The Best Windows Tips and Tricks

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Essential Windows Tricks

Make It Safer

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham
Still looking for a good reason to trade Windows XP in for Windows 7? One word: security. The new OS is inherently better at fighting infections, blocking hackers, and thwarting phishing attempts. And with the extra tools described here, you can lock it down like a digital Fort Knox.

Install Microsoft Security Essentials

The free Microsoft Security Essentials antimalware app offers good protection.
Works in: XP, Vista, 7 Windows 7 comes equipped with some solid security tools, including a robust firewall and the spyware-blocking Windows Defender. On top of that, you need a good antivirus program, one that works quietly in the background and won't bog down your system. Microsoft Security Essentials provides real-time protection against viruses and other kinds of malware, and its performance impact is negligible; PCWorld security guru Erik Larkin says it "holds its own" against other free antivirus utilities. Sounds like a fine alternative to paying an annual fee for virus protection.

Install Web of Trust

Works in: XP, Vista, 7 The seemingly innocent act of clicking a link--even one that's at the top of a Google search-results page--can result in "drive-by downloads" infecting your PC. Scary, right? But how do you know whether a link is safe to click? Try Web of Trust, a browser add-on that will warn you of unsafe sites.

Specifically, the plug-in adds color-coded icons to each link that your search engine produces: green for safe, yellow for risky, and red for dangerous. You can also right-click any link, such as one that appears in an online forum, and choose View WOT scorecard to perform a manual safety check.

WOT is free, and available for both Firefox and Internet Explorer. Although its rating icons add a little clutter to some Web pages, we recommend it very highly for anyone concerned about security.

Create a System-Repair Disc

Works in: 7 Stop--before you do one more thing with your PC, dig out the box it came in. Do you see a Windows 7 disc or a system-recovery disc? They're less common these days, so chances are it falls to you to create your own. And it's vital that you do, because if your system ever becomes unbootable, a recovery CD or DVD might be your only recourse.

Thankfully, Windows 7 makes the task exceedingly easy. Just pop in a blank, recordable CD or DVD (you'll need a burner, natch), click Start, type repair, and choose Create a System Repair Disc. Follow the instructions from there, remembering to label the disc when you're done.

If you ever run into trouble, boot your system with the repair disc. It includes a variety of recovery and diagnostic tools, and also lets you choose a System Restore point to help get your PC back to a previous, working state.

Make this disc now. If you wait until after you encounter a problem, it's too late.

Expert Tip: Tweak the UAC

Works in: 7 You remember User Account Control, right? Incessant annoyance? Poster child for everything that was wrong with Vista? Yep, that UAC. It's back in Windows 7, and its heart remains in the right place: It's still meant to protect you from running dangerous software or making unauthorized changes to your system--you know, of the malware, identity-stealing variety.

Of course, it can still be annoying, too. Fortunately Microsoft now gives you control over when and why UAC issues warnings. To tweak the settings, click Start, type account, and select Change User Account Control settings. You'll see a slider with four notification levels. By default, UAC is now a little less intrusive than it was in Vista, notifying you only when programs try to make changes and not when you make changes to Windows. Want UAC to take a hike altogether? Drop the slider down to Never notify.

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