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Customizing the Windows 7 Interface

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Learn how to customize your Windows 7 interface, including tips on working with the Start menu and taskbar.

Windows 7 is more customizable than any earlier release of the Windows operating system. Powerful new features and options combined with old favorites allow you to work in new ways. You can perform tasks more efficiently, and you can optimize and customize the operating system in many new and exciting ways.

Teaching you how to optimize Windows 7 and make it work the way you want it to is what this book is all about. If you were moving into a house, apartment, or dorm room, you would want to make the space your own. We do the same with just about everything in our lives, yet surprisingly few people take the time to make their virtual space their own, which can make using a computer a frustrating experience.

One of the ways to make Windows 7 your own is to customize the interface. In any operating system, the interface is everything that connects you to your computer and its basic elements, including the desktop, the menu system, and the taskbar. The way these basic elements look depends on appearance settings. The way they behave depends on customization settings saved in the user profile associated with a particular user account. Because your user account and its associated profile are separate from the profiles associated with other user accounts on a computer, you can customize the interface without affecting other users, and your preferred settings will be remembered and restored each time you log on.

Boosting Your Desktop IQ

The desktop is what you see after you start your computer and log on. It’s your virtual workspace, and you must master it to begin using your computer faster and smarter.

Optimizing Interface Performance

Windows 7 (with the exception of Starter and Home Basic editions) supports Aero Glass features that provide desktop special effects such as blending and transparency. The Windows 7 desktop with Aero Glass enabled is pretty, but like any cosmetic, its value depends on many factors. The same can be said for the inessential animations and display effects that are enabled by default on most computers running Windows Home Premium or higher.

On older, less powerful computers, you will want to use less of the pretty stuff; using fewer system resources makes Windows more responsive. The same is likely to be true for that new netbook or tablet PC you just bought.

You can optimize the desktop for the way you want to work by following these steps:

  1. Click Start, type SystemPropertiesAdvanced in the Search box, and then press Enter to open the System Properties dialog box with the Advanced tab selected.

  2. In the Performance section, click Settings to open the Performance Options dialog box, shown in Figure 1-1. You can now:

    • Select Adjust For Best Performance to get rid of all the pretty stuff, or select Adjust For Best Appearance to enable all the pretty stuff.

    • Select or clear individual visual effects.

  3. Save your changes by clicking OK twice to close both dialog boxes.

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1 Configuring visual effects to optimize the desktop for the way you want to use it

The visual effects options that have the biggest effect on performance, in approximate order of impact, include:

  • Enable Transparent Glass Controls Window transparency. This might be “flashy,” but it is also resource intensive. When off, Windows and dialog box frames are solid.

  • Animate Windows When Minimizing And Maximizing Determines whether squeezing or stretching animation is used when minimizing or maximizing windows. When off, Windows pop into position.

  • Fade Or Slide Menus Into View Controls whether menus fade or slide into view. When off, menus snap open without delay.

  • Fade Or Slide ToolTips Into View Controls whether tooltips fade or slide into view. When off, tooltips snap open without delay.

  • Animate Controls And Elements Inside Windows Controls the slow-fade effect on buttons and tabs in dialog boxes. When off, buttons glow and tabs open without animation.

  • Animations In The Taskbar And Start Menu Controls animations associated with jump lists, thumbnail previews, and sliding taskbar buttons. When off, no animations are used.

  • Slide Open Combo Boxes Controls the animations associated with drop-down list boxes. When off, drop-down lists snap open.

Mastering Desktop Essentials

Like a real workspace, the desktop can get cluttered. Programs that you run and folders that you open appear on the desktop in separate windows, and all these open windows can quickly make it difficult to get to the desktop itself. To quickly declutter, you can rearrange open program and folder windows by right-clicking an empty area of the taskbar and then selecting one of the following viewing options:

  • Cascade Windows Arranges the open windows so that they overlap, with the title bar remaining visible.

  • Show Windows Stacked Resizes the open windows and arranges them on top of each other, in one or more columns.

  • Show Windows Side by Side Resizes the open windows and stacks them side by side.

To get to the desktop without decluttering, use the small, blank button on the far right of the taskbar. This button is called the Show Desktop button. You can:

  • Temporarily make all open windows transparent by moving the pointer over the Show Desktop button. Restore the windows to their previous state by moving the pointer away.

  • Temporarily hide all open windows by clicking the Show Desktop button. Click the button again to unhide the windows and restore them to their previous state.

You can store files, folders, and shortcuts on the desktop for quick and easy access. Any file or folder that you drag from a Windows Explorer window to the desktop stays on the desktop. Rather than placing files or folders on the desktop, you can add a shortcut to a file or folder to the desktop by following these steps:

  1. Click Start, click Computer, and then use Windows Explorer to locate the file or folder that you want to add to the desktop.

  2. Right-click the file or folder. On the shortcut menu, point to Send To, and then select Desktop (Create Shortcut).

You can also add system icons to the desktop. By default, the only system icon on the desktop is the Recycle Bin. You can add or remove system icons by completing the following steps:

  1. Right-click an empty area of the desktop, and then click Personalize.

  2. In the left pane of the Personalization window, click Change Desktop Icons. This opens the Desktop Icon Settings dialog box, as shown in Figure 1-2.

  3. Add or remove icons by selecting or clearing their related check boxes and then clicking OK to save your changes.

Figure 1-2

Figure 1-2 Configuring the desktop icons

Some of the desktop icons can be renamed by right-clicking the icon, clicking Rename, typing the desired name, and then pressing Enter. For example, you could rename Recycle Bin as Trash Barrel by right-clicking Recycle Bin, clicking Rename, typing Trash Barrel, and then pressing Enter.

If you no longer want an icon or shortcut on the desktop, right-click it, and then click Delete. When prompted, confirm the action by clicking Yes. Each icon has special options and uses:

  • Accessing computers and devices on your network Double-clicking the Network icon opens a window where you can access the computers and devices on your network.

  • Accessing Control Panel Double-clicking the Control Panel icon opens the Control Panel, which provides access to system configuration and management tools.

  • Accessing hard disks and devices Double-clicking the Computer icon opens a window from which you can access hard disk drives and devices with removable storage.

  • Accessing the System page in Control Panel Right-clicking the Computer icon and selecting Properties displays the System page in Control Panel.

  • Accessing Windows Explorer Double-clicking the folder icon opens your user profile folder in Windows Explorer.

  • Connecting to network drives Right-clicking the Computer icon (or the Network icon) and selecting Map Network Drive allows you to connect to shared network folders.

  • Managing your computer Right-clicking the Computer icon and selecting Manage opens the Computer Management console.

  • Removing deleted items Right-clicking the Recycle Bin icon and selecting Empty Recycle Bin permanently removes all items in the Recycle Bin.

  • Restoring deleted items Double-clicking the Recycle Bin icon opens the Recycle Bin, which you can use to view or restore deleted items.

  1. Create a custom Show Desktop button that you can place anywhere on the desktop, open Notepad.exe, type the commands below, and then save the file as Show.scf.

  2. Double-click the related icon to hide or unhide windows.

Stretching the Desktop

Increasingly, desktop PCs and laptops support multiple display devices, allowing you to add a monitor to increase your desktop space. Not only is this a relatively inexpensive way to make your computer more useful, it can also boost your productivity.

Here’s an example: You connect two monitors to your computer, or add a monitor as an additional output for your laptop. By placing the screens side by side and enabling multiple displays, you effectively stretch your desktop space and make it possible to view programs and files open on both screens at the same time. Thus, instead of having to toggle between multiple windows, you can have multiple windows open all the time—some on your primary screen and some on your secondary screen.

Typically, if a computer supports multiple displays, it has multiple display adapter connectors. For example, if a desktop PC has three display adapter connectors (two digital and one analog), it likely supports at least two monitors; if a laptop has additional display adapter connectors (digital or analog), it likely supports at least two monitors.

You can confirm the number of supported displays by checking the technical specifications for your display adapter on the manufacturer’s website. To determine the type of display adapter on your computer, right-click an empty area of the desktop, and then select Screen Resolution. On the Screen Resolution page, click the Advanced Settings link. The adapter type listed for your display adapter shows the manufacturer name and model information, such as NVIDIA GeForce GT 220.

Getting a computer that supports multiple monitors to stretch the desktop across two monitors is best handled as follows:

  1. With the computer shut down (and not in the sleep or hibernate state), connect the monitors to the computer, and then turn on the monitors.

  2. Next, start your computer and log on.

  3. Right-click an open area on the desktop, and then select Screen Resolution to open the Screen Resolution page in Control Panel, as shown in Figure 1-3.

    Figure 1-3

    Figure 1-3 Identifying and orienting the displays

  4. You have the choice of extending your desktop across the available display devices or duplicating the desktop on each display (as you might want to do with a laptop). Extend the desktop by clicking Extend These Displays in the Multiple Displays list and then clicking Apply. Duplicate the desktop by selecting Duplicate These Displays in the Multiple Displays list.

  5. Click Detect to have Windows display the identity number of each monitor. With two monitors, the displays are numbered 1 and 2. By default, Display 1 always includes the Start menu, taskbar, and notification tray, but you can change this as discussed in the Making the Taskbar Dance section, later in this chapter.

  6. Confirm the display order. Windows doesn’t know how you’ve placed the monitors on your desktop. Instead, it assumes that the primary display device is the first one connected to the display adapter and the secondary display device is the second one connected. It also assumes that the second display is to the right of the first display, which allows you to move the mouse pointer to the right to go from the desktop on the first display to the desktop stretched to the second display.

  7. You can tell Windows how your monitors are oriented in several ways. If Display 2 is on the left side of Display 1, click the representation of the Display 2 desktop on the Screen Resolution page, drag it to the left past the Display 1 desktop, release the mouse button, and then click Apply. The orientation should now show Display 2 on the left and Display 1 on the right; you can confirm proper configuration by clicking the Identify button. To reverse this procedure, perform the same steps, but drag to the right instead of to the left.

  8. You can change the monitor that is identified as Display 1 by clicking the representation of its desktop on the Screen Resolution page, clicking Make This My Main Display, and then clicking Apply. If the monitor you’ve selected is already Display 1, you won’t have this option.

After you’ve connected an additional monitor and oriented it properly, working with multiple monitors is fairly straightforward. When you stretch the desktop across two displays, the resolution setting of both displays determines the size of the desktop. If Display 1’s resolution is 1920 x 1080 and Display 2’s resolution is 1920 x 1080, the effective resolution is 3840 x 1080.

When you maximize windows, they fill their current display from edge to edge. You can click on windows and drag them from the desktop on one display to the stretched desktop on another display. After you click and drag a window, size it as appropriate for the way you want to use it. For many programs, Windows remembers where you’ve positioned a window when you close it; the next time you open the window, it appears positioned on the appropriate display, as you last worked with it. Generally, there’s no special magic to make this work. However, some programs won’t remember your preferred monitor, either by design or because the program isn’t appropriate for multiple displays.

Any wallpaper you’ve selected as the background for your desktop will appear on all your displays. Whether you choose a picture position of Fill, Stretch, Fit, or Center, you see a duplicate of the background on each display. When you shuffle background images, the same shuffled image appears on each display as well.

If you want different pictures to appear on each display, you must create pictures at the appropriate resolution, store them in an appropriate folder (such as a subfolder of C:\Windows\Web\Wallpaper), select them as your desktop background, and use the Tile option of the Picture Position list. For example, if Display 1’s resolution is 1920 x 1080 and Display 2’s resolution is 1920 x 1080, using an art program such as Photoshop, you could combine two 1920 x 1080 images to create one 3840 x 1080 image. You would then store this image in an appropriate folder and select it as your tiled wallpaper.

You also may be wondering how your screen savers will work with multiple displays. The standard screen savers that come with Windows 7 also stretch across your displays automatically. There’s no need to do anything special to make this happen.