7 ways to work faster in Windows 7

Master these features to boost your productivity in Windows 7

In Windows 7, Microsoft added a variety of features that make users more efficient and productive than with previous versions of Windows, but there can be a small learning curve for some of them. If your job is supporting the growing number of Windows 7 users, pass along these seven tips to help them work faster and get more done -- or use them yourself to boost your own Windows 7 efficiency.

1. Get the most out of Jump Lists

Jump Lists are one of Windows 7's secret efficiency weapons. With previous versions of Windows, the Start Menu displayed a list of recently used files that users navigated to with one click. But this list linked to only certain file types, and it showed only the last 10 files, quickly cycling items off the list.

Jump List in Windows 7 Start Menu
A Jump List shows recently used files for various applications in your Start Menu.

The Jump Lists in Windows 7 take the Recent Items concept and apply it on an application-by-application basis to give you fast, one-click access to the files you've used most recently. A little arrow to the right of the application name in the Start Menu indicates the presence of a Jump List. You hover over the application to expand the Jump List and see a list of the recently opened files for that program; click the one you want to open it instantly.

The number of items maintained in each Jump List defaults to 10, but you can expand it to up to 60 in the Start Menu settings: Right-click on the Windows taskbar and select Properties, then click on the Start Menu tab in the Properties window and select the Customize button. At the bottom of the Start Menu customization area, you can set the number of items to display in the Jump List. Whatever you set it for, though, will be the setting for all Jump Lists. There is no way to customize it on an individual program basis.

More important, you can pin items to the Jump List so you don't have to worry about them cycling off. For example, if you have a file that you access on a regular basis, you can click the pushpin icon that appears next to the file name when you hover over it in the Jump List to pin it to the list permanently. Pinned files appear above the dynamic Jump List and do not cycle off. To unpin an item from a Jump List, select it in the list, click its pushpin icon, and select "Unpin from this list."

Jump Lists don't stop with the Start Menu; they also appear when you right-click an application's icon in the Windows 7 taskbar. In addition to the same list of pinned and recently used files that appears in the Start Menu Jump List for that application, you'll see a few tasks, such as "Pin this program to taskbar."

2. Beef up context menus

You are most likely familiar with the concept of the context menu. If you right-click on the Windows 7 desktop or in an application, a menu of options appears that varies based on your context -- what application you're in and what you're doing.

As they stand, context menus help you work faster in Windows 7 by providing quick access to common functions. However, by pressing the Shift key as you right-click the mouse, you can access an expanded list of context menu items that enable you to work even more efficiently. For example, if you Shift-right-click on a file or folder, one of the options that appears is "Copy as path," which copies the directory path to the file or folder location, such as "C:\Users\Tony\Documents."

Here are the extended options you can access with a Shift-right-click:

3. Enable AHCI

Editor's note: This tip involves editing the Windows Registry, which shouldn't be done on a company-owned machine unless you know it's OK under your IT department policies. And always back up your Registry before changing it. For more info about working with the Registry, see "The tweaker's guide to the Windows Registry."

Windows 7 supports AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface), an Intel standard that can speed up hard drive operations and enable more efficient multitasking. If your computer already had AHCI enabled when you installed Windows 7, the AHCI driver was installed by default. But if AHCI was not enabled in your system BIOS at the time of installation, turning it on in the BIOS after the fact could render the system unusable.

Check to see if AHCI is enabled
Check in the Windows 7 Device Manager to see if AHCI is already enabled on your system.

To see if AHCI is already enabled on your Windows 7 machine, go into the Device Manager (click Start --> Control Panel --> System and Security --> System --> Device Manager), expand the section labeled IDE ATA/ATAPI Controllers and look for an entry that says Standard AHCI 1.0 Serial ATA Controller. If it's not there, you will need to enable AHCI in Windows 7 before you enable it in the BIOS.

Here's how:

1. Click on the Start button.

2. Type "regedit" into the Search field and hit Enter to start the Registry Editor.

3. You will most likely get a UAC prompt asking, "Do you want to allow the following program to make changes to this computer?" Click Continue.

4. Navigate through the Registry to

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Services\Msahci.

5. In the right pane, select Start.

6. From the top menu bar, select Edit --> Modify.

7. In the Value data box, enter 0 (the numeral zero) and click OK.

8. After you complete the changes, close the Registry Editor by simply clicking the red 'X' at the upper right of the window.

Editing the Registry
You can use the Registry Editor to enable AHCI in Windows 7.

Now that AHCI is enabled in Windows 7, it's safe to enable it in the BIOS.

1. Reboot the computer and enter the BIOS configuration to enable AHCI support in the BIOS. The process for entering the BIOS configuration varies from system to system but typically involves hitting F2 or Del during the system boot process; the key to press is generally displayed on the initial splash screen.

2. Look in the BIOS configuration for a setting related to the hard drive, or AHCI, and enable it. Some systems let you set it for automatic, and the system will enable or disable AHCI automatically if it detects an operating system that supports it.

3. Save the settings and exit the BIOS configuration (usually by hitting F10). The system will then reboot.

Once Windows 7 boots up, it will automatically install the necessary AHCI drivers and automatically reboot itself once more to complete the process. Now your drive is set for speed.

4. Get around Windows with the Aero interface

Windows 7's Aero interface is more than just eye candy. It includes an array of features to help you work more efficiently.

For starters, a feature called Aero Peek makes navigating through open programs faster -- especially when you have many instances of an application open at the same time, such as multiple browser windows in Internet Explorer. Just hover over the application's icon in the taskbar to see thumbnail images of all the application windows, and click the one you want to bring it to the top. It's much faster than reading through a text list or Alt-tabbing through a series of windows.

Taskbar Peek
Hovering over items in the taskbar displays thumbnail images of the open instances of the program.

Want to see through the clutter of open windows to your desktop? Aero Peek comes in handy here as well: Hover the mouse pointer over the tiny rectangular button at the far right of the taskbar to make all your windows disappear, leaving only their outlines visible -- or click that button to instantly minimize all windows. Even niftier is the Aero Shake function, which minimizes all windows except the one you're currently using: Just click and hold the window's title bar and give the mouse a quick shake back and forth. Repeat the process to make the other windows reappear.

Aero Snap is another very useful feature, particularly if you have a large monitor. If you drag a window to the left or right side of the display, it will "snap" into place, automatically formatting itself to fill that half of the screen. It's great when you're conducting research: Rather than having to constantly tab back and forth between windows, you can snap a browser window to the left side of the screen and a Word document to the right so you can view them side by side. Snap also lets you drag a window to the top of the screen to maximize it for distraction-free work.

5. Organize your files with libraries

Windows has offered relatively logical file organization for some time now by providing Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos folders and adding those types of content to the appropriate folder by default. But sometimes this filing system is inadequate or confusing. For example, you might be working on a project that uses multiple file types, or files and folders that don't fit the default Windows folders.

Or you might need to work with files that are stored in different physical locations, such as your computer's primary hard drive, an external USB drive and a network file server. Keeping track of all the files you need can be a pain -- you usually end up navigating to different locations through Explorer or maintaining redundant copies of the same files, which often don't get synced properly.

Windows 7 offers a huge step forward for file management by introducing virtual libraries. At first glance, the Library system looks pretty much the same as the old folder system -- there are default libraries for documents, music, pictures and videos -- but it's much more versatile because libraries aren't limited by the physical location of folders and files.

For example, if you have some documents stored locally in your Documents folder and others stored in a folder on a network file server, you can add both folders to the Documents library so you can view and access them in a single place. The files stay in their original locations; you just get to them through a single library if you choose.

To add a folder to a library, open the library, then click the link next to the word "Includes" at the top of the display. In the console that appears, you can add or remove folders from the library.

You can also create entirely new custom libraries. Working on a big project? Create a Projects library with a subfolder for that project, then add the various folders and files you need. Working on project tasks is much more efficient when you can get to everything you need in a single library.

To create a new library, right-click Libraries in the left pane of Windows Explorer and select New --> Library. Give your library a name, open it up, and click the "Include a folder" button to add content.

library index message
You can't add a network folder to your library unless the contents of the folder have already been indexed.

Note: In order for a folder to be added to a library, the files within it must be indexed by Windows 7. This happens automatically for most files and folders on your machine. If a network folder has been indexed on the device where it is stored, you should be able to add it to your library. If it is not indexed, you can index it by right-clicking it and selecting "Always available offline." Once it is indexed for offline access, you can add it to your library.

6. Take advantage of keyboard shortcuts

Navigating Windows 7's graphical interface with a mouse is fine much of the time, but if you are busy typing away, it can be an inconvenience to move a hand away from the keyboard to the mouse and back. Thankfully, Windows has long included key combinations and shortcuts to help you get around and perform an array of tasks without taking your hands off the keyboard.

We're all familiar with basic shortcuts such as Ctrl+C for copying a selection and Ctrl+V for pasting it, but there are hundreds available, as shown in Microsoft's comprehensive list of keyboard shortcuts, grouped by type. Here are some of the most useful I've found for working in Windows 7:

  • Windows + T -- Puts the focus on the taskbar and cycles through programs on the taskbar each time it is pressed
  • Windows + Ctrl + [number] -- Puts the focus on the application in the Nth position on the taskbar; for example, to see the third program from the left on the taskbar, press Windows-Ctrl-3
  • Windows + Alt + [number] -- Displays the Jump List for the Nth program on the taskbar
  • Windows + Shift + [number] -- Starts a new instance of the program pinned to the taskbar in the Nth position
  • Windows + left/right arrow -- Snaps the current window to left or right of the display
  • Windows + up arrow -- Maximizes the current window
  • Windows + down arrow -- Minimizes the current window
  • Windows + B -- Moves the focus to the System Tray icons

At first, learning a bunch of keyboard shortcuts may seem like an even bigger inconvenience than switching to the mouse -- you aren't familiar with them, and they require conscious thought and effort. But the more you use them, the more efficient you will be, and performing tasks without missing a stroke -- or fumbling for a mouse -- will become second nature.

7. Windows search trumps all

The ultimate shortcut in Windows 7 is the Search field in the Start Menu. Although this function is by no means new in Windows 7, it has been significantly enhanced over previous versions, making it virtually omnipotent when it comes to finding programs, files, emails or just about anything else on your PC. Just click Start, type what you want in the Search field, and voila!

The search feature displays results instantly as you type, separated by file type -- programs, documents, emails, Control Panel, etc. When you see the result you want, just click on it to launch it.

The nice thing is that you don't have to remember the exact name of a file to find it. If you forget that the Command Prompt executable is named "cmd.exe," for example, you can just type "command prompt" in the search field and Windows 7 will take you there. You can also type in the file type, tags or keywords that are likely to appear in the content of the file, such as "project budget" to look for a budget spreadsheet you created last year and want to use as a template for a new project.

Windows Search explores all indexed locations -- including files stored in network folders that are included in libraries or marked for offline access. Program files and system files are not indexed by default. You can customize which files, folders and other content are indexed by Windows 7 using Indexing Options in the Control Panel.

If you hit Enter after typing your search term, Windows 7 will open a Windows Explorer window to display a more comprehensive list of results. If there are too many results for your search term, you can refine your search to narrow the options. Scroll to the bottom of the results in Windows Explorer and select Custom. A window will open to let you filter the results by date or file type, or select the folders to search so you can find what you are looking for faster.

Other options available at the bottom of the search results include limiting the search results to files in the Windows 7 libraries or opening the search to the whole computer -- including indexed, non-indexed, system and hidden files. You can even expand the search to the entire Internet.

Go forth and be efficient

There you have it. Many of these features take some getting used to, and most will save you only a minute here or there, but it all adds up to working more efficiently and being more productive if you take advantage of the features Microsoft has provided to you.

For more useful Windows 7 tips, see Windows 7 tricks: 20 top tips and tweaks.

Tony Bradley is a freelance writer based in Houston. You can follow Tony on his Facebook page, or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com. He also tweets as @TheTonyBradley.

Read more about Windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

This story, "7 ways to work faster in Windows 7" was originally published by Computerworld.

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