Top 10 Vista tweaks

You’ve run Windows Vista, you’ve played around with the Aero interface, and maybe you’ve even mucked around a little bit in Vista’s innards to see what makes it tick.

Now what?

Now is when the fun begins. There are plenty of ways you can tweak Windows Vista, make it jump through hoops, bend it to your will and generally make it behave the way you want it to behave, not the way Microsoft does.

Where to begin? I’ve put together 10 of my favorite tweaks for Windows Vista. They’ll let you do everything from speed up Windows Aero to unlock a supersecret administrator’s account and juice up the right-click context menu — and yes, even adapt the dreaded User Account Control. So if you want to take control of Windows Vista, read on.

A word of warning: Some of these tips involve editing the Windows Registry, which can be a dangerous thing to do. So before you touch the Registry, use System Restore to create a restore point so that you can revert to the previous version of the Registry if something goes awry. To create a restore point, choose Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Restore files from backup > Create a restore point or change settings.

1. Adapt User Account Control Windows Vista’s User Account Control (UAC) is the new operating system’s most universally reviled feature. Sure, it helps protect you, but it also annoys you to no end.

If UAC drives you around the bend, you can turn it off. There are several ways to do it. One way is to choose Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts, then click Turn User Account Control on or off.

Alternately, you can run the System Configuration Utility (a.k.a. msconfig) by typing msconfig at the command line or search box. When the tool runs, click the Tools tab and scroll down until you see Disable UAC. Highlight it and click the Launch button, then reboot. To turn it back on again, follow the same steps and choose Enable UAC.

If you’re a fan of the Registry, you can also disable UAC using the Registry Editor. Launch the Registry Editor by typing regedit at the Start Search box or a command prompt and pressing Enter. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System\EnableLUA and give it a value of 0. You will need to reboot in order for the change to take effect.

UAC is also the culprit for another nagging Windows Vista annoyance. When you run some commands from the command prompt, you’re told that you don’t have administrative rights to run them, even if you’re currently logged in as an administrator. That’s because UAC requires you to run the command prompt as an administrator — what’s called running an elevated command prompt. Simply being logged in as an administrator isn’t good enough; you still have to run an elevated command prompt.

One way to do it is to type cmd into the Search box on the Start menu, right-click the command prompt icon that appears at the top of the Start menu, then select Run as administrator.

But if you don’t want to go about doing that each time you run a command prompt, there’s a simpler way. You can create a desktop shortcut for an elevated prompt, or pin the elevated prompt to the Start menu.

To create a shortcut on the desktop:

  1. Right-click the desktop, and select New > Shortcut.
  2. In the text box of the Create Shortcut dialog box that appears, type cmd and then click Next.
  3. On the next screen, type a name for the shortcut — for example, Elevated Command Prompt. Then click Finish.
  4. Right-click on the shortcut you just created and select Properties.
  5. Select the Shortcut tab and click the Advanced button.
  6. Check the box titled Run as administrator. Click OK and then OK again.

Now, when you want to run an elevated command prompt, simply double-click the shortcut. If you’d like the elevated command prompt to appear on the Start menu, drag it from the Desktop to the Start button and place it where you would like it to be.

2. Unlock the supersecret Administrator account Deep inside the bowels of Windows Vista, there’s a secret Administrator account, and it’s different from the normal administrator account you most likely have set up on your PC. This Administrator account is not part of the Administrator group. (Confused yet? You should be.) It’s a kind of superadministrator, akin to the root account in Unix, and by default it’s turned off and hidden. (In describing this hack, we’ll always use the capital “A” for the secret Administrator account, and a lowercase “a” for a normal administrator account.)

In versions of Windows before Windows Vista, the Administrator account wasn’t hidden, and many people used it as their main or only account. This Administrator account had full rights over the computer.

In Windows Vista, Microsoft changed that. In Vista, the Administrator account is not subject to UAC, but normal administrator accounts are. So the Administrator can make any changes to the system and will see no UAC prompts.

Turning on the Administrator account is straightforward. First, open an elevated command prompt by typing cmd into the Search box on the Start menu, right-clicking the command prompt icon that appears at the top of the Start menu, then selecting Run as administrator — or just use the shortcut you created in the previous tweak.

Then enter this command and press Enter: Net user administrator /active:yes

From now on, the Administrator account will appear as an option on the Welcome screen, along with any user accounts you may have set up. Use it like any other account. Be aware that it won’t have a password yet, so it’s a good idea to set a password for it.

If you want to disable the account and hide it, enter this command at an elevated command prompt and press Enter: Net user administrator /active:no

3. Tweak Aero’s glass borders The borders around system windows, such as dialog boxes and the Control Panel, are transparent in Windows Vista’s Aero interface. These borders are hackable; you can shrink them, make them larger, and change their colors and transparency levels.

To make the borders larger or smaller:

  1. Right-click the desktop and select Personalize.
  2. Click Window Color and Appearance.
  3. Click Open classic appearance properties for more color options.
  4. From the dialog box that appears, make sure that Windows Aero is selected as the color scheme. Click the Advanced button on the right side of the dialog box. The Advanced Appearance dialog box appears.
  5. Select Border Padding in the Item drop-down menu. To change the size of the border, type a new size for the border. (The default is 4.) Click OK, then OK again.

The sizes of the borders will now change (see below – Windows Aero’s transparent borders at their default size of 4 (left) and the borders with the padding size increased to 15 (right).

There’s more you can do to the borders as well. To change the border color, transparency and more, right-click the desktop and select Personalize > Window Color and Appearance.

  1. Choose a color for your windows on the top of the screen, or custom-build a color by clicking Show color mixer and then moving the sliders that appear to mix your own color.
  2. To change the transparency of window borders, move the Color intensity slider to the left to make them more translucent, and to the right to make them more opaque.
  3. To turn off transparency, uncheck the box next to Enable transparency.

4. Protect your privacy by removing Windows Vista metadata One of Vista’s more useful features is also one of its more dangerous ones — the use of metadata. Metadata is information about files that you don’t normally see but that can help you search for them.

For example, music files typically contain the name of the composer, type of music and so on. And a photograph usually contains data on when the photo was taken, who took it, the camera model and other information, such as ISO speed. Documents and spreadsheets contain a wide variety of information about their creators, including who created the document, how much time was spent editing it, who reviewed the document and so on.

In many cases, programs automatically generate their own metadata when a file is created. Users can also easily create or edit metadata. Right-click a file, choose Properties, and select the Details tab. Then click any field and type in metadata. Keep in mind that some metadata, such as the last time a file was printed, can’t be altered.

This metadata can be quite useful, because Windows Vista search uses it. So if you want to find every music track on your PC that was composed by Mozart, for example, type Mozart into a search box, and Vista will search the metadata to find all the Mozart tracks.

But there are times when you don’t want your files’ metadata to be viewed by others or by people outside your organization. Analyst firm Gartner Inc. points out that businesses might embed metadata into files about a customer — for example, “good customer” or “bad customer” labels — and a business certainly wouldn’t want others to see that. There may similarly be personal metadata in your documents that you don’t want others to see.

It’s easy to remove any metadata from any file:

  1. Open Windows Explorer and right-click the file.
  2. Choose Properties.
  3. Select the Details tab. A screen that displays the document’s metadata appears, like the one shown at right.
  4. Click the Remove Properties and Personal Information link at the bottom of the screen. The Remove Properties dialog box appears.
  5. Select Remove the following properties from this file and check the boxes next to all of the metadata you want removed. Click OK. The selected metadata will be removed.
  6. Alternatively, you can create a copy of the document with all the metadata removed. Select Create a copy with all possible properties removed and click OK.

You can also remove metadata from multiple files at once. Select all the files from which you want to remove metadata, then right-click them and follow the directions in this hack for removing the data. In order for this to work, though, the files have to have common metadata fields so that the metadata can be removed from all of them at once.

5. Power up Windows Vista’s context menu The right-click menu (also called the context menu) in Windows Explorer under Vista is quite useful. Right-click a file, and a menu appears, letting you take a variety of actions, such as opening the file, printing it, deleting it, copying it, creating a shortcut to it and so on. The exact options that appear vary depending on your system setup and what programs you have installed.

If you want to, you can add options to the context menu. Hold down the Shift key as you right-click a file, and you’ll see several new menu options, marked with arrows in the image to the right.

Here are the new options you get and what each one does:

  • Open as Read-Only: As the name says, it opens the file as a read-only file.
  • Pin to Start Menu: This pins a shortcut to the file you’ve right-clicked in the top section of the Start menu. To remove the shortcut from the Start menu, right-click the shortcut and select Remove from this list.
  • Add to Quick Launch: This adds a shortcut to your file in the Quick Launch toolbar, on the left side of the taskbar. To remove the shortcut, right-click it and choose Delete.
  • Copy as Path: This copies the file name and location to the Windows clipboard — for example, C:\Budget\2007 memo.xls. You can then paste that path wherever you want.

6. Speed up or turn off Windows Aero Windows Aero may add pizzazz to the interface, but depending on your hardware, it may also slow down your system. You can speed up your PC by turning it off altogether, or by turning off some Aero features but leaving others on.

To turn off Aero:

  1. Right-click the Windows desktop and select Personalize > Window Color and Appearance.
  2. Click Open classic appearance properties for more color options.
  3. In the Color scheme drop-down box, choose Windows Vista Basic or Windows Vista Standard, and click OK.

Aero will now be turned off.

What if there are some things you like about Aero, such as window animations, but others you don’t like, such as transparent windows? You can turn off some Aero features to speed up your PC but leave on others that you like using.

To do it, select Start > Computer > System Properties. Click Advanced system settings, then, in the Performance section, click the Settings button. A screen like the one shown below appears. Select Custom, uncheck those features that you want to turn off, then click OK.

7. Bypass the Windows Vista log-on screen on multiaccount PCs When you have more than one user account on a Windows Vista PC, every time you restart your PC you’ll see a welcome screen listing all the accounts on the machine. You’ll have to click one and then type in your log-on information in order to start using Windows Vista.

But what if, like many people, you use one primary account nearly all the time and use others only on occasion? You’d like to bypass the welcome screen listing all the user accounts and automatically log in whenever you start Windows Vista — but Vista can’t seem to accomplish this simple task.

Actually, you can do it, as you’ll see in this hack. Follow it, and you’ll automatically log in on your primary account and then be able to switch to any other account when you wish:

  1. At the Search box or a command prompt, type control userpasswords2 and press Enter. The User Accounts screen appears.
  2. Highlight the account that you want to automatically log on with, then uncheck the box next to Users must enter a user name and password to use this computer. Click OK.
  3. The Automatically Log On dialog box appears. Type in the password for the account that you want to log on automatically. (If the account shown isn’t the one that you want to log on automatically, type in the username and password for the correct account. Click OK.)
  4. From now on, you’ll automatically log in using that account. When you’re logged in, if you want to switch to another account, use Fast User Switching: Click the Start button, click the arrow in the lower-right corner of the Start menu, and select Switch User. You’ll come to a screen listing all users on your PC, where you can log in as any other user.

8. Hack Vista’s blinking cursor Windows Vista’s blinking cursor is razor thin, and sometimes it can be very hard to find, especially if you’re using a laptop. But it’s easy to make the cursor thicker — pretty much as thick as you want. Select Control Panel > Ease of Access > Optimize visual display. Scroll toward the bottom of the screen, until you come to Make things on the screen easier to see, as shown below.

From here, you can fatten up Windows Vista’s cursor. In the drop-down menu next to Set the thickness of the blinking cursor, select a number. The larger the number, the fatter the cursor. You’ll see a preview of the cursor in the Preview box next to the drop-down menu. Click Save. The cursor throughout Windows Vista will now be fatter and easier to see.

9. Hack Vista’s screensavers For reasons inexplicable to mere mortals, Microsoft doesn’t allow you to customize how Windows Vista’s screensavers work — for example, by changing how the bubbles look in the Bubbles screensaver, or the number or thickness of the ribbons in the Ribbons screensaver.

If you’re willing to get your hands dirty by using the Registry, though, you can customize both. For the Bubbles screensaver, for example, you can turn the bubbles metallic or keep them transparent, configure whether the bubbles should have shadows, and display the bubbles against the desktop or instead against a solid black background. For the Ribbons screensaver, you can change the number and thickness of the ribbons.

To customize the Bubbles screensaver, launch the Registry Editor by typing regedit at the Start Search box or at a command prompt and pressing Enter. Then:

  1. 1. Go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Screensavers\Bubbles
  2. Select Edit > New DWORD (32-bit) Value, and create a new DWORD called MaterialGlass. Type 1 in the Value data field if you want glassy, transparent bubbles, or type 0 for metallic bubbles.
  3. Create a DWORD called ShowShadows, and give it a value of 1 to display shadows below the bubbles, and a value of 0 to have no shadow displayed.
  4. Create a DWORD called ShowBubbles and give it a value of 1 to show the bubbles on the desktop, and a value of 0 to show them against a solid black background.
  5. When you exit the Registry Editor, your new settings will take effect.

You can similarly tweak the Ribbons screensaver. To do it, open the Registry Editor and then:

  1. 1. Go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Screensavers\Ribbons
  2. Select Edit > New DWORD (32-bit) Value, and create a new DWORD called NumRibbons. Click Decimal, and then type in the number of ribbons you want to be displayed. The minimum number of ribbons is 1; the maximum is 256.
  3. Create a DWORD called RibbonWidth, click Decimal, and then type in a number to determine the width of each ribbon. The smaller the number, the narrower the ribbon.
  4. When you exit the Registry Editor, your new settings will take effect.

If you want to change any of the settings for either screensaver, you’ll have to go back into the Registry, find the appropriate DWORD and change the value. To revert to your original settings, delete the Registry keys that you created.

10. Make Windows animation go slo-mo Now that you’ve gotten your hands dirty in the Registry, here’s a final fun tweakfor you. It serves absolutely no useful purpose except for entertainment and eye candy. It lets you slow down the animations that occur when windows minimize and maximize to and from the taskbar on your command.

To do it, you’ll first edit the Registry. After that, when you want to slow down animations, hold down the Shift key. Release the key to make animations go at their normal speed.

Launch the Registry Editor by typing regedit at the Start Search box or at a command prompt and pressing enter. Then:

  1. Go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\DWM.
  2. Select Edit > New DWORD (32-bit) Value and create a new DWORD called AnimationsShiftKey. Give it a value of 1.
  3. Close the Registry Editor, log off of Windows, and then log back in again, or else reboot.
  4. Hold the Shift key and minimize or maximize a window. The animation will be slowed down considerably. To make the animation go at normal speed, let go of the Shift key.

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