Essential Windows Tricks

Essential Windows Tricks

Whether you run Windows 7, Vista, or XP, these 25 tricks will make your PC faster, safer, and even more fun to work with.

Download More Themes

Works in: 7 Microsoft stocked Windows 7 with some seriously stunning Aero themes--packages of wallpapers, sounds, and a pervasive color palette--that range from architecture to nature to the good ol' USA. To see that array of choices, press the Windows key, type theme, and click Change the theme. You can browse what's there or click Get more themes online to tap into Microsoft's Personalization Gallery. It's home to about a dozen branded themes (Bing, Ferrari, the game Gears of War, the movie Avatar, and so on), plus 20 international themes with gorgeous artwork from places such as Brazil, Japan, and Taiwan. You'll also find instructions here on creating your own theme or customizing existing themes. This site is a great resource for anyone looking to spiff up Windows 7.

Ditch the Antenna, Keep Your Digital Channels

Works in: 7 In previous versions of Windows, the built-in Media Center software could tune in (and record, DVR-style) locally broadcast digital channels--but only if you used an ATSC tuner and connected a reasonably good set of rabbit ears. This over-the-air approach worked well enough, but Windows 7 offers a much better option: ClearQAM, which delivers unencrypted digital channels via your basic-cable feed (assuming that you're still a cable subscriber, of course).

All you need is a tuner card that supports ClearQAM technology (which virtually all current models do). With that, you should be able to tune in your local channels in all their digital, high-def goodness, no antenna required.

If you already own a tuner, such as AverMedia's AverTVHD Volar Max, just install the latest drivers, disconnect your antenna, and replace it with your cable-TV coaxial cable. You'll need to restart Windows and then run through Media Center's signal-setup process, which you can find under Tasks, Setup, TV, TV Signal, Set Up TV Signal. Don't be surprised if you actually gain some additional channels compared with what you received from the antenna alone.

If you're in the market for a tuner add-on, check out the SiliconDust HDHomeRun, which includes two ClearQAM-compatible tuners. Instead of plugging directly into one of your PC's USB ports as most tuners do, the HDHomeRun connects to your router. Once attached, this "network tuner" lets you watch and record live TV on any Windows Media Center-equipped system in your house. It runs about $150.

Watch Tuner-Free TV in Media Center

Works in: 7 Although Windows Media Center does a pretty good TiVo impression with its DVR features, you typically need at least one TV tuner to watch and record live shows. If your PC doesn't have a tuner, however, you can just stream shows on demand--the Windows 7 version of WMC makes that possible, though it doesn't exactly have a Hulu-like selection of programs.

To get started, click TV, Guide; you'll see an entire grid of Internet TV, headlined by CBS Primetime and CBS Classic. Within those two categories you'll find everything from The Amazing Race to Twin Peaks, all ready for near-instant streaming (WMC will need to perform a couple of one-time updates before you can watch anything). Alas, while CBS offers full-length episodes of shows like NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife, you'll have to settle for mere clips of The Big Bang Theory and others. The same goes for most of the non-CBS shows mixed into the News, Comedy, Drama, Movies, and Sports categories.

Despite the limited selection of shows, this is a well-executed approach to streaming TV, and it's hard to beat the comfort and convenience of living-room-friendly, on-demand media.

Stream Your Media to Other PCs

Works in: 7 Much like the popular Orb service, Windows 7 allows you to stream your music, photos, and videos (including recorded TV) from your home PC to other PCs running Windows 7. That's great if you're on the road with your laptop or netbook and you want to watch the football game you recorded at home. What's not so great is the number of hoops that Microsoft makes you jump through to set the feature up. Here's how to do it.

Start Windows Media Player, and click Stream, Allow Internet access to home media. Click Link an online ID, and then select Add an online ID provider. On the Web page that appears, choose either Download for 32-bit or Download for 64-bit, depending on which version of Windows 7 you have. Save and then run the downloaded file, which installs the Windows Live ID Sign-in Assistant app.

When that's done, return to the Link Online IDs window and, under Online ID Provider, click Link online ID. Enter your Windows Live ID username and password. (Don't have a Live ID? Click the link in the box to sign up.) Finally, click OK. Return to Windows Media Player, and click Allow Internet access to home media.

That's one computer done. On your second system (say, your laptop), you'll need to repeat the entire procedure. Afterward you'll be able to browse the Other Libraries section in Windows Media Player to find the music, videos, pictures, and/or recorded TV that you want to view from afar. Setup may be a hassle, but Windows 7 media streaming works beautifully.

Expert Tip: Watch Netflix From the Couch

Works in: Vista, 7 If you're a Netflix subscriber, the Netflix Windows Media Center plug-in isn't just optional, it's practically essential. Just click Movies, Netflix in Media Center to install the plug-in and sign in to your account. Then get ready for a shock: The Netflix plug-in offers way more functionality than you get from, say, a stand-alone Roku box or an Xbox 360. While those devices also provide Netflix access, they limit you to viewing your queues and streaming movies from whatever is in your Instant Queue. The WMC plug-in, on the other hand, lets you browse and search the entire Netflix catalog, adding movies to your standard queue or Instant Queue as you go. Netflix memberships start at $9 per month.

Expert Tip: Enjoy Hulu in Comfort

Works in: Vista, 7 Hulu Desktop is an experimental, Hulu Labs-devised app that gives you a 10-foot, remote-controllable interface for the TV-streaming service. Just one problem: You have no way to reach that interface from within Windows Media Center.

The free but unimaginatively named Hulu Desktop Integration download adds a Hulu Desktop icon to WMC. One click closes the latter and opens the former in maximized, full-screen view. When you're done streaming, click Close to exit Hulu Desktop and return to WMC. It doesn't get much easier than that.

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