Input Service or Offline Files (which synchronises files between computers) services, yet they're all started by default. Doubleclick a service and set its 'Startup Type' to 'Disabled' to reclaim some system resources. The Black Viper site gives some good advice on some other services that can be safely disabled, but we recommend you err on the side of caution, because turning off too many can cause problems elsewhere.

If you don't feel a service or third-party program is essential immediately, but you're reluctant to do without it entirely, Vista also includes a feature that can delay the start up of non-critical items. This means they won't make heavy-duty use of your CPU and hard drive until after the desktop has appeared. Delay their initialisation and everything else should load more quickly.

If you have an iPod, for instance, you may have the Apple Mobile Device, Bonjour and iPod services installed. Select each of these in turn, give them a Start-up Type of 'Automatic (Delayed Start)' and then reboot to see if this has improved your start-up time.

You should be able to achieve even better boot times with the help of Startup Delayer, which applies the same principle to your Windows start-up programs. Is it really necessary that program update clients and webcam tools launch the moment that your PC boots? Use this program to delay them for 60 or even 120 seconds and your desktop should appear (and be usable) a lot faster.

Power-hungry UI

The Windows Vista interface is a big contributor to its large memory footprint and poor performance on some systems. Microsoft knows it can't add extra overheads just yet, so Windows 7's focus is on other areas.

The new touchscreen features will grab the headlines, but if you don't have compatible hardware then you'll have to make do with minor tweaks to the existing layout. A revamped Start Menu is likely to speed up locating programs, but you can get a similar effect by using Vista Start Menu, which – despite its name – runs on Windows NT, 2000, 2003 and XP as well as Vista.

Notably, this uses large icons so you can recognise programs more quickly, adds tabs for easier menu organisation, features resizable menus to avoid scrolling, has power buttons on the menu for one-click shutdown or reboot and includes a built-in command line and search tool.

Microsoft insiders say that the Windows 7 taskbar is likely to undergo significant changes as well, including long-requested features such as the ability to rearrange buttons. Achieving this is difficult – the system doesn't support it – but using an application launcher such as RocketDock can mimic some features. With this software, minimised applications appear on the dock and can be organised as you like, then relaunched with a click.

Less practically, videos could be used as desktop backgrounds in all versions of Windows 7. Try this out now with DreamRender, which supports gorgeous visualisations as well as video backgrounds. If still images are more your thing, then visit the site of Hamad Darwish, the photographer behind many of Vista's desktops, or browse the high-quality images at Interface Lift, where you'll also find some great replacement Windows icons.

Memory footprint

Windows Vista is a resource hog – there's no other way to put it. This situation might not change a great deal with Windows 7, but Microsoft will be making the system more modular, so you'll be able to unplug many Windows components to help create a more lightweight system.

If you want to do this now, then there's no tool more effective than vLite. It can create a custom Windows Vista installation DVD where anything surplus has been stripped out. Whether you want to just remove the games and Windows Mail, or you want to dispose of more fundamental components such as the SuperFetch caching system, this is the way to do it.

A simpler method is to take a look at the way that you're using memory. One way to reduce your memory footprint is to cut down the number of programs that you have running in the background. Another easy fix is to uninstall browser add-ons that you no longer use (some consume a surprising amount of RAM).

It's also worth thinking carefully before you enable any of Vista's features, because they often use a lot of memory. For example, Windows Explorer has an option to open each Explorer window as a separate process, so that if one window crashes it won't bring down the others. This sounds good, but in our tests we found that the program uses at least 10MB for every open Explorer window.

If you're worried about using up your RAM capacity, it's better to turn this feature off by clicking 'Tools | Folder Options | View', then scrolling down and unchecking the 'Launch folder windows in a separate process' box.

You may not need the Vista Aero interface either, and turning it off will save you close to 40MB of RAM. To reclaim your system's memory, right-click the desktop, select 'Personalise | Theme' and pick 'Windows Classic'.

Even the smallest tweaks can have an effect. Have you turned on the animation that causes the Windows Vista network icon to lash as data is transferred? You may not even have noticed it working in the background, but it alone can cost up to 5MB of RAM. Turn it off by right-clicking the network icon and selecting 'Turn Off Activity Animation'.

User Access

Control Fed up of 'do you really want to do this?' security prompts in Vista? Although Microsoft is planning to reduce the number of User Access Control (UAC) messages in Windows 7, you can cut the hassle down very easily now.

Start with a visit to the Norton Labs site and follow the instructions to download its free UAC tool. Run the file – accepting the default settings – and allow it to install, then right-click on the System Tray's clock and click on 'Adjust Date/Time | Change date and time' to see your shiny new UAC interface. You'll discover two huge benefits. Firstly, the Norton UAC tool is able to display exactly which program caused any particular alert.

So, while Vista pointlessly tells you that it was sparked by '{9DF523B0-A6C0-4EA9-B5F1-F465C3AC8Bc}', a click on the Norton 'Details' link reveals that this stands for TimeDate.cpl. Clear information about the cause of an alert makes it much easier to have informed opinions about what you should do next. You also gain access to a 'Don't ask me again' checkbox. Can't see any reason why changing the time should be a security issue? Check this box and you won't be bothered by prompts about it ever again.

If you hate UAC so much that you can't even bear this, then there's a second option: turn off the prompts altogether. Launch 'REGEDIT' and go to 'HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE | SOFTWARE | Microsoft | Windows | CurrentVersion | Policies | System'. Double-click 'ConsentPromptBehaviorAdmin' in the right-hand pane, set its value to 0 (2 restores the default setting) and click 'OK'. UAC continues to run, so you'll still enjoy UAC-related benefits such as Internet Explorer's Protected Mode, but you won't see a single prompt window.

Bundled applets

Most of the bundled applets in versions of Windows are quite frankly rubbish – especially when compared to the tools available in other operating systems. Fortunately, Windows 7 is about to change all that.

The rapidly ageing Paint is to be brought up-to-date with a Microsoft Office ribbon-style interface, and is rumoured to include brush selection, quick shapes and symbols, and improved colour control. Great news, but it's unlikely to better Paint.net, so we'd recommend that you use that instead.

The changes in Wordpad aren't likely to be quite so dramatic as those to Paint, although it too will receive a facelift. It's also going to be easier to embed pictures or edit them on the page. These are all welcome gains, but if you want a simple word processor that loads quickly right now then try AbiWord. It uses minimal system resources and isn't a cut-down version of something else, so it provides all the features you're likely to need.

Perhaps the Windows 7 applet due to change the most is the Calculator. The current version has only two modes – 'impossibly basic' and 'maths student' – but the Windows 7 Calculator will include a host of more genuinely useful spreadsheet-like functions. With these you should be able to solve queries such as the number of days between two dates, or how a mortgage repayment changes with different deposits.

Duplicating this new calculator on your XP or Vista desktop is tricky, so we'd suggest using a website instead. Calculate For Free has links to hundreds of great examples. Have a look at www.calculateforfree.com.

One applet that must surely be updated is the Windows Vista back-up tool, because currently it can't be used to specify particular folders to back up.

In the meantime, AceBackup or Cobian Backup should cater adequately enough for your backup needs.

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First published in PC Plus, Issue 277

Now read Everything you need to know about Windows 7

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