There's no doubt that Windows 7 is the most polished operating system Microsoft has released, but that doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. This collection of free utilities great and small will give you tools to change a significant amount of Windows 7's behavior, from the look of the Start button to hulking out Windows Explorer with FTP powers.
Before we get to gritty fine-tuning apps, let's start with some of the more-aesthetic ones. The aforementioned Windows 7 Start Button Changer is a one-hit wonder. Calling it a "wonder" may be a bit of a stretch, too, but it does allow to users to change and backup the Start button icon without having to dig through dozens of folders and files. You can install your own custom-made Start button icons, or premade ones. DeviantArt is a good place to find icons that are free and ready to use. The app itself is noninvasive and glitz-free, but it could benefit from shorter button names and clearer indications that the buttons are actually buttons. Small hangups aside, this is an easy way to add a bit more of your personal style to your Windows 7 computer.
WindowsWhere addresses one of the minor annoyances of Windows, where program windows often but not always reopen in the same position where you last closed them. I've found this most useful when programs or pop-up windows open with the top of their frames hidden under my desktop taskbar, which is an occasional problem because I prefer to run my taskbar at the top of the monitor. This utility will also run on Windows Vista and XP.
The Windows Themes Installer may seem redundant to some, since Windows 7 comes with generally excellent theme support. However, this tool allows even better control of how your Windows 7 looks. It helps by easily installing the necessary theme files into their correct locations, similar to the Start button changer, without having to memorize or write down long file location strings. Note that there's no backup option as in the Start button changer, but there is a default theme restore option. Don't be afraid to create a system restore before you start mucking about with key Windows files.
Some of the best things about Windows 7 are the window-management tools under the Aero aegis. Aero Snap, Aero Shake, and Aero Glass do nothing less than make Windows 7 competitive with Apple's Snow Leopard on the window management front. The Aero tools pop visually, they're fun to use, and most importantly, they're useful. But that doesn't mean you can't tweak them, and for people who want more out of their Aero, there's AquaSnap.
AquaSnap changes the Snap/Shake/Glass functionality with the entirely new Aqua feature set. You can also use AquaSnap to toggle at will between Aero and Aqua, or disable them all. AquaSnap adds quarter-screen sizes to its Aero counterpart. There's also a custom option, and it's multimonitor compatible. For some odd reason, the Snap features required a reboot before they worked, when the Shake and Peek ones didn't.
AquaShake changes Aero Shake from minimizing all other windows to making them transparent. Users can toggle the transparency level and the shake sensitivity. AquaGlass actually doesn't change or improve on Aero Glass. Instead, it makes windows transparent when you drag them around the monitor. You can adjust the transparency here, too, but this is most useful when you click and hold on a window to quickly see what's beneath it. A useful but not killer feature.
During my tests, I found the quarter-screen resizing to be the most useful feature in AquaSnap. Perhaps the best thing about the app is that it works on legacy Windows systems, thus porting both the default Aero Snap and the expanded Aqua versions to Vista and XP users.
Alt+Tab Tuner straddles the line between granular control over parts of your system and an aesthetic tweaker. The app gives you customization power over Windows 7's Alt+Tab preview and window-switching hot-key combo. That's pretty much all it does, but it's an incredible depth of fine-tuning.
Users can adjust the margins on the top, bottom, or side of the global preview window; change the number of columns and rows that those previews appear in; and change the amount of spacing between each preview thumbnail. Users can also tweak the program icon location and size; the preview thumbnail size; the milliseconds the global preview window takes to fade out; and the opacity of the previews' transparency.
The interface is arranged like an equalizer, with slide controls, but each toggle also allows users to type in by hand a precise setting. Because the utility uses such a familiar design, there's practically no learning curve except when trying to figure out which slider controls which aspect of the Alt+Tab preview window. Since most Windows 7 customization utilities tend to ignore the Alt+Tab hot key, Alt+Tab Tuner is a must if you're looking for precise control over Alt+Tab behavior.
You'll find Ultimate Windows Tweaker to be a user-friendly optimizing toolbox. Snappily responsive and designed to look like it's part of the Control Panel, the UWT opens with its central pane showing your system information and its left nav offering tweak categories. The seven categories include: Personalization, User Account Control, System Performance, Security, Network Tweaks, Internet Explorer, and Additional Tweaks.
Except for the occasional slider, each tweak is based on a check box format for activating options, which users of all levels should find easy to manage and read. The range of choices looks solid, and there's something for everybody here, but it does tend to have more beginner's options than advanced ones. The basics are covered by tweaks such as restoring the last opened folders in Windows Explorer or disabling Aero Shake. More advanced options include disabling printer spooling, enabling NTFS self-healing, or limiting bandwidth for the QoS scheduler. The buttons included with each option category for Create Checkpoint and Restore Defaults should calm any user fears about repairing any accidental damage done.
Where Ultimate Windows Tweaker may lean ever-so-slightly toward less-confident users, 7plus goes just slightly in the opposite direction. It differentiates itself from competitors with a couple of feature surprises and Web links to a series of how-to videos. There are far too many tweaks to document here, but suffice to say that the drab interface houses five tabs of customizations: two for Windows Explorer, one for non-Explorer tweaks, and the ever-present Miscellaneous tab. Oh, and the kicker: the FTP tab. 7plus lets you upload files from Windows Explorer to your FTP site at the touch of a hot key, which is an unusual but very welcome addition.
7plus is mainly built around hot keys, and as such is a keyboard fanatics dream. You can set hot keys for opening text or image files in an editor of your choosing, opening files, creating new folders, copy folder paths with file names, and append files to the clipboard instead of replacing what's currently there. 7plus can create "fast folders," which are specific folder paths accessible from the center wheel mouse button or the open/save places field. Outside of Explorer, users get an array of mouse-button and hot-key features, including one-click options for keeping windows on top, toggling wallpaper, or "slide windows" for keeping windows open but off-screen.
There are many more features in the utility, not the least of which is one aimed at XBox players who have a joystick or gamepad connected. They can use those peripherals to control the mouse when not in full-screen mode. 7plus's how-to videos are a smart touch, but the interface lacks compared to Ultimate Windows Tweaker. Also, the hot-key combinations can not be separated from their associated functions, so you can't customize your own preferred keys. Users should note that while many of the features will work on Windows XP, some are limited to Vista and 7, and a few will work only on 7 itself.
Bonus app: If you're the kind of person who likes at-a-glance weather updates, WeatherBar will add weather updates to your Windows 7 taskbar. The icon displayed on your taskbar indicates the general weather conditions, while the progress meter indicates the relative humidity. The app's jump list offers a full four-day prediction including highs, lows, and a predictive icon.
Do you have a favorite Windows 7 utility? Tell me about it in the comments below.