Hacking Windows Vista: ExtremeTech - page 15


Summary

This first chapter can be thought of as the first step in the complete customization of every possible aspect of your Windows Vista. You started at the very beginning with enabling the hidden boot screen and you worked through to the Logon screen to customize it to meet your needs.

The next chapter helps you customize the user navigation components of Windows Vista. First, you learn all about customizing the updated Start menu in Vista. This chapter shows you how to get the most out of the new features. Then it shows you how you can customize the next most used component of Windows, the taskbar.



Chapter 2: Customizing User Navigation

Customizing user navigation is the next stop on the Windows Vista customizing road trip. In the preceding chapter, with the help of some cool hacks, you were able to change and improve the boot and logon screens. This chapter picks up where Chapter 1 left off and shows you how to customize and improve the visual navigation elements of Windows Vista.

This chapter starts with customizing the look and the contents of the cool new Start panel. The improved Start panel in Windows Vista has many useful new features, and I show how you can use them best. Then, I show you how you can customize the new program list and customize almost everything you see. If you don't like the new Start panel, you can then find out how to get the old classic Start menu back. Then, I show you some cool hacks to improve and customize the classic Start menu.

You also learn how to customize the taskbar on the bottom of your screen. The taskbar is an essential part of navigating your computer. I show you how to customize and improve its features and give you some new ideas on how you can use it that may dramatically improve your experiences with Windows Vista.

Customizing the Start Panel

The Start panel is what I consider the replacement for the traditional Start menu that you may be familiar with if you were a pre-Windows XP user. I call this the Start panel because it is not just a menu anymore. It is now a collection of various shortcuts and features, all thrown onto one panel that pops up. It offers many new features such as a dynamic list that includes your most frequently run programs so that you can easily access them without having to navigate through All Programs. In addition, the Start panel has replaced all the icons on the desktop except for the Recycle Bin so that your desktop will look much cleaner and uncluttered. New in Windows Vista is a Search box on the bottom of the Start panel. This new box enables you to easily search through programs in the Start menu and search your computer for documents and launch commands like a traditional Run box. Everything can be accessed from the Start panel now!

Today, tools and hacks allow you to customize the Start panel. Almost everything on it is customizable. You can add and remove icons and shortcuts, and you can even change the way it looks. You can even change the way the features on it, such as the Search box, work.

When you have finished reading these next few sections, you will have transformed your Start panel into something that works better for you and is much more useful for your everyday tasks.

Customizing navigation shortcuts

You will find many new navigation links on the Start panel that will help you navigate to various parts of Windows. All these shortcut buttons on the right side of the Start panel can be customized. Many can be removed completely, and others can be added. By default, you will see a button with your username followed by buttons for Documents, Pictures, Music, and Games. All these buttons are shortcuts to your personal folders. The next set-Search, Recent Items, Computer, Network, and Connect to-are more functional navigation shortcuts that allow you to jump to the most common system components. The last three shortcuts offer you a way to access system configuration components such as the Control Panel and Default Programs and a convenient shortcut to Help and Support for new users.

Some shortcuts are not displayed, such as the classic Run button, Printers, and Favorites. Other features, such as Display as Menu for buttons, that allow you to jump directly to a specific child item are also missing. This feature can be useful in some situations. For example, if you enable Display as Menu on the Computer button, you will see a list of drivers that you can jump directly to. This eliminates a few extra clicks that will help you get to where you want to go faster.

All these features and shortcuts are customizable on one screen. Follow these steps to access the Start Menu Customization screen:

  1. Right-click the Start button and click Properties.

  2. On the Start Menu tab, click the Customize button on the top right of the window. This loads the Customize Start Menu window, as shown in Figure 2-1.

    image from book
    Figure 2-1: Customizing the Start Menu window

  3. Scroll through the list and make changes to the items as you see fit. Refer to the sections that follow for my recommendations.

  4. When you're finished adjusting the options, click OK and OK once more to close Taskbar Properties. Your changes will be live instantly.

Now that you know how to change the settings, the next few sections guide you through my recommendations for creating a clean and powerful Start panel.

Hiding user folders

Having all the user folders on the Start panel can be useful for some but not for me. You are already given a button that has your username on it. Through that button, you can access your music, pictures, and documents. Having these extra folders visible is just cluttering the Start panel and taking up real estate that could be better spent.

To clean up the user folders, while on the Customize Start Menu window (shown in Figure 2-1), set these options:

  • Documents: Select Don't display this item.

  • Music: Select Don't display this item.

  • Pictures: Select Don't display this item.

  • Games: Select Don't display this item. You can reach the games through the normal Start menu.

Customizing system component and management shortcuts

The system component shortcut buttons and management buttons also take up a lot of space on your Start panel. I rarely find myself using any of these buttons with the exception of Search and Computer. The others I have in my Quick Launch bar, or you can find them in the system tray. Here are my recommendations for these two sections:

  • Connect To: Clear the checkbox. You can access this in the system tray.

  • Computer: Set to Display as menu.

  • Default Programs: Clear the check box.

  • Help: Clear the check box.

  • Network: Clear the check box. You can access this in the system tray.

  • Printers: Check. The only other place you can get this is in Control Panel, which is inconvenient if you print a lot.

  • Run: Check if you like the old Run button. You can use the search box now as a Run box, too, but some may still like the old Run box. I do!

Tip 

While in the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window (right-click the Start button and select Properties), I recommend removing the check next to Store and displaying a list of recently opened files. This removes the annoying Recent Items entry on your Start panel.

You are now finished customizing your Start panel. If you followed my recommendations, your Start panel will now look like Figure 2-2.

image from book
Figure 2-2: Slim Start panel

Customizing the Frequently Run Programs list

Every time you launch an application on your PC, Windows is watching. It keeps track of the applications you run to derive the list of frequently run programs. You can find the list of frequently run programs on the left side of the Start panel. This program list can be useful for quickly accessing your applications instead of navigating through the entire All Programs menu.

There are a few cool tweaks for the Frequently Run Programs list that will allow you to customize it to make it more useful for you. The next three sections show you how you can modify the icon size, change the number shown, hide applications from showing up, and pin applications to the list.

Customizing icon size

One way that I like to customize my Start panel is to decrease the size of the icons on the left so that I can fit more icons on the screen. Figure 2-3 shows the difference between a Start panel that has been switched to use small icons and the normal Start panel.

image from book
Figure 2-3: The difference between the two Start panel icon sizes

Changing the icons is easy. You just need to change one setting within the Start menu properties. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Move your mouse cursor over the Start button and right-click it, and then click Properties.

  2. This brings up the Start Menu Properties menu that you used in the preceding section. Here you want to click the Customize button.

  3. Scroll all the way to the bottom of the list and uncheck Use large icons.

  4. Click OK to save your change and click OK once more to finish.

You have now made some more room so that you can display more frequently run programs on the Start panel. When you click the Start menu, you may notice that there are not any more programs showing up. That is because you also have to adjust the number of programs that will appear. The next section shows you how to adjust how many program shortcuts are displayed.

Tweaking the number displayed

By now you have changed the icon size of the Frequently Run Programs list so that you can fit more icons on the screen. Now you can increase the number of programs that will be displayed so that your list of programs will become even more useful. If you decide that you do not want to change the size of the icons, don't worry. You can still change the number of programs that display; you just can't display as many.

Changing the number of programs depends completely on personal preference. Do you like having a huge Start panel that stretches from the taskbar to the top of the screen? Do you like a Start panel with a small footprint? By design, the Start panel cannot contain more than 30 programs on the list. Very few users can display 30 items simultaneously because they must have their screen resolution set at a minimum 1280 × 1024, assuming that they are using the small icons. That high resolution is usually used only by owners of screens larger than 18 inches. The most common computer screen resolution is 1024 × 768. At that resolution, 22 programs can fit on the Start panel when the small icons are used. If you have an older computer or just a small display and your screen resolution is set for 800 × 600, you will be able to display only 15 programs on your Frequently Run Programs list.

The resolution settings of your screen determine the maximum number of programs that can be displayed. If you accidentally choose too many programs, Windows will let you know by giving you a friendly pop-up message when you try to click your Start menu after the change.

Now that you have an idea of the number of programs that your computer can display, you are ready to get started. To increase the number of programs, do the following:

  1. Right-click the Start button and select Properties to bring up the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties settings.

  2. Click the Customize button to show the Customize Start Menu options.

  3. On this screen, locate the Start Menu Size section and the Number of recent programs to display box. You can adjust this value by clicking the up and down buttons or just by selecting all the text and entering a new number.

    Tip 

    If you want to save even more room and never use the Internet Explorer and Mail client links on the top of the Frequently Run Programs list, clear all the boxes in the Show on Start menu box on the Customize Start Menu window.

  4. After you have entered the number of programs you want displayed, click OK to save your changes.

  5. Click OK once more and you are finished.

The best way to set the number of programs is to experiment with several different values until you get your Start panel looking the way you want it. After you find the value that is just right, you will have a much-improved Start panel.

Keeping programs off the list

Say you have a top-secret program that you do not want anyone else to know you have. Every time you run a program on your computer, Windows Vista records it and places the shortcut on your Frequently Run Programs list. Sometimes this is not always a good thing and can cause a privacy or job-security problem.

For example, let's use the situation of a guy named Larry. Larry is a big fan of Purble Place in Windows Vista. It is not the best game, but he likes it because it is an alternative to actually doing work. Every time Larry plays Purble Place, Windows Vista automatically adds the game to the Frequently Run Programs list. In this situation, program tracking creates a big problem for Larry. He is concerned that one of his fellow employees might see his Frequently Run Programs list and ridicule him for playing a children's game or report him to management for not doing work. What should he do? First, Larry should buy a copy of Hacking Windows Vista, and then he should follow these steps:

  1. Click the Start menu and select Run. Type regedit and click OK to start the Registry Editor.

  2. Expand the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT folder.

  3. Search through the list of folders until you find the folder called Applications and expand that, too.

  4. Now you will see a list of every executable file for the programs installed on your computer. To hide a program from the Frequently Run Programs list, expand the folder that is the executable for the program. To hide Purble Place, expand the PurblePlace.exe folder.

    Tip 

    If you do not know the name of the executable file that a program shortcut points to, you can easily look this up by right-clicking the shortcut and selecting Properties. In the Properties box, you will see a full path to where the file is located and the name of the file. When you right-click the shortcut in the Start menu for Purble Place, you will discover that the name of the executable for the game is PurblePlace.exe.

  5. Can't find a folder called PurblePlace.exe? That is because some Windows applications are not listed. If your application is listed, skip this step. Otherwise, you need to create a new Registry key. To do so, select the Applications key within HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT. Right-click and select New, and then select Key. Type in the name of the executable for the name of the key. For Purble Place, name the key PurblePlace.exe.

  6. Now that you have found the folder for the application or have created one, expand it so that you can see all its values. Then right-click your executable's folder that you just created or found in the Registry. Select New, and then select String. Type NoStartPage as the name of the string variable, as shown in Figure 2-4.

    image from book
    Figure 2-4: Using Registry Editor to hide applications from the Frequently Run Programs list

  7. Close the Registry Editor and log off and then back in. You will never see Purble Place in your Frequently Run Programs list again.

Now Larry can play as much Purble Place at work as he wants without having to worry about it showing up in his Frequently Run Programs list.

Pinning programs

I use the Calculator application all the time when I am using my computer. My desk calculator is always lost, and I don't want to waste time looking for it when I just need to do a quick calculation. Every time that I want to use the Calculator application, I have to click the Start menu, select All Programs, and then navigate up through the Accessories menu until I finally can click the Calculator app. There is a much better way that I can access this program.

Instead of navigating through the program listings, I can just pin the program to the Start panel. Pinning a program is a simple task that allows the program that you pin to appear on the Start panel just above the Frequently Run Programs list. If you pin a program shortcut, it appears just below the Internet Explorer and e-mail icons in the Start panel.

Navigating through the entire Start menu to launch a program you use all the time is a waste of time. Why waste your time? Pin your most commonly used programs today!

Are you excited yet? No? Okay, well let's get started anyway:

  1. Start your pinning adventure by navigating through the Start menu as you normally do to launch a program. Navigate to a program that you use all the time, such as the Calculator application in the Accessories menu.

  2. After you have highlighted the item, right-click the item and select Pin to Start menu. That's it. Your program will now appear directly on the Start panel.

Now let's say that you got a little too excited and pinned too many applications and want to remove some. What should you do? Just click the Start button once more to bring up the Start menu and highlight the program you want to unpin from the Start panel. Next, just right-click the item and select Unpin from Start Menu.

Pinning your favorite programs is a simple solution to speeding up your access to your programs.

Customizing the program list and search

The actual program listings are the last component of the Start menu that you can customize. In Windows Vista, users of the new Start panel have a new way of accessing the program list using the search box. These next few sections show you how you can customize the search box feature of the new Start panel and show you tweaks for the way the program list displays in both the new Start panel and the classic Windows Start menu.

Adjusting scope

The new search box on the bottom of the Start panel in Windows Vista is an extremely versatile box where you can do everything from executing programs to searching your entire computer for a specific document. By default, when you search for some text, it will search all the indexed locations. When I am using this feature, I just want it to search for programs in my Start menu, not search all my e-mails and other documents all over my computer. Why? I like a clean-looking Start menu, and when the search scope is set to something very wide, the results can become cluttered with other useless information I don't care about. As I mentioned previously, when I search in the Start panel search box, I expect it to just search the Start menu and nothing more. Thankfully, Microsoft has provided a way for you to customize the scope of where this search box searches. Follow these steps to customize your search scope:

  1. Right-click the Start button and select Properties.

  2. Click the Customize button on the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window.

  3. Scroll down the list of options until you get to the search settings, as shown in Figure 2-5.

    image from book
    Figure 2-5: Start Menu search options

  4. Here, I like to uncheck Search Communications and Search favorites and history, and I select Don't search for files.

  5. Click OK to save and OK once more to close the Properties window.

After you are finished disabling the extra default search locations, you will notice that your search results are presented faster and are now less cluttered. Keep in mind that you can always still use the Search button on the right side of the Start panel to search for documents, favorites, communications, and files.

Disabling new program highlights

Program highlights was a great feature when I first started to use Windows XP. This feature will automatically highlight any new programs that you install so that you can easily find them on the Start menu the first few times that you want to run the application. However, after I used this feature for a few months, I started to get annoyed with it. It never seemed to work correctly, and applications that I installed quite some time ago seemed like they were going to be highlighted forever. Unfortunately, it is also included in Windows Vista. So, as soon as I installed Vista on my PC, I was haunted by the return of this once-great feature. Thankfully, Microsoft has made it simple to turn off this feature. Just follow these steps to get rid of those annoying highlights:

  1. Right-click the Start button and select Properties.

  2. Click the top Customize button for the Start panel.

  3. Scroll through the list and uncheck Highlight Newly Installed Programs.

  4. Click OK to save your changes.

  5. Click OK once more to close the Properties window.

Now you will not have to worry about the programs that sometimes seem to be highlighted randomly.

Disabling pop-up help

Ever notice that when you hover your cursor over a program listing in the Start menu a little help box pops up? This help feature is called Balloon Help. If users do not know what a program does, they can hold the cursor over the program for a second or so and a little message will fade in telling users what it is-if the programmer has set up this feature of the program. For programs that do not have this feature set up for their shortcut, the balloon just tells users where the program is located on their computer.

This feature can be useful for a beginning computer user. However, it can be another annoyance for more advanced users. If you don't need this feature, why not disable it? Follow these steps to get rid of this feature:

  1. Click the Start menu and select Run, and then type regedit in the box and click OK.

  2. After the Registry Editor has been loaded, navigate though HKEY_CURRENT_ USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced.

  3. Right-click the entry called ShowInfoTip and select Modify.

  4. Set the value to 0 to disable this feature, and click OK.

  5. Close the Registry Editor and log off and back on so that the feature can be removed.

You are now finished with the last section on customizing the Start menu and program listing. Now on to customizing the classic Start menu.