After the poor reception of Windows Vista by customers, Microsoft knew it had to retrench for that system's successor, Windows 7. And retrench it did: Windows 7 has entered the market to universally positive reviews from the tech press and customers alike. Part of the reason is that Windows 7 is a more modest upgrade than was Windows Vista. And part of it is that Microsoft tried to create a more cohesive and simpler system than it had with Windows 7's predecessor.

[ Read my review of Windows 7. ]

So Windows 7 is a huge success, no doubt about it. But if you're coming to Windows 7 from a previous Windows version, you're going to notice a number of changes--some big, some small--and that's true if you were previously using Windows Vista, XP, or an even older version. And while Windows 7's changes are mostly improvements, unfamiliarity can lead to a loss of productivity. So if you're looking for a way to fix some of Windows 7's most obvious annoyances, or simply change some crucial feature back to the way it used to work, fear not: I've got your back.


Taskbar

Looking at the Windows 7 user interface, the most obvious change is the new taskbar, which represents a major functional departure from the previous several Windows versions. Now, instead of just providing buttons that represent running applications and other open windows, the taskbar also comingles shortcuts for frequently-needed applications and other objects. If you're familiar with Mac OS X, you may feel that the new taskbar is a rip-off of that system's Dock. In many ways, however, it simply combines the functionality from the XP/Vista taskbar taskbar with the Quick Launch toolbar. Regardless of its origins, one thing is clear: The Windows 7 taskbar is different enough that it will cause some headaches for users who are accustomed to previous Windows versions.

Annoyance: By default, the Windows 7 taskbar displays only a single icon for every shortcut or button. So if you have several Internet Explorer windows (or tabs) open, you'll only see one button. That can be confusing, but it also means there's no descriptive text caption on the button to describe what the window(s) are displaying, as was the case with all previous Windows versions dating back to Windows 95.

Windows 7 Annoyances
How many windows of each application are actually open? It's impossible to say.

Solution: Fortunately, you can overcome Microsoft's less-than-ideal default taskbar behavior and arrive at a display that more closely resembles previous Windows versions. To do so, right-click a blank area of the taskbar and choose Properties. Then, in the Taskbar buttons pull-down, choose "Combine when taskbar is full." This will cause the taskbar to make two display changes. First, each button (each of which represents an open application or window) will include a caption, and not just a nondescript icon. Second, when you open multiple windows of the same application (as with IE or Windows Explorer), each window will get its own button.

Windows 7 Annoyances
With a small change, the Windows 7 taskbar is much more usable.

Annoyance: Most people who use Windows 7 quickly come to accept the way it combines shortcuts (links to non-running applications and windows) with buttons (links to running apps and windows). But there is one bizarre limitation: You cannot add two links on the taskbar for the same application. This is particularly problematic for Windows Explorer links: If you'd like to place separate shortcuts for, say, the Documents and Pictures libraries, you can't: Instead, Windows 7 places links to both of these locations into the Windows Explorer shortcut's Jump List.

Solution: Fortunately, there is a way around this limitation. Here how it works: Create a shortcut to the Windows Explorer location you want on the desktop. Then, right-click the shortcut and choose Properties. In the Target field, add the word "explorer" (no quotes) before the folder path. (If the path has any spaces, the path must be inside quotes.) The shortcut's icon will change to the default Windows Explorer icon, but you can of course change it again as needed. Now, pin this shortcut to the taskbar: Instead of pinning it to the existing Windows Explorer shortcut, it will create a new shortcut. Voila!

Annoyance: While many users will embrace the new taskbar, some wish to retain a separation between shortcuts and links to running applications and open windows. And many of these people miss the Quick Start toolbar, which Microsoft removed from Windows 7.

Solution: You can enable the Quick Launch toolbar in Windows 7. To do so, right-click a blank area of the taskbar and choose Toolbar and then New toolbar. In the Choose a folder window that appears, type the following text into the Folder field: "%userprofile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch" (no quotes) and click Select Folder. You'll see the Quick Launch toolbar appear in truncated form at the right of the taskbar. To modify this, unlock the taskbar (right-click and uncheck "Lock the taskbar"). Then, drag it where you'd like it and then disable two options, "Show text" and "Show title," by right-clicking the Quick Launch toolbar. This will make the toolbar look as it did in previous Windows versions.

Windows 7 Annoyances
Yes, Virginia, you really can enable the Quick Launch toolbar in Windows 7.

Annoyance: Windows Vista included an excellent utility called Software Explorer, part of Windows Defender, that made it very easy to prevent applications from starting up when Windows boots and, in many cases, littering the notification area with unneeded icons. Windows 7, sadly, removes this utility.

Solution: Unless you want to hunt down a third party utility, you're going to have to go old school on Windows 7 and stretch some pre-Vista plumbing skills. There are a number of places to look at if you wish to streamline the Windows 7 boot process, but one is key: The System Configuration utility--type "msconfig" (no quotes) in Start Menu Search to find it--is a spiritual predecessor of sorts to Software Explorer and it provides a list of startup apps in its Startup tab that you can edit.

Start Menu

Annoyance: While the Windows 7 Start Menu is largely unchanged from Windows Vista, many users of the new OS will be coming from Windows XP or older Windows versions, and they may prefer the classic Start Menu from those versions. Unfortunately, Microsoft has removed this option from Windows 7.

Solution: Fortunately, an enterprising third party developer makes available a Classic Start Menu replacement for the Windows 7 Start Menu, so you can get back the Start Menu that graced Windows 95 through Windows Vista. It's part of the Classic Shell project (see below).

Windows Explorer

Annoyance: If it seems like Microsoft has changed the layout and capabilities of Windows Explorer with each new Windows version, well, they have. And this trend continues in Windows 7, which, like Windows Vista, no longer includes a number of useful toolbar buttons that were available in Windows XP and older Windows versions.

Solution: Once again, Classic Shell comes to the rescue. This Explorer plug-in provides missing buttons like Cut, Copy, Paste, Delete, and Properties, and provides other old-school functionality, such as bringing back the pre-Windows 7 file copy dialog. It also displays free disk space and the file/folder size in the Explorer window status bar. Just like XP.

Windows 7 Annoyances
Classic Shell adds a mini-toolbar to Windows Explorer (in the upper right), providing easy access to commands Microsoft removed.

Compatibility

Anytime Microsoft releases a new Windows version, there are fears that device or application compatibility issues will render an otherwise decent upgrade into a disaster. And while this was certainly true with Windows Vista, Windows 7 does a much better job of maintaining backwards compatibility. Of course, no software is perfect.

Annoyance: An application won't install or run under Windows 7.

Solution: Like previous versions of Windows, Windows 7 provides a nice suite of compatibility tools. These tools allow the system to fool installers and application programs into believing that they are running under older versions of Windows, and they're typically found in the Compatibility tab of the Properties window for the application in question. But Windows 7 makes it much easier to work through these issues thanks to a new Troubleshooting infrastructure that provides plain English wizards, with step-by-step walkthroughs for compatibility problems and a host of other common issues. To more easily determine whether an application can be made to run correctly under Windows 7, open the Action Center ("action" in Start Menu Search) and click the Troubleshooting link. Then, click the link titled "Run programs made for previous versions of Windows" under Programs and follow the steps in the Program Compatibility wizard.

Tip: You can run this wizard more quickly by typing "compat" into Start Menu Search.

Annoyance: An application still won't install or run under Windows 7.

Solution: Some legacy applications simply won't ever install or run correctly under Windows 7. In this case, new Windows features called Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode will help you solve the problem using virtualization technology. Windows Virtual PC is the next generation version of Microsoft's Virtual PC product. It requires hardware virtualization support in the PC's microprocessor and BIOS, and offers some important benefits over its predecessors, including USB support and the ability to run virtualized ("guest") applications alongside native ("host") applications. Windows Virtual PC is available for free to all Windows 7 users.

Windows XP Mode is a specially packaged and complete virtualized version of Windows XP with Service Pack 3 (SP3). It is provided, for free, to all users of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions. And because it runs under Windows Virtual PC, any applications you installed inside this environment can run alongside your normal Windows 7 applications. It's the perfect solution for those few remaining applications that simply won't run in Windows 7 natively.

Windows Update

Annoyance: Microsoft has done a nice job of improving the Windows Update application in Windows 7, but one glaring issue remains. If you leave the PC unattended overnight and the system automatically installs critical or important security updates that require a reboot, you might get back to the PC in the morning to discover that all your applications have shut down and, potentially, you've lost some data.

Solution: You can prevent Windows Update from automatically rebooting your PC, though it will require a bit of work. The reason is that the Registry Key that controls this functionality is missing from Windows 7.

To do so, open the Registry Editor (Start Menu Search, "regedit") and navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Polices\Microsoft\Windows. Then, create a new key called WindowsUpdate and, inside of that key, another new key called AU. Inside of that key, create a new DWORD (32-bit) value named NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers. Modify its value data, setting it to 1. You will have to restart the computer for the change to take effect.

Final thoughts

Every version of Windows comes with new challenges and new ways of doing things. And while Windows 7 is does indeed represent a major functional improvement over its predecessor, it's also different enough from Windows XP and Vista to cause a bit of grief. Fortunately, there are simple workarounds to most problems, and while any change can be traumatic, Windows 7 is, in many ways, the least annoying upgrade Microsoft has ever shipped.

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. --Paul