Windows Vista contains so many new doodads, gizmos and applets that some of the more useful ones are easy to overlook. Here are the new Vista features we find particularly nifty.

Be safe with Shadow Copy

We all delete files by mistake on occasion, and most of the time it's no big deal: Just restore the lost file from the Recycle Bin. But what if you accidentally save over a critical file and you have no Undo option? Your data's gone, right? Not anymore. While you work, the Ultimate, Business, and Enterprise editions of Vista silently make backup copies of your work files, called shadow copies, that you can restore from earlier versions, copy, or save with new file names.

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Windows makes shadow copies only when System Restore points are created, so make sure this feature is on: Click Start, type systempropertiesprotection, and then press . (Click Continue if you're prompted.) In the list of available disks, check the ones for which you want shadow copies, and click Apply (if the only available drive is already checked, Apply will be greyed out). Each drive protected must have at least 300MB of free space for a restore point to be created.

System Restore is supposed to make backups daily or during software installations, updates, and other system events. At any time, however, you can create a restore point manually in this dialog box by clicking Create. Type a name for the restore point and click Create again.

When you need a previous version of a file or folder, right-click it in Explorer and choose Restore previous versions. For a full restoration, select the version you want and click Restore. If you're not sure which version to choose, select one and click Open to see it in read-only form. To copy a previous version, select it, click Copy, and specify a location. Or drag the item out of the dialog box and drop it in a desired location.

If the file you want to restore was moved or deleted from its original location, or if it has a different name, select the folder that formerly contained the version you want to restore. If the folder no longer exists, select the next highest folder that contained the missing folder. Right-click it and choose Restore previous versions. Then double-click to navigate through the folders in the Previous Versions tab to open or copy the older version.

Get connected

Although most of XP's impenetrable dialog boxes still lurk just below the surface, Vista's Network and Sharing Center provides genuinely useful information at a glance while furnishing links to your most important network tasks and tools.

Choose Start, Settings, Control Panel (or just Start, Control Panel), Network and Sharing Center (in Categories view, click Network and Internet first). At the top of the window is a diagram of your network connection, indicating any faulty links. Below that are your network and 'Sharing and Discovery' settings. The latter show your file, printer, and other sharing settings in quick summary format, with buttons on the right for expanding and explaining each.

Snip that screen

When you need to capture all or part of a computer screen, try Vista's new Snipping Tool. The program is ready to capture when you click Start, All Programs, Accessories, Snipping Tool, so select Cancel if your screen isn't ready yet. By default the Snipping Tool shows the area it will capture in a red outline, and it even includes that outline in the final picture. To nix the outline, click the Options button and uncheck Show selection ink after snips are captured at the bottom of the dialog box. Click OK.

To capture all or part of your screen, click the New button, or choose an option from the button's drop-down menu. The default 'Free-form Snip' is handy if you want to draw a circle or other shape around an area to capture. 'Window Snip' lets you point at a specific window, dialog box, or some other desktop elements to capture them; click when the ones you want are outlined. If the small Snipping Tool window is in the way, minimize it and press -.

After you grab the shot, you can annotate it with the program's pen or highlighter tools. Click the Send Snip button (or choose an option from its drop-down menu) to create an e-mail showing the capture or containing it as an attachment. You can also click File, Save As to save the snip as a Jpeg, GIF or PNG.

Hold instant meetings

Windows Meeting Space lets you connect with people from a distance; the program is in all Vista editions, but Home Basic users can only join a meeting, not initiate one. Meeting Space even lets you share data via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with nearby computers when no wireless hotspot or Internet connection is available.

To begin, choose Start, All Programs, Windows Meeting Space. Follow the prompts on screen to specify your preferences in the People Near Me dialog box. You may want to uncheck 'Sign me in automatically when Windows starts' (it's selected by default), and you may want to change the default of accepting invitations from 'Anyone' to Trusted contacts. (If you need to change these settings later, choose Start, Settings, Control Panel, People Near Me.) When you're done, click OK.

When Meeting Space opens, click Start a new meeting, fill out the form to give the meeting a name and password, and press . Once the meeting is set up, click Invite people on the right. If you don't see a participant listed in the 'Invite people' dialog box, click Invite others to send an "invitation file" attachment via email; or, to create an invitation file you can send to them via your local network or IM, click Create invitation file.

The instructions in the email tell invitees to save the invitation file somewhere on their PC and then open it from within Meeting Space itself, but I had no trouble accepting an invite simply by double-clicking the attachment in the e-mail. At present, only Vista users can join a Meeting Space meeting.

As many as nine people can connect at one time to share any application running on the host's system, whether it's a PowerPoint presentation, a Word document, or the entire desktop. To let another participant edit the shared document or take control of the application, the host can use the Give Control menu at the top of the screen (outside the Meeting Space window) to grant the necessary permission. A participant can also choose Request control from the pop-up menu at the top of the shared window representation (inside the Meeting Space window) to make his or her name flash in the Give Control button of the host's Meeting Space.

If you want more than one participant to have editing control of a document simultaneously, share the document as a "handout": Click the Add button at the top of the Windows Meeting Space window, choose OK to close the warning, and locate and select the file you want to share. On the lower right, participants will see handout icons, which they can double-click to open the document. Changes made by those in attendance do not affect the original file. Participants can save copies of handouts to their own system by selecting one or more and choosing Meeting, Save Handouts.

But what if you want to hold a meeting in an unwired setting, such as a coffee shop with no wireless hotspot? As long as the participants are near one another with their Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-equipped computers, they can still collaborate through Meeting Space. Each person attending needs to start the Meeting Space app. One person creates the meeting via the Start a new meeting button while everyone else clicks Join a meeting near me. Everything else works pretty much the same.

One more thing: Meeting Space may cause your firewall settings to change.

Speak up

If you have a microphone or headset attached to your PC, all editions of Vista now let you dictate as well as control most of the Windows interface through speech commands without purchasing any additional software. Choose Start, All Programs, Accessories, Ease of Access, Windows Speech Recognition. The first time you launch the program, you'll be asked to say a sample sentence and encouraged to work through the system tutorials. In addition to familiarising you with commands that Speech Recognition understands, the tutorials help train the software to recognize your voice and pronunciation.

On the downside, the tutorials are deceptively easy, so don't expect Speech Recognition to work as flawlessly with every product as it does there. For example, although dictation and interface control worked amazingly well with Outlook 2007 and Notepad on my PC, Speech Recognition couldn't accommodate most of the controls on my Trillian instant messaging client or take dictation for chatting. In addition, the feature is very resource intensive, making it cumbersome or impossible to use on older machines. Despite these limitations, Speech Recognition can be convenient when your hands can't be on a keyboard, or when you're already wearing a headset for VoIP calls and just want to dictate a quick e-mail.

The mighty stylus

You don't need a fancy tablet PC to use many of the pen and tablet features built into all versions of Vista except Home Basic. Vista activates them automatically when you install a touch screen or a writing tablet such as those from Wacom. A pen stylus is great for drawing and photo retouching, as well as for annotating and signing documents in supporting apps.

Take notes: Vista's improved Tablet PC Input Panel lets you work in longhand mode (called the Writing Pad) or scratch out one letter at a time in boxes (Character Pad). You can also click keys in the On-Screen Keyboard. The tool learns your handwriting idiosyncrasies over time, but I was amazed at how accurately it read my terrifyingly bad handwriting right out of the box.

Start a sticky note: Choose Start, All Programs, Sticky Notes for a pen-friendly version of Windows' note-taker. Unlike the Tablet PC Input Panel, Sticky Notes leaves your notes in handwriting form. It also recognizes the scratch-out feature for deleting text, fortunately: Click Tools, Options, and make sure 'Enable Scratch-out Gesture' is checked.

Check and go in Explorer: Having a pen product installed on your PC adds check boxes to Windows Explorer, which makes selecting multiple files and folders as easy as tapping your pen.

Select or scroll in IE: With pen features enabled, Internet Explorer adds a Panning hand button to its toolbar. Tap the button with your pen and then drag in the browser to make the page scroll. Tap it again to turn off pen scrolling so that dragging selects text.

Use body language: If switching to a different tool each time you want to scroll or navigate is too much work, try Vista's pen gestures, or "Flicks." Click Start, Settings, Control Panel (or just Start, Control Panel), Pen and Input Devices (Hardware and Sound, Pen and Input Devices in Categories View). Choose the Flicks tab, and use the controls to set or customize the gestures you'll use. Select the Practice using flicks link at the bottom to open a practice screen.

While you're in this dialog box, check out the Pen Options tab for more gestures (such as moves for double-clicking and right-clicking). For some practice, select an option and click Settings.

What's that you say? You need still more practice? You'll find additional tutorials and customization features by clicking Start, All Programs, Tablet PC and choosing one of the four options.

Play ball: Time for a break? Choose Start, All Programs, Games, InkBall to try your "hand" at a stylus-friendly game.

Windows toolbox: Screen capture made easy

You can always press to copy an image of your screen to the Clipboard (or press - to copy just the active window). But this usually leaves out the cursor, and you have to paste the image into an image editor. A fast and free alternative is FastStone Capture, which supports bitmap (.bmp) files and other output formats, and provides an editor for you to tweak your capture before saving (with automatic file naming, if desired). I'm particularly fond of the utility's Capture Object option, which lets you press a hot-key and then point to the object (window, menu, toolbar, etc.) to be captured.