Microsoft's new OS, Windows 7, may offer a better user interface and features that Vista and XP.

However, many users have also reported that it 'feels' faster during everyday operation, a fact backed up by informal speed tests. Maybe that's because the User Account Control is more restrained in Windows 7 than in Vista and doesn't pester them so often.

If you don't want to run the risk of installing the release candidate of Windows 7 but don't want to wait until the final version is made available on October 22, don't panic. We've identified some practical steps for Vista and XP that will give you many of the top features, performance enhancements, and interface improvements of Windows 7 without leaving your current operating system behind.

Faster booting

What it is: My two-year-old Acer Aspire laptop takes nearly two minutes to boot Vista. Windows 7 is up and running in a sprightly 43 seconds on the same PC. Hey, Microsoft, you owe me 70-odd seconds of my life, multiplied by five days per week, carry the one - oh, heck, a check for ten grand ought to cover it.

How to get it: You have countless ways to make your Vista or XP system start faster. First of all, if you're still chugging along with just 1GB of RAM, it's high time that you upgraded to at least 2GB.

That will accelerate both booting and general performance. Next up: Startup Delayer, a free utility that postpones (in accordance with your specifications) initiation of various programs that normally run during your PC's startup.

If you set unimportant apps to begin running 10 or 15 minutes after startup, Vista (or XP) will finish booting much faster.

If your system is a couple of years old, the best way by far to make it boot faster is to wipe the hard drive and reinstall your copy of Windows. Doing so is a radical and time-consuming procedure, but it will clear out every last bit of gunk and restore your system to speedy, factory-new condition.

NEXT PAGE: Make UAC less troublesome

  1. Make Vista and XP feel as fast as Windows 7
  2. Make UAC less troublesome
  3. Fewer system notifications

Get Windows 7's top features - such as quicker boot-ups, slick tools, and better looks - without having to wait for the final version of the OS.

Less-bothersome User Account Control

What it is: Despite all its arguably good intentions, UAC became the poster child for what's wrong with Vista. Either it bugs you continually or you turn it off and nullify its value as a safety net.

In Windows 7, UAC tries to stay out of your way while still offering its Vista predecessor's security benefits. You can choose from four security levels, thereby dictating how often you'll receive notifications from Microsoft.

How to get it: Vista users are stuck with all or none of UAC 1.0, but you can always turn it off and opt for a third-party replacement. For example, Norton User Account Control replaces the stock UAC with one that learns from your responses and consequently bugs you less often with information you don't care about.

This download also gives you a 'don't ask me again' option, and useful details about the nature of the security alert. Another alternative is UAC Snooze, a system tray utility that puts the UAC to sleep for a designated period of time - a helpful arrangement if you plan to do some system tweaking and don't want to be bothered every step of the way.

Faster performance

What it is: We know Windows 7 boots faster than Vista, but does it run faster? Not really, say our early benchmark results: When the PC Advisor's sister publication PC World ran some preliminary benchmarks, Windows 7 narrowly outperformed Vista on them. Still, we agree with other hands-on testers who claim Windows 7 feels faster. And as the spin doctoers say, perception is reality.

How to get it: Of course, reality is also reality. With a little fine-tuning, you can make Vista feel faster because it really will be faster. Start by reading 12 Vista features your PC doesn't need, which details how turning off performance-sapping visual elements (like Aero) and eliminating certain superfluous features (like tablet PC support, if you don't use it) can reduce the OS' bloat and make Vista perform significantly better.

Next, run a system-scrubbing utility such as the free CCleaner, which removes unneeded temporary files from Windows and third-party applications alike in a bid to clean up your system's Registry, and remove unnecessary software-files your system's arteries.

When CCleaner has done its work, revisit the 'Faster Booting' tips in this feature, as they can improve the OS' overall performance as well. After you've completed these steps, Vista will seem less like a slug and more like a speed demon, guaranteed.

NEXT PAGE: Fewer system notifications

  1. Make Vista and XP feel as fast as Windows 7
  2. Make UAC less troublesome
  3. Fewer system notifications

We show you how to get Windows 7's top features such as quicker boot-ups, slick tools, and better looks without having to wait for the final version of the OS to arrive.

Fewer system notifications

What it is: Besides helping you tame the User Account Control, Windows 7 lets you decide which apps that want to pop up annoying system-tray notification balloons have your permission to do so. Corralling them leads to fewer interruptions during your workday and, just maybe, fewer panicked calls from tech-challenged relatives.

How to get it: If you don't mind taking a brief detour inside the Registry, you can turn off Vista's balloon notification system once and for all. Remember, though, that working in your PC's Registry is dangerous. Here's how to take the air out of the balloons:

  1. Click Start, type regedit, and press Enter.
  2. Find and click the value located at HKEY_ CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced.
  3. In the right pane, right-click and choose New, DWORD (32-bit) Value. Name it EnableBalloonTips.
  4. Right-click the new value, choose Modify from the list of options, and make sure that 'Value data' is set to 0.
  5. Exit the Registry and reboot the PC.

If you are a Windows XP user, you can pop the balloons by using Microsoft's TweakUI utility. TweakUI includes an ‘Enable balloon tips' setting in the ‘Taskbar and Start menu' section; simply uncheck that setting to disable balloon notification.

  1. Make Vista and XP feel as fast as Windows 7
  2. Make UAC less troublesome
  3. Fewer system notifications