Windows 7 hidden options and tools
7th Dec 2010 | 14:42
Get more from your PC by using its advanced features
Windows remote access, VPN and IIS
Microsoft has done a fine job with Windows 7. All you need do is pop in an installation disc and provide the installer with some internet access information, then you can leave the room and make a cup of tea.
When you come back you'll have a fully working PC, replete with features that make working and playing easier.
Windows 7's Taskbar makes it quicker to find, launch and manage your apps. There are also Libraries, which help you locate related files so you can view your work without spending ages browsing your hard drive.
You get improved security, a host of new and revamped applets, low-level tweaks that improve performance and much more.
However, for PC power users, there's a lingering question: life might never have been easier, but could it be better? With a little effort, some digging and a bit of clever tweaking, could we squeeze more from our machines?
With this in mind, we've gone on the hunt for Windows 7's hidden options and tools, which will enable you to tailor the operating system around your personal style of computing. Take your PC knowledge to a whole new level as you learn how to make Windows work your way!
Unlock your apps
Let's start our quest for hidden power in a familiar and frustrating place – program lockups. One moment your application is ticking along nicely and the next it's completely unresponsive. In the past there was nothing you could do other than wait an aeon and then close the program manually, often losing valuable data.
If this happens to you, launch Windows 7's Resource Monitor (resmon.exe). When it's running, you'll see a list of processes that are plodding along happily. Look down the list and you'll probably see one process highlighted in red. This is likely to be your troublesome program.
Right-click it, select 'Analyse Wait Chain' and if the program is waiting for something else, you'll see it here. You'll be able to close that process in a few clicks.
If you opt to close a process, be careful. Kill a critical component and you'll bring your PC to its knees. Conversely, if you know the process in question isn't important, shut it down and your locked PC might start working again. There you go – proof that a little digging and taking control of your PC can save time and future hassle.
Windows remote access
Being a Windows 7 power user is generally a very good thing. You understand how everything works, know all the shortcuts and can freely bend Windows to your will. However, with this power comes responsibility.
As news of your guru-like status spreads, friends and family will start expecting you to solve their computer problems. Heading next door to fix your neighbour's PC isn't too much of a hassle, but if the system is much further away then you'll want an easier alternative. That's where Windows Remote Assistance can help.
This tool enables you to see the desktop on a remote computer, run programs, find the problem and make the tweaks needed to fix it, all from the comfort of your PC.
The configuration process starts on the remote PC – the one that you're trying to view. First, ask your friend to click 'Start', then right-click 'Computer' or 'My Computer', select 'Properties' and view their Remote Settings. The 'Allow Remote Assistance connections' box must be checked, and if they click 'Advanced', the 'Allow this computer to be controlled remotely' box must also be checked.
Once its core functionality is enabled, your friend can launch Remote Assistance (msra.exe). They should click 'Invite someone you trust to help you' to do this. If both of you have Windows 7 then, in theory, they can click 'Use Easy Connect' to get Remote Assistance working. However, this relies on Windows 7 being able to work with both your routers, and it's prone to being disabled for other reasons.
A more reliable option is to ask them to click 'Use email to send an invitation'. This will launch their email client with an invitation file attached, and they'll need to send this to your email address.
Either way, Windows Remote Assistance should open a new window on your friend's PC with a 12-character connection password. They'll have to pass this to you separately, and you'll then have everything you need to log in.
If you've opted for the email approach, wait for the email attachment to arrive, open the file with Windows and Remote Assistance should fire up. Enter the password that your friend is looking at and you'll be connected.
If you're trying Easy Connect, you need to launch Remote Assistance (msra.exe) manually. Click 'Help someone who has invited you' and select 'Use Easy Connect'. If this works, Remote Assistance will then ask for your friend's password. If it doesn't, try the email method instead.
Your copy of Remote Assistance can't simply log in to your friend's PC, even if you have the necessary password – that could be a security issue. Instead they'll receive an alert, warning them that someone is trying to use Remote Assistance. This alert asks whether they're willing to allow you to connect to their PC.
This dialog will display your account username for reassurance that it's you, although if your username is something anonymous like PowerUser then it's best to tell your friend this in advance. They'll need to click 'Yes' to permit this connection. That's the first stage complete.
You should now be able to see the remote desktop. It may not look very pretty – the background will have been removed and colour will be set to 16-bit for bandwidth reasons – but it's adequate. If you simply want to watch and understand what your friend is doing, then you can use the 'Chat' button to tell them so (it's text chat – no microphones required).
Your friend can then fire up whichever application is causing them problems and attempt whatever they're trying to do, while you observe. It's far more effective than relying on descriptions, which they may give you later, and could be enough for you to figure out exactly where they're going wrong.
If you need to take charge, click 'Request Control' on the Remote Assistance toolbar. Your friend will then be asked if they'll allow you to take control, and if they say yes, you'll be able to run programs on their PC yourself. You can browse the Start Menu, launch Control Panel, check their Registry, open the command line and generally apply whatever tweaks are necessary to get their system back into full working order.
How to set up a Virtual Private Network
1. Open the door
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a secure way to connect PCs over the internet.
First, configure a PC to accept incoming connections. Go to the 'Network and Sharing Centre | Change Adaptor Settings', press [Alt] + [F] and select 'New Incoming Connection'.
Choose the user account belonging to the remote person, or add one now. Click 'Next', check 'Through the internet' and click 'Next | Allow Access | Close'.
2. Make the connection
On the other Windows 7 PC, go to 'Network and Sharing Centre | Set up a new connection | Connect to a workplace'. If you're asked if you want to use an existing connection, choose to create a new one.
Click 'Use my internet...', enter the remote computer name or IP address, then click 'Next'. Enter the username and password for your account on the other PC, click 'Connect' and watch the connection dialog.
Can't connect? Configure your firewalls to open the Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP) port 1723. If you have a router, turn on 'PPTP' or 'VPN' (or 'VPN pass-through'), and 'Generic Route Encapsulation'.
You may need to create a port forwarding rule to pass port 1723 traffic to your PC's local IP address. Check your firewall/router logs – they may report incoming connections and reveal where any problem lies.
How to share files easily with IIS
1. Getting started
Install Windows 7 and you get a functional copy of Microsoft's internet Information Services (IIS) – a web server that you can use to share files over the internet, or locally on your network. IIS can be enabled in a moment.
Click 'Control Panel | Programs | Turn Windows features on or off', check 'Internet Information Services', then expand and select all the boxes for FTP Server and Web Management Tools.
2. Welcome screen
Click 'OK' and Windows will install IIS and configure its settings. When it's done, confirm that it's working by entering http://localhost in your browser. If all is well then you'll see the IIS welcome page.
The same applies to other PCs on your network. If they can access you normally, they should be able to see the same screen by entering http://, followed by your PC's network name: http://MyPC, for instance.
3. Directory browsing
The default folder for your site is C:\inetpub\wwwroot. You'll see two files there: iisstart.htm and welcome.png. Copy these to a backup folder (or delete them – they're not important), then drag and drop some files into the wwwroot folder.
Click 'Start', type IIS and click 'Internet Information Services (IIS) Manager'. Click 'Default Web Site', double-click 'Directory Browsing' and click 'Enable' in the right-hand Actions pane.
4. Share freely
Return to a network PC, enter http://MyPC (using your host PC's network name) and you'll see an HTTP folder and the files it contains. Click on these to view or download them.
This isn't attractive, but it lets you share files locally with any http-capable device that can connect to your network: Linux systems, Macs, phones and more. To make it look better, you could create an iisstart.html file that provides links to the files.
5. MIME Types
IIS only allows you to share files for which it has a MIME type – a mapping standard that tells the system what it is. Place an MP4 file into your wwwroot folder, for instance, and people will be able to see, but not download it.
To fix this, return to the IIS Manager and double-click 'MIME Type'. To add support for .MP4 files, click 'Add', then type .mp4 in the 'Extension' box and enter video/mpeg as the MIME type.
6. Going global
If you'd like to share your files over the web then IIS must be allowed through your firewall. You'll also have to enable port forwarding in your router, passing http traffic (port 80) through to the internal IP address of your PC. Then anyone can enter your connection's IP address into their browser and view the files.
Opening your PC in this way does constitute a security risk, so launch IIS Help and read the IIS checklists first.
Windows 7 optimisation & calibration
Windows 7 will generally do its best to work fully automatically, managing your PC with no intervention. There are, however, situations where a more hands-on approach pays dividends.
The Fault-Tolerant Heap (FTH), for example, is a smart feature. It looks out for processes that are particularly unstable, detects those that seem to crash due to memory issues and applies several real-time fixes that may help solve the problem. If these work, great; if not, it reverses the changes.
Although it's an excellent tool, FTH can be confusing because it makes application behaviour seem inconsistent. From your point of view, a program will seem horribly unstable, then start working again for no apparent reason. Or, if you've made some tweak yourself, you may think you've fixed the problem when the FTH deserves the credit.
To check for a situation like this, run REGEDIT, go to HKEY_ LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\ Microsoft\FTH and examine the State key. Any executable protected by FTH will be listed there.
To turn off FTH monitoring, set the 'Enabled' value to 0. Your PC will probably be less stable, but if there are crashes you'll be able to spot the program responsible – FTH won't be masking things.
Experimentation is key here – you need to change the FTH monitoring algorithm to suit your needs and computing style. Drop the 'CrashVelocity' value from 3 to 2, for instance, and increase 'CrashWindowsInMinutes' from 60 to 120. FTH will now intervene if an application crashes twice in two hours, rather than three times in one hour. This will make it more likely to detect and fix problems.
The system does have its limits. If the crash isn't heap-related it'll do nothing, but there's no harm in trying and tweaking further. Find out more about FTH by visiting Microsoft's Ask The Performance Team blog.
Windows 7 has many other weapons in its fault-finding arsenal. Chief among these are the management and monitoring tools. These do a great job of monitoring your PC's boot and shutdown processes, and will alert you to any programs that are slowing things down.
Launch the Event Viewer (eventvwr.exe) and browse to Applications and Services Logs\ Microsoft\Windows\Diagnostics – Performance\Operational to take a look. Scroll down the list and you'll see many services, programs and processes that are listed as compromising your computer's performance. Many of these will be essential drivers or Windows components, but if a program you've installed seems to be causing regular system slowdowns, consider uninstalling or updating it.
If you want a more in-depth look at how your PC is being used, the upgraded Windows 7 Resource Monitor is a useful tool. To access, it, click 'Start', type resmon.exe and press [Enter]. You'll find tabs that detail your running processes and their use of CPU, RAM, hard drive and network bandwidth.
Do you want to know which programs are accessing the internet? Click 'Network | TCP Connections' to view them all. Is your hard drive thrashing for no apparent reason? Click 'Disk | Disk Activity' to spot the culprit.
Perhaps a file is locked, making it impossible to move or delete. If this happens, you'll need to know which program is to blame. Click 'CPU | Associated Handles', type the file name in the Search box and press [Enter]. The more you use Resource Monitor, the more you'll grow to love it. It gives you a great handle on what's happening under the hood and is an indispensable tool.
1. Launch the wizard
If you use your monitor's default settings, there's no way to be sure it's displaying images accurately. Your photos may look great to you, but appear washed out or with poor colour balance to everyone else. The solution?
Calibrate your display. Use any software that came with your monitor first, otherwise launch the Windows Display Calibration Wizard, either from Control Panel or directly (it's dccw.exe).
The program is a straightforward wizard, albeit in the slightly odd Windows Vista/7 style (the 'Back' button is top-left on the screen, making it easy to miss). Read the instructions and keep clicking 'Next' until you reach an explanation of the first test: the gamma check.
You need to use the slider on the next page to minimise the visibility of the dots in the centre of each circle. Click 'Next' to give this a try.
The next test is for brightness. You'll need to access and tweak the brightness control on your monitor so that you can distinguish the man's black shirt from his black jacket, while keeping the 'X' in the background at a point where it's only just visible – it shouldn't stand out, as it does here in the right-hand 'too bright' picture. Click Next and adjust your brightness, clicking 'Back' to remind yourself of the sample images.
4. Compare and contrast
Click 'Next' and you'll be presented with the contrast test. Turn your monitor's brightness setting up so that the two colours in the background are a bright white and deep black (neither should be tending towards grey). Go too far, however, and the creases in the man's shirt begin to disappear. You need to turn the contrast up as far as you can, but stop just before the point where you start to lose detail.
5. Colour balance
The colour balance test follows. Click 'Next' after this explanatory screen and you'll see a range of grey bars – or at least that's the idea. If your colour balance is incorrect then you may see a slight colour tint to the greys, which will also influence colour images. Use your monitor's colour balance controls to correct this. Click 'Next', and if you're happy with what you've done, click 'Finish' to recalibrate your display.
6. Tune your text
Windows 7 now displays the ClearType Text Tuner, which checks that your PC is displaying text as clearly as it can. A range of text samples is displayed and you need to click the ones that look best. Windows should now display images and text accurately and clearly. Bear in mind that this calibration is affected by variables such as room lighting, and you should calibrate the monitor again if there are any dramatic changes.
Windows Media Center and Windows shortcuts
The Windows 7 incarnation of Media Center is streets ahead of its Vista cousin. The interface has been tweaked to make navigation easier, and there's a Media Center Gadget for simpler control. But the more time you spend in Media Centre, the more you become aware that it's good, but not perfect.
However, with a little power user trickery you can make it a whole lot better. TunerSalad, removes the four-tuner limit. It does this by modifying system files, so although it's well-regarded, you should always save any work and back up your PC before you start.
If you don't have a TV tuner, Media Center won't show you much. Install TunerFree MCE for instant access to live TV. You can stream content from BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4 on Demand and Demand Five at 720p resolution, as well as BBC Radio and BBC HD. Media Center may provide higher image quality than you get on your TV.
Configure your Windows PC as a media server
1. Getting started
You've probably built up a sizeable collection of multimedia files, so why limit them to your PC? Apply a few tweaks and you'll be able to access them from anything connected to your network. However, this will only work if your PC currently accesses your network using the Home or Work Network type. Right-click the network icon in your system tray and select 'Open Network' and 'Sharing Center' to take a look.
2. Sharing the right way
If your main network is labelled 'Public network', but it's only used to connect trusted PCs in your home, click the 'Public network' link and choose 'Home or Work network' instead. Make the same check on any other Windows 7 PCs on your network. This will provide access to shared Media Player music libraries. Open Media Player on one of the network PCs and it will discover the tracks on your main computer.
3. Tuned sharing
To share all your media across the network, launch Media Player and click the 'Stream' button. Then click 'Automatically allow devices to play all my media' to enable full-scale media sharing. If that's not appropriate, you can click 'Stream | More Streaming Options' and decide which devices can access your media files. Remember, this is for secure networks only – don't turn it on unless you trust every system.
4. Make it available
Click 'Stream | Allow remote control of my player | Allow remote control on this network'. If you have any other Windows 7 PCs in your network, repeat this and the previous step on each of them. (They must be in a HomeGroup, too.) Now right-click a song, video, picture or other media, choose 'Play To' and you'll be able to send it to another PC, a DLNA-certified device, or a media extender such as the Xbox 360.
Windows Media Player will display a 'Play To' window that enables you to add other media, then push it directly to your chosen PC or device. That's good, but there's a better way to share a playlist. Windows Media Player now enables you to share your media collection online, making it accessible from almost anywhere. Click 'Stream | Allow internet access to home media' to start setting this up.
6. Remote access
You can also access your media from a PC not on your network. To do so, click 'Link an Online ID | Link Online ID' and sign in with your Windows Live ID account. Then select 'Allow Internet Access to Home Media'. Remember, business networks may block the necessary ports, or you might have to configure your router manually. See Microsoft's guide (www. bit.ly/bpcMuP) for details on how to do this.
Handy Windows 7 shortcuts
Many of Windows 7's features appear straightforward, yet have considerable hidden depths.
The Taskbar, for instance, is far more powerful than many people realise, and mastering its secrets can make a real difference to your PC. Taskbar icons can launch more than applications. They can also represent folders, drives – anything that you can place in a shortcut.
To try this, create a text file on your desktop, rename it to example.exe, then drag and drop it onto your Taskbar and delete the original file. Right-click the shortcut, right-click its file name and select 'Properties'. Change the 'Target' and 'Start In' boxes to point at the drive or folder of your choice, and click 'Change Icon' to choose an appropriate icon. Click 'OK', and that's it – the drive or folder you've specified is now accessible with a single click.
If you prefer keyboard shortcuts, hold down the [Windows] key and press 1 to launch the first Taskbar icon, 2 the second and so on, up to 0 for the 10th. Alternatively, press [Windows] + [T] to move the focus to the Taskbar, then use the left and right arrows to select an icon and press [Enter] to launch it.
Once an application is running, hold [Shift] and click or middle-click its Taskbar button to launch another instance. Holding down [Ctrl] while you click on a Taskbar button cycles through all instances of that application (an app-specific, faster version of [Alt] + [Tab]).
If this becomes too chaotic, you can hover your cursor over a Taskbar button, then middle-click an Aero thumbnail to close that application.
If your hard drive is untidy, try Libraries – another underused feature. Libraries aggregate the contents of several folders and list them in a single view. This enables you to collect related documents, wherever they're stored on your hard drive. Best of all, it lets you search only those folders, so you'll always get results quickly.
To begin your exploration, Click 'Start', type Libraries and click the 'Libraries' link, then double-click the 'Documents' Library. Initially the Library says it includes 'Two locations', but click that link, then 'Add' and you can include any other folders that you like. These stay in the same disk location – the only change is that the contents will be visible in the Documents library.
To create custom locations, right-click in the Libraries folder, select 'New | Library', and add a library for your projects. Next, add folders from across your PC to bring all your work files together.
Libraries take a little getting used to, but when you understand their benefits you'll wonder how you ever lived without them.
First published in PC Plus Issue 301
Liked this? Then check out 85 Windows 7 tips, tricks and secrets
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