Put Task Manager in Windows' notification area
Start Windows with a graph in the notification area showing your current CPU usage.
The icons that reside in the Windows notification area (near the clock in the taskbar) convey much useful information at a glance. Is my network link live? How's my notebook's battery? Is there really yet another Windows update ready to be installed?
But one bit of information I often want to know is how much of my CPU is in use at any given time. Now the notification area gives me the lowdown on my processor as well. All I did was add a Task Manager shortcut to Windows' start-up folder and set the shortcut to open minimized.
Old-school taskbar customization
Windows gives you lots of options for altering the shortcuts on your Start menu (more on these below). Unfortunately, getting a CPU-usage indicator in the mix isn't one of the prefab customizations available. Instead, you have to do it yourself.
Start by right-clicking the Start button and choosing Open. Click or double-click the Programs folder and then the start-up folder. Right-click in the right pane and choose New > Shortcut. Type taskmgr in the location field and click Next. Give the shortcut a name, such as "Task Manager shortcut," and click Finish.
Now right-click the shortcut you just created, choose Minimized in the Run drop-down menu, and click OK. When you restart Windows, Task Manager's CPU graph will appear in the notification area. Hover the mouse over it to see the percentage of your CPU in use. Double-click it to open Task Manager.
Change your Start menu's behavior
I was surprised at how similar Windows 7's Start menu options are to its predecessors. To view your Start menu options, right-click the Start button and choose Properties. You can revert to the old-style Start menu by selecting Classic Start menu. If you're like me and prefer a combination of old and new, retain the default Start menu option and click Customize under the Start Menu tab.
By default, Windows shows Start menu items as links that you click to open. I like seeing Computer, Control Panel, Documents, and other system folders as menus, so I choose "Display as a menu."
This dialog also lets you change the e-mail program and Web browser shortcuts that appear on the Start menu, as well as the number of recent programs to show on the right side of the menu. To protect your privacy, return to the Start menu tab of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog and uncheck the options for storing and displaying recent files and programs.
You can also customize the behavior of the icons in your notification area. Click the Notification Area tab of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog and choose the Customize button (make sure "Hide inactive icons" is checked). The default for most notification area icons is "Hide when inactive." To always hide or always show an icon, select it and choose Hide or Show on the drop-down menu that appears.
Windows 7's notification area adds an overflow pop-up window. To view its contents, click the up arrow to the left of the area. Click Customize to open the Notification Area Icons Control Panel applet. The options are renamed, but the actions are the same as in Vista: show, hide, or hide when inactive. (A couple of weeks ago, I described several more-useful.)
Automate your Start menu customizations
If you use Windows XP, the free Tweak UI utility (part of Microsoft's PowerToys suite) provides some one-click Start-menu customizations. Unfortunately, there's no PowerToys or Tweak UI equivalent for Vista and Windows 7.
Several freeware programs enhance your Start menu customization and management options. Start Menu Organizer from Winstep Software Technologies adds folders to the menu with links to system and Internet tools and lets you create your own custom Start menu folders.
Mithril Software's Start Menu Cleaner focuses on removing orphan menu entries and the useless items added by misbehaving program installers. Vista Start Menu from OrdinarySoft is particularly noteworthy for the many keyboard shortcuts the program adds to Vista's Start menu. However, CNET's reviewer was unable to get some of the utility's features to work, though it's unclear whether those functions are restricted to the paid version of the program.