Making the Most of Windows 7 Starter

What can you do with Windows 7 Starter? How can you optimize and customize your machine? Should you upgrade to another operating system? This article is meant to help answer some of those questions. If you don't own Windows 7 Starter, many of the tips will work perfectly well for other versions of Windows too.

Table of Contents:

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Should I upgrade?

You'll only have Windows 7 Starter on your computer if you purchase netbooks within certain requirement restrictions. There are limitations to Windows 7 Starter that might convince some users that they'd prefer to upgrade. Personally, I feel strongly that there's no need to buy a new operating system or operating system upgrade to get the machine to do what I need. If you still feel the need to have more operating system choices, you can do so without spending any extra money. I'll cover some Free OS options below.

I've yet to see any good benchmark information on the differences between Windows XP, Windows 7 Starter and other versions of Windows 7. However, I've seen several anecdotal reports. Staff at Microsoft claim that Windows 7 performance is as good as Windows XP and in some cases, it's better. Some people have reported that Windows XP works faster on their system than versions of Windows 7. Others have reported that boot times for both are similar. I've read one claim that Windows 7 Starter performs 20% faster than other versions of Windows 7 for certain tasks. Two things seem clear. Windows 7 Starter, Windows 7 (other versions) and Windows XP overall perform better than Windows Vista. Windows 7 Starter was created specifically for performance on netbooks and certain features were streamlined for it. So, Windows 7 Starter should be faster on netbooks than the other Windows 7 alternatives. That leads me to believe that if one could live without whatever features it's missing, its performance should be better than the other Windows 7 alternatives. In that case, why upgrade?

Free OS alternatives

You can get a new and modern operating system for your netbook for free without having to pay for another operating system. How? By switching to Linux or FreeBSD (or another BSD variant). If you decide to go this route, it's a good idea to try a live distribution of the operating system you want to run and test out support for your hardware with it before making a switch. FreeBSD has a live distribution available called Frenzy and there are other live distributions available for other versions of BSD. There are quite a few live versions for Linux available. There are software tools such as unetbootin that allow you to create bootable USB drives and try out various operating systems. Instead of replacing your operating system, you can also repartition your hard drive and dual boot Windows 7 Starter with another operating system on the same machine. That will allow you to continue using Windows if you need specific hardware support the other system doesn't have. I've found Linux supports a lot of hardware, but won't support every piece of hardware I've been able to use with Windows. I've also found FreeBSD performs faster than Linux on my low end machines. However, hardware support isn't as good as Linux. Netbooks are most often used to connect to the Internet, so you'll want to make sure that at least that part of your hardware works before making a switch. There is a way to use Windows binary drivers on Linux and FreeBSD for Internet connection. Linux offers NDISWrapper while FreeBSD has NDISulator. Both allow for drivers following the Network Driver Interface Specification (NDIS) interface to work on operating systems other than Windows.

If you don't want to replace your operating system or dual boot, there are a few other alternatives. One can run Linux natively on Windows using coLinux. This is similar to FreeBSD's Linux emulation layer. The Cooperative Virtual Machine technique it uses is faster than a standard virtual machine which emulates an entire machine using software. Portable Ubuntu is one distribution that makes use of coLinux. If you prefer Slackware to Ubuntu take a look at TopologiLinux. Another option is WUBI (Windows-based UBuntu Installer). Unlike the cooperative virtual machine solution, WUBI uses a disk image which can be loop mounted. Distributions like Joli OS (formerly Jolicloud) use WUBI to install a Ubuntu Linux based distribution within Windows. Another alternative is to run a Unix like environment using projects like Cygwin or MinGW's msys. Cygwin provides a library that offers better POSIX compliance for building software on Windows. MinGW builds programs that work with the standard Windows runtime environment rather than a POSIX compliant one. The msys environment MinGW makes available is a fork of Cygwin. Both systems provide tools commonly found on POSIX machines (such as ls, less, grep, bash, etc.). Cygwin is similar to Microsoft's SFU (Windows Services for UNIX). However SFU is mainly available on Enterprise and Ultimate editions. Cygwin doesn't have that limitation. The MinGW compiler suite builds applications that are completely native to Windows, while Cygwin requires their specific GPL'd libraries for applications to work. The Cygwin environment provides an X Server so you can run X based GUI applications. If you'd like a native X Server for Windows, there's Xming which was built with MinGW and does not require the Cygwin libraries as an emulation layer.

One of the biggest advantages to running a free or libre system is the user friendly licensing. The biggest drawback I've seen is hardware support issues. Some people prefer to use speciality software that only works on a particular type of system and in that case, it can be the deciding factor on what operating system(s) they need to run. Most of the software I use will work fine on Windows, Linux or FreeBSD. I specifically go out of my way to make sure my software doesn't tie me down to one operating system. Theoretically, if I could find a version of a free operating system that completely supported a computer's hardware, then I don't see any drawbacks to switching to a free operating system. However, if you need to keep running Windows to do something hardware specific like update BIOS or use a card reader, the trade-offs become more interesting. Does it pay to take up disk space to dual boot and run two operating systems? Are you slowing down your computing experience too much if you use an emulator to run another operating system or run that operating system on a mounted file system within the native file system? Those decisions are going to be up to each individual running his or her computer.

What Windows 7 Starter can do?

Maybe we should start with what Windows 7 Starter can't do and why. The real question is, do we really need those features?

Desktop Background

One of the main annoyances in Windows 7 Starter is that they left out the ability to customize the desktop background. Not only did they leave out that ability, it is expressly forbidden by the licensing to attempt to customize the desktop background. Just seeing that made me consider removing Windows 7 Starter altogether and putting FreeBSD or Linux on the machine. However, it's claimed that the reason this feature was left out was because a desktop picture could decrease performance. I can see how a machine might slow down when it continually has to redraw a graphic after windows are moved or closed. It could be even worse if the graphic is large, detailed or requires a lot of color support. So, having no background picture on a netbook sounds very reasonable. I personally don't even use graphic backgrounds on the other versions of Windows I run or on the free operating systems I use. The one thing that doesn't work for me with that argument is that Windows 7 Starter does come with a desktop graphic by default and the system is hard-coded to check for that particular graphic. You can't even swap out the graphic for a graphic with the same name (even if it had the same or lower resolution). According to reports I've read, Shell32.dll is hard-coded to check for the desktop graphic at "%windir%\Web\Wallpaper\Windows\img0.jpg" and there's a SHA-256 hash function in Shell32.dll which checks to make sure that file isn't replaced with another. There are work-arounds on the Internet to get bypass the issue, but while you could technically work-around the problem, you would be violating the license agreement.

The worst part of this is that I would have been perfectly happy if my netbook came with the ability to have only a solid background and let me choose the background color. In that case, it would really be saving resources. While this is not the default as it should be, luckily, there is a way to make this happen in Windows 7 Starter without trying to hack the system and by using only Microsoft's very own settings and configuration menus. The technique uses the Microsoft's Ease of Access Center built into Windows 7 Starter. Being stuck with a graphic with specific colors on your desktop and no way to change it might potentially be a problem for certain visually impaired individuals. So, I can certainly see where being able to view a solid background color of a user's choosing could be important for accessibility and potentially easing eye strain. For instructions on how to use this technique, see the information on customization below.

Most netbooks would not have the capability to run the new aero glass features even if they were available. Even some desktop machines don't have monitor or video card support for these features. So, I really don't feel like I'm missing much by not having the capability in Windows 7 Starter. I do miss the Luna Silver effects available in Windows XP. However, even Windows 7 users are unable to emulate the Luna look without third party tools. With the ability to customize colors, Windows 7 Starter looks just as good to me as Windows 7 does on my desktop at work.

DVD support

Windows 7 Starter doesn't provide support for playback of DVDs. Many of the commercial codecs to encode and decode multimedia have to be licensed. So, it makes sense to save some money by not packaging these codecs with every Windows 7 Starter machine. Netbooks don't even come standard with DVD players, so why include tools the machine can't use? I did purchase an external DVD player from Plextor at one point, because I had a machine with a DVD writer that was making too many coasters instead of viewable DVDs. Having the company I bought the computer from swap one writer for another didn't really improve the rate of successful DVDs created. So, I bought a better DVD writer and it happened to be an external unit that worked via Firewire or USB. With a netbook, one can use an external DVD writer. At one point, cost may have been prohibitive, but they're a lot more reasonable now. Two factors you have to check are connections and system requirements. While my netbook doesn't support Firewire, it can handle USB 2.0, so connecting my Plextor DVD player to my netbook works fine. Checking the requirements for my specific DVD player, I have just enough processor speed and RAM memory to meet the official requirements specified. Some of the newer DVD players may need higher requirements than a typical netbook offers. I should mention that I've had a laptop with 500 MHz processor and 64 MB RAM playing back video perfectly well from a DVD. Therefore, hardware limitations (other than requiring the existence of the DVD player) should not be a deterrent to playing DVDs for the average netbook.

If I happen to have a DVD player that works (and I do), I can use Open Source software with the proper codecs to play DVDs. Three Open Source video players I personally like are vlc, mplayer and Media Player Classic - Home Cinema. When I installed Media Player Classic - Home Cinema, it requested the latest version of DirectX. There is a download for DirectX at the Microsoft web site and it does work for Windows 7 Starter. Using any of these solutions, solved my video viewing issues. I personally hardly ever use Windows Media Player, so I don't care if Windows 7 Starter ships with a working DVD solution or not. I just care that the third party software applications I use work properly.

I also recently tried using my Hauppauge TV Tuner (WinTV-HVR-950Q) with my netbook and I was able to watch TV on it with no issues.

Other Missing Features

There are several lists of missing features in Windows 7 Starter. Most of these features typically won't run well on a netbook anyway. Many of the issues can be worked around by using third party software. However, if performance is bad due to the machine's limitations, do you really want to work-around the issues? You might be better off reserving those tasks for another machine with more horse-power. I won't go through all the missing features, but one that's mentioned is XP Mode. There's an option when you right click an application in the Properties dialog for Compatibility. You can run a program in compatibility mode. When one reads that XP Mode is not available on Windows 7 Starter, that's not referring to the compatibility mode available from the Properties. It's a new feature in Windows 7 that gives the ability to run a virtual machine with XP on your system. You may not be able to run Microsoft's virtual software, but you can run other options such as Virtual Box as long as you have a legal copy of the operating system you want to use. I haven't tried running a lot of virtual software on a netbook. I feel like the average netbook really doesn't have the resources for running most virtual machines with the type of performance I'd want. However, I know DOSBox, which emulates DOS, works on Windows 7 Starter. Since DOS programs often use a lot less resources, many would probably perform perfectly well in DOSBox. I have some programs that actually needed to be slowed down to work properly in DOSBox since they were designed for much lighter hardware. There are some very useful DOS programs such as word processors available. Some writers believe the lack of all the fancy GUI effects for their software can help lessen distractions and allow them to concentrate more on writing. DOS console mode programs work great for that purpose.

How do I customize my system?

Desktop Background

Setting a Solid Background

This technique explains how to see a solid background color instead of graphics on your desktop for machines running Windows 7 Starter (or other versions of Windows 7). Go to the Windows Control Panel. Click Ease of Access Center. At the bottom of the list, click on Make it easier to focus on tasks. Check the option Remove background image (where available). You can now set your background color using the normal appearance settings. Go back to the top level of the Control Panel. Click on Appearance. Click on Display. On the left is a list. Click on Change Color Scheme. That brings up the Window Color and Appearance dialog. You can select a Color scheme. Here, someone who's visually impaired can select a high contrast option. If you want a Windows 7 Aero like look, choose Windows 7 Basic. If you like the older Windows looks, there's a Windows Classic option. Click on the Advanced button. This brings up the Advanced Window Color and Appearance dialog. Change the Advanced appearance settings. You can select various parts of your windows and change color, size, font type and font size. By increasing sizes, one could make it easier to view small items. If you're using the Windows 7 Basic look, you can customize colors, but only some options will use your custom color selections. Some are hard-coded to defaults. At first, I was only able to get 16 colors to choose from on my netbook. It was quite a while before I found out that the option to select Other... was below the edge of my screen. Be sure to move the Advanced Appearance dialog to the top of your screen if you're having trouble seeing all the color options. I had considered the limitation of 16 colors a major drawback to Windows 7 Starter. However, now that I can select other colors, it provides much of the save functionality as other versions of Windows using the Windows Classic option. The only inconvenience is the inability to reload the colors if you click on another color scheme (such as when you click Windows 7 Basic after you've set up Windows Classic colors). Once you customize your colors, the information appears to be saved out to a file called Custom.theme. The file is in the \users directory under your login name. Beneath that, look in the AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Themes subdirectory. On my Windows Vista machine, the equivalent file was under AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Themes. You can take this theme file and use it on other versions of Windows that do support theme changing and supply a Theme Settings dialog. I've yet to see any information on how to reload the Custom.theme on Windows 7 Starter in case you've messed up your settings. If you're on versions of Windows that let you support changing your theme easily, you can type in the name of the theme at a command prompt and it will switch to that theme or use the command:

%SystemRoot%\system32\rundll32.exe %SystemRoot%\system32\shell32.dll,Control_RunDLL %SystemRoot%\system32\desk.cpl desk,@Themes /Action:OpenTheme /file:"%1"

Substitute the full path and name of your theme file for %1.

Background Tricks

You can always use third party programs to customize the background. Commercial programs such as Stardock's MyColors are being used to create custom themes and customize background graphics on Windows 7 Starter. The company says they use technology that resides outside of Microsoft's operating system. Stardock is a Microsoft Gold Partner, so it's doubtful they'd be selling you a product that wasn't approved by Microsoft. You can even use some programs that come with Windows 7 Starter to change the background. I've seen examples on the Internet of people using the Slideshow gadget which comes with Windows 7 Starter for that purpose. Window's desktop gadgets are basically applications written with web based technologies such as HTML and Javascript. It's fairly simple to turn one's knowledge of how to build a web page into a workable gadget. Your browser, gadgets or widgets and Microsoft HTA (HTML Applications) all use very similar technologies. You can use any of these to create animations, slideshows, visualizations or other displays and view them on your machine. I have a fishtank display that runs in a web browser. All I have to do is start my browser and leave that on my system. I can always close any windows sitting on top and watch the display in my browser or click Alt-Tab to bring it to the forefront.

VLC has an option to display video on your desktop during playback. Click the Video menu item and select Direct3D Desktop mode to view a video that way. You can hit pause to freeze frame at a particular point in the video. You could even create your own custom video or slideshow using tools like mjpegtools or ffmpeg to convert graphics to a video format.

Keep in mind that running a web browser, gadget or similar programs or running a program to display videos will use up more resources on your computer. If you're running a netbook with limited memory and processor speed, the less you run, the more resources are available for applications you really need to run.

Customizing Windows

You can use the Control Panel to customize system sounds, screensaver, window color and appearance and several other features. You just can't access or change Windows themes or desktop background graphics with the Windows 7 Starter operating system. That doesn't mean you can't customize your system in general. Here are a few ideas using third party applications to help make your Windows 7 Starter machine more user friendly and easier to navigate.

Window Manager Tricks

When I tested out Linux and FreeBSD on an older laptop, I was able to highly customize its appearance by selecting window manager, file manager, console (terminal emulator), shell and even themes and menus that I was comfortable with. One of the keys to running on low resource systems is selecting the right lightweight window manager. Unfortunately, on Windows, the system (and the licensing for Windows 7 Starter) really isn't designed to allow you to choose another window manager other than the one provided by Windows itself. You can add other programs that will manage windows differently, but you can't do so and lower the memory requirements Windows 7 Starter already needs to manage the desktop and windows. You can only increase the memory required. Even though Windows 7 Starter comes with certain default programs and some of those programs, such as the window manager, aren't negotiable, there's still no reason you can't customize your netbook running Windows the way you might with a POSIX machine. You should be able to use the most comfortable software tools for a job, not just the ones that come with the system.

I personally hardly ever use a file manager and Windows Explorer with File Types set to my favorite applications is more than sufficient. However, there are several file managers available for Windows. I usually do most of my file management at the command line. You might find the Command Prompt a bit limited compared to the one in Windows XP. You can't hit Alt-Enter for full screen mode. You can still use that feature with DOSbox though. If you don't like the Command Prompt console, you can also look at an alternative such as Console 2 at Sourceforge. If you'd like to customize the Command Prompt, check out my tips on adding fonts to view more readable fonts or handle internationalization issues. Don't forget to check out the Command Prompt Properties where you can change colors, fonts and font sizes and set QuickEdit Mode for easier copying between the Command Prompt and applications. The Command Prompt defaults to running as a shell. However, there are alternatives. There are several versions of the bash shell available. Two I know of are based on Cygwin, although one works fine outside of the Cygwin environment. Another one is part of msys. Another version of bash works for DOS (or DOSBox) and is available with djgpp. I've recently been experimenting with running v8cgi. There's a command shell example that comes with it.

As to an Open Source window manager for Windows, you don't need to be running a version of Linux or a Linux emulation to try one out. There were ports of some lightweight window managers such as Blackbox and DWM along with several forks of these ports plus other options. Some window managers replace the Windows shell program with their own program which can drastically change the look and feel of a system. Other projects make use of the Windows shell and add their own touches as separate programs. I'm unclear as to whether changing the shell can be construed as customizing the desktop background. To be on the safe side, I've stayed away from any techniques that change the Windows shell program. There's one technique in particular that I like because it doesn't require any special installation or alter any system files whatsoever. It uses Autohotkey which is a great tool all by itself for creating hotkeys and macros. You can record and play back keystrokes and mouse clicks with it. There are lots of useful scripts available for Autohotkey including a port of DWM (called bug.n). All you need to do is install Autohotkey on your machine and if it doesn't automatically set file types with the ahk extension to run with Autohotkey, change that File Type in your Folder Options under the Tools menu in Windows Explorer. Click on the script and you have an alternate window manager running whenever you want. One interesting feature is the ability to have several virtual desktops. So, you can have one group of programs running on one virtual desktop and then switch to another group of programs on another desktop by pressing a few keys. Keep in mind that the more programs open, the more resources you're tying up and the more you could degrade system performance. The desktops are virtual, so you're never really changing the actual desktop, just hiding or showing certain applications based on your selections.

One other project I'd like to mention is Classis Shell at Sourceforge If you're more comfortable with Windows XP navigation (especially keyboard shortcuts) or prefer the look, Classic Shell is worth checking out. You can use it on Windows Vista or any version of Windows 7. It provides alternatives to the menu and Windows Explorer. It can also change the appearance of IE 9. I still miss the Luna Silver look from XP. Classic Shell menu can emulate this look and others or let you customize your own personal appearance settings.

Customizing GUI libraries

Some GUI libraries let you create and set themes for their applications. Both GTK+ and QT (popular cross-platform libraries) have these options. I haven't experimented with QT based programs much, but themes work very well with GTK+. Some Linux users will pick a lightweight window manager and choose mainly GTK+ programs to work with it. They customize the look of their applications mainly through GTK+. It's a much less resource intensive solution on POSIX systems than running a full desktop environment and trying to customize it to one's liking. There are several GTK+ theme change tools for Linux and FreeBSD. It's harder to find tools on Windows, but there are theme engines and theme changing applications available. When I downloaded a version of stardict that came with an installer, it included GTK+ themes and a theme change program. There's also Gtk2Prefs at Sourceforge as part of the gtk-win project.

I read on the portable apps forum about attempts to cut down on the number of files installed by reusing GTK+ library files placed in a central location. This is a great tip for a netbook that might not have a lot of hard drive space. Trying this on my own computers, I soon discovered that a program will find the GTK+ libraries in any directory as long as it's listed in your path environment variable. If the GTK+ dlls (library files) are the same or you don't substitute a later dll with an earlier one that doesn't support a feature, you can use one set of dlls stored in a common directory. GTK+ theme related files are usually stored in subdirectories under the share and lib subdirectories. A GTK+ program can make use of GTK+ themes as long as the theme files are stored beneath the directory where you store its GTK+ dlls. So, if you decide to store your GTK+ library files in a directory called c:\gtk, you can create c:\gtk\lib and c:\gtk\share and copy any theme related files to the proper subdirectories within them. From the Control Panel, select System and Advanced, and you can edit Environment Variables. Add the directory with the GTK+ dlls to your path. While you're there, you may want to set the HOME variable to a suitable directory as well. Copy theme related files (share and lib subdirectories) directly beneath the directory where your GTK+ dlls are. In GTK+ 2, which theme is active is based on the setting in the .gtkrc-2.0 file. You can switch themes using a GTK theme switching utility or by editing the file directly. The .gtkrc-2.0 file is located in your home directory. On Windows 7, this defaults to your personal directory under c:\users. It's the same location a Command Prompt defaults to starting in (unless you change that setting). If you've set the HOME environment variable, it will look for the .gtkrc-2.0 file in that directory instead. GTK+ 3 uses a different scheme for themes and makes use of CSS to create them. There are quite a few GTK+2 applications available even on Windows. I look forward to GTK+ 3 applications becoming as prevalent. Their new theme format looks easier to work with and customize. Am hoping to compile some programs with GTK+ 3 for myself in the near future and would be interested in hearing from other programmers who have done so already. With the GTK+ theme options, you can easily customize the look and feel of often used GTK+ applications and give your machine a more unified appearance.

Customizing Application Launching and the Taskbar

There are several ways to easily start or access applications in Windows. However, some of those options have been removed or changed in Windows 7 and Windows 7 Starter.

Launching Items using Keyboard Shortcuts

At one point, I exclusively used keyboard shortcuts. There are several keyboard shortcuts in Windows. I would typically navigate the menu using the Windows key to access it and the first letter of a menu item to get to specific submenus and to start applications. With the change to the menus in Windows 7 and Vista, I can still reach the menu using the Windows key, but now I have to type the name of the application and enter. It's no longer nicely grouped by category. If names are similar, it may take several keystrokes to bring up the entry I want. Shutting down the system was as easy as pressing the Windows key and clicking u for Shutdown. I would typically lock the system or display the task manager using Ctrl-Alt-Del and then pressing the relevant shortcut key (such as k or d). In Windows 7, you can still use Ctrl-Alt-Del, but the shortcuts are gone and you have to use the arrow keys and enter. One can use Windows-l to lock the system or Ctrl-Shift-Esc to bring up the task manager. However, I often find my Windows 7 workstation unlocked. I'm so used to the old shortcuts that I hit the previous key combination to lock the system by rote and don't even notice. It's rather annoying to have to switch keyboard shortcuts that you've been using for a long time. It would have been nice for Windows 7 to offer backward compability with these shortcuts, but it doesn't. There's limited support for creating shortcut keys in Windows, but application shortcuts have to be a specific location on your machine and you can only create shortcuts that work with the Ctrl-Alt key combinations. To do so, check Properties, Shortcut tab, Shortcut key. This only appears to work in certain cases and the shortcuts arelost after you reboot the system if your menu is not configured a certain way. Another easier and more customizable way to create shortcuts is to use the third party Open Source tool Autohotkey.

There are some ways to emulate the old menu format in Windows XP. You can create a custom toolbars that access your menu listings. See below for information on how to create custom toolbars. The main drawback is that it takes more keystrokes than simply pressing the Windows key to access a toolbar menu. On Windows 7, you'll want to point the toolbar to one or both of the following locations.

Start Menu Used By Current User Account Only (UserID should be replaced with your login name):
C:\Users\UserID\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs
Start Menu Used By All User Accounts:
C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs

If you want something even more like the Windows XP and previous versions Start menus, I highly recommend the menu from the Classic Shell project at Sourceforge.

Launching Items from a Command Prompt

I do a lot of file access directly from a Command Prompt and usually have at least one open at all times. In Windows 7 and Vista, there's an option in the properties to Run this program as an administrator. You can create a shortcut in Windows 7 with this capability preset. It doesn't give you full access to a Windows 7 system, but it does let you get to some things you might not be able to reach otherwise.

You can easily launch programs from a Command Prompt by typing start and the name of the file and pressing enter. If you're file is not an executable file (for instance a graphic or video or document), this will open the file with a preferred default application based on the file type (file extension).

If file names are long and difficult to type, you can use the short file name instead. View it by going to the directory where the file is located and typing dir /x at the command line. You can see hidden files and folders with dir /ah. You can find a particular file you need on your system using dir /s and the filename. You can also use wildcards (* and ?) to help represent the file name if you're not sure of the entire name.

Launching Items from a Folder

I wanted to provide a more graphical interface for users who aren't as happy using keyboard shortcuts or the menu. I used Windows Explorer to make the most used applications easily accessible. I created a folder called shortcuts on the Desktop. I added shortcuts to the applications used most. The interface was so handy, I began using it myself. You can set the view in Windows Explorer to Tiles, Large Icons or whatever's most convenient and readable. Windows 7 adds a Content option that looks like it would be useful for small screens and mobile devices. Access requires two mouse clicks, one to open the shortcuts folder (which you can then leave open) and one to access the application you want. If you move the folder to your Startup menu, you don't even need to open the folder yourself. Windows will do it for you when it starts. If you leave the shortcuts folder open, you can reach it using Alt-tab to cycle through to the window. Keyboard users can move through the applications using the arrows or activate applications using the enter key.

In Windows XP, under the Tools menu choose Folder Options and the View tab. If you check Do not cache thumbnails, you may see a system performance improvement. In Windows Vista and 7, click Organize, Folder and search options. The Folder Options dialog appears. Click the View tab. There's a selection to Always show icons, never thumbnails that works in a similar manner. If you want to be able to preview your graphics quickly in Windows Explorer, make sure these options are unchecked so that creating and showing thumbnails will be turned on.

You can also tie any multimedia files to your favorite applications and use Windows Explorer to launch them. Just place all your favorite multimedia files in folders you can easily find. Point Windows Explorer to the folder you're interested in. Click on the file and it should launch a program to view or play it. If you don't like the viewer or player launched, you can globally change the default applications used for files with particular file extensions through settings. In Windows XP, from Window Explorer use the File Types tab in the Folder Options dialog to connect a file type to an application. In Windows 7 Starter, this has been moved to the Control Panel. Click Programs, Default Programs and Associate a file type or protocol with a program. This brings you to the Set Associations screen where you can customize your connections.

Launching Items from the Taskbar

I hardly ever used the Quick Launch or taskbar. I eventually started using a couple of icons on my taskbar to launch certain applications quickly. I wanted a way to distinguish between launching the IE browser in framemerging mode (which I typically do from a menu) and in noframemerging mode. So, I set up a taskbar icon for IE in noframemerging mode. I soon added icons to launch web based mail applications I used at work. You can add shortcuts just to the right of the Start menu. This provides small icons you can easily click to run applications with specific settings. Unfortunately, this technique isn't as easy to set up in Windows 7 or Vista, but there's still a way to do it using custom toolbars described below.

Windows 7 (including Starter) attempted to make the taskbar look a lot more like an application launcher/docking bar you might find on a Mac or on certain POSIX systems. The interface is very GUI and mouse oriented. Personally, I prefer more text and more key clicks for an accessible interface. So, while some people love the new changes, some find them much less user friendly. To make the Windows 7 (any version) taskbar function more like previous versions of Windows (especially if you're not using Aero), there are some options to set. Right click the taskbar and click on Properties. The Taskbar and Start Menu dialog should appear. Make sure you're on the Taskbar tab; there you can change various settings to further customize your taskbar. The dropdown for Taskbar buttons lets you Combine when taskbar is full if you prefer more of the old Windows XP taskbar functionality. This lets you see partial names as well as the icons. Checking Use small icons may improve the look of the taskbar and make it more like XP as well. You can pin applications to your taskbar, but the behaviour is very different from previous versions of Windows. Luckily there's another technique besides pinning that can be used to quickly launch applications from a taskbar.

Customizing toolbars

Windows XP, Vista and 7 have the ability to add custom toolbars to the taskbar. You can create custom toolbars similar to the Quick Launch menu or have them show icons directly on the taskbar. Create a folder and place the shortcuts for your toolbar in it. I created my toolbar folders in a subfolder within my shortcuts folder. Make sure to name the folders appropriately since this name may appear on your toolbar. For my Quick Launch style menu, I named the corresponding folder Go. You can access the full names and paths of these folders by clicking to the right of the name in the address bar (at the top of Windows Explorer, just left of the search). You may copy and paste the folder name and path using Ctrl-Ins to copy and Ctrl-v to paste. Right click the taskbar and make sure Lock the taskbar is unchecked. Right click on the taskbar and click Toolbars. Find New toolbar... and click it. The New Toolbar dialog should appear. Where it says Folder:, paste the name and path of the folder you created to house your shortcuts. Then click the Select Folder button. The name of the folder should appear in the taskbar. If you want a menu (Quick Launch look), leave it as is. If you only want to see the icons in the toolbar, right click on it, uncheck Show Text and then uncheck Show title. Now, use your mouse to resize and drag the new toolbar to wherever you want it on the taskbar. You can place it just after the Start menu if desired. Repeat with other toolbars if needed. Once everything is in place and resized, you can right click on the Taskbar and check Lock the taskbar. This gives you quick launch menus and/or icons available from the taskbar.


Here's how I recreated some of the shortcuts I found most useful for my custom toolbars. Add these to your toolbar folders. To create a shortcut to Internet Explorer that automatically starts a new session quickly, click New, click Shortcut and type the following for location or Target "C:\Program Files\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe" -noframemerging. I also set up a shortcut to Google Mail giving it the browser and the URL for Google Mail. You can change the shortcut icons through right clicking to get to Properties, on the Shortcut tab click the Change Icon... button. I found some useful mail icons at %ProgramFiles%\Internet Explorer\hmmapi.dll and %SystemRoot%\System32\mapi32.dll. If you need a little more control over how a program displays, you can create a Javascript file that will launch the program. Then create a shortcut to the script file. Save a file with Javascript commands using any name you want and make sure it has the .js extension. You can create shortcuts to these files just like you can to any other application. You can bring up the Shutdown dialog using C:\\Windows\\System32\\taskkill.exe /IM explorer.exe. However, it seems to work intermittently when you try to run it as a shortcut. So, I used an equivalent Javascript command instead. In the script below, take out the comment marker (//) in front of theshell.MinimizeAll(); if you want to minimize all windows before bringing up the dialog. Here's the script I created to launch the Shutdown dialog without opening a console:

var theshell = new ActiveXObject("shell.application");
// theshell.MinimizeAll();
theshell.ShutdownWindows ();
theshell = null;

Here's the script I created to initially launch the Task Manager minimized:

var wshshell = WScript.CreateObject ("WScript.Shell");
wshshell.Run ("c:\\WINDOWS\\system32\\taskmgr.exe", 7);
wshshell = null;

Navigation to the taskbar shortcuts isn't easy using a keyboard. However, if you place your shortcut menu (in my case, the Go folder), next to the Start menu, you can click Windows and then Esc, then use tab and shift-tab keys to reach the various toolbars and the arrow keys to move within the toolbars. You can also reach it by clicking Windows-t and then using your tab and arrow keys. If the items in your folder have unique names and you've left Show title checked, you can pick an item in the menu using arrow keys or by clicking the first letter of the text description. If the first letter is unique, the item will run. If there are duplicates, it will move you through each item in the menu with that letter.

How do I optimize my system?

The other key to running on low resource systems is choosing lightweight software alternatives instead of the usual applications most people run. Here are some basic rules of thumb to keep in mind. Compiled programs such as those built with C/C++ or even Pascal/Delphi or Fortran will usually be the fastest on your system. Of course, it's going to depend on how well the developers have designed the programs too. I find programs using Java or .Net slower on low resources systems even with the use of Just-In-Time compilation to speed things up. Also, the runtime environments take up a good chunk of hard drive space, although I'd bet Windows 7 Starter probably already has .Net preinstalled. Scripted programs are great when you have to change them on the fly. Since they're interpreted, they can be really slow. If you're doing something that's CPU or computation intensive, you'll want to run a well-designed compiled program to get the maximum speed. When it comes to user interfaces where you need to wait for a human to press a key or click a mouse button or touch an item on screen, speed isn't as much of an issue and you can often get by with scripted programs. The ultimate test is trying an application on your machine and checking the responsiveness. I have a list of several lightweight applications I've found for those who might need some software suggestions.

One other thing I look for when choosing applications is how portable they are. If they're portable applications, I can easily move and share their settings between different computers. I personally find some of the portable apps very slow to start. Some include software to catch registry setting changes as a program tries to make them and redirect the changes to a file. However, if a program is specifically designed to avoid the registry and store settings in a place that's easy to access and backup, it makes a great option for a netbook or laptop. Some applications have command line switches to make use of initialization files rather than the registry. Some look for special environment variables such as HOME to know where to save their settings files.

A browser can be a key piece of software for a netbook since you'll probably be spending a lot of time viewing the Internet. Windows 7 Starter comes with Internet Explorer preinstalled. While it can be uninstalled, it's likely most people won't go to that extreme. Even though it takes up hard drive space, It could pay to look into adding another browser for added functionality. Sometimes, I can't view a particular page in one browser but can in another. (Many people consider this bad web design. Unfortunately, it's becoming very prevalent.) I find it helpful to have at least two browsers that render pages differently so that if I can't view a page properly with one, it may be accessible with another. Most browsers are based on the Mozilla libraries (used by Firefox), Webkit libraries (Safari, Chrome) or MSHTML (Internet Explorer or IE as a COM object). There are some exceptions such as Opera and various console based browsers such as lynx. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. Opera, for instance, is proprietary not Open Source, but works well on older or low resource systems while still providing a lot of modern browser functionality. Console based browsers are lightweight and can render pages quickly. They also have better security than many of their competitors. However, they're usually the worst at rendering complicated pages that employ a variety of web technologies. Firefox has a great library of addons that can extend its functionality. For instance, you may not need to install a program like filezilla for ftp on your netbook if you have Firefox and fireftp add-on. Firefox may not be a great selection if you're working behind certain types of firewall (especially within a business). With some firewall setups, it will continuously be asking you for valid certificates. You can customize your system even further and make displays more readable by customizing local CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Most browsers that support CSS also provide a way to customize it locally (especially for those who are visually impaired). Some let you customize for all sites and some will let you specify to the level of a particular site or domain. Check into the Firefox and Chrome add on Stylish and the site for some examples. I've created my own CSS to make a third party site I use often at work more readable.

I also have a page on some suggestions for software I use on my netbook. I'll mention a few of my favorites here as well. MuPDF works great for viewing PDF files without waiting too long for the software to render them. It was much better at navigating through the files than the other PDF viewer programs I tried. You can also view embedded PDFs with it if you're using certain versions of the Firefox browser. When I want to view videos, it's faster if the software doesn't have to rescale them to full screen. If you don't want to view them in a window the size of the video, you can use VLC, in the Video menu, uncheck the Scale option. If the picture disappears completely, set Zoom in the Video menu to choose 1:1 Original. Viewing the video at its original size can improve playback quality. Extra resources aren't required to rescale the video for display.

Try running a lightweight word processor as opposed to a word processor heavyweight or an office suite. If you can get by with a good programming or text editor instead of a word processor, you'll probably see your application start up faster and you'll get to the part where you can actually start typing words faster. You can run DOS word processors such as Word or WordPerfect in DOSBox and have a lot of word processor features packed into something that will use less memory than more modern word processors. You can try out a console based word processor such as WordGrinder at Sourceforge. If you're using console based applications like WordGrinder, be sure to check into customizing fonts for internationalization features and better readability as mentioned above.


One can also optimize Windows 7 Starter through settings. Make sure you aren't running any unnecessary programs in the background. You can turn off programs you don't need to run at startup or services you don't need running in the background. At a Command Prompt, type start msconfig or start services.msc to check your settings. Another way programs start automatically when you login is if they appear in your Start menu. The Start menu usually checks settings under your user directory \Users and your login name and under the default \ProgramData directory. If files are under your user directory, only you will see them when logged in. Having a personalized menu is optional and there may be no menu files under it. The files under All Users are accessible to any user who logins in. Under either of these subdirectories, you should be able to find the subdirectories Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs. That's where the lnk files that determine what appears on your menu reside. They may be in subdirectories under this directory and you may see a folder icon to represent this in the menu. You can check what programs are automatically started from your Startup menu (the Startup folder) and remove them if they're not needed. If you're not comfortable with the command line, in Windows 7 Starter, you can now edit your Start menu directly through the GUI interface. Right click to bring up a context menu and select properties to see the location of items. There are also options on the context menu to delete and rename. Take a look at what shortcuts are in your Start Menu\Programs\Startup folders.

If you have trial programs on your system that keep giving annoying alerts, you can always uninstall them from the Control Panel using Add or Remove Programs. Be careful when disabling programs and even more careful when removing them. You may disable something you need or remove something you may want in the future. You can use the Windows Task Manager to check which applications may be hogging your CPU or memory. You can also temporarily stop tasks from there. In some cases, you can lower a program's priority. Find the program you're concerned with in the Processes tab of the Task Manager, right click and Set Priority.

Other Windows and Windows 7 Starter Tips

I'll add tips I personally find useful as I come across them. Some of these work for other versions of Windows too. Some of these help make Windows 7 work more like previous versions of Windows.


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Last Update: 20121014