50 Vista customisation tips for beginners

Quick and easy tweaks for a a desktop to suit the way you work

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The default installation of Windows Vista looks the same as it does on every other PC, so why not customise it to fit your preferences? The operating system is designed to be customisable, from a practical as well as an aesthetic point of view. Read on for 50 ways you can give it a facelift.

1. Where's Aero gone?

The Aero interface is found in all version of Windows Vista except Home Basic. If your version of Windows Vista stacks up, but your PC refuses to give you the benefit of its stunning – yet practical – visuals, make sure your computer is up to the task.

You need a 1GHz processor and 1GB RAM installed alongside a graphics card with at least 128MB RAM that has a WDDM driver, supports DirectX 9, Pixel Shader 2.0 and 32 bits per pixel. Use the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor to check whether your system should be using Windows Aero or not.

2. Start personalising

The best place to start customising your system is via the Personalization Control Panel (right-click a blank space on the desktop and choose Personalize). You'll see a number of options available, some of which we'll cover in the following pages.

Customise vista

3. Change colour

Don't like the default Windows Aero colour scheme? Click Window Color and Appearance to change it – if the seven options don't tempt you, select Show color mixer and use the three sliders to get your own choice of colour and blend.

4. Get the wallpaper out

Get inspired with a different desktop background to the default one. Click Desktop Background and choose from the supplied wallpapers (use the drop-down menu to pick from different categories), or click Browse to select your own picture. You can also choose how to display your image on-screen.

5. Change automatically

If you want your background to change periodically without having to do it yourself, download and install the free version of Wallpaper Master – select your group of images and choose when to swap them.

6. Windows DreamScene

If you're fortunate enough to own Windows Vista Ultimate edition, you can enjoy animated backgrounds to really lift your desktop above the mundane.

Add the functionality through Windows Update – click Start, select All Programs and click Windows Update. Click View Available Extras, tick Windows DreamScene Preview and click Install.

Once you've rebooted, you'll find an additional category – Windows DreamScene Content – under Personalization > Desktop Background, plus a sample desktop that you can try.

7. Beyond DreamScene

Want more animated desktops in Windows Vista Ultimate edition? Visit www.stardock.com/products/deskscapes and download the free Stardock Deskscapes tool.

Once installed, visit http://dream.wincustomize.com to download new animated backgrounds – save them to My Documents\Stardock\Dreams and you can access them simply by double-clicking one or selecting it under Deskscape Animated Wallpapers in Personalization > Desktop Background.

8. Make your own scenes

Fancy building your own video wallpapers? Download the free DreamMaker tool and create your own animated desktops from compatible video files for sharing with friends, family and other Windows Vista Ultimate users.

a) Prepare video

Use a program such as Windows Movie Maker to prepare your video file – you could even use a collage of images in conjunction with some of the program's video effects to create your animation, but avoid creating something too brash and distracting.

b) Prepare thumbnail

Load an associated image into an image editor such as Paint.NET and reduce it to a maximum of 256x256 pixels, then save it in PNG or JPEG format.

c) Create DreamScape

Load DreamMaker and work your way through the three tabs, which include giving your DreamScape a title, description and author information. Once complete, the file is placed in your My Documents\Stardock\Dreams folder.

9. Use TweakVI

If you want even more control over your desktop's look and feel, download and install the free TweakVI tool from www.totalidea.com – once installed, explore the Visual tweaks section to see exactly how much control you have.

10. Working with desktop themes

Package up all your customisations – window colours, backgrounds and so on – into a special file called a Desktop Theme. This enables you to quickly switch between themes at a later date if you so wish.

Choose Theme from the Personalization dialogue and click Save As to back it up. Provide a name and location and click Save. This will now be added to the list of available themes from the dropdown box.

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11. Windows sound schemes

Don't like the sounds Windows Vista uses? Why not change them for your own? Select Sounds from the Personalization Control Panel to see what sounds are currently used – you can select a different sound from the drop-down list for a selected event, or click Browse to provide your own WAV file.

12. Convert to WAV

You'll find many sources of free sound samples online – try www.wavcentral.com – but you'll notice that many are supplied in compressed MP3 and WMA formats, which need to be converted to WAV before you can use them. Use a free tool such as dBpoweramp to perform the conversion. Once installed and set up, just right-click a sound file and choose Convert To in order to convert it.

13. Record your own sounds

If you've got a microphone, you can create your own sound effects using Sound Recorder (type it into the Start menu's search box to load it) – note that files are saved in the WMA format, so you'll need to convert them using dBpoweramp before they can be used.

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14. Make a sound scheme

Once you've finished customising your sounds, save them collectively as a sound scheme – under Personalization > Sounds, click Save as…

Previous sound schemes can be reloaded from the drop-down menu, or click Delete to permanently remove any obsolete schemes.

15. Change user picture

Don't like the image associated with your user account? Change it for another: click Start > Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety, then click Change your account picture.

You'll find a number of alternative images to choose from, or you can supply your own (if your image isn't square, use an image-editing tool such as Paint.NET to crop it).

16. Replace the log-on screen

Don't like the default log-on screen for Windows Vista? Stardock's LogonStudio enables you to replace it with a different skin. At present it's still in beta, and only available to registered Object Desktop users, but keep checking back for the final release.

Once out of beta, you'll be able to choose alternative log-on screens from sites such as these and really give your system the personal touch.

17. Change the log-on screensaver

If you leave your PC unattended at the log-on screen for any length of time, you'll notice that a different screensaver to the one that appears in Windows Vista itself is used. You can change this with a registry tweak, or – better still – download Logon Screensaver.

a) First steps

Unzip Logon-screen-saver.exe from the downloaded zip file and double-click it. Read the statement and click Yes twice. When prompted, select the Interactive services tab on the taskbar and choose Show me the message.

b) Don't panic!

The screen goes black, and then two dialogues appear on a plain background. Click OK in the lower dialogue to bring up the familiar-looking Screen Saver Settings dialogue.

c) The final steps

Pick your chosen screensaver from the list, adjust the time if necessary and click OK followed by Return Now. The screen goes black again before returning you to the familiar desktop. Click OK one last time to finish.

18. Swap the mouse pointer

Don't like your mouse cursor? Why not change all your mouse cursors en masse by selecting a different scheme? Open Mouse Pointers from the Personalization Control Panel and pick a new scheme from the drop-down list.

If that's too drastic, you can also change individual pointers – select the unwanted cursor and click Browse to pick another. If you want to download new pointers from the web, make sure they're in CUR or ANI format. Don't forget to save your customisations as a new scheme.

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19. Shed your skin

If you yearn to go beyond simple colour tweaks and background changes, discover how to radically change the whole Windows Vista look by replacing the default skin with something completely different.

One such tool that offers this functionality is WindowBlinds, a trial version of which can be downloaded from here. Once installed, launch the program and pick Change how my windows look. Select the new skin from the list at the bottom of the window and check out its preview before clicking Apply my changes to see it in action.

20. Find more skins

If the choices provided by WindowBlinds aren't liberating enough, go to www.wincustomize.com and select WindowBlinds from the right-hand menu to choose from literally thousands more.

Once downloaded, use the Browse button in WindowBlinds to select them. Buy the full version for $19.95 to wield even more control over your skins, or purchase the full Object Desktop suite ($49.95) if you want to create your own from scratch.

Files, folders and Windows Explorer

21. Customise folder behaviour

Windows Vista makes it easier than ever to work with folders, but you can go one step further and take control of how the folder displays its contents by right-clicking it and choosing Properties > Customize tab.

Pick one of five types – including Documents, Pictures and Videos, and Music Items – and the folder's contents are displayed according to the type of files found within. If the folder contains other related sub-folders, tick the Also apply this template… box before clicking OK.

22. Customise folder

Some folders allow you to do more than just assign a type to them – if the option exists, you can display a picture on the folder to help you identify it. Just click Choose File and pick your chosen image (Windows Vista supports most common formats, including JPEG, TIF and BMP).

23. Change an icon

Shortcuts and folders are identified by their icons, so it's no surprise to learn that you can change what icon goes with which file or folder pretty easily.

Right-click the icon and choose Properties. Switch to the Shortcut tab (Customize if it's a folder) and click Change Icon. Pick a different icon from the list, choose a different file (programs and certain DLL files often contain icons) or pick an icon file.

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24. Source icons

Windows Vista supports a wide range of icon files, including those up to a resolution of 256x256, which is why it looks so much more attractive than its predecessors. When replacing these icons, it helps if you can find icons that scale up to this size. Start your search at the excellent Vista Icons site.

25. Design your own icons

Why rely on others when you can design your own icons from scratch or convert existing images into icon format? All you need is the fabulous free IcoFX tool, which you can download and install from here – once done, follow the guide below.

a) Prepare image

Before importing your image, you need to resize or crop a copy to 256x256 pixels in a separate image-editing application such as Paint.NET. Once done, open IcoFX and choose File > Import Image.

b) Set dimensions

Browse to and select your edited image. When the New Image dialogue opens, make sure 256 x 256 is selected under Size before clicking OK.

c) Prepare image

Choose Icon > Create Icon From Image. Now supply the resolution and colour depth of each of the icons that you want to generate from this picture – the default choices should suffice in most cases. Click OK to generate each file, which can be worked on and saved individually.

26. Set up folder views

When you open a folder, Windows Vista attempts to anticipate the best means of viewing it, but don't feel tied down by its choices. Want to view larger thumbnails of images, for example?

Just use the View scrollbar to choose between details, list, icons or scalable thumbnails. What's more, your choice is remembered, so the next time you open that folder, your previous settings are preserved.

27. More customisation

Select Organize > Layout and four options appear. By default, the navigation pane and details bar are displayed with the folder contents, while the menu bar and preview pane are not. Just select an entry to add or remove it.

28. Apply to all

It's unlikely you'll find a 'one view fits all' scenario, but if you do, you can quickly apply it to all your folders – select Organize > Folder and Search Options, switch to the View tab and click Apply to Folders. Alternatively, to undo all your previous customisations, click Reset Folders instead.

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29. Revert to classics

If the preview screens and filters aren't to your tastes, you can revert to a more classic type of folder view by switching back to the General tab under Folder and Search Options and choosing Use Windows classic folders. You can also open all folders in a new window and remove the need to double-click an item to open it.

30. More folder options

Take the time to explore the Folder and Search Options dialogue – you'll find all sorts of interesting options on the View tab, including the ability to view hidden and protected files (something more advanced users will find useful).

You can also instruct Windows Vista to reopen any folder windows that are left on your desktop when you shut down and then restart your PC.