Windows 7: 10 handy hidden features

Although Windows 8.1 has been making a big splash lately, most Windows users – about three quarters of a billion of them – still run Windows 7. We haven't forgotten you. Microsoft's circa 2009 operating system was one of the company's most praised releases in decades, and for good reason: It's a highly functional and sturdy piece of software. But as with any OS, it encompasses a deep and large set of capabilities and settings. And this article is about some of those less obvious features.

In fact, you won't find any mention of most of these hidden Windows 7 treasures in the company's official documentation. These features range from system settings through built-in utilities to lesser known keyboard navigation tricks, and everything that we’ve listed here is available without downloading anything extra (well, mostly).

Read on for 10 handy and largely undocumented features of Windows 7 that you probably weren't aware of... but soon won't be able to live without.

Let us know what you think of these tips in the comments section below, and of course, feel free to add your own suggestions.

Oh, and while you’re here, you might also want to check out our guide to customising Windows 7.

1. God Mode

It may be hyperbolically named, but Windows 7's God Mode is indeed omnipresent. It conveniently puts hundreds of settings from all around the operating system all in one place.

To turn on God Mode, create a new folder on your desktop – or anywhere you'd like – and name it as follows:

GodMode.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

The resulting folder will contain 270 items, representing virtually every configurable option in Windows 7.

2. Enhanced Calculator

Windows 7's calculator has a few extra tricks up its sleeve, which you'll find under the View menu. It can perform all kinds of unit conversion (temperature, weight, area, and eight others), interesting date calculations, and even has worksheets to calculate a mortgage payment or a car's fuel mileage. It maintains a history of your previous calculations as long as the program is open.

3. WordPad's file support

Windows Vista’s built-in word processor was of limited usefulness because it only supported RTF (Rich Text Format) and plain text (TXT) files. However, with Windows 7, Microsoft made sure that WordPad wasn't quite as restricted.

Although Windows 7's WordPad still doesn't work with DOC files from Microsoft Word 2003, it can open and save ODT (OpenDocument Text) files used by the free OpenOffice.org word processor as well as DOCX files created in Microsoft Word 2007 or 2010. Although WordPad can't understand all the complex formatting (it will warn you of this upon opening or saving a file), it will still let you read the documents without having the native programs installed.

4. Reliability Monitor

When your system's acting flaky and you're trying to figure out what's going on, the Reliability Monitor may help. Search for "reliability" from the Start menu, and run View reliability history. You'll get a graph of your system's "stability index" over a period of days and weeks (rated on a scale of 1 to 10). It displays which programs, Windows components, or miscellaneous items crashed on a given day, helping you identify problem areas.

5. Problem Steps Recorder

When you need outside PC help, it's much better to let folks see what's happening on your system for themselves. But if remote access isn't an option, the Problem Steps Recorder may be the next best thing.

Search for and run "psr" from the Start menu. Click Start Record, and the utility will record your activities through a series of screen shots, automatically including captions that show exactly where you clicked. You can also use the Add Comment button to highlight specific areas of the screen and insert custom annotations. When you stop recording, everything will be stitched together and saved as a web browser-compatible MHTML (MIME HTML) file, conveniently pre-zipped and ready for emailing to your geek of choice.

6. Power Efficiency Report

If your Windows 7 laptop isn't getting the battery life you expect – or if it experiences power-related issues, such as the inability to go into standby or hibernate mode – the problem usually lies with incorrectly configured power management settings.

Windows 7's Power Efficiency Report can help you sniff out potential problems. Search for CMD from the Start menu, run it as an administrator (right click cmd.exe on the menu and choose Run as administrator). From the command prompt, type the following (don’t forget the space):

powercfg –energy

Your system will be scanned, and after about a minute, you'll find a file called energy-report.html in your \windows\system32 folder. Copy the report to another location and open it (you'll get a file not found error if you try to open it from the system32 folder) for detailed information about what system devices or settings are throwing a monkey wrench into your power management.

7. Pin folders to the Taskbar

You already know that you can right click your favourite programs and pin them to the Windows 7 Taskbar for easy access. Right? Although there's no such option for folders, there is another way to keep them close at hand on the Taskbar. Right click any folder, drag it to an empty space on the Taskbar (or to the Windows Explorer button), and let go when "Pin to Windows Explorer" appears. Now when you right click the Windows Explorer button, your folders will be accessible via the Jump List.

8. Wipe free disk space

It's no secret (or at least, it shouldn't be) that when you delete files or folders in Windows, they're not actually erased – the space they took up is simply marked as "available for use," which allows the files to be recoverable (with the right software) until they're overwritten with new data.

There is a utility built into Windows (even XP Pro and Vista) that will overwrite all the free space on a hard drive, ensuring any files you've deleted stay dead. Launch a command prompt and type the following:

cipher /w:X

Replace the letter X with the letter of the drive or partition you want to wipe. Be patient – the process can take a long time if you have a lot of free space.

9. "Virtual" Wi-Fi

If you check out the network connections of most Wi-Fi-equipped Windows 7 systems (except those with Starter Edition), you'll notice an adapter called Microsoft Virtual Wi-Fi Miniport adapter. This virtual adapter can act as a software-based access point; it takes a wired or wireless network connection and makes it available a separate wireless network.

This lets you create your own hotspot from whatever network you're connected to, which can be handy in many different scenarios, including when you want to connect multiple devices to a Wi-Fi network that charges for access. (Note: To take advantage of this feature, you'll need a copy of the free Connectify software).

10. Hotkey a window between monitors

Want an easy and mouse-free way to move windows around a display or, better yet, between multiple monitors? When you press the Windows key in conjunction with the left or right arrow key, the active window will move from its original position and anchor itself to the edge of the screen in the direction of the arrow, and it will do so across every monitor you have. Similarly, if you press Windows + SHIFT + left or right arrow, the active window will jump over to the same position on the adjacent monitor (so if you only have two monitors, it doesn't matter which arrow key you use).