If you dig deep enough, it's possible to change every element of the Windows user interface-the look and feel of the operating system. If you carry this to extremes, you can make your system completely unrecognizable; but short of that, you can and should tweak the out-of-the-box configuration settings to satisfy your own taste and to make the computer easier to use. Remember, it's almost always better to adjust Windows to match the way you want to work, rather than to change the way you work to match the way Windows is set up.
The first thing to change after you turn on your computer for the first time is the set of sounds that Windows and many other programs produce to accompany many actions. You turn off all the standard sounds, turn off individual sounds, or even substitute other sound effects for the ones Windows provides.
Each set of links between sounds and the events that produce them is called a sound scheme. If you don't like the default Windows sound scheme, you can alter an existing scheme, create a completely new scheme, or turn off sounds completely.
To change the sound scheme, follow these steps:
Open the Control Panel and select the Sounds and Audio Devices item. The Sounds and Audio Devices Properties window opens.
Click the Sounds tab to open the dialog box shown in Figure 27.4.
Figure 27.4: The Sounds tab controls the Windows sound scheme.
To turn off all sounds, choose No Sounds in the drop-down Sound scheme menu.
To turn off a sound associated with a specific event, highlight that item in the list of Program Events, and choose (None) from the drop-down Sounds menu.
Click OK to save your changes and close the Properties window.
You don't have to limit yourself to the sounds supplied with Windows and your other programs. If you prefer, you can use short musical sound clips, sound effects, or even record your own voice describing each event.
You can find links to thousands of free downloadable sound effects at http://www.stonewashed.net/sfx.html.
Like any other downloads, scan the sound effects files you obtain through the Internet for viruses and spyware before you install them on your own computer.
To assign a new sound to an event, follow these steps:
Choose the sound clip you want to use. If it's not already in that format, convert the audio file to the WAV file format. If you don't already have a conversion program, you can use the free Audacity program (http://www.audacity.sourceforge.net) to convert from other audio file formats (open the audio file in Audacity and use the File Save As command to save it in .wav format).
Move a copy of the WAV sound file to the C:\Windows\Media folder.
In the Sounds tab of the Sounds and Audio Devices Properties window, highlight the Program Event that you want to associate with the new sound, and open the drop-down Sounds menu.
Choose the new sound file from the list of files.
Click the play button next to the Sounds field to listen to the sound file you have selected. Click OK to confirm your choice and close the Properties window.
Now that you have either changed or eliminated those irritating sounds, you can concentrate on customizing the rest of the performance and appearance of Windows. The changes that will have the widest impact are controlled by the Display Properties window.
To open Display Properties, right-click the My Computer icon on your desktop and select Properties from the pop-up menu or open the Control Panel and select Display. As Figure 27.5 shows, the Display Properties window has at least five tabs. This section describes these tabs in order of subjective importance, rather than the order in which they appear on the screen; the Themes tab, at the extreme left, is the one that saves the settings you create with the other tabs.
Figure 27.5: The options and settings in the Display Properties window control the appearance of just about every visible element of Windows.
The Settings tab controls the performance of the graphics controller (the video card) and the display monitor. As part of your initial setup, you want to set the Screen Resolution and Color Quality for optimal appearance and performance.
If you're using a CRT monitor, follow these steps to adjust the Screen Refresh Rate:
From the Settings tab screen of the Display Properties window, click the Advanced button in the lower right. A secondary Properties window opens.
Click the Monitor tab to open the dialog box shown in Figure 27.6.
Figure 27.6: The Monitor tab includes a setting for Screen Refresh Rate.
Open the drop-down menu under Screen Refresh Rate, and choose a refresh rate of at least 70 Hertz.
Click OK to save your choice and close the secondary Properties window.
Confirm that Screen Resolution has not changed. If it has, go back to the Screen Refresh Rate and drop it down to the next lower value.
In the Settings tab of Display Properties, click Apply. If Windows asks to restart the computer, choose the option that changes the settings without restarting.
For more details about video cards, see Chapter 10. Read Chapter 11 to learn more about the monitor.
The first time you turn on Windows, you see a background image that was chosen either by Microsoft or by the maker of your computer. Some of these images are blatant advertisements, and others are pleasant pictures that were selected to avoid offending anybody.
You are under absolutely no obligation to keep that image on your screen. You can replace it with a picture or abstract image of your own, or use a live Web page or a screen with nothing but a solid color background. For example, the screen shown in Figure 27.7 uses an early television test pattern as a background image.
Figure 27.7: This computer uses a 1940s TV test pattern as its background image.
To change one of the background images supplied with Windows, open the Desktop tab in Display Properties and choose an item from the list of Backgrounds. To use any other image file, follow these steps:
Use the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer program to open the file. If the Viewer doesn't open when you double-click the file icon, right-click the icon and choose Preview from the pop-up menu.
Right click the image in the Viewer program. Choose Set as Desktop Background from the pop-up menu, as shown in Figure 27.8.
Figure 27.8: Use the Set as Desktop Background command to use an image on your desktop.
From Control Panel, open Display Properties and the Desktop tab.
Use the Position drop-down menu on the right side of the window to set the new background image as a full-screen image, a smaller centered image, or a mosaic of multiple copies of the same image (Tile).
To place a Web page on your desktop, click the Customize Desktop button and choose the Web tab.
The background image can fill the entire screen with a large version of the image, appear only in the center of the screen, or fill the screen with repeated copies of the image. The drop-down Position menu specifies the way the image appears.
To create a desktop with no background image, choose (None) at the top of the list of Backgrounds.
To change the background color, use the drop-down Color menu at the right side of the Desktop dialog box. As a general rule, lighter colors present better contrast under icons and shortcuts.
Screen savers were invented in the days of monochrome monitors, when a constant image (such as a block of text) would eventually burn a ghost image onto the phosphors inside the screen. In order to preserve the monitor, a screen saver program would automatically replace the active text or image on the screen after a preset period of time-often 10 or 15 minutes. The replacement image would move around the screen rather than staying in one place, so the danger of a burned-in image was eliminated.
What began as a practical necessity quickly became an opportunity to place an entertaining set of images on millions of computer screens. Abstract geometric figures, tropical fish, and the hugely popular Flying Toasters were on screens all over the world.
On today's monitors, burn-in is no longer a problem, so there's no practical need for a screen saver any more. Modern LCD and CRT screens can display a constant image for months on end without any danger. And it's a lot more practical to automatically shut down a monitor when it's not active because a blank screen doesn't consume nearly as much power. But the fact remains that screen savers amuse many people, so Windows continues to offer them as an alternative to the energy-saving power schemes.
The Screen Saver tab in the Display Properties window shown in Figure 27.9 controls the way Windows uses screen savers. To turn them off completely, chose (None) from the drop-down menu. To change the default image to a different screen saver, choose the one you want from the drop-down menu. The Wait field specifies the number of idle minutes that Windows waits before it starts to run the current screen saver.
Figure 27.9: The Screen Saver tab specifies the image that appears when the computer is idle.
Screen savers are among the most common method for viruses and spyware to enter your computer. Don't try to download or install a new screen saver unless you have upto-date antivirus and anti-spyware programs running.
If you do use a screen saver, don't limit yourself to the default version. Take a look at the Settings options to see how the designers of the screen saver program allow you to customize the characteristics of the images that appear on your screen.
The settings in the Appearance tab control the typefaces, colors, sizes, and other characteristics of the text, icons, and windows that appear on your screen. Windows includes about two-dozen preset color combinations, of which at least half are seriously ugly, but those schemes are just a start; the Advanced Appearance dialog box makes it possible to change every element of the Windows desktop one at a time.
The Appearance dialog box, shown in Figure 27.10, shows the current appearance settings in the top half of the window, and offers three sets of drop-down menus:
The Windows and buttons menu offers a choice between Windows Classic style, with sharp corners, and Windows XP style, with rounded corners.
The Color scheme menu offers a choice of preset color combinations. The Color scheme menus are different for Windows Classic style and Windows XP style.
The Font size menu offers a choice among Normal, Large, and Extra Large fonts. After you choose a font size, you can alter individual font sizes in the Advanced Appearance window (see the next section).
Figure 27.10: The options in the Appearance tab control fonts, colors, sizes, and other characteristics of every item on your screen.
When you select an item from any of the three menus, the samples in the top half of the window change to show the new selections. To use the current selections, click Apply or OK. To discard your selections and keep the current scheme, click Cancel.
The Advanced button in the Appearance tab opens the Advanced Appearance window shown in Figure 27.11. To change the characteristics of an item in the sample box in the top half of the window, click that item, and notice that the name of the item appears in the Item field. The Size, Color, and Font settings all contain the current values for that item.
Figure 27.11: The Advanced Appearance dialog box controls the appearance of individual screen elements.
Several items are included in the drop-down Item menu that do not appear in the sample box. These include:
Icon: The Icon setting controls the size of the icons and shortcuts that appear in the Windows Desktop, the My Computer window, and other windows that show the contents of drives and folders. The Font settings set the typeface and size of the icons' captions, the Address fields in My Computer and Internet Explorer, and other text elements in Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer.
Icon Spacing: The two Icon Spacing options set the vertical and horizontal distance between icons in My Computer and other lists of files and folders. The (Horizontal) setting also sets the width of each line of text in icon names on the desktop, so a higher number allows for more characters; if the setting is too low, the entire name of a program or shortcut won't be visible.
Palette Title: This is easily the single most obscure setting in the entire Display Properties set. Palettes are the free-floating versions of the toolbars that are most often located directly under the title bar in program windows, and in the taskbar at the bottom of the Windows screen. Figure 27.12 shows Microsoft Word with two toolbars displayed as palettes. The Palette Title option sets the size and typeface that Windows will use for the title of a palette.
Figure 27.12: In this window, the Standard toolbar and the Reviewing toolbar are floating palettes.
ToolTip: ToolTips are those little balloon-like objects that pop up on the Windows desktop to offer brief explanations of some features and functions. The ToolTip option in the Advanced Appearance dialog box sets their background color and typeface.
The Effects button in the Appearance tab opens the Effects dialog box. These options control the way Windows displays menus, ToolTips, screen fonts, shadows under icons, and other items that Microsoft has defined as "effects."
Most of these options are purely subjective; choose the ones that you like and ignore the rest. The exception is "Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts," which makes some very subtle changes to the typefaces that appear on your screen. For the clearest text, Microsoft recommends that you choose Standard for CRT monitors and ClearType for laptops and other LCD screens.
Themes are stored sets of all the options specified in all of other the Display Properties tabs, except the Settings tab. When you select a theme from the drop-down menu, Windows changes everything at one time. It's a convenient way to switch between different combinations.
After you have chosen the set of appearance options that you want to use on your computer, you should save that set as a new theme. Click the Save As button and assign your name to the new theme. This gives you an easy way to return to your preferred settings after you try one or more alternate options.
If you share your computer with one or more other users, each of you can create your own theme, which automatically loads when you log onto the computer.
For more information on themes, see Chapter 28. To learn more about sharing your computer with other users, go to Chapter 34.
Windows has an irritating bug that automatically returns the sound scheme to Windows Default every time you change display themes. Don't be surprised when the computer begins to make noises after you open a theme. To return to your preferred sound scheme (or to No Sounds), see "Turning sound on or off" earlier in this chapter.
Avery long list of additional options related to the appearance of many screen elements is hidden in the Performance Options window (Control Panel System Advanced Performance Settings). The descriptions of most Visual Effects options are clear, but one near the bottom of the list, Use drop shadows for icon labels, is not. When the Drop Shadows option is turned on, in some fonts the labels under all the desktop icons use outline letters instead of solid letters. Most people think the drop shadow fonts look awful, so you should know how to get rid of them if you (or somebody else messing with your computer) turn them on by accident.
This desktop icon is shown with the Drop Shadows option turned on …
This desktop icon is shown with the Drop Shadows option turned on …
… and with Drop Shadows turned off.
… and with Drop Shadows turned off.
After you have set up the layout and appearance of your screen, use the Mouse Properties window to set the characteristics of your mouse or other pointing device.
See Chapter 12 for detailed information about adjusting the mouse's controls and response.
The taskbar is the colored bar that normally appears at the bottom of the Windows desktop. It contains the Start button at the extreme left, and the clock at the extreme right. When a program is running or a folder is open, a button appears in the taskbar that identifies that task; if you minimize a window in the desktop, the button remains in the taskbar.
To move the taskbar to the top of your screen, or to the right or left side, move your cursor to either the middle of the taskbar or the clock and drag it to the border of the screen where you want it to appear.
Several other optional features are also accessible through the taskbar. Each of these features is a toolbar within the larger taskbar. To add or remove a toolbar from the taskbar, follow these steps:
Move your cursor to a blank space in the taskbar and right-click. A pop-up menu appears.
Choose Toolbars from the menu to open a submenu that contains a list of toolbars.
To open a toolbar, click its name in the submenu. A check mark appears next to the name.
To close a toolbar, click the name of the toolbar to remove the check mark.
If you use more than one toolbar, or if you have a lot of icons in a toolbar, you can expand the taskbar to make more space for icons and links. To increase the amount of space that the taskbar occupies, move the cursor to the edge of the taskbar. When the cursor changes to a double-ended arrow, drag the edge toward the center of the screen.
The toolbars supplied in a standard Windows installation include:
The Address Bar: The Address Bar is a duplicate of the Address toolbar in the My Computer and Internet Explorer windows. When you type the address of a file or folder on your own computer or a computer connected to your computer through a network, or the URL (the Web address) of a Web site, Windows opens the default program for that item and loads the file or folder at that address.
Links: The Links toolbar duplicates the options list of Links in the Internet Explorer toolbar. Because it comes from Microsoft, all but one of the shortcuts in the list open Web pages that advertise Microsoft products, so it's mostly a waste of time and space. You can either turn off the Links toolbar and ignore it (see below), or delete each button (right-click the button and choose Delete from the pop-up menu) and add new ones by dragging their addresses from the Address field in Internet Explorer or My Computer.
In practice, the Links toolbar does nothing that you can't do just as easily from the Quick Launch toolbar.
Desktop: The Desktop toolbar contains a button that corresponds to each of the shortcuts on the Windows desktop. Clicking, double-clicking, or right-clicking one of these buttons has exactly the same effect as performing the same act on the desktop icon.
Placing desktop shortcuts on the taskbar offers several possible benefits:
When an active program fills the entire desktop, you can use a link in the taskbar to open a second program without minimizing the original program.
When you fill the desktop with a live Web page, you can hide the desktop shortcuts to make the contents of the Web page easier to read. To hide desktop icons, move your cursor to a blank spot on the desktop, right-click, and turn off Arrange Icons By Show Desktop Icons (see Figure 27.13).
Figure 27.13: The Show Desktop Icons option hides or displays shortcuts on the Windows desktop.
Quick Launch: The Quick Launch toolbar is an alternative to the desktop that displays icons linked to individual programs, Web shortcuts, and other resources. Some programs automatically add links to the Quick Launch toolbar, and others offer to add a link during the installation process.
To add an item to the toolbar, drag and drop the icon from the desktop, the My Computer window, or the address field of Internet Explorer.
To remove an item from the Quick Launch toolbar, right-click the icon and choose Delete from the pop-up menu.
Language bar: If more than one Input Language has been installed on your computer, the Language bar provides an easy way to choose a language. To change languages, click the symbol in the Language bar and choose the new language from the pop-up list, as shown in Figure 27.14.
Figure 27.14: The Language bar displays a symbol for each installed input language.
When speech recognition or handwriting recognition is active, the Language bar contains buttons that perform specific tasks and open controls such as the Writing Pad window.
Windows Media Player: The Windows Media Player toolbar contains a set of controls for the Media Player, including a Start/Pause button, advance to the beginning or end of the current track, a mute control, and a volume control, as shown in Figure 27.15. To use the Windows Media Player control, turn on the toolbar and minimize the Windows Media Player window.
Figure 27.15: The Media Player toolbar offers a set of controls for Windows Media Player when the program window is minimized.
In addition to the standard toolbars supplied with Windows, some additional programs can add useful toolbars to the taskbar. Some of the most useful add-on toolbars include:
Virtual Desktop Manager: The Virtual Desktop Manager program creates up to four separate virtual desktops, with different windows open in each one. This provides a quick and easy way to switch among up to four different programs without the need to save or minimize one program before you can view the next one. The Virtual Desktop is available as a free download from Microsoft at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/powertoys/xppowertoys.mspx.
Figure 27.16 shows the Virtual Desktop Manager's Preview Mode, with smaller versions of all four screens.
Figure 27.16: Virtual Desktop Manager can display active programs in up to four separate screens.
Taskbar Magnifier: The Taskbar Magnifier toolbar, available from Microsoft at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/powertoys/xppowertoys.mspx, creates a tiny magnifying window in the toolbar that shows an expanded version of the area surrounding the cursor.
To expand the Magnifier window, drag the double vertical line to the left, and drag the top of the toolbar upwards.
Check out Chapter 30 for more details about the Taskbar Magnifier.
The System Tray (also called the Notification Area) is the box at the extreme right side of the taskbar (if your taskbar is at the bottom of your screen) that contains the clock and may also include one or more icons linked to active programs.
The Time & Frequency Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the United States and other standards agencies around the world maintain a worldwide system of timeservers that allow computer users to synchronize their clocks through the Internet. The NIST offers extensive information and free software through their Web site at http://www.tf.nist.gov/timefreq/service/its.htm.
If your computer is connected to the Internet, you can use the Date and Time Properties programs in Windows to synchronize the calendar and clock in your computer with a time server linked to an International Time Standard service.
To set your clock to the International Time Standard, follow these steps:
Double-click the time display in the system tray. The Data and Time Properties window appears on your screen.
Click the Internet Time tab to open the dialog box shown in Figure 27.17.
Figure 27.17: Use the Internet Time tab to set your computer's clock to the exact time.
Turn on the Automatically Synchronize option.
Choose a time server from the drop-down Server menu and click the Update Now button. The default servers are http://www.time.windows.com, a time service maintained by Microsoft for Windows users, and time.nist.gov, operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
In practice, it doesn't matter which server you choose because they are all linked to the primary time standard, so they are equally accurate (within milliseconds of the exact time). If neither server responds to your request (probably due to excessive demand), close the drop-down menu and type http://www.pool.ntp.org in the Server field. This connects you to the next available system among a worldwide pool of time servers. For a directory of additional Network Time Protocol (NTP) servers, go to the list at http://www.ntp.isc.org/bin/view/Servers/WebHome.
Make sure the Automatically Synchronize option is active. This instructs Windows to synchronize your computer's clock to a time server once a week.
Click OK to close the Time Properties window.
The icons in the System Tray are useful as indicators that a program is active in background, or that the status of a program has changed; but when you have several icons in the tray, the information supplied by each icon can get lost in the visual clutter. It may be helpful to hide the icons that don't provide any important information.
For example, your antivirus and anti-spyware programs probably place icons in the taskbar to let you know that they are working in the background. When one of these programs detects a problem, it probably changes color or shape at the same time that it displays an alarm message on your screen. But because the alarm is enough to attract your attention, you can safely hide the taskbar icon.
Therefore, Windows allows you to hide each icon when the program is not active, or to hide it permanently. To change the way Windows displays each icon, follow these steps:
Right-click the Start button and choose Properties from the pop-up menu. The Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window opens.
Open the Taskbar tab to display the dialog box shown in Figure 27.18.
Figure 27.18: The Taskbar tab in the Taskbar and Start Menu window controls the contents of the System Tray.
Turn on the Hide inactive icons option at the bottom of the dialog box, and click Customize. The Customize Notifications window shown in Figure 27.19 appears.
Figure 27.19: Use the Customize Notifications control to set the configuration for each icon.
To change the way Windows handles each type of icon, click the instruction next to that item in the Behavior column. A drop-down menu appears with three options:
Hide when inactive: When an icon is set to Hide when inactive, it only appears in the System Tray when the program associated with that icon is performing some kind of action.
Always hide: When an icon is set to Always hide, that icon never appears in the System Tray.
Always show: When an icon is set to Always show, it's visible in the System Tray whenever the program is running.
To view hidden icons, click the double chevrons («) at the left side of the tray.
Click the OK buttons in both the Customize Notifications window and the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window.