If you've got more than one PC, you probably also use more than one operating system. For instance, the PC I use at work runs XP, the machine in my home office uses Vista, and my laptop dual-boots Vista and Windows 7. Of the three, I'll take Win7 any day of the week and twice on Mondays, but if you prefer XP's look and features, a free program lets you make all three operating systems appear and act like XP.
Two other freebies improve two other Windows 7 weak spots: its built-in firewall and word processor.
Maximize your interface options with Classic Shell
It's always a challenge to acclimate to the inevitable interface changes that accompany a new operating system. The Vista Start menu and Explorer windows bear little resemblance to their equivalents in XP. The changes in those features between Windows 7 and Vista are more subtle but still enervating for some people making the switch.
With the free Classic Shell program, you can flip between the look of XP, Vista, and Windows 7 with just a few clicks. (Unfortunately, you can switch XP's look.)
Classic Shell's installation routine preselects both its components: Classic Start Menu and Classic Explorer. The former converts Win7's Start menu to its XP counterpart, and the latter does likewise for your folder windows. To see the standard Windows 7 Start menu, press Shift and click. A Win7-style Explorer window can be opened just as easily.
To tweak Classic Start Menu's settings, right-click the Start menu and choose Properties. You can change the menu's behavior and appearance via the check boxes and drop-down menus, or click More Settings to open a text file with further instructions.
In addition to adopting the XP folder appearance, Classic Shell's Classic Explorer adds a toolbar on the top right of folder windows for such operations as cut, copy, paste, and delete. Click the Classic Shell icon to open Classic Explorer's settings dialog. The options let you show or hide icons, change their appearance, and choose a Vista, XP Classic, and XP Simple navigation pane.
One feature missing from Windows 7's default Start menu is the list of recent items that's built into the Vista and XP Start menus. Classic Shell is one way to get the list back, but you can return the Recent Items option in Win7 without requiring a download and installation.
To do so, right-click the Start menu (Shift-right-click if you installed Classic Start Menu), choose Properties, and select Customize. Scroll to and check the Recent Items box, and then scroll to the "Start menu size" options and choose the number of items you want the menu to show.
Bolster Win7's built-in firewall
The combination of Microsoft Security Essentials and the Windows 7 Firewall provides all the protection most people will need. But Win7's firewall isn't very informative and is a challenge to customize. That's not the case with Sphinx Software's free Windows 7 Firewall Control program (a free portable version and $30 Plus and Portable Plus versions are also available, as are versions for Vista).
Once Windows 7 Firewall Control is enabled, a window pops up whenever a program attempts to reach out for the first time. You can select a zone or accept the firewall's default setting for that category of program. For example, McAfee Site Advisor and Windows Media Player were assigned the Web Browser zone by default, while Internet Explorer was set in the Web+FTP zone.
Two of the program's features you can't disable are the sound that it plays to accompany the alert and the icons it places in Windows 7's notification area and taskbar. Click either icon to customize the program via settings on five tabs: Programs, Zones, Port Forwarding, Settings, and Statistics.
Windows 7 Firewall Control puts dozens of security settings a couple clicks away, including program-specific controls and custom zones, but it also provides a wealth of information through its alerts and Statistics tab, which shows the percentage of bandwidth each program is using at a given moment.
Transform WordPad into a first-rate word processor
Few word-processing tasks require the high-powered features of Microsoft Word. There are plenty of free Office alternatives (I described OpenOffice.org and several others last September), but my favorite free word processor is Jarte, which puts a great new interface on the tired, old WordPad app that's built into Windows 7.
Of course, Microsoft doesn't want to cut into sales of Word by offering a free word processor in Windows that actually has some useful features. But the lack of a word- and character-count feature in WordPad is inexcusable. I mean, can you even call it a "word processor" if it can't provide these simple counts?
In contrast, Jarte makes this and other important settings and information about your document easy to access. Just hover over an icon at the top of the window to see the number of pages, lines, words, and characters in the file. Other drop-down menus let you change formatting, insert items, zoom in or out, and access other features and resources.
Windows 7 is a good deal better than its predecessors, but that's not to say it can't be made a good deal better itself through the appropriate application of the appropriate (free) application.