Each fresh Windows Vista installation adheres to the default Microsoft settings and works perfectly well out of the box. But did you know that you can tweak and tailor virtually every aspect of Vista to suit your needs, preferences and personality? By experimenting with some of Vistaís lesser-known settings and options, you can put your own stamp on your computer and, as weíre about to find out, itís well worth doing so. Settings for sounds, images, security, performance and much more can all be altered. Best of all, you donít need to be an expert user to get started ó all thatís required is a little bit of insider knowledge. Many options can be customised directly within Vista using standard Microsoft settings, but there are also plenty of third-party applications available that provide access to advanced tweaks and tools. Weíll take you through a selection of the best Vista customisation tips and tricks. Then itís on to the Workshops, where you can try them out for yourself.
Quick and simple tweaks
The best way to start customising Vista is to right-click an empty part of the Desktop and select the Personalize option. The window that appears lists seven customisation tools, ranging from the appearance of your Desktop through to audio settings and screensavers. If you want to make Prompt is a no-nonsense way of finding out useful information, such as your computerís IP address, as well as running basic or even complex commands.
Adding your own wallpaper is a great way to add a personal touch to Vista. But if you have two monitors, Vistaís Display Properties tool will only let you replicate the image on both screens instead of providing the option of stretching it across the two. The end result is that a beautiful landscape scene, for example, turns into a nasty case of double vision. Displayfusion is a free application that provides you with a collection of advanced Vista wallpaper options, including the ability to place separate images on each monitor or stretch a single image across both. To try it out, head to www.binaryfortress.com/displayfusion and download the Free edition. A Pro version is also available and offers a fewmore advanced tools, but most users will be more than happy with the free alternative.
If your Desktop wallpaper is truly a work of art, thereís little point letting a bunch of ugly icons ruin it. To quickly remove all trace of your Desktop icons, all you need do is right-click the Desktop, click View and, fromthe resulting list, uncheck the Show Desktop Icons option. All your icons will now disappear, leaving you to admire your wallpaper. Donít worry, your icons havenít been lost forever ó simply repeat the same process to make them reappear in exactly the same place. When you first run Vista, the Sidebar appears by default down one side of the screen. The standard components of the Sidebar, commonly known as Gadgets, include a clock, calendar and RSS feed. However, you can replace these with other Gadgets available at no cost online. Youíll need a broadband internet connection to take full advantage of the Sidebar, but once youíve got it running the way you want, itís a great way to stay up to date.
Enhance Vistaís performance
Regardless of the glitz and glamour of Vista, most usersí top priority is to find out how to boost their PCís performance, especially if itís running on a PC thatís a few years old. We will soon take you through the top six ways to give Vista a shot in the arm, including how to calmdown the processor-hogging special effects, reduce background activity and employ Readyboost to quickly and cheaply increase the amount of memory available. Youíll also find out how to prevent unwanted applications from hogging system resources using Vistaís built-in Msconfig application. There are plenty of other ways you can give Vista a performance boost, including making sure your hard disk is healthy and running efficiently. To do this, first click on the Start button, type ĎDisk Cleanupí and press Enter. Vista will prompt you to select a drive to clean up and, once you click OK, it will perform an initial scan on the drive. When this completes, youíll be shown sections of your hard disk that Vista believes can be deleted to free up space. Clicking on each section provides you with more information on the type of files located within. Simply check those selections you want to delete and click OK.
Boost mobile performance
If youíre running Vista on a laptop, youíll want to make sure itís not draining power unnecessarily when away from the mains. The Vista Mobility Center helps out here by providing easy access to a variety of customisable power-saving options. Since itís only pertinent to mobile devices such as laptops, you wonít be able to access this feature on a desktop PC running Vista. There are three preset power plans to choose from (Balanced, Power Saver and High Performance), but the Mobility Center also lets you tweak the individual settings of each. Youíll also be able to find out exactly what percentage of your batteryís power remains and roughly how long you have before youíll need to make a dash for a wall socket. Power plans can be changed manually, but Vista helps out by detecting when you unplug the mains adapter and will automatically switch to a mobile plan to save power.
Defrag your drive
Another way to improve performance is to run Disk Defragmenter regularly. To locate the tool, head to the Start menu and type defrag into the search box. The defrag process goes through your hard disk, grouping elements that have become scattered over time. Depending on the size of your hard disk, the defrag process can take a considerable amount of time and is something weíd recommend running at night. A good way to ensure that your hard disk is always running efficiently is to set a regular defrag schedule. To do this, click Modify Schedule and then choose a time and frequency. Alternatively, click Defrag Now to start the process immediately.
Working with Control Panel
Whether youíre changing the look of Vista, adding a new user account or altering the power settings, Control Panel is a good place to start since it houses a wide range of tools within a single window. It therefore makes sense to spend some time getting to know how it works and customising it to suit your needs. Youíll also discover how to create shortcuts to the most popular items within it. One of the most well-received components of Vista is its enhanced search tool. In Windows XP, file searches were painfully slow: the hard disk would whirr away for a good five minutes or even longer before returning often irrelevant results. In Vista, not only are searches almost instantaneous, but you can also hunt down emails, documents and other files based on their contents. We also explain how to use logical search terms such as AND and NOT, along with how to save your favourite searches for future use.
Take Vista to task
By default, Vistaís Taskbar sits along the bottom of your screen. It houses the Start button, quick-launch icons and buttons for running applications, along with notification icons for services such as MSN Messenger and your security software. To customise how this looks and operates, right-click the Start button and select Properties. Youíll now see a range of options, including tabs for the Taskbar, Start Menu, Notification Area and Toolbars. Click on the Customize button within the Start Menu tab and youíll find a host of options to play with. Youíll be pleased to hear you canít damage your PC by changing any of these options, although itís a good idea to create a System Restore point first or make a note of those options you change. More options are available under the other three tabs. The Notification Area section allows you to adjust settings, such as specifying which icons should be hidden (either when inactive or all the time), while the Taskbar tab provides access to features including turning off grouping for similar Taskbar buttons and hiding the Taskbar from view when not in use. By unchecking the Lock the Taskbar option, you can change the size of the Taskbar as well as move it to a different position on your screen.
A rather frustrating feature of Vista is that if you create a shortcut icon for an application, that icon is then blighted by an unsightly curved arrow in the bottom-left corner. Although by no means detrimental, it can ruin an attractive-looking Desktop. To remove these arrows from shortcut icons, all you need to do is download a free application called Vista Shortcut Manager from www.frameworkx.com. This simple tool is easy to use and, if youíd rather not remove the arrow completely, has an alternative option to make the arrows less obtrusive.
If you fancy taking your Vista customisation further, there are plenty of applications to give you a helping hand. One of the most popular is Stardock Tweakvista, which offers the option of one-click enhancements along with more advanced options. Download a free trial version of the software from www.stardock.com. Tweakvi provides similar functionality to Tweakvista, but the Basic Edition is free so itís well worth checking out. Thereís plenty for beginners and advanced users, spanning everything from changing the look of Vista to enhancing performance. Download Tweakvi from www.totalidea.com/product.php. Windowblinds is another well-established application that lets you customise Vista. Using its skinning tools, you can completely change the look of Vistaís interface in one go. Download a free trial version from www.stardock.com. There are many more Vista customisation applications on the cover CD, as well as a complete guide to using one of them ó namely Tuneup Utilities 2007.
Those running the Ultimate version of Vista also have access to a range of free add-on applications. To find out what add-ons are available for download, click on the Start button, type ĎExtrasí and press Enter. Youíll now be directed to the Windows Update site where youíll be told if there are new Extras available for download. If there are, click on the View Available Extras link to read more about the individual applications and then select those you want to install.
The next steps
As weíve demonstrated, if you donít like a certain aspect of Vista thereís a good chance youíll be able to change it to suit your needs. And with an almost endless range of customisable features available, itís well worth getting hold of some software to help you tweak your copy of the operating system. Youíll not only add your own personal touch to Vista, but also enhance its performance.