Updated: December 10, 2009
If your Windows experience stretches beyond one or two Windows latest releases, you will have learned by now that Microsoft people have a nasty habit of rearranging things each time a new edition is launched, making it somewhat difficult for existing users to adapt to new layouts and different notation. This can lead to a good deal of frustration, but worst of all, reduced functionality. And we want to be efficient.
In this guide today, I will show the basic tips in getting your Windows 7 to do the job it's meant to do, without harming the performance or making you relearn the desktop experience from the scratch. We will focus on the common desktop customization and workload balancing and create a better, smarter and frustration-free computing environment for us. Let's do it.
Personalize your desktop
The first you will want to do is personalize your desktop. In other words, infuse your own personality into the desktop you're working with. My sense of visual taste tells me that the slightly blurred, pale blue theme in Windows 7 is not exactly the finest eye-teaser in the world, but tasty vary and you may disagree - although you would be wrong.
To change the desktop background and possibly the theme, right-click on the desktop and choose Personalize.
Compared to Windows XP, the new menu is a little more cluttered, hence more confusing, but after a moment or two, you'll get the idea what's going on.
You can switch between different themes, Basic being the sickly blue theme we're currently using, Windows Classic being the reliable, good ole theme that you should be using, plus a handful of other, less common ones. You also get numerous Aero themes if you wish to use them.
Regardless of the theme you choose, you can setup different Windows colors and backgrounds.
Window color and appearance
Let's say you want to use the Classic theme, just click and wait for the colors to change. Then, if you want to add a little spice, you can change the Windows Color.
Setup desktop background
Windows 7 does have a nice gimmick of offering you a handful of pretty images for the desktop background, including the ability to shuffle between them at given intervals. It also lets you browse the collection based on different search criteria, like all pictures, top rated, solid colors, etc.
After a few minutes, you'll have a decent desktop to work with.
Best of all, you can save your custom themes and later easily switch between them, without going through long, tedious personalization procedure all over again.
One of the more frustrating thing you will encounter in Windows 7 is the multi-pane Explorer. The idea is benevolent, but the resolution thereof has missed the mark. Using tabs would have been preferred. The basic view is somewhat confusing.
On the left, you have an expandable Navigation pane. In the right, you get the contents of the select item. The Details bar on the bottom kind of replaces the Status bar in Windows XP.
If you collapse the Navigation bar, you will have a plain, classic view. However, there is no easy way of knowing in which mode are you, as clicking on any of the Layouts toggles it on or off, without any visual indicator save the Explorer view itself. Since there are four Layouts available, including Navigation, Details, Content, and Preview, there's quite a bit of mouse click freedom, which can lead to some frustration getting things sorted.
Just remember that clicking once turns the feature on or off; a next click on the same Layout does the opposite, irrespective of other Layouts. Eventually, you can have the desired layout, but it takes some practice.
One more thin to pay attention is the multi-path functionality. Libraries and Computer will lead you to same locations, eventually. In a way, Libraries replaces the old My Documents folder.
However, you can't find the Libraries inside your username directory, nor any of the items listed inside the Libraries, as they have different names, even though they can be the very same folders. For instance, Libraries > Documents is identical to Roger Bodger > My Documents. Don't ask me why. Which brings us to the next question ...
Where are my files?
Ah, good question. Your data in Windows 7 is not where it used to be. First of all, Windows 7 now uses a generic category called Users, where all user data is stored. Inside Users, you have your user account (one or more) defined. In Windows XP, people never paid attention to what their username is, which would lead to burst of panic any time the My Documents icon vanished from the desktop. Windows 7 places more emphasis on this.
Sounds funny using the word home and folder together, as it's more appropriate for Linux, where the term directory rather than folder is used. But it best describes your username folder, where all data is kept.
To the best of my understanding, Libraries are a collection of locations on your disk, not necessarily related by any hierarchy, a sort of a content-related Favorites menu.
The default selection includes Documents, which actually points to My Documents inside your username folder, like Roger Bodger, making it a little confusing, again. Similarly, Music, Pictures and Videos are your media locations, inside your username folder. Reminds a bit of how things are arranged on Linux, does it not, except the higher magnitude of mess.
By default, Windows 7 saves all files downloaded from the Internet into a folder called Downloads, rather than going to My Documents. Downloads is a sub-directory inside your user folder (a profile or home folder, if you will).
Taskbar & Start menu settings
Configuring the Taskbar and Start menu is also quite important to many Windows users. Fortunately, little has changed here, so you won't have to sweat your fingers looking for the right way to get things done. You won't be able to enjoy the classic view in the Start menu, it's gone. There's only this, I'm afraid:
And the standard properties:
One thing worth noting is the Aero Peek feature. For those who decide to use the Aero, this allows you to see miniaturized contents of each open window, similar to the Preview feature in Opera browser. I don't find this very useful, but you may.
Sharing files in Windows XP has always been easy. On Windows 7, it's a little more complicated, especially since there are many ways to do it.
Homegroup is like a workgroup - a sort of a domain that unifies a number of machines, with explicit trust between them. When you install Windows 7, you are asked to associate your machine with the present network. It can be your home, your workplace or even an untrusted network like an airport or an Internet cafe. This basic segregation allows you to easily configuring the sharing options. Firewall rules are also created on the fly, separately for each category.
Nothing new, we've seen this in both the Windows 7 review and the installation guide. Now, basically, we're set. The items you've checked in the first menu will be automatically shared. Furthermore, the Public folder will also be shared. However, any other folder, including those outside your user account folder, will not.
To add them, you will have several options available. The simplest is to right-click any folder. In the menu, choose Share with, then select what kind of sharing you want to allow.
Alternatively, you can choose Properties and then click on the Sharing tab. Then, click on the Share button. This will open a sort of a mini-wizard, asking you how to configure your sharing.
Forgive the different themes, I've taken the screenshots on different occasions.
Here, you can setup different sharing options, including adding specific users or generic groups like Everyone and Homegroup. Everyone is similar to simple file sharing on Windows XP, where you are given the contents of the shared folders without further ado. Using specific user accounts can complicate things, as you will have to provide credentials when trying to access the shares, but it does add some security, although you should not be sharing your files in an untrusted network at all.
This same wizard will open if you click the Specific people option in the Share with menu we've seen earlier. You have more than one way of doing things, which can be confusing. And here you go, accessed from Windows XP.
You can always change Homegroup configurations via the Control Panel or by accessing Homegroup using Explorer, with the Navigation pane expanded. Again, more than one way of getting there, can be slightly confusing.
Problems with sharing
One of the things you may naively want to do is disable the IPv6 protocol on your network devices, as you're not really using it. An innocent mistake by an innocent user.
But then, all of a sudden you discover that your Homegroup is no longer functional. Homegroup requires IPv6 to work! Luckily, you can rather easily troubleshoot network problems.
Any network-related menu offers you the option of trying to diagnose network related problems, specific to the adapter, as well as general issues, with the firewall rules or misconfigured settings.
Backup & restore
Windows 7 includes some rather useful backup & restore features, providing the average Windows user with an actual backup functionality for the first time. Most Windows users have no backups whatsoever, so this feature may actually prompt them to start making some. Backup & Restore can be found in the Control Panel.
The first thing is to setup the backup procedure. You can use local resources or a network storage.
Next, you can choose what you want to backup and set the backup schedule routine. You can backup your personal data, but also the system image, which is rather important.
This is a really nice feature and I recommend you use it.
Manage Windows updates
We've talked about Windows updates in all previous articles, so no point reiterating the importance or the usage mode. However, I will focus a little on the customization. Unlike Windows XP, which clearly gives you the choice, the seemingly obvious choice of hiding specific updates does not exist in Windows 7.
It's there, but it hides [sic] behind a right click. Hide/restore, use the right click.
Nothing much to show here, except the simple, obvious question, how to I change the homepage? Well, you can always do it the old fashioned way, or right-click on the address bar.
Turn Windows features on and off
We've talked about this in the Windows 7 lets you remove Internet Explorer 8 article. This feature also existed in Windows XP, but it was more sort of a menu-polish than an actual Windows component management. In other words, you could, for instance, seemingly uninstall Internet Explorer 6, but it would remain there, except the shortcuts on the desktop and in the Start menu. In Windows 7, the Windows features utility actually deletes the binaries. Please check the above article for more details.
Help and Support
Windows Help in Windows 7 is simplified compared to older releases. It's still geeky by all standards, but there's some chance average users will manage. For example, I had some trouble with the folder views, but I did eventually figure the problem out by referring to the Help and Support.
I suggest you do give this facet of the operating system a chance, as it may actually be of some worth to you. It's written rather well, contains lots of pictures and is not that dreadful to search.
Windows 7 indexes files by default, a nasty habit if you ask me. I'm not in favor of indexing and prefer to have the feature turned off. But it's up to you to decide whether you like it or not, need it or not. Indexing Options are accessible via the Control Panel. In this menu, you can define what locations you wish indexed, what types of files, etc.
Windows 7 has some pretty icons, which come in all sizes, including colossal. You have a sort of a slider in right top corner of each folder view in the Windows Explorer, use it to experiment. You can switch between various categories, like Tiles, Details, List, Content, and Thumbnails of all sorts of sizes.
I've never found any merit in System Restore. It hogs space and never really works as expected. Full system imaging is much preferred, especially since you have built-in tools now. I suggest you turn the System Restore off and save some space - or least reduce the disk space usage.
As the name implies, this tool lets you transfer Windows data from one machine to another. You may also refer to it as a sort of a backup tool, although most people will use it only once. Not sure if you need it, but at least you now know it exists.
There's a number of threads at Wilders Security forums, revolving around Windows 7 customization. You may want to hop there and take a look. The threads are well written, with a plenty of screenshots. And that would be all for today.
This is a rather long article, I hope you've enjoyed it. Configuring Windows 7 to behave is not that difficult, although it can be difficult sometimes, especially to veteran users, set in the ways. In some aspects, like the arrangement of user data and the sharing options, Windows 7 somewhat reminds of Linux, but it has more visual options, making the experience a little more confusing.
In others, items are slightly changed, forcing you to relearn the experience. The most troubling part for me was the arrangement of data on the disk, with the user profile and Libraries pointing to pretty much the same data only with different names. Overall, most of the stuff remains similar to older Windows releases.
Eventually, you'll manage. Windows 7 is somewhat different. Neither better, nor worse, simply different. Ergonomics has never been Microsoft's strong side. It has improved somewhat in Windows 7, but it still has a long way to go. The worst are the choice of default theme and colors and the data structure on the disk. However, the improved Help ad Support and the useful Backup feature somewhat offset these.
For those of you who intend to use Windows 7, you now have a simple, practical customization guide that introduces the most important, most common features in the new operating system. I hope this article has cleared some of the confusion and fear that may have existed. Well, that's it. If you liked this, spread the word. See you around!