Hidden Windows tips tricks and shortcuts
15th Oct 2011 | 11:00
Little-known tweaks and tips to improve Windows
Uncover hidden Windows features
You're an experienced Windows user. You know your way around a PC and can bend it to your will (most of the time, anyway), so there's nothing left about the operating system that's going to surprise you - right? Windows might have a few more hidden features than you think.
For example, you may already know that installing network-related software will often add filter drivers to your PC - small pieces of software that can intercept and work with your network traffic.
That's fine, but what you may not know is that Windows 7 artificially limits your system to a maximum of eight filter drivers. If you already have eight and try to install a package with another, it won't work, and you almost certainly won't get any proper explanation as to why. What to do, then?
There's no interface to let you view or change this value, but it turns out that a simple Registry edit will help. Just go to HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Network, then doubleclick (or create) the DWORD value MaxNumFilters, set it to something higher than the default value of eight (14 is the maximum), then reboot and that's it - you should be able to install your new program correctly.
HIDDEN LIMITS:Even Windows 7 SP1 installations sometimes failed because of Microsoft's obscure filter driver limit
Options like this may be obscure, but they can still be important. Some, like this one, you'll only need occasionally. Others may come in useful every day. Either way, they'll save you considerable time and hassle - and we've found 30 of the best.
File management in Windows has never been quite as easy as it should be, but there are quite a few ways in which you can speed up proceedings once you've managed to uncover them. Many of these are simple keyboard shortcuts. Do you want to search for something, for example?
There's no need to reach for the mouse - press [F3] and the cursor will jump to the search box.
If you're working with lots of files and need all available screen real estate, you can press [F11] to switch to full screen view, [F11] again to toggle it off.
The keyboard can also be useful when you're browsing deep in your hard drive. For example, pressing [+] will expand the currently selected folder, [*] will expand all subfolders (this may take a while if there are a lot); and [-] will collapse the current folder.
Moving files to one of your main user folders ('Pictures', 'Music', 'Downloads', 'Desktop' and so on) is much easier once you've learned a simple trick. Select the relevant files, hold down [Shift] as you right-click one of them, and click 'Send to'. All the main user account folders will be listed on the resulting menu, so choose the one you need and you're done - no dragging and dropping required.
Windows 7's Explorer has a potentially confusing hidden rule that you need to understand. If you select more than 15 files or folders, and right-click one of them, you'll find that the 'Open' and 'Edit' context menu options, and maybe some third-party options have disappeared.
It turns out Microsoft removes these so you can't accidentally carry out time-consuming actions on a lot of files, but if you'd rather be able to make your own decisions about that, then there's an easy solution.
Launch regedit, go to HKCU\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer, and look for the DWORD value MultipleInvoke PromptMinimum. You can create it if it isn't there. Set this to a value higher than 15, and after a reboot Windows Explorer will no longer hide menu options unexpectedly.
Underused functions and forgotten tips
Registry tweaks are about as obscure as any Windows feature can be, but others are available from the interface if you know where to look.
STILL WAITING:If a program has locked up, Windows can now sometimes tell you why
Suppose a Windows 7 program has locked up, for example. Normally you'd wait, then close it down with Task Manager, but there is a better way. Launch 'resmon.exe', click the 'CPU' tab, right-click the hung process (it may be highlighted in red) and select 'Analyse wait chain'. If it's waiting for another process then you'll see it displayed here. Closing that program, if possible, could get your hung app running normally again.
Maybe someone has sent you a Word DOCX file. You'll need the Word Viewer or some Office-compatible tool to view it, right? Maybe not - WordPad can open many DOCX files, so give it a try.
If your Windows 7 system is slow to boot or shut down, then the Event Viewer may be able to highlight the problem. Launch 'eventvwr.msc', expand the 'Applications and services logs' section of the tree, and browse to Microsoft\Windows\Diagnostic Performance\Operational. Scroll through the events listed here and look for anything that Windows says is causing problems.
SLOW PAGE?:IE9's network capture tool will help you optimise web pages for optimal performance
If you'd prefer something a little meatier, did you know that Internet Explorer 9 includes a network capture tool that can highlight why a particular page is taking so long to load? To take a look, press [F12] to open the developer tools, click 'Network | Start capturing', then enter a URL in the address bar. As the page loads, you'll see a detailed chart that displays the load times of all page's elements: HTML, images, scripts, applets and more.
If every element takes a while then you'll know it's a general problem, like an overloaded connection or the web server. If you find that one particular element is taking much longer than the others - an ad server, for example, or some other content that isn't stored locally - then you'll know exactly where the problem lies. If the site you're viewing is your own, then you can do something about it.
One particularly interesting place to look for obscure Windows features is the Accessibility Centre (Accessed through 'Control panel | Ease of access | Ease of access centre'). It's not just for people with sight or mobility issues - there are options here that will be useful for everyone.
For example, the one-line Windows cursor and focus rectangle can sometimes be hard to see, particularly when working outdoors on a laptop, but click 'Make the computer easier to see' and you'll find options to make both thicker and more visible.
If you've ever had a mouse fail then you'll know how tedious it can be to [Tab] your way around Windows, but again, there's an easier way. Click 'Make the keyboard easier to use', then check 'Turn on Mouse Keys' and you'll be able to use the arrows on the numeric keypad to move the mouse cursor around.
Everyone needs to work very quietly sometimes and it's easy to mute your PC's sound, but that means you could miss important audio alerts from programs. If that's a problem, click 'Use text or visual alternatives for sounds', and turn on Sound Sentry. This makes your caption bar, window or entire desktop flash to alert you when a program makes a sound.
To try one of the most fundamental tweaks, click 'Make the mouse easier to use', then check 'Activate a window by hovering over it using the mouse', and click 'OK'. Then, if you'd like to bring a window to the foreground, there's no longer any need to click - just moving your mouse cursor over it is enough. While this can lead to activating windows accidentally, you soon learn how to reduce the chance of this, and some people find it's a very natural way to work.
Some of the hidden features we've included are specific to Windows 7, but others are much older. Some go back to the days of DOS, but they're still very useful.
Working at the command line can be a hassle, but there's an old DOS trick that can simplify the process. And all you have to do is type doskey.exe and press [Enter]. This will give you the power to edit the command line, so if you've entered something lengthy and realise you've made a mistake at the beginning, it doesn't matter - you can use the left arrow as a non-destructive backspace to step back and tweak one or two characters alone.
You can also recall preview commands by using the up and down arrows, or see a menu of those commands by pressing [F7]. Type doskey /? at the command line for more handy commands.
Elsewhere, a simple DOS path shorthand makes it easier to open some folders. Need to view your account user folder, for example? Hold down the [Windows] key and press [R] to launch the Run box, then press [.] and [Enter] to open an Explorer window.
These shortcuts are great, but there's an even better hidden feature waiting to be tried out. Suppose you want to send some files to a friend. They're not confident with Windows or PCs, so you want help them out by doing more than sending a Zip file. Perhaps you'd like to build in a batch file to automate the process of getting these files where they need to be. You could go searching for a tool that can build a smart self-extracting archive with the features you need, but it might be easier to run an obscure Windows tool called IExpress.exe, which will handle everything for you.
SMART ARCHIVE:You can create smart, self-extracting archives in seconds with Windows IExpress - why it's hidden away is a mystery!
The program comes in the form of a wizard, so it's extremely easy to use. And yet, IExpress is also surprisingly flexible. It can have your file issue a custom prompt, asking if the user wants to go ahead with the installation, for instance. You can display a text file at that point, with more information (IExpress calls this a licence, but the file can say whatever you like).
The finished program can run a batch file to carry out the installation, another when it's done, and you can even hide the installer window so the user won't see the details of what's happening. The end result can be a surprisingly sophisticated installation program, which delivers your files quickly to their intended destination. That's not bad for a program that's so obscure it doesn't warrant a single mention in Windows Help.
It's not alone, though - there are even more Windows secrets to be uncovered, and we'll show you 30 more in the next issue.
Liked this? Then check out 50 Windows 8 tips, tricks and secrets
Sign up for TechRadar's free Week in Tech newsletter
Get the hottest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register