50 ways to make your PC better

Tablets may be the gadgets of the moment, but once you’ve splashed out for a slate there’s little you can do to make it any better than it was when it first came out of the box.

PCs and laptops, on the other hand, are practically begging to be tweaked and tailored to your specific desires. In this feature, we’ll reveal how you can customise both your software and hardware to improve performance, add extra features and make your PC look and sound better.


Log on automatically

Many network tools, such as Windows Live Mesh, require you to set a password on your PC. Once you’ve done this, you normally have to enter it every time you start up Windows. You can make the OS log you on automatically using a hidden tool: to access it, open the Start menu and enter either “netplwiz” or “control userpasswords2”.

In the window that appears you can now untick “Users must enter a username and password to use this computer”. Click “Apply” and you’ll be asked to provide the username and password that will, in future, be logged on automatically. Do so, click OK and your logging-on days are over. Obviously, beware of doing this on business machines or home systems containing sensitive data.

Increase battery life

Windows can help identify what’s eating up your laptop’s battery life. Open up an administrative command prompt by opening the Start menu, typing CMD, then right-clicking on the icon and selecting “Run as administrator”. Then enter the command “powercfg -energy”.

Windows will watch your system for 60 seconds, then generate a report of what’s consuming power, with recommendations for improving your battery life. You can find the report at c:energy-report.html.

Use sleep instead of shutdown

There’s no need to shut down your PC regularly: sleep mode draws barely any power, and enables your system to spring back into action more quickly. So why not replace the shut down button on the Start menu with a Sleep button? It’s easily done: right-click on the button itself and select Properties to access a menu to choose what the button does.

You can also configure the function of the physical power button on your PC. To access this setting, open the Control Panel and go to Power Options. In the pane on the left you’ll see a link labelled “Choose what the power button does”. On laptops, you can also choose what happens when you close the lid.

Use natural language search

You doubtless know that you can find files and folders by typing into the search box at the top right of Explorer windows. But if you want to search for something specific you have to use a slightly awkward syntax, such as “file size:huge”.

It would be easier if you could describe what you’re looking for in plain English – and in fact you can, by enabling natural language search. To do this, open an Explorer window, click Organize | Folder and search options, go to the Search tab and tick “Use natural language search”.

The system isn’t perfect, so it may not always understand quite what you want, but it can handle terms such as “all videos”, “documents created yesterday” or “huge zip files”.


Turn off Aero Snap

Aero Snap is the Windows 7 feature that automatically resizes windows to full size when you drag them to the top of the screen – or to half-width if you drag them to the side.

It can be useful, but if you regularly shuffle between a lot of windows, it can get in the way.

The option to turn it off is tucked away in the Control Panel under Ease of Use. To access it, click on “Change how your mouse works” and tick the option “Prevent windows from being automatically arranged when moved to the edge of the screen”.

In this same window you’ll also see an option to activate windows automatically by hovering over them with the mouse. By all means give this a try, as you might find it makes it faster and easier to navigate between windows, but many people find it infuriating!

Tweak Windows Update settings

The default Windows Update settings have a knack of pestering you at inconvenient times. You can change this by opening Windows Update and clicking “Change settings”.

One option is to set Windows to download updates automatically, but hold off installing until you’re ready. If you prefer, you can tell Windows to continue installing updates, but only once a week, rather than every day – and at a time of your choosing. Click the “Every day” dropdown and change it to something less intrusive, such as “Every Saturday”.

Disable unwanted startup items

Over time, Windows tends to accrue more and more startup items – programs that run automatically every time your PC is switched on.

This makes your computer boot more slowly; and once started, many of these programs continue to run silently in the background when you’re using your PC, eating up your memory and processor cycles.

You can take control of your startup items using the built-in System Configuration tool: to run it, open the Start menu and enter “msconfig”. You’ll see a window open with five tabs along the top: click Startup to see a list of all your startup items.

Untick unwanted programs to prevent them from running – you can always retick them to reactivate them if you change your mind. Click OK when you’re done.

Identify resource-hogging software

If you’ve cleared out your startup items and your computer is still running slowly, the Task Manager can reveal why: open it by pressing Ctrl-Shift-Esc.

Under the Performance tab you’ll see a graphical illustration of how much of your memory and CPU power is in use, and if you switch to the Processes tab you’ll see everything that’s running on your PC, along with the percentage of CPU cycles and the amount of memory, in kilobytes, that it’s using. You may well find one rogue program is gobbling up half your resources.

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