Seven Windows 7 Features You’ll Need on Day One

Windows 7 officially hits the streets on October 22, less than three years after the release of its unloved — particularly by businesses — predecessor, Windows Vista. Whether you took the Vista plunge or you’re making do with XP, Microsoft’s newest operating system is probably in your future, and it probably should be given its significant user interface improvements and myriad new features.

In this article, we’ll show you how to navigate the major features of the new Windows 7 interface. In future articles, we’ll go under the hood to examine new ways Windows 7 helps you organize and find information, and we’ll look at more of the operating system’s new features.   

The Windows 7 Taskbar

The Taskbar gets a major revamp in Windows 7, making it a lot more efficient and easier to use. For starters, the Taskbar can hold a lot more; buttons representing open programs are now square instead of rectangular, and they display only icons without showing name of the program or the open file.

Taskbar Buttons

Taskbar buttons are more compact and stacked atop each other when you’ve got more than one program window open.

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In another space-saving enhancement, Taskbar buttons now combine multiple windows for an application. For example having two Word documents or a pair of Explorer windows open at the same time results in a single taskbar button instead of two. You can tell when a button represents multiple windows because it will appear “stacked”.

How do you tell what’s behind unlabeled Taskbar buttons that are stacked on top of each other? Placing the cursor over an open program’s Taskbar button will reveal a large preview thumbnail along with the program and file name.

If the Taskbar button represents two, three, or four windows, you’ll see previews for each side by side.  Better yet, placing the cursor over a preview thumbnail (without clicking it) will immediately bring that window to the forefront of the desktop, turning all others windows into transparent outlines for easier viewing. (Microsoft calls this feature Aero Peek.)

Jump Lists

Jump Lists provide easy access to a program’s commonly used files or tasks.

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With previous versions of Windows, people often rely on the Quick Launch toolbar to run programs conveniently from the Taskbar, but in Windows 7 the Taskbar can launch programs directly. The Taskbar comes with three default buttons (for Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer and Windows Media Player), but you can easily add your own favorite programs to it as well. Just drag-and-drop a program icon on to the Taskbar — or right-click it and choose Pin to Taskbar — to create a Taskbar button for it. 

When you have a Taskbar filled with buttons, you can drag them around to rearrange them into whatever order you want. Once you’ve found an order you like, press the Windows key + a number key to quickly launch a program or switch to an application via its Taskbar button. (For example, by default Windows + 1 will open/switch to Internet Explorer.)

Jump Lists

Jump Lists, which are available either from the Taskbar or from the Start menu, provide an easy path to a program’s recently used files.

Right-click on a Taskbar button (it doesn’t matter whether the application is open or not) to display the program’s Jump List, where you’ll see a list of the program’s recently opened files (or in the case of Internet Explorer, frequently visited Web sites). You can make an item always appear in the Jump List by pinning it there—just highlight the item and click on the adjacent pin icon. To access a Jump List from the Start menu, hold (i.e., hover) the mouse over an item with a right-facing arrow next to it.

In some cases, a Jump List may also include links to a program’s common tasks. For example, from IE’s Jump List you can open a new tab or turn on Private Browsing. Programs must be Windows 7-aware to offer Jump Lists, however, so some may require an update.   

Aero Peek

Aero Peek lets you focus on a specific window while temporarily hiding all others.

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Peek, Shake and Snap

Windows 7 provides several handy new ways to manipulate program windows. We already mentioned Aero Peek, which focuses attention on a specific window while relegating the others to transparent outlines. You can also use Aero Peek to make all open windows transparent, which lets you see through to the desktop underneath — just put the mouse over the thin box at the right edge of the Taskbar. To actually minimize all open windows, click on the same box.

Another way to hone in on a particular window on a cluttered desktop is with Aero Shake. Click-and-hold the top of a window and shake the mouse up and down or left to right, and all other windows but that one will minimize. To restore the minimized windows, just shake again.

Aero Snap offers a convenient way to resize or maximize windows. First, start by click-and-dragging a window to the top edge of the screen to maximize it. To view, say, a document and spreadsheet side by side, drag their respective windows to opposite edges (left and right) of the desktop — they’ll each be resized to take up precisely half the screen.

You can also maximize a window vertically (good for long text documents or Web page windows) by aligning the cursor with the top edge of a window until it turns into a two-way vertical arrow and then double-clicking.

Notification Area

Most notification area icons are hidden unless you decide to show them.

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Notification Area

On the typical Vista or XP system, the notification area (also referred to as the system tray) quickly becomes a morass of countless icons — often a dozen or more. Windows 7’s notification area brings some order to this chaos by automatically suppressing most of the applications attempt to install icons there. By default Windows 7 shows only three or four notification area icons—volume, network, Action Center (more on that in a moment) and, on battery-powered systems, power management.

To the left of the notification area icons sits an up-pointing arrowhead. Click it and you’ll see a group of icons hidden by Windows 7. If you’d rather have an icon visible, drag it down to notification area. Conversely, you can hide icons that are already visible by dragging them upward.

Action Center   

Besides clutter, the other common notification area problem is that its icons are constantly vying for your attention with a steady stream of message balloons that frequently provide information that’s not important, or at least not immediately so.

Enter Windows 7’s Action Center, which consolidates notification-area messages so they’re not constantly popping up to distract you. You can left-click on the Action Center’s flag icon to view security and maintenance-related messages (with special emphasis on critical issues like anti-virus software that’s out of date), and click on a message to address it.  

Next time, we’ll look at some of the new ways Windows 7 organizes files and lets you search for information.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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