Windows 7: the complete guide

17th Jun 2012 | 07:00

Windows 7: the complete guide

Get to know the essentials of Windows 7

Windows 7: interface

Windows 7 has both simplified and streamlined computing, making it as easy as possible to use your PC in productive ways instead of fiddling about behind the scenes trying to get from A to B.

But whether you've just upgraded to Windows 7 or have been using it for a few years, you might be surprised to learn what tips and tricks have eluded you in your quest for a better computing experience.

Throughout this article, we're going to reveal everything you need to grasp the fundamentals of using Windows.

We're not going to show you how to point the mouse and click, but we'll go over the key parts of using your computer and reveal a selection of useful techniques and tricks that can help you gain mastery over your computer instead of feeling like it's bending you to its will.

You'll discover how to navigate your computer more quickly using the new tools built into Windows 7 and learn the essential skills to protect your computer from data loss and threats to your security.

We'll reveal how to quickly fix problems using the Action Center and look at ways of keeping your PC in tip-top condition. You'll find out how Windows can help maintain your computer and optimise its performance so you spend less time twiddling your thumbs and more time getting on with what you want to do.

It's not just about Windows either – you'll also learn some useful tips and tricks for tapping into the new features found in Microsoft Office 2010 and master key internet skills like surfing the web and managing your emails.

You don't have to be a newcomer to benefit from this guide either – while there's a certain joy in being able to get up and running quickly with a new version of Windows, you may find you've missed out on some fundamental techniques that could save you time in the future.

Even if you think this guide won't teach you anything new, it's worth taking a little time to acquaint yourself with anything that might have escaped your attention.

Spend just 24 hours (not necessarily in one go!) learning the key skills of using Windows and it'll pay itself back many times over as you find yourself quickly finding the file or program you need, avoiding viruses and browsing the web more quickly. Go on, sit down, get a cup of tea and find out how to become more productive with your computer.

Master the Windows Interface

Windows 7 is full of different timesaving features. Discover how to tap into every single one of them

Most of your time in Windows is spent navigating your hard drive looking for programs, folders and files. Windows 7 introduces some handy time-saving tools to help you quickly find what you're looking for.

Many applications place shortcuts to themselves on the desktop, but a better place to keep them is the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, which is always visible.

Open the program in question and you'll see its icon appear in the taskbar. To place it here permanently, right-click the icon and choose 'Pin this program to taskbar'.

When you right-click a taskbar icon, you may see a jump list appear – this is basically a list of the most recently accessed documents in that program, giving you a quick and easy way to open them with just two clicks.

Roll your mouse over an item in the list and you'll see a pin icon appear. Click this and the document is permanently pinned to the top of the jump list, so it's always accessible when you need it.

When browsing your hard drive, use the Search box to help you find content within the folder or drive that you're looking at. If you often find yourself revisiting the same folder, add it to the Favorites list on the left of the folder window. Simply click and drag the folder into the list where you want it placed, then let go when you see the 'Create link in Favorites' pop-up message appear. You'll also notice a section called Libraries, which are collections of related folders, grouped together for easy access. You can create your own easily – the step-by-step guide below reveals how.

Step-by-Step: Create and manage Libraries

Library step 1

1. Create a new library

Click 'Start > Computer' and click the 'Libraries' link in the navigation pane of the folder window. Click 'New Library' and give your Library a suitably descriptive name. Now right-click the Library and choose 'Properties' to start setting it up.

Library step 2

2. Add new locations to library

Click the 'Include a folder' button to find and select a folder to add to the library. Repeat this process for all the folders you wish to include in the Library. You can also remove unwanted folders by selecting them and clicking 'Remove'.

Library step 3

3. Customise library

Change the default 'Save to' location for the library by choosing the desired folder and clicking 'Set save location'. Drag and drop folders to rearrange them and pick the type of files found in the library from the 'Optimize this library' drop-down.

Windows 7: security

Keep your computer secure

Discover the tools and tips you need to prevent your computer and personal data from coming under attack

Norton

Protecting your PC from viruses, spyware, hackers and other threats is nothing new and, while Windows 7 includes some handy technologies to help protect you against such threats, there are still plenty of things you need to take care of yourself to ensure it's as secure as possible.

First, click 'Start' and select 'All programs > Windows Update'. Click 'Change settings' and make sure updates are set to be installed automatically. This ensures Windows receives all updates, including critical security ones that make your PC less vulnerable.

Next, you need to make sure you're protected by security software. An all-in-one package like Norton Internet Security 2012 (www.symantec.co.uk) is best, but if you can't afford to pay for security, install free anti-virus software like AVG Antivirus Free 2012 and a strong, third-party firewall such as ZoneAlarm Free Firewall 2012. You'll find these on the cover disc.

"Only download software from reputable sites and don't assume an email attachment is safe"

Stay protected Check your antivirus and firewall are both running and make sure they're regularly updated. This should be automatic, but one tell-tale sign of infection is if the update process stops working.

Also make sure your antivirus tool is performing regular scans to catch any infections that might slip past its real-time protection.

You can also take extra steps to beef up your security – the three tools mentioned below will do a lot to help in this regard but, as always, prevention is better than cure.

Only download software from reputable websites (like the program's own site) and don't assume any email attachment is safe. In both cases, save the program or attachment to your hard drive, then right-click and select the option to scan it with your antivirus tool to make sure it's not harbouring malware.

Avoid scams

An increasing phenomenon is 'phishing' – the use of fake emails and websites to trick people into giving up sensitive personal information.

Never respond to emails asking you to click a link, or offering you something that's too good to be true.

Always log on to any website by typing the web address into your browser manually (or using a link saved in your Favorites) and only shop on trusted, known websites.

Step-by-Step: Add extra layers of security

Security step 1

1. Comodo Cleaning Essentials

No antivirus tool is foolproof and if yours is struggling to remove a malware infection – or malware is blocking your attempts to install a security tool – this portable tool is essential. It's capable of cleaning up even stubborn infections.

Security step 2

2. Norton Identity Safe

This free tool (from https://identity safe-beta.norton.com) allows you to securely store all your online login details and passwords. It also includes Norton Safe Web, which will help you avoid unsafe and suspicious websites.

Security step 3

3. POP Peeper

Most email apps can only deal with suspicious messages once they've been downloaded from your mail server. POP Peeper not only alerts you to email once it's arrived, it allows you to preview and delete unwanted messages.

Windows 7: troubleshooting

Troubleshoot problems and maintain your PC

Discover how to use Windows 7's tools to find and fix glitches and keep your computer running smoothly

Troubleshoot

Windows is packed with tools to help you maintain your PC and quickly resolve any issues you come across.

These can all be accessed from the Action Center, visible as a white flag in the Taskbar's Notification area. Click this once and a small pop-up window will reveal any urgent messages about errors or tasks you need to perform, like backing up files.

Click 'Open Action Center' to open it fully. Anything that needs urgent attention is flagged, but it's also worth exploring the rest of the section to see what parts of your system are monitored by the Action Center.

Fix problems

If you're having problems with your PC, click the 'Troubleshooting' link, which enables you to browse through a large number of troubleshooting tools divided into categories like Programs, Network and Internet.

If you can't find the troubleshooter you're looking for, use the Search Troubleshooting box, which will also search online.

It's important to keep your PC's software up to date. Windows Update should be configured automatically, but check it occasionally for optional updates, which may include some hardware driver updates too.

If your computer suddenly stops working properly, it may be linked to a recent system change, like a corrupt update or new program installation.

Click 'Start', type System Restore into the Search box and launch System Restore to revert your computer to a time when it worked properly. Start with the recommended Restore Point and only choose an older backup if this fails to resolve your problem.

Step-By-Step: Troubleshoot Windows Update

Update step 1

1. Troubleshoot update

If an update refuses to install, open Windows Update via the Start menu and click 'View update history'. Double-click the failed update to see a pop-up window revealing more details, or click the 'Troubleshoot' link to run a troubleshooter.

Update step 2

2. Restart in Safe mode

If you're unable to install an individual update, restart your computer and keep tapping [F8] until the Advanced Boot Menu appears. Select 'Safe mode with networking' from the list and press [Enter] twice to boot into Safe mode.

Update step 3

3. Download and install manually Open your web browser and go to www.microsoft.com/downloads. Type the update's KB number into the Search box at the top of the screen, then manually download the update to your hard drive. Double-click it to install the update.

Windows 7: backup and personalization

Set up the perfect backup plan

Protect your files, settings, programs and Windows itself from being lost forever with our essential backup guide

Backup

The importance of backing up can't be overstated, which is why Windows provides all the tools you need to back up your documents, photos, emails and other files.

All you need to provide is a suitable backup device – an external USB hard drive is the best choice here (try to pick one that's larger than your computer's hard drive).

Launch Windows Backup by clicking 'Start', typing backup into the Search box and then clicking 'Backup and Restore'. Now click 'Set up backup' to get started.

When the wizard appears, select your backup drive and click 'Next' to choose what to back up.

The recommended choice is to let Windows choose what to back up. This should cover most – if not all – of your data and will also make a complete backup of your hard drive known as a system image for emergency purposes.

Personalise

If you have files stored elsewhere on your system, or you don't want to take a system image, select 'Let me choose' and click 'Next' to make your choices from those available.

The final choice is to choose how often your backup is updated – the default setting is weekly on a Sunday. Click 'Change schedule' to choose a different day and time, or pick a different schedule (this can be daily or monthly).

Once done, click 'Save settings and run backup' and let Windows start protecting your files. While you wait for the backup to complete, click 'Create a system repair disc' and follow the prompts to create a bootable rescue disc using a blank CD or DVD.

In the event of a system failure, your files should now be safely backed up.

Get a faster, smoother computer

Keep your computer running fast and smooth by managing both your hard drive and its contents efficiently

The key to maintaining your PC's performance is looking after your hard drive: both the drive itself and its contents.

Start by performing regular disk checks on the drive.

Click 'Start > Computer', right-click your hard drive and choose 'Properties'. Switch to the Tools tab and click 'Check now'. Tick both boxes and click 'Start', followed by 'Schedule disk check' when prompted.

Restart your PC to have the drive verified and – if problems are found – fixed.

Next, click 'Start', type defrag and click 'Disk Defragmenter'. If you're running a solid-state drive, make sure you disable this tool.

Otherwise, set it to run at a time when your PC is on, but you're not using it. This will help keep your files in order and keep Windows performance at its maximum.

Next, you can free some much needed space from your hard drive.

First, open the Properties settings for your drive again (see above), but this time click the 'Disk cleanup' button.

"The key to maintaining your computer's performance is looking after your hard drive"

After a short scan, you'll be shown how much space can be reclaimed. Not all available options are ticked by default.

If you want to go deeper, click the 'Clean up system files' button. You may free up several gigabytes of space this way, or just a few hundred megabytes.

Switch to the More Options tab to find two more options to try.

The first is a simple shortcut to the Programs and Features Control Panel (see Remove unwanted programs, below), while the second will wipe all Restore points except the most recent and should increase your free space dramatically.

Windows 7: everything else

Streamline startup

Certain programs you install will configure themselves to start up with Windows. This is a good thing for essential applications such as your security tools, but other tools simply consume precious system resources and mean your PC takes longer to start.

Soluto

The simplest way to tackle unwanted startup programs is to sign up and install Soluto (available from www.soluto.com).

This tool will help you to speed up your computer's startup, highlighting applications that you're able to safely disable. It'll even show you how much time you'll save by disabling selected items at startup, which will help to deliver a useful speed boost to your computer.

Master Microsoft Office's new features

Discover how the latest version of Microsoft Office can help to make you work more productively.

The most used program on your PC will undoubtedly be your Office application. When it comes to writing documents, managing budgets or creating presentations, there's no better tool for the job than Microsoft Office 2010.

Like Microsoft Office 2007 before it, Office 2010 uses a ribbon-like interface, with all the tools you'll need spread across a series of logically arranged tabs.

If you don't like the way it's laid out, you can now customise it – see below for details.

It's also worth examining the new, improved file formats supported in Office 2010 – they're identified by the 'x' at the name of the file extension (for example, docx instead of doc). The files are smaller, but support the full range of Office 2010 features.

New features

If you need to share a document with someone who isn't running Office 2007 or 2010, switch to the File tab and use the Compatibility Checker to save it in a format they can access.

The File tab contains a number of other useful features for opening, saving and sharing documents. When viewing recent documents and recently opened folders, for example, click the pin next to a favourite document to ensure it's permanently affixed to the list and therefore easily accessible.

The Save & Send section allows you to directly publish your document as an email, PDF file or – if you're a Word user – blog post.

There are lots of new features to explore, but one useful extra in Word is the new navigation pane. This appears to the left of your document and helps you to organise, browse and search your documents efficiently and easily, so you can work quicker.

Become an email wizard

Find out how to use Windows Live Mail to energise your email – you'll be amazed at what it can do.

Unlike previous versions of Windows, Windows 7 doesn't come with a built-in email program.

However, you can install Windows Live Mail, which you'll find on the cover disc as part of the Windows Live Essentials suite. It will guide you through the account set-up process.

If it can't automatically detect your settings, check with your email provider for the information you need.

The program is straightforward enough to use and has the same ribbon interface as Microsoft Office 2010.

When you're checking your messages, you'll notice that images and other potentially unsafe elements such as attachments aren't shown by default unless they originate from a trusted sender.

You'll also find that Windows Live Mail is set up to filter most spam from the off – see the step-by-step guide, below, for more tips on avoiding unwanted mail.

Get into the habit of filing messages into folders by clicking the 'Move to' button to keep them organised neatly.

When forwarding on email to others, ensure all images and files are included by forwarding the message as an attachment.

If you'd like to email a photo or group of photos to someone, Windows Live Mail will automatically take the pictures and create a slideshow that the recipient can access through their web browser. This helps to keep the size of the email down, but you may wish to simply send the photographs in the usual way.

Emailing photos

To do so, click the paperclip icon on the Format tab to send them as file attachments. They'll be automatically shrunk to keep the email small – click the 'Medium (600px)' button to send larger versions if necessary.

By getting to grips with all Windows Live Mail can do now, will save you time in the future.

Step-By-Step: Block Spam in Windows Live Mail

Spam step 1

1. Default settings

Windows Live Mail is set up to protect you and most unsafe or suspicious messages will be immediately filtered into your junk mail. Check what's in here occasionally to make sure legitimate mail hasn't been marked as spam accidentally.

Spam step 2

2. Manage Safe List

The simplest way to add a new sender to your Safe List is to open an email from them and click the option at the top of the message. Edit the list by clicking the 'Junk' button and selecting 'Safety options', then switching to the Safe Senders tab.

Spam step 3

3. Change spam settings

Switch back to the Options tab. The default 'High' setting should be sufficient, but if you only want to receive messages from trusted people, select 'Safe List only' instead. Messages from all other senders will appear in your Junk folder.

Internet surfing made easy

Browsing the web is safe, fast and fun with Internet Explorer 9. We guide you through the best bits.

IE 9

If you're an IE user, you should be running IE9 on your PC by now – if not, update to it through Windows Update for a faster, safer experience when surfing the web.

You should already be familiar with the basics of surfing the web but don't forget to make use of the Favorites Bar, which allows you to create bookmarks to websites and pages you visit frequently.

Right-click a blank space at the top of the Internet Explorer window and choose 'Favorites Bar' to make it visible, then browse to one of your chosen sites and click the 'Add to Favorites Bar' button on the toolbar to add the site to the list. This will give you quick and easy access with just one click.

You can save even more time by choosing your own homepage. Click the cog button next to the Favorites button and select 'Internet options'. From here you can set the current website as your homepage, or switch to a blank page for faster browsing.

You can also instruct Internet Explorer to open multiple pages in different tabs when you start the program: just type each website on its own line in the Home Page box.

Over time, many programs and websites may offer to install add-ons and toolbars in your browser. Some are essential, but others are just a waste of resources and will slow your browser down.

After you've used it a few times, Internet Explorer should offer you the opportunity to choose which add-ons to run via a yellow bar at the bottom of the screen.

Alternatively, you can click the cog button and choose 'Manage add-ons' to do it manually.

By default, IE9 hides the menu bar from view. If you need to access the File, Tools or other menus quickly, the simplest thing to do is press [Alt] once to bring it into view. Press [Alt] again when you're done to hide it and free up more space for displaying web pages.

Adam's Verdict

It doesn't matter whether you're new to Microsoft Windows 7 or an old hand looking for new tricks, there's plenty in this feature to help you gain control over your PC.

It's easy to skip over features that look interesting but don't grab your attention immediately. However, you could be missing out on tools and tips that will not only save you time using your computer, but also help you avoid problems that could waste valuable hours in remedial action.

It's worth working your way through this feature even if you think you know it all – you might have missed something fundamental, like creating a backup of your files, or making use of Jump Lists to speed up access to your most frequently accessed documents.

Alternatively, you might find some useful tips that you hadn't considered, such as adding extra layers of security to your PC, or using a program like Soluto to help slash startup times and give your PC a welcome speed boost.

Whatever useful tools and tips you uncover as a result of our Windows masterclass, the end result is the same – you'll not just be better informed about the key aspects of using your computer, you'll be saving yourself time and hassle too.

Now that's got to be worth a few hours in anyone's book.

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