17 obscure Windows tools and tricks too powerful to overlook

Windows is chock full of handy-dandy power tools, but most of them are hidden from everyday view. These are the ones you need to know about.

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Peering deep inside Windows

The beauty of Windows lies in its flexibility and depth. In fact, Windows is so deep and flexible that many of us never touch its more powerful tools, whether from unawareness or sheer forgetfulness. But beneath Internet Explorer and the Start button hides a universe of tools and tricks that are positively brimming with potential.

With that in mind, let's brush the cobwebs off some classic Windows power tips that you're likely to have forgotten about. Dig in, enjoy, and don't forget to bookmark this article. You don't want these tips and tricks to fade from memory once again.

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Let's get the party started by dragging some of Windows' hidden customization options into the light. GodMode is a developer tool that collates the operating system's far-flung customization options into a single location, an Easter Egg that makes it far easier to exert your will over Windows.

Just right-click the Windows desktop and select New > Folder. Name it GodMode.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C} —you can actually switch out "GodMode" for any other name, but the period and all the jumble afterwards have to be exact. If you did it right, the folder icon will switch to the Control Panel icon. Start exploring, and dive into this tutorial for even deeper GodMode tricks.

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Problem Steps Recorder

This little-known tool creates an HTML slideshow of your actions, recording your moves step-by-step so that you can show your IT admin or resident PC geek exactly what you're doing when you run into a problem. It's a huge boon during especially tricky troubleshooting situations.

To open the Problem Steps Recorder, simply search for psr in the Windows 7 Start menu or Windows 8's Start screen. The tool should pop right up and is very straightforward to use.

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Windows Reliability Monitor

Your PC may be behaving badly, even if it doesn't appear so outwardly. But fear not: Windows Reliability Monitor is a tattle-tale who isn't afraid to spill the beans. It shows all problems that Windows has encountered in a chronological chart, which you can sort and click through for more information on a day-by-day and case-by-case basis. The tool's especially handy while you're tracking down trouble programs that could be the cause of weird crashes.

To open the Reliability Monitor, open the Control Panel and head to System and Security > Review your computer's status and resolve issues (under Action Center) > Maintenance > View reliability history (under "Check for solutions to problem reports"). Presto!

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Get a power efficiency report

Windows can give you a detailed report on your laptop's power efficiency, if you know where to look for it. Search for Command Prompt via the Start menu (Win7) or Start screen (Win8), then right-click on the Command Prompt result and select Run as administrator. Then enter powercfg -energy -output FolderEnergy_Report.html into the Command Prompt, replacing "Folder" with a file path to the folder of your choice.

Windows will analyze things for a while, then spit out the Energy Report in your desired location, which you'll be able to read in a browser. It can be a bit technical, but it also includes suggestions for optimizing your notebook's power performance.

Shake and shrink

Here's a fun yet handy trick: Click and hold the title bar of the program you're working in, then shake it back and forth rapidly. All other open windows will minimize to the task bar, leaving your desktop nice and clutter-free. Sure, you can do the same by pressing Windows key + Home, but where's the fun in that?

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Encrypt your files

Encrypting your data is a great way to make sure your files stay safe even if your PC is stolen or hacked. Microsoft's BitLocker—built into Windows Vista or 7 Ultimate, Windows Vista or 7 Enterprise, and Windows 8 Pro or Enterprise—can encrypt your entire drive.

BitLocker has some specialized hardware requirements as well as some notable caveats to be aware of, however—most notably, you don't want to lose the recovery key that lets you decrypt all your data. You can read all about those crucial tidbits and how to set up BitLocker in PCWorld's beginner's guide to BitLocker.

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Calibrate your display

Third-party display calibration software can cost an arm and a leg, but fortunately, Windows includes a calibration tool that can meet the demands of all but the most demanding graphics professionals. It's tucked into a corner of the Control Panel that doesn't see action often.

Head into the Control Panel again, then select Display. You want the Calibrate color option in the left-hand options pane. Diving into the tool is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find full step-by-step details on using Windows' calibration tool in this guide.

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Make Windows play nice with high-DPI displays

Super-high-resolution displays are becoming the norm these days, with a slew of laptops, tablets, and monitors packing eye candy far in excess of the common 1080p resolution. Unfortunately, Windows still suffers from scaling issues with pixel-packed displays, often making text appear small or blurry.

The easiest way to fix this is by tinkering with Windows’ global scaling options, which you can find by opening the Control Panel and heading to Display > Custom Sizing Options. Here, you can change scaling by a percentage or via a tool that resembles a ruler. The Display page also offers scaling options for text alone. You may need to do more manual tinkering in individual programs to get everything just right—this article can help.

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Schedule tasks to automate your digital life

Task Scheduler does exactly what you'd think: It helps you set schedules for running specific Windows applications, such as backups or a maintenance tool like CCleaner. Task Scheduler also lets you create complex scripts of tasks, which can run in order and at particular times. You can find it by searching for Task Scheduler via the Start menu or Windows 8 Start screen, then selecting Schedule tasks when the option appears.

Be warned: This powerful tool is designed for power users, complete with an obscure interface. You can get a feel for creating basic tasks by reading up on the Check Disk and Disk Cleanup sections of this task automation guide, while this superb How-to Geek piece by frequent PCWorld contributor Chris Hoffman really delves into nitty-gritty advanced tasks.

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Tweak the programs that start at boot

Many of the programs you install run at startup by default, and that's bound to eat up your memory and slow down the boot process over time. Fortunately, Windows includes tools that lets you manually select which programs are allowed to boot up alongside the operating system.

Windows 8 makes it easy with a helpful Startup tab in the Task Manager. You have to jump through more hoops in previous versions of the OS. Press Win + R to bring up the Run command, then search for msconfig and open the Startup tab in the window that opens. Don't kill anything if you're not sure what it does, but feel free to get rid of common offenders like Steam or iTunes.

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Force Windows to show all your drives

Windows' File Explorer won't show any drives that are completely empty by default, which can be a hassle when you're fiddling with SD cards or flash drives. You can force the issue, though.

First, open File Explorer. In Windows 7, press Alt to bring up the top menu, then head to Tools > Folder Options > View. Under Advanced Settings, uncheck the box next to "Hide empty drives in the Computer folder" and hit OK. In Windows 8, open File Explorer's View tab and open Options > Change folder and search options. Here, look for the same option under Advanced Settings. This list of advanced view settings also lets you opt to show hidden files and folders.

Handy hotkeys

Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, here are some lesser-known gems. You can find a comprehensive list here.

-Win + (left or right arrow) to pin current window to respective screen edge

-Win + m to minimize all desktop windows

-Win + R to open the run command

-Win + X to open Windows 8's powerful Quick Access Menu

-Alt + Tab to switch between open programs

-Ctrl + Shift + Esc to open the Task Manager

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I heard you like Windows in your Windows

Sometimes, your standard Windows installation just doesn't cut it. Virtual machines—which allow you to run sandboxed, virtualized instances of operating systems in a standard window in Windows—are great for when you need to use a separate OS for software security, compatibility, or testing reasons.

The Pro and Enterprise versions of Windows 8 support Microsoft's Hyper-V virtual machine manager, though you have to install it. Open the Control Panel and head to Programs > Turn Windows Features on or off, then check the Hyper-V box and click OK. Reboot after the install. Check out this guide to learn how to use Hyper-V, or the free VirtualBox tool if you want to run virtual machines on the standard version of Windows 8 (or any previous version of Windows).

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Shut up User Account Control

The User Account Control baked into Windows 7, 8, and Vista—the box that pops up asking you express permission to allow certain programs and processes to run—is ostensibly there to protect everyday users from security threats, but it's more annoyance than assistance for seasoned users. Tweak its settings or turn it off completely by heading to Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts > Change User Account Control Settings. You'll be glad you did.

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Tailor your taskbar

The basic Windows taskbar works well enough, but it offers a wealth of customization options for power users. Simply right-click on it and select Properties, then spend some time digging around: You're able to adjust the taskbar's position, auto-hide it if desired, tinker with what appears in the Notification Area, add additional toolbars, and more. Ian Paul detailed a few of the most useful tweaks in a Hassle-Free PC column.

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Windows 8's Quick Access Menu

Windows 8 may have killed the Start menu, but it didn't leave power users wanting completely: Right-clicking in the lower-left corner of the operating system, whether you're on the desktop or the Live Tile'd Start screen, reveals a long menu technically dubbed the Quick Access Menu, but I call it the power user's delight.

The Quick Access Menu provides—you guessed it—quick access to a slew of helpful power tools, including the Command Prompt, Network Connections, Device Manager, Event Viewer, and the Computer Management interface. Don't miss this easy-to-overlook gem.

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Restore lost options to Windows 8

Windows 8 and 8.1 shook up Microsoft's classic OS, but it removed some helpful legacy desktop options—most notably, the Start menu and, in Windows 8.1, Library quick-links in File Explorer.

Microsoft plans to bring the Start menu back to Windows 8, but for now, you'll have to resort to using a third-party Start menu replacement tool if you miss your menu. Returning Libraries to Windows 8.1 is easier. Just open File Explorer, then head to View > Navigation pane and select View Libraries. Microsoft ripped some other features out of Windows 8.1, too, which you can read all about here. (Bonus: Windows 8.1 now includes Library support for removable media like flash drives and SD cards.)