Upgrade Windows 7: the unofficial Service Pack
27th Aug 2010 | 12:00
Forget the real Service Pack 1, here's the tweaks you need
Tweaking Windows 7: Improving the interface
Windows 7 is a great operating system, but it's not yet fantastic. Like us, you'll probably have come up against some of its most irritating shortcomings in the time since you installed it on your PC.
Icons are missing, utilities have been dropped and functionality has been reduced in some areas. Certain tools are still as hopeless as they were in Vista, and other long-term Windows issues also remain, including inadequate security features and application-related slowdown.
If you were hoping that Windows 7 Service Pack 1 would solve all these problems, you should prepare to be disappointed. Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc told the world in March that:
"Service Pack 1 includes only minor updates, among which are previous updates that are already delivered through Windows Update."
That's really not good enough. We think Windows 7 needs many tweaks before it reaches the standard that we expect of it. As it doesn't look like Microsoft is going to provide them, we've set out to fill the gap and built our own unofficial service pack, which is absolutely packed with new features and essential upgrades.
We've included tools to plug long-standing security gaps, apps to boost productivity and utilities to keep your PC running at its peak performance. The PC Plus Service Pack will refresh the interface, simplify networking, add new entertainment options and fix many well-known Windows 7 annoyances.
So why wait for Microsoft? We've got all the service pack functionality that you need right here.
Windows 7 looks great, and its interface is a major step forward in many ways. There's no confusing mass of tiny buttons on the taskbar – just a single icon per app.
Hover the mouse cursor over the Firefox icon and thumbnails will appear for every Firefox window that you have open. Hover the mouse over a particular thumbnail and that window will be highlighted. You can then click it to switch to that app. It's an easy way to locate the window you need, no matter how cluttered your desktop.
Jumplists are another timesaver. Right-click the Windows Media Player icon and you can choose to replay a recent video. Notepad's jumplist similarly displays the last file you saved, while IE's includes your recent browsing history.
Then there's Aero Shake (shake a window by its title bar to minimise all other windows, or bring them back) and Aero Snap (drag and drop to align windows to the left or right half of your screen) as well as some appealing Windows themes and gorgeous backgrounds, along with better ways to use them (like the ability to have the desktop slowly cycle through your favourite images).
Let's be frank, though. There are problems, too. Explorer has never been the best of file managers, and in many ways the Windows 7 version has got worse. It no longer remembers folder sizes and positions, so you have to keep relocating windows manually. The status bar no longer shows the size of the files you've selected, or the free disk space.
There are other strange omissions. If you found it useful that the network icon flashed to indicate traffic, for instance, then you're out of luck – it's gone. Some of the new features aren't that useful, either. Jumplists only work with apps that support them, which right now isn't many. And pinning applications to the taskbar sounds good, but space quickly runs out.
Configuration options are notable by their absence. The Aero Peek taskbar thumbnails are a little small, for example, but Microsoft provides no obvious way to change their size.
For the answer to this and many other Windows 7 interface issues, you'll need to turn to a more capable source: the PC Plus Service Pack.
Windows 7 has some great and exciting new wallpaper images, but there aren't enough of them. If you haven't found one that really takes your fancy – or if you prefer to have several on rotation – then you should try Microsoft's Bing's Best packs.
These include spectacular Bing photos, custom sounds and other items that you can use to customise your desktop.
The Windows 7 screensavers are disappointing – they're just a subset of those bundled with Vista last time round. So we think you should add a little variety with SE-Screensavers. There's a configurable Matrix-style screensaver, an animated kaleidoscope, a spectacular 3D slideshow and several others all designed to give your vacant screen a little bit of oomph.
Jumplists normally only work if a program supports them – but Jumplist Extender changes the rules. In just a few clicks you can create custom jumplists for any application. These can launch a program with a command-line switch or automatically perform any of its commands. Built-in AutoHotKey scripting lets you automate more complex tasks. If that's too complicated, import someone else's extensions and use those.
No one knows why, but Windows 7 saw Explorer lose its option to remember the position and size of particular Explorer folder windows. Now you must rearrange them manually – unless you install the simple tool ShellFolderFix.
Install the program, configure it with the settings you need – the number of folders it must be able to remember, for instance – and then it just works. (And unlike Vista, it doesn't forget your settings.)
Are you missing old Explorer and Start menu features? Classic Shell is a collection of tools to bring them back. There's a fully customisable clone of the old Start menu (it doesn't completely replace the Windows 7 menu so you can use both), an Explorer toolbar adds useful shortcut buttons and it makes the status bar show the free space and size of your selected files, just as it used to do. There are many other tweaks, too.
7plus delivers a host of productivity-boosting interface tweaks to Windows 7. You're able to add favourite folder buttons to Explorer toolbars, for instance – just click one to jump there. Mouse shortcuts include right-clicking a window title bar to set it as 'always on top', or middle-clicking to close a window. There are also keyboard shortcuts to create folders, upload files to FTP sites, paste previous clipboard entries and more.
Network Activity Indicator
Windows 7 saw the unfortunate end of the useful network activity indicator, the icon that would flash to indicate incoming or outgoing network packets. But don't worry – this tiny program brings it back, better than ever before. Right-click the icon and you'll find you can now configure everything from the icon blink rate to the network interface and even the packet type (TCP, UDP or ICMP) that will make it flash.
Pinning shortcuts to the taskbar sounds like a good idea, but you will run out of space very quickly. Jumplist Launcher amalgamates shortcuts for many diff erent applications and tasks – up to 60, in fact – into a single, well organised jumplist. To reduce clutter, add lesser-used shortcuts here (and your desktop shortcuts, maybe) and leave the rest of the taskbar for more important applications.
Windows often forgets the size of a window you'd like to use for an application, but AutoSizer will quickly rectify this problem. Leave it running in the background and it'll keep particular windows at a specific size, or keep them maximised (perfect if you're tired of forever maximising new IE windows yourself). It can even maximise apps to the display you specify on a multi-monitor system.
Tweaking Windows 7: Networking
Windows 7 was supposed to greatly simplify networking with its HomeGroups, which Microsoft claimed would take the headache out of sharing files and printers. In reality the technology can fail for a number of reasons, and setting up your own HomeGroups can be a frustrating experience.
We don't have a direct fix for this – the issues are just too fundamental – but if some of your HomeGroup PCs can't communicate then we may be able to point you in the right direction.
The technology requires that network discovery is enabled. To check this, go to the Control Panel, click 'Network and Internet | Network and Sharing Centre' and choose 'Change Advanced Sharing Settings'. Strangely, your PC clocks should be synchronised.
Right-click the system tray clock, click 'Adjust Date/Time | Internet Time | Change Settings' and make sure that both systems are set up to synchronise clocks manually. IPv6 must be enabled on all your systems. Enter ncpa.cpl at the Start menu, right-click the Network Connection icon and click 'Properties' to make sure it's turned on. IPv6 must also be supported on your router if you have one, and allowed by your security software.
If you've disabled certain services then HomeGroups will also fail. Enter services.msc at the Start menu and make sure the 'Function Discovery Provider Host' and 'Function Discovery Resource Publication' services are both started.
Most fundamentally, HomeGroups are in theory only for other Windows 7 PCs. With a little work, though, it is possible to give XP and Vista systems some access to shared HomeGroup content.
Greg Shultz has written an informative blog post to explain the basics.
Windows 7 does provide a sprinkling of other network features beyond HomeGroups, but they don't solve the day-to-day problems that many users face. That's where our Service Pack could make a real difference.
Windows 7 now provides a list of local networks that makes it easier to locate and log in to the one you need. But if you need to change other settings – IP addresses, gateways or DNS servers – then you'll have to manually tweak them every time you log in. You should let our service pack do this for you in a couple of clicks.
The Performance Monitor has had a visual overhaul, but it's still too complicated to use as a bandwidth monitor. We've provided something that's both more capable and easier to understand. And if you're running multiple internet applications, then Windows 7 still has no way to control how that bandwidth gets allocated. Our Service Pack does, though, and it's the perfect way to bring order to a busy PC packed with internet tools.
Windows 7 provides little in the way of internet traffic management, so a single resource-hungry application can easily hog all your bandwidth. There's an easy way to regain control – install NetBalancer.
This app lets you assign download and upload priorities to particular applications, so if you set your browser to 'High' then it will always get a better share of the available bandwidth, regardless of what else is running.
Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate select the correct default printer for each network you use, but your other settings still have to be filled in manually. NetSetMan creates up to six profiles with all your network settings, including default printer, PC name workgroup, network drive mappings and more.
When you connect to a network, choose the right profile and NetSetMan will adjust all your settings immediately.
The Windows 7 Performance Monitor can monitor your bandwidth, but it's a complex utility. NetWorx is easier to use and delivers more information. It's able to monitor the speed of any network connection, display real-time graphs of bandwidth use, produce daily, weekly and monthly totals and export your data to Excel or other apps for further analysis. It even includes network-testing tools like netstat and traceroute.
Tweaking Windows 7: Maintenance
Keeping your PC running at its peak performance has always been hard work. This isn't entirely Microsoft's fault: much of the problem lies in the way that third-party applications mistreat your system. Still, it's important that the operating system provides robust tools to maintain and repair your computer in order to keep it running as fast as possible.
Windows 7 does make one notable step forward in this area with the introduction of its Troubleshooting platform. Click 'Control Panel | System and Security | Troubleshoot Common Computer Problems' and you'll find a few built-in tools to help resolve issues with Windows Update or get audio playback working again. They're all simple wizards and can be used by anyone to detect and clear up many common PC problems.
Elsewhere, though, Windows 7 offers very little extra in the way of new maintenance functionality. The backup tool is now slightly better, there are some defrag tweaks (though the utility still won't optimise your file layout) and System Restore is a little more configurable. But apart from this, maintaining a Windows 7 PC will take just as much effort as it did on Vista or XP.
Microsoft would argue that its first priority has to be user safety. The company is never going to give Windows an aggressive disk cleaner, for instance, because of the risk that it will delete an important file. And Registry cleaning is even more risky, while offering few practical benefits.
There is some truth in this idea. We've come across several disk cleaners that delete files based on extension alone. That's a risky business, and those utilities do occasionally delete important files.
There are safer improvements that can be made, though. If applications are uninstalled properly then much Registry and hard drive clutter will disappear. The PC Plus Service Pack features an uninstaller to do just that.
Buggy drivers remain a major cause of crashes and system instabilities. Windows 7 does a better job of locating new drivers for you, but it's still not good enough. We've included a tool that will identify any driver updates that you might have available.
Our third addition is a defrag tool that not only defragments files and consolidates free space, but also reorganises your files so that the most commonly used are placed in the fastest part of your hard drive. This often delivers a very significant performance boost.
Windows 7 does little to help optimise your services, so if you're a knowledgeable PC user, SMART may be interesting. The app automates the process of disabling unwanted services by allowing you to choose one of three profiles for your PC. Beware, though – disabling a service can have unexpected side effects, so test any new configuration thoroughly before you accept it.
Windows 7 does nothing to manage application clutter, and poorly programmed uninstallers can leave your hard drive still packed with junk files. Fortunately IObit Uninstaller can quickly clean up. After removing an unwanted app, the program's 'Powerful' scan checks your PC for leftover files and Registry entries. These are displayed, and if they're surplus to requirements then you can delete them all with a single click.
Puran Defrag Free Edition
Windows' own defrag tool has never done a good job of optimising your hard drive, and the latest version is no exception. Puran Defrag Free Edition moves frequently used files to the fastest part of your hard drive. You can defragment files or folders by selecting the 'Puran' option from their right-click context menu. A scheduler lets you run full defrags at a specific time, when the PC is idle or when the screensaver starts.
Windows 7 is better than Vista at locating drivers for your hardware, but once they're installed, you'll rarely hear of any possible upgrades. DriverEasy will quickly detect all your devices, installed drivers and their version numbers, then look for and alert you to any drivers that have updates available. It's all very straightforward, and unlike most of the competition, DriverEasy is free for personal use.
Tweaking Windows 7: Security
Security was one of Windows Vista's rare success stories (relatively speaking), with the OS adding a host of useful features. So it's no surprise that Microsoft took a more relaxed approach with Windows 7, fine-tuning existing security options rather than adding new ones.
User Account Control has been tweaked so that it presents fewer pop-ups, and parental controls are a little more effective. IE8 also adds its own small improvements, with the SmartScreen filter doing a better job of blocking dubious downloads than IE7, for example.
What you still won't get, though is adequate antivirus protection. You can get online with a new PC right away, but you won't be safe. That's unacceptable. Other irritations include the dropping of Windows Defender Software Explorer, which makes it more difficult to monitor and control your start-up programs. We've addressed these problems.
Windows 7 also sees encryption restricted to high-end editions. Everyone can benefit from quality encryption software, so we've included the powerful tool AxCrypt in the PC Plus Service Pack.
The web is a dangerous place, and Windows Defender can't keep you safe. AntiVir is an excellent antivirus engine that is rated very highly by independent testers such as Anti-Virus Comparative. It's fast, accurate and generally raises few false alarms, so for the most part you can simply install the program and leave it to keep malware locked firmly out of your PC.
If you don't have Windows 7 Ultimate or Enterprise, you'll appreciate our inclusion of AxCrypt. To encrypt a file, right-click it, choose the AxCrypt menu, select the appropriate Encrypt option and enter your passphrase. And that's it – snoopers can no longer view the file. You can still access it easily, though. Double-click the file and enter your password to open it. It will automatically be re-encrypted after modification.
Windows 7's version of Windows Defender doesn't include Software Explorer, which displayed exactly which programs would launch at startup. We're replacing it with the excellent Autoruns. Not only does this display regular start-up programs, it also lists your shell extensions, IE add-ons, scheduled tasks, drivers, Windows services and more, making the app an excellent security and boot optimisation tool.
Tweaking Windows 7: Entertainment
Media Center provides an easy way to view and manage your media files. The new media streaming capabilities help you to share music, video and photos across your network, and there are some great new games. But despite this, there's plenty of room for improvement.
Windows Media Player can't by default play all the file types you need, so we're enhancing it with the Windows 7 Codec Pack: it can handle formats such as MKV, DivX, FLV and more. We've also included the Lagarith codec, which uses a lossless algorithm to compress video files. It's perfect if you're editing videos, as you can work on and save clips multiple times with no loss of quality (and without gobbling up the gigabytes of hard drive space you would need to save uncompressed video).
Of course ideally you'd avoid Windows Media Player where possible, as it's slow to launch and uses more than its fair share of your system resources. That's why we've included the media player VLC in the PC Plus Service Pack. It plays considerably more file types and is packed with bonus features, yet remains a fast and lightweight tool.
If you still play classic old DOS games then you'll know that it's more difficult than ever to get them working on modern PCs. DOSBox can often help by emulating DOS and all the ancient hardware these games might need: 80286/386 CPUs, archaic screen resolutions like Hercules or VGA, SoundBlaster soundcards and more.
And while Windows 7's new games are great, we still miss Internet Reversi. Unofficial Service Pack brings it back in the shape of Magic Reversi, which lets you play challenging games against the computer, a local player or even a remote player over the internet.
Tweaking Windows 7: Productivity
The default Windows installation has never been a good place to get any work done, and Windows 7 does little to change that. A few core applets such as Paint and Wordpad have received a facelift, but this doesn't disguise the lack of functionality underneath. Windows Live applications are better, but these aren't Windows 7 tools – you can install them just as easily on an XP system.
Explorer remains the real obstacle, slowing down your day-today work in many different ways. It can't view essential file formats like PDF; it can't rename a folder full of files other than, tediously, one at a time; it's poor at vital tasks like synchronising folders; and even its search option requires intrusive indexing and still isn't that quick.
That's why we've focused on it in the PC Plus Service Pack, including tools designed to bypass the problems and speed up a host of tasks.
Foxit Reader 4.1
It's one of the most common formats for exchanging documents online, yet a fresh Windows 7 installation still can't view PDF files. We've fixed that here by including a copy of compact PDF viewer Foxit Reader 3. It's packed with extras, allowing you to add graphics and notes to a PDF file as well as highlight text. The new Secure Trust Manager adds extra protection to keep you safe from malicious content.
Bulk Rename Utility
Windows 7's Explorer is useless if you want to quickly rename a group of files as one. Bulk Rename Utility more than fills the gap, though mastering it could take a while. It can add, replace or insert text, add numbers and change cases or file extensions. Metadata support means you're able to rename photos using EXIF data and MP3 files with ID3 tags. You can even change file creation and modification times.
The Windows 7 search indexer causes excessive disk thrashing, so the PC Plus Service Pack contains powerful alternative Everything. This app works by reading the central list of files on every NTFS drive, so regular indexing isn't required and resource use is kept to a minimum. You can't search the contents of files, but it locates file and folder names incredibly quickly. Just type it in and matches will appear almost instantly.
Windows 7's Paint is still inadequate for all but the most basic of image-editing tasks. Paint.NET is a much better choice. It includes drawing and paint tools, lets you make easy adjustments to colours, brightness and contrast, and contains many useful special effects. Selection tools and layer support ensure you're working on only the areas you need, and the tabbed interface makes it easy to work on several images at once.
customises the right-click Explorer menu with an array of useful options. You're able to synchronise selected folders, delete locked files, run files with command-line switches, copy the content of a selected file to the clipboard, change a file's creation or last access time, register or unregister DLLs and securely wipe a file so it can't be undeleted – among many other options. Phew!
Like Notepad, LinkedNotes provides a simple way to take text notes. Unlike Notepad, it makes it very easy to organise them. You can create new pages and subpages, there's support for rich text formatting, web links you enter are automatically made clickable and the program creates links from one page to another whenever you enter a page name. It's like building your own personal Wikipedia.
First published in PC Plus Issue 298
Liked this? Then check out 10 Windows speed tips that don't work
Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register