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Windows 7 is the most powerful and feature-packed version of the operating system we've seen so far, but you won't necessarily see that straight away.Dubious default settings mean most Windows 7 installations aren't properly optimised, and if you want your system to have the best performance, usability, security and battery life then you'll need to apply a few extra tweaks. Here's what you need to know.

1. Get Windows 7 anti-virus
It's a dangerous world out there, so the very first step you should take on any Windows 7 system is to get your self protected with an anti-virus tool. AVG Anti-Virus is a good free choice, but the betas of Panda Antivirus Pro 2011, F-Secure Internet Security and McAfee Total Protection are also worth a look
 FREE AV: The latest F-Secure beta provides free all-round PC protection for six months

2. Tweak the Windows 7 taskbar
Next you'll want to get your Windows 7 system feeling a little more like home. Are you a little confused by the way application buttons are combined on the new taskbar, for instance? Then get things back to normal by right-clicking the taskbar, selecting Properties and selecting "Combine when taskbar is full" from the "Taskbar buttons" list.

And while you're there, try checking the "Use small icons" box to save a little screen real estate.

3. Customise Explorer
Windows 7 adds many useful improvements, but the default Explorer settings are still as dubious as ever and you'll want to tweak them right away. Click Start, type Folder and choose Folder Options from the list to get started.

The new Explorer navigation pane shows disconcertingly few drives and folders when you start. This makes for faster loading, but also means reaching your destination often requires extra clicks.

If you prefer the Vista style of navigation then click the General tab, and check both "Show all folders" and "Automatically expand to current folder".

Windows 7 also hides drives that are empty, which means the contents of the Computer folder can change in unexpected ways. We find that distracting, but it's easy to change: just click the View tab and clear the "Hide empty drives..." box.

And it's generally a good idea to set up Explorer to display file extensions and hidden files, unless very inexperienced users have access to your PC. Click the View tab, select "Show hidden files, folders and drives", clear the "Hide extensions for known file types" and "Hide protected operating system files" boxes and click OK to finish the job.

4. Uncover secret wallpaper
Right-click the desktop, select Personalise and you'll be able to set your desktop background to some impressive new wallpapers, including a set for the United Kingdom (or wherever in the world you are).

But Microsoft has also provided more regional wallpapers for you to try. Click Desktop Background > Browse, navigate to \Windows\Globalization\MCT, choose a region you like - MCT-AU\Australia, say - and click OK to see the new images.

(You don't see the MCT folder? Windows must be configured to display hidden folders - see step 3, "Customise Explorer".)

CHANGE OF SCENERY: The South African folder has some spectacular wallpaper photos

5. Speed up Windows 7
By default Windows 7 puts you on its "balanced" power plan, which saves energy but might also cut performance.

If you're using a desktop and are interested in speed above all else then click Control Panel > Hardware and Sound > Power Options > Create a Power Plan, choose the High Performance option and give your plan a name. Click Next > Create, choose the "Change plan settings" link next to your custom power plan, and tweak it to suit your needs.

6. Improve Windows 7 battery life
If you're running Windows 7 on a laptop then saving energy is probably more important than speed, and you can get advice on how to do that with a little help from a hidden tool.

First close down any applications you have open (anti-virus tools, firewalls or anything with an icon in the system tray can be left alone).

Then click Start, type CMD, then right-click the link to cmd.exe and select Run as administrator.

Finally, type

powercfg -energy

and press [Enter]. Windows 7 will analyse your system for 60 seconds and produce a report detailing whatever it finds. View this for recommendations on extending your battery life.
LONGER LIFE: Extend your battery life with help from the Power Efficiency Diagnostics Report

7. Search more widely
The Windows 7 search tool can now hunt through websites as well as your hard drive to uncover the data you need, a real time-saver that you should try out right away.
You'll need the right search connector, but that's not a problem - there are plenty of them around. Windows Seven Forums has connectors that let you search Youtube, Flickr, Yahoo, eBay and many more. Just click any that you like, choose the Open option, and choose to Add the connector when you're prompted. You'll then find a search for that website in the Searches folder, and can browse it from within Explorer whenever you like.
And it's easy enough to create a basic connector that will search any site you like. Paste the following into Notepad, for instance, and save it as techradar.osdx using the UTF-8 encoding (or download the file here).
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<OpenSearchDescription xmlns="" xmlns:ms ose= "">
<Description>OpenSearch TechRadar with Federated Search</Description>
<Url type="application/rss+xml" template=";query=;web.count=20"/>
<Url type="text/html" template=""/>
Open the file on a Windows 7 system, add it as a search connector when requested and you'll be able to search TechRadar from within Explorer.
To customise this connector, just change the contents of the ShortName and Description tags, then modify the two URLs to whatever address you like.
SEARCH US: Search online resources like TechRadar from the Windows 7 search tool

8. Run old software
Windows 7 is all about building on the Vista core, rather than changing it, and should run much of your software without difficulty.

You may still run into occasional problems, though, so it's a good idea to prepare yourself by installing Microsoft's XP Mode right now. This is essentially a virtual version of XP that you can run from within your Windows 7 desktop, and should allow you to run most troublesome older software without difficulty.

We say "should" because it's not quite that straightforward. Your CPU must have hardware support for XP Mode to work, for instance. The tiny, free Securable can tell you this, or you can download the manufacturer's own tools: the AMD Virtualisation Compatibility Check or Intel's Processor Identification Utility. If you pass that test then find out more on the Microsoft Virtual PC page.

SYSTEM TEST: Windows 7 XP Mode only runs on CPUs that support hardware virtualisation

9. Prepare for disaster
Everything we've seen so far tells us Windows 7 is a big improvement on Vista, but it's early days, and there's still just a chance that things could go horribly wrong.

Prepare for potential disaster by creating a system repair disc or two (click Control Panel > System and Security > Backup and Restore > Create a system repair disc).

If your system won't boot for some reason then start from the system repair disc instead and it'll do its best to get your PC back into working order.

FIX IT: The System Repair disc provides a wide range of troubleshooting tools

10. Find out more
Windows 7 is properly configured, fast, secure, and you're ready for just about anything.
But what other free Windows 7 add ons and utilities are available? Where can you learn more about new Windows 7 features, discover walkthroughs on how to use them, or find new themes, wallpaper and more?
Blake Handler's regularly updated page on Free Windows 7 Software and Resources is a great place to start learning more about Windows 7.

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Tags: Windows Tips