Sunday, January 10, 2010

Windows 7 Cool New Features – Part 4

Note: This post is part of a series. Please feel free to read my other posts on Snap!, Shake, Jump Lists, and Live Taskbar; Pinning, Windows Search, and Aero Flip 3D; and Desktop Gadgets, Aero Peek, and Libraries.

While some of today’s features aren’t strictly features and may even be installable on other versions of Windows, they are very powerful tools and became more so with Windows 7.

Parental Controls

If you have kids old enough to use a computer, then you well know the pain of trying to keep track of what they are doing while they are on it. Parental controls are a built in feature of Windows 7 that can go a long way towards easing that pain.

Windows 7 comes with three major built in ways to limit your children’s activity on the computer.  The first control is time limits. You can easily specify in a point and click grid, periods of time when your children are not allowed on the computer. Now your children will not even be allowed to log in during the blocked out periods of time!

The next feature is the ability to block games based on rating.  Many games are rated by organizations such as the ESRB. You can tell Windows that you would only like your children to be able to play games up to a certain age rating level. You can also block games based on the content ratings in addition to the age rating. In this case, you can simply block all games that contain, for instance, foul language or blood.

Third is the ability to block individual programs on your computer. You can select the specific programs you do not want your children using, or you can block all programs and only select the specific ones you want them to use.

Finally, you can also install additional parental control providers. One very useful one is the Windows Live Family Safety Filter. This control provider allows you to specify what websites your children can visit with a high degree of control. By default it will only block adult sites, but it can also be used to specify that all sites are block except for ones that you specifically approve, or that only certain categories of websites are blocked (such as social networking sites like Facebook).

Windows Live

Speaking of Windows Live, this is another great tool that comes as a free download.  Again, while this isn’t strictly a Windows 7 feature, the improvements that were made in preparation for Windows 7 are outstanding. This is a package of several tools and applications that just about everyone is going to be using on a daily basis.

  • Messenger: Your standard IM client. It comes with some additional bells and whistles, though. For instance, you can send messages directly to other user’s mobile devices (or have them sent to yours), play games with other Messenger users, or send photos, music, or files.
  • Mail: A simple email client. For a lot of people this will be all you need. It has the ability to track multiple email accounts and merge them together for easy browsing. It also has decent search capabilities. On the down side, though, it still uses the old folder analogy for sorting email instead of tags/labels, and it does not have any capabilities for mail rules or filters.
  • Writer: This blog is actually brought to you through Windows Live Writer. This is a nice little application if your a blogger. It can communicate directly with many of the blog engines out there, allows tagging, and editing your posts markup. Also, the WYSIWYG editor can also download and mimic your blogs theme (if this is supported by your blog engine of choice). And to top it off, there is a whole host of plug-ins out there to make life even easier (remember this Smile).
  • Photo Gallery: Windows 7 photo library is really awesome. Photo gallery takes this a step even farther. With facial recognition and access to your Live contacts, you can tag people in your photos quickly and easily. Not only that, but uploading to the location of your choice is only a click a way (some sites like Facebook do require an additional plug-in).
  • Movie Maker: A simple and straight forward way to make DVDs. Whether you are building a slide show or converting your old VHS home movies to DVD, Movie Maker can make it simple. While it does lack some of the niceties (you can only display a single caption at a time and no built-in VCD support, for instance), it is a pretty good start for doing simple things like making a slideshow of the kids with some background music. It can also upload your video directly to sites like YouTube.
  • Family Safety: As discussed above, this tool allows you to limit and monitor which sites your children are visiting. The application runs on each of your computers, and it updates the Family Safety site online. You can then access this information from your Live account at any time and from anywhere.
  • Toolbar: Integrated with Internet Explorer 8, the Windows Live Toolbar gives you access to all of the other Windows Live applications. In addition, it has some nice features like automatically synchronizing your favorites across multiple computers.

One of the key things to notice is that most of the applications have a host of plug-ins available for them. So even if the exact functionality that you want isn’t there now, you might want to check out the gallery to see if a plug-in exists to add it.

Media Center

Your one stop shop for media entertainment. Smile  OK, perhaps that is a bit much, but if you want to use your computer as a TV (and who wouldn’t) then Media Center is the way to go. Media Center gives you several great ways to watch TV on your PC.

First you can access any one of several Internet TV channels. These stations broadcast your favorites shows straight to Media Center where you can control the action. Want a wider range of stations? Well if your computer is equipped with a TV tuner card, then you can get any of your standard channels that are provided by your cable or satellite service. In addition, Media Center provides an easy way to record your favorite shows.  So you would rather watch a movie than TV? That’s OK, because Media Center can play DVDs and gives you direct access to Netflix1 where you can stream movies directly to your PC. And if this weren’t enough, Media Center can even stream any of this video to an extender (such as an Xbox 360) so that you can watch on your big screen TV.


There are a few caveats for today’s features.

  1. Parental Controls have been available since Vista, but they didn’t get some improvements.
  2. Windows Live does not come with any version of Windows, but it can be installed on any computer with XP or later2.
  3. Media Center can also be installed on any computer with XP or later, but it comes pre-installed on Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate.

Next time, we’ll take a look at Home Group, the Device Stage, and Play To.

1Netflix account is required. 2Windows Live Movie Maker does not run under Windows XP, but the rest of the Live Essentials work just fine.

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