Windows 7 is fast, stable and far more reliable than we’d expect from a first public beta.

And while it doesn’t include major new features, take the time to explore and you’ll find lots of useful changes that will make a real difference in how you use your PC.

Like any version of Windows there are various tips, tweaks and hacks you can perform to get your PC working the way you want it.

Here’s our first guide on how to get the most from your Windows 7 installation.

1. Protect your MP3 files
Along with many good new features, the Windows 7 beta also includes a nasty bug. Its version of Windows Media Player 12 will automatically add missing metadata, including album art, and this can overwrite the first few seconds of the file. Oops. Installing an update may fix this (seehttp://support.microsoft.com/kb/961367) but it would be a very good idea to back up your MP3 files, too.

2. Right-click everything
At first glance Windows 7 bears a striking resemblance to Vista, but there’s an easy way to begin spotting the differences – just right-click things.

Right-click an empty part of the desktop, for instance, and you’ll find a menu entry to set your screen resolution. No need to go browsing through the display settings any more.

Right-click the Explorer icon on the taskbar for speedy access to common system folders: Documents, Pictures, the Windows folder, and more.

And if you don’t plan on using Internet Explorer then you probably won’t want its icon permanently displayed on the taskbar. Right-click the icon, select “Unpin this program from the taskbar”, then go install Firefox, instead.

3. Fix the taskbar
The new Windows 7 taskbar acts as one big quick launch toolbar that can hold whatever program shortcuts you like (just right-click one and select Pin To Taskbar). And that’s fine, except it does consume a little more screen real estate than we’d like. Shrink it to a more manageable size by right-clicking the Start orb, then Properties > Taskbar > Use small icons.

If you’ve no problem with the taskbar size, but find the way it combines icons to be confusing, then right-click the Start orb, click Properties > Taskbar and set “Taskbar buttons” to “Combine when taskbar is full” for a more familiar XP and Vista-style look.

4. Keyboard shortcuts
Windows 7 supports several useful new keyboard shortcuts.

Alt+P
Display/ hide the Explorer preview pane

Windows Logo+G
Display gadgets in front of other windows

Windows Logo++ (plus key)
Zoom in, where appropriate

Windows Logo+- (minus key)
Zoom out, where appropriate

Windows Logo+Up 
Maximise the current window

Windows Logo+Down
Minimise the current window

Windows Logo+Left
Snap to the left hand side of the screen

Windows Logo+Right
Snap to the right hand side of the screen

Windows Logo+Home
Minimise/ restore everything except the current window

5. Customise UAC
Windows Vista’s User Account Control was a good idea in practice, but poor implementation put many people off – it raised far too many alerts. Fortunately Windows 7 displays less warnings by default, and lets you further fine-tune UAC to suit your preferred balance between security and a pop-up free life (Start > Control Panel > Change User Account Control Settings).

6. Display your drives
Click Computer in Windows 7 and you might see a strange lack of drives, but don’t panic, it’s just Microsoft trying to be helpful: drives like memory card readers are no longer displayed if they’re empty. We think it’s an improvement, but if you disagree then launch Explorer, click Tools > Folder Options > View and clear “Hide empty drives in the computer folder” to get your empty drives back.

7. Burn images
Windows 7 finally introduces a feature that other operating systems have had for years – the ability to burn ISO images to CDs or DVDs. And it couldn’t be much easier to use. Just double-click the ISO image, choose the drive with the blank disc, click Burn and watch as your disc is created.

8. Speedy video access
Want faster access to your Videos folder? Windows 7 now lets you add it to the Start menu. Just right-click the Start orb, click Properties > Start Menu > Customize, and set the Videos option to “Display as a link”. If you’ve a TV tuner that works with Windows 7 then you’ll appreciate the new option to display the Recorded TV folder on the Start menu, too.

9. Run web searches
The Windows 7 search tool can now be easily extended to search online resources, just as long as someone creates an appropriate search connector. To add Flickr support, say, visit I Started Something [http://www.istartedsomething.com/flickrsearch], click Download the Connector, choose the Open option and watch as it’s downloaded (the file is tiny, it’ll only take a moment). A “Flickr Search” option will be added to your Searches folder, and you’ll be able to search images from your desktop.

10. Explore everywhere
Launch Paint or Wordpad and you’ll immediately spot the new Office-style ribbon interface, a real improvement in what were very dated applets. But other improvements are a little less obvious. At first glance the Windows calculator looks much the same, for instance, but the Mode menu leads to powerful new Statistics and Programmer views. And if you’re clueless about bitwise manipulation, then try the Options menu instead. This offers many different unit conversions (length, weight, volume and more), date calculations (how many days between two dates?), and spreadsheet-type templates to help you calculate vehicle mileage, mortgage rates and more. Be sure to explore every menu option in Calculator and all the other Windows applets to ensure you don’t miss anything important.

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