Much of the excitement about Windows 7 relates to an assortment of user-interface improvements: a little eye candy here, a few window-management tweaks there. Below are some of the highlights, along with the tools you'll need to get them for your current OS.
What it is: When you drag a window to the left or right edge of your computer screen, Windows 7's Aero Snap feature automatically resizes the window to fill that half of the screen. To "undock" a window, simply click and drag it away from the edge. This feature is especially convenient for PC users who have widescreen monitors, because it enables them to put a pair of windows side by side in just two quick mouse clicks.
How to get it: The free AeroSnap download makes automatic window anchoring and resizing available to Vista and XP systems. And it emulates Windows 7 in another way: If you drag a window to the top edge of the screen, the window maximizes. Invisible Windows
What it is: Need to peek at your desktop? Clicking Vista's Show Desktop button will minimize all of your open windows, but Win 7 can make them temporarily become transparent--great for glancing at, say, one of Windows' new floating Gadgets. All you have to do is mouse over the Show Desktop button in the bottom-right corner of the screen, and presto: Your windows turn invisible, with only the borders remaining. Slide your mouse away, and immediately the windows become opaque once more.
How to get it: The freebie AeroPeek (the link goes to a downloadable zip file) for XP and Vista works a bit differently--you have to click to activate it and then click again to deactivate it--but the end result is much the same: Your open windows turn see-through, allowing you to view the desktop behind them. Of course, you can always press Windows-D to minimize all open windows (and afterward press Windows-D again to restore them), but what fun is that? Window Shake
What it is: Want to minimize all but one of a group of windows on your desktop? In Windows 7, you can accomplish that feat by clicking and holding the title bar of any open window, and then shaking your mouse back and forth a few times. All of the other open windows will funnel down to the taskbar. Shake the lone window again, and its counterparts will reappear.
How to get it: The free Aero Shake utility from Lifehacker brings Windows 7-style shake-and-bake windowing to Vista and XP. Though the feature isn't quite as smooth as the version built in to Windows 7, it's still a useful little amenity--and you certainly can't beat the price.
The Pinnable Taskbar
What it is: Arguably the most visually noticeable change in Windows 7 is its overhauled taskbar, which sports oversize program icons and lets you "pin" favorite applications and documents (when you pin a document, it joins the corresponding application's Jump List, a context-sensitive pop-up menu of shortcuts to commonly used documents and/or tasks.) If you like the idea, you can set up an almost identical taskbar in Vista (but not in XP, sorry), simply by introducing a few minor modifications.
How to get it: If your system doesn't already have a batch of program icons located just to the right of Vista's Start button, right-click the taskbar and click Toolbars, Quick Launch. Next, unlock the taskbar by right-clicking again and clearing the check mark next to Lock the Taskbar. This operation adds a handle (which looks like three columns of tiny dots) to the right side of the Quick Launch toolbar. Drag the handle to the right to make more room for icons. Finally, to make the icons larger and closer in form to the ones in Windows 7, right-click the taskbar a third time and choose View, Large Icons. (Make sure that you click in an open area of the taskbar, and not directly on an icon.) Besides adding new icons for programs, you can attach icons for folders and even for documents to your newly improved taskbar. Just drag an icon down and drop it in. If you need extra space, you can always drag the toolbar handle farther to the right.
The Icons-Only Taskbar
What it is: The Windows 7 taskbar consists exclusively of icons, even for programs that are currently running. That's a significant change from old-style text-enhanced program icons, but it frees up lots of extra space on the ol' taskbar.
How to get it: Instructing XP's or Vista's taskbar to show only icons entails taking a trip into the Registry (be sure to follow our advice for Registry backup described under the subhead "Fewer System Notifications"). Here are the steps to take once you're ready to boldly go forward:
1. Click Start, type regedit, and press Enter.
2. Find and click the value listed at HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics.
3. In the right pane, right-click in an open space and select New, String Value.
4. Name the new string value MinWidth, and set its value to -255.
5. Exit the Registry Editor, and restart your system.
Henceforth, only icons will appear in your taskbar. If you decide later that you don't like the new look, you can return to the Registry and delete the entry that you created above. If you don't care to monkey around with your Registry, try the next tip, which accomplishes very nearly the same thing without requiring any Registry intervention. Thumbnail Previews
What it is: When you mouse over a taskbar icon in Windows 7, a thumbnail preview of the corresponding program will pop up (if the feature is activated). If you happen to be running multiple instances of a program (such as Internet Explorer), you'll see multiple thumbnails.
How to get it: To achieve the same effect in Vista (but once again, not in XP), install EnhanceMyVista Free; true to its name, the download is free. The procedure could hardly be simpler: Start the program, click Customization, Taskbar, and enable Iconize your Taskbar. You're all set.
The Windows 7 User Interface
What it is: The Windows 7 interface emphasizes efficiency rather than sizzle. The chief improvements consist of a remodeled Windows Taskbar with large icons, one-click access to tasks associated with a specific app, and various other practical enhancements. See "Microsoft Windows 7: A Closer Look at Your Next OS?" for a discussion of Windows 7 that includes screenshots and videos.
Because Windows Vista more or less forms the core of Windows 7, making Vista look like 7 is fairly easy (as evidenced by the aforementioned taskbar and thumbnail-preview tips). Windows XP users, however, have fewer options at their disposal. In response, third-party developer Windows X Live created the Seven Transformation Pack, a collection of interface tweaks--menus, icons, fonts, buttons, and so on--that are designed to make XP look and feel like Windows 7. And the software works as advertised. In fact, the before-and-after difference is pretty amazing, right down to the interface's search-enhanced Start menu and Windows 7-style floating gadgets.
How to get it: Before downloading this fabulous freebie, make sure that your system already has XP Service Pack 3 installed. I also recommend that you create a restore point in XP's System Restore tool before running the installer, as the Seven Transformation Pack makes some fairly high-level changes to your system. When the installation is complete, reboot, and prepare to witness the minor miracle of Windows XP transformed into Windows 7.
For a collection of downloads that will give your current Vista or XP desktop much of the look and feel of Windows 7, see "How to Get Windows 7 Without Windows 7: Look and Feel."