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Operating Systems

Handy Windows 7's utilities you may not know about

Create a system-repair disc, get a report card on your PC's health, analyze your machine's performance, add Web search to the Start menu, and improve the look of onscreen text with these built-in system tools.

Many PC users love to tinker with the hardware and software on their machines. Other people consider any time they spend using Windows' built-in system tools a total waste. In between are those of us who understand the value of a little preventive maintenance--as long as it doesn't take all day.

Windows 7's arsenal of maintenance and system-tweaking utilities has been enhanced through the addition of new tools and improvements to existing programs. Unfortunately, one of my favorite Windows utilities isn't available in the Home Premium version of Windows 7: the Group Policy Editor (gpedit.msc) is included only in Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise. (Vista Home versions also lack Group Policy Editor.)

You can download a spreadsheet from the Microsoft Download Center that lists the Registry key values for each setting that can be changed via the Group Policy Editor. Editing the Registry manually is less elegant and potentially more dangerous than Group Policy Editor's automatic approach.

I came up empty on my first attempt to make a Group Policy Editor-type change (adding a Web search box to the Start menu) by creating a Registry key based on the spreadsheet's instructions. However, I was able to find a simple workaround that achieved the same goal, as I describe below.

Be ready for trouble by creating a repair CD
In the two-and-a-half years I've been using Windows 7 on three different PCs, I'm convinced I spend less time on system maintenance and repair than I did when using Vista and XP. That doesn't mean there's not trouble on the horizon, though. Windows 7 lets you create a system-repair disc that replaces missing or damaged files in an existing installation.

Note that a system-repair disc is not a System Restore backup. To create a restore point (which backs up your Registry and other system settings), follow the instructions on Microsoft's Help & How-to site. The site also describes all your Windows 7 system-recovery options.

Windows 7 Create system repair disc wizard
Windows 7's "create system repair disc" wizard pops up an alert to let you know your system-repair disc is ready to use. (The disc was created in Windows 7 despite the message's reference to Windows Vista.) screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To burn a system-repair disc, press the Windows key, type "backup and restore," and press Enter. Click "Create a system repair disc" in the left pane, select an optical drive, insert a blank disc, and click "Create disc." When the repair disc is ready, a message appears indicating that the disc can be used to access system recovery options.

There are a couple of caveats, however. First, the version of System Restore used by the system-repair disc lacks an undo feature, so there's no going back if you use the disc to enable a restore point. Second, the System Image Recovery option works only if you've used Win7's backup program to create a separate system-image disc. Andy Rathbone compares System Repair and System Recovery discs on his Windows blog.

View your PC's performance and reliability report card
Now and then you may notice a hitch in your system's giddyup. It may be nothing major--just a bit of hesitation or an unexpected pause as the machine opens a program or performs some other routine operation. The Performance Monitor and Reliability Monitor tools in Windows 7 give you an up-close look at the past and current state of your system.

To open the Performance Monitor, press the Windows key, type "performance monitor," and press Enter. A System Summary appears on the Performance Overview screen. Click Open Resource Monitor under the overview in the right pane to see graphs of your CPU, disk, network, and memory performance along with statistics for each app currently running.

Windows 7 Resource Monitor
The Resource Monitor in Windows 7's Performance Monitor applet provides a snapshot of your PC's CPU, disc, memory, and network performance. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Click Performance Monitor under Monitoring Tools in the left pane to view a graph showing the percentage of your CPU in use second by second. If something looks fishy, take a closer look by opening Win7's Event Viewer: press the Windows key, type "event viewer," and press Enter.

Click the categories under Windows Logs in the left pane and select an Error or Information entry in the main window to see more information about the event. Click Event Log Online Help to open a page on Microsoft's site that may provide more details on the event.

Windows 7 Event Viewer
The Event Viewer in Windows 7 provides more details about recent system events logged by the OS. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

It's easy to get lost in the numbers, graphs, and obscure entries in the Performance Monitor and Event Viewer. You get a more palatable view of the same data in Windows 7's Reliability Monitor. To open the utility, press the Windows key, type "reliability monitor," and press Enter. (Are you seeing a pattern in these how-to-open instructions?)

Your system's history of problems and noteworthy events are graphed by the day or week: icons indicate critical errors, warnings, and informational events. Click an entry to view more information about it and links to a possible solution or technical details.

Windows 7 Reliability Monitor
The Reliability Monitor in Windows 7 lists important system events logged by the system each day or week. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Links at the bottom of the main Reliability Monitor window let you export a reliability report, review all problem reports, or check for solutions to all reported problems. I'm not sure I favor the one-fell-swoop approach because if one of the fixes introduces a new glitch, it might be difficult to roll the system back or to determine which patch caused the problem.

Search the Web from the Start menu
One of the most useful options in the Group Policy Editor is the ability to add a Web search box to the Start menu. The How-To Geek provides step-by-step instructions for using Group Policy Editor to put an Internet search field on the menu.

Win7 Home Premium users can get much the same effect by adding an Address box to the taskbar: right-click the taskbar and choose Toolbars > Address. Then simply enter your search term in the box and press Enter to open your default browser with a page of results from your default search engine.

The Address box can put a serious dent in an already-crowded taskbar, but you can save space by using small icons and grouping them: right-click the Start button, choose Properties > Taskbar, and make the required changes to clear some taskbar space.

Choose the type that's right for you
Eyestrain sneaks up on computer users. One way to prevent eye fatigue on LCDs and other flat-panel displays is by enabling Microsoft's ClearType technology. Press the Windows key, type "clear type tuner," and press enter. A wizard opens describing the technology. With the Turn on ClearType option checked, press Next.

The wizard will verify that your screen is set to its optimum resolution and then will display several text samples. Choose the one that looks best to you and press Next again.

Windows 7 Clear Type Tuner utility
The Clear Type Tuner utility in Windows 7 lets you choose the type that displays best on your monitor. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Clear Type Tuner is also available as a free download for Vista and Windows XP; the program installs as a Control Panel applet. You may not notice an immediate improvement in the quality of the text on your screen, but any opportunity to reduce your risk of PC-related health problems is worth taking.