Windows might not be as exciting as all the applications that you use on a day-to-day basis but knowing your way around Microsoft's operating system and understanding how to configure it to suit your way of working is the key to getting the most from your PC. With this in mind, we offer our 21 top tips for making Windows better. See also: Windows 10 first look preview
Mostly, our advice will help you to do jobs more quickly and enjoyably although one or two of our tips concern setting up Windows to suit your preferences and tastes. Given that a personalised interface can make you feel more at home on your laptop, this too will make you more productive. Some of our tips are equally applicable to a new PC and to one that you’ve been using for some time.
However, because a PC can become increasingly difficult to use as it fills up with applications and documents, we also provide some advice to help you de-clutter your PC or, at least, to find your way around it more easily.
Most of our tips apply equally to Windows 7 and Windows 8 although we do offer some advice that concentrates specifically on Windows 8. Whatever version of Windows you use, though, and whether your PC is old or new, we trust that you’ll find plenty here to help you use your PC more effectively. See also: Windows 8.1 review
Windows tips: 1. Arrange your folders and files
Documents are hard to find if you put them all in the same place on your disk – perhaps the My Documents folder. So, make sure that you arrange your hard disk in folders, perhaps one for work, one for household stuff, one for your hobbies etc. Don’t forget that you can also put folders inside other folders so your work folder might have sub-folders for each of the projects you’re working on.
Windows tips: 2. De-clutter your desktop
The purpose of putting icons on your desktop is so you can more easily find the applications and documents that you use most often. However, if all your applications have desktop icons, the advantage is lost. It would be a good idea, therefore, to remove all the clutter so you can easily find your most used stuff. You could also try moving icons around so that related software (e.g. Word, Excel and PowerPoint) are grouped together.
Windows tips: 3. Pin folders to Windows Explorer
Make folders easier to access by pinning them to Windows Explorer – just drag a folder from Windows Explorer into the taskbar. Now, if you right click on the Windows Explorer icon in the taskbar, any pinned folders will appear at the top of the list. Only pin folders that you’re currently using a lot (to unpin click on the pushpin in the list) otherwise they’ll get lost among all the other pinned folders.
Windows tips: 4. Use multiple desktops
Elsewhere we recommend de-cluttering your desktop but you could also use multiple desktops with different icons on each. You could have one desktop for games, for example, one for office productivity applications, and another for photographic and graphic work.
Windows tips: 5. Highlight important folders
Want to be able to notice certain important folders at a glance in Windows Explorer or your applications? The secret is to highlight them using a different icon instead of the usual picture of a beige folder. Right click on the folder in Windows Explorer, select Properties and then the Customize tab. Click on ‘Change Icon’ and make your choice. You can even use your own icon by clicking on Browse.
Windows tips: 6. Configure Windows Explorer
Windows Explorer lets you display the contents of folders in various ways and remembers what you’ve chosen. It makes sense, therefore, to select appropriate views for each folder. If a folder contains photos, for example, use medium or large icons so you can see a thumbnail of each. If it contains Word documents, selecting List lets you view more files on screen at once.
Windows tips: 7. Optimise Text & Icon Size
While you can zoom inside most applications if the text is too small, if you have a high resolution display (e.g. 4K 3840 x 2160) you might find that text and icons in Windows are too small to read easily. If so, you can increase the size to 125% or 150% at Control Panel > Appearance and Personalization > Display > Make text and other items larger or smaller.
Windows tips: 8. Change the wallpaper
You might have used your own photographs as desktop wallpaper but icons stand out much more easily on a plain background, ideally white. If you can’t bring yourself to use such a boring wallpaper, look out for attractive photos that don’t have too much detail. You could even try de-saturating or lightening a photo in your photo editor to make icons more visible.
Windows tips: 9. Use Desktop gadgets
Although they’re not included with Windows 8 as standard, Windows 7 comes with several desktop gadgets that you might find useful – a calendar and an analogue clock, for example. Right click on the desktop and select Gadgets from the menu. Now, simply drag any gadgets you want from the Gadgets window onto your desktop.
Windows tips: 10. Add user accounts
If more than one person uses your PC, it pays to setup user accounts so that each person can configure windows as they like it. It also provides a means of keeping each person’s documents separate and together. Go to Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > Add or remove user accounts.
Windows tips: 11. Use libraries
Libraries make it a lot easier to manage some types of files – most commonly documents, music, photos and videos. They might look like ordinary folder but they’re far more than that. Rather than putting files and folders into libraries – although you can do that too – you just tell Windows which folders to include in each library. The files aren’t actually copied to the library, instead they remain in their original locations, but they appear to be in the library too.
Windows tips: 12. Find large files
Big files clog up your hard drive and many of them are just garbage that you can delete. Instead of downloading a utility to do find them, you can use Windows Explorer. Simply type ‘size:gigantic’ into the Search box and Windows will show you all the files that are larger than 128MB in the folder (and sub-folders) you’re currently browsing. Delete any you’re sure you don’t need.
Windows tips: 13. Learn a few shortcuts
Although you can do pretty much everything using menus, Windows also defines lots of key sequences that are also used by applications. This might seem an old-fashioned way of working but using these shortcuts is often a lot quicker than selecting entries from menus. You’re not going to learn them all at once but we can recommend three commonly used actions that you can easily remember to speed things up. Use Ctrl-X for Cut, Ctrl-C for Copy, and Ctrl-V for Paste.
Windows tips: 14. Group Windows 8 tiles
If your Windows 8 Start screen is cluttered with tiles, how about grouping them so that related ones are kept together. Drag your first tile to an open space at the left or right of the Start screen. When a grey bar appears behind it, to indicate that it’s part of a new group, release the tile. Now drag the other tiles that you want in the group into the same area.
Windows tips: 15. Use Sticky Notes
If you want to leave yourself reminder on-screen, Sticky Notes is for you. You’ll find it by searching in the Start menu or screen and, when you run it, an empty sticky note appears on screen. Just type your note into it and, if you want to change the colour, you’ll find the relevant options by right clicking. Click on the + sign to create another Sticky Note.
Windows tips: 16. Search on Windows 8 Start screen
You can search for applications or documents in Windows 7 using the search box on the Start menu but in Windows 8 it’s easier still. So long as you’re on the Start screen, just start typing the name of a document in a library, or an application and the search box will appear automatically.
Windows tips: 17. Make text pin-sharp
Windows provides a utility to fine tune text to match your display. This is called the ClearType Text Tuner and unless you’ve made us of it, your text won’t necessarily be as sharp as it could be. You’ll find this utility at Control Panel > Appearance and Personalization > Fonts > Adjust ClearType text.
Windows tips: 18. De-fragment your Disk
Although there are lots of things that can slow down your PC and make Windows slow to start, one of the easiest to sort out is fragmentation of the hard disk. You don’t need any third-party tools to do the job, either, since Windows provides all you need. It could take quite some time, though, and it’ll impact performance while it’s running, so set this running when you’re not going to be using your PC. Just search for Disk Defragmenter in the Start Menu.
Windows tips: 19. Use the firewall
The Windows firewall protects your PC from malicious attention over the Internet. Normally it’s turned on but you might have turned it because you thought it might have been responsible for something not working correctly. If you forgot to turn it on again, your PC could be at risk so turn it back on again at Control Panel > System and Security > Windows Firewall.
Windows tips: 20. Hide the Taskbar
Sometimes you need the absolute maximum of space available on screen. The taskbar at the bottom of the screen uses space that can be put to better use but it can be hidden. Right click on the task bar and select Properties, to display the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialogue box. On the Taskbar tab, select Auto-hide the taskbar. The taskbar will now disappear but, when you need it, just move the cursor to the bottom of the screen.
Windows tips: 21. Don’t forget Paint
It might not be a sophisticated as third party photo editing software but don’t forget that Windows has its own graphics package, called Paint, and it’s a lot more sophisticated than it used to be. Use it for editing photos from your smartphone (a lot easier than using photo editing apps on a small screen) of for creating your own unique Windows wallpaper.