Windows 7 is an unqualified hit, but it's not perfect. Here are five easy ways to make a good operating system better.
Show the selected folder in Explorer's left pane
The first time I realized Windows 7's version of Explorer wasn't showing the active folder in the left pane, I thought I discovered a bug. In fact, Microsoft disabled automatic folder tracking by default in Windows 7. To see the selected folder in Explorer's left pane, click Tools, Folder options, and check "Automatically expand to current folder" under "Navigation pane" on the General tab.
Set Windows 7 to reopen folder windows to their previous size and location
Another unpleasant change in Windows 7 is the inability to open folder windows at the same dimensions and location they were when you closed them. Each folder window you open in Windows 7 adopts the size and placement of the last folder window you closed. The free ShellFolderFix utility remedies the situation.
After you download and install the program, double-click its icon in the notification area to activate it. Windows 7 will then remember where your folder windows were when you closed them and will reopen them in the same size and location. The utility's other options let you create a "work space" consisting of specific folder views that you can open by right-clicking the ShellFolderFix icon and choosing the work space on the resulting context menu.
Free text editor outshines the venerable Notepad
Windows 7's built-in text editor looks a lot like Vista's default text editor...and XP's text editor...and Windows Me's...and Windows 98's. You could say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but when it comes to basic text processing, you can do much better without having to pay for the privilege.
My favorite Notepad replacement is EditPad Lite, which is fast and compact but surprisingly powerful. The program features a tabbed interface and a simple set of icons for common operations, such as cut, copy, paste, open, close, save, and save all. You can undo or redo the last several operations, jump to a specific line number, choose one of five fonts, and wrap text at the right window border or at one of five preset character lengths.
The Lite version of EditPad lacks a spell checker, word count, and other standard word processing features. For these, you must upgrade to the $50 EditPad Pro version. The Pro version includes many features tailored to programmers, such as syntax coloring and line numbering.
Many programmers prefer the $20 NoteTab Pro from Fookes Software (also available in a free NoteTab Light version, minus many features). Another popular Notepad replacement with a programming bent is the aptly named Notepad++.
Supersize your icons--and everything else on your screen
The views available when you click the "Change your view" icon in Windows 7's version of Explorer include Content, Tiles, Details, List, and three sizes of icons: small, medium, and large. If large isn't large enough, choose the down-arrow button and choose Extra Large Icons. (The options are also available on the View menu; if it's not visible, click Alt-F.)
Another way to resize your icons is by pressing Ctrl and scrolling the mouse wheel. But that's just the beginning of your big-picture options. To go really large, press the Windows key, type magnify, and press Enter. The Magnify utility opens at the default 200 percent view. Move the cursor to the edge of the screen to move the view left, right, up, or down. To revert to the regular view, click the magnifying-glass icon to bring the small Magnify control back into view and close the program.
Put all your apps away with a single click
By the time my workday ends, I often have a dozen or more application and folder windows open. Taking the time to close them one by one can make me late for dinner. (I described how to shut down Windows in a jiffy back in March 2008.)
I get a jump on the evening rush-hour traffic by using the free Close All Windows utility from Ntwind Software. As an added bonus, the program doesn't have to be installed on your system to work. Simply download and extract the ZIP file, right-click the CloseAll.exe file, and select Send To, Desktop (create shortcut). When you're ready to pack it in for the day, just click the shortcut. If any of your files haven't been saved, you'll be prompted to do so before they close.
You can also run the program from the command line and set it to exclude specific programs. Personally, I wish I could set the program to turn out the lights, lock up the office, and automate some of my other end-of-the-workday tasks. Maybe someday.