Top 5 Windows Vista Tips To Personalize Your PC

Our list of hot features to add to your Vista installation includes video wallpaper, making Flip 3-D work more like the Mac's, tuning Firefox's user interface, managing security, and where

April 21, 2007

18 Min Read
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Settled in with Windows Vista yet? By now, having had several months to put the new operating system through its paces, you've gone beyond the novice user's infatuation with the glitzy new Aero interface. And you're probably inured to the annoying User Account Controls.

Now, it's time to kick it up a notch and add some slightly more sophisticated options to your Vista palette. Accordingly, here are some tips to tune your Vista installation. We've got hints on using video wallpaper, making Vista's Flip 3-D function work more like the Mac's, tuning Firefox's user interface so that it more closely resembles Internet Explorer, and where to get a hold of nifty Sidebar Gadgets. Plus, how to turn off the UACs (and why you should think twice about that).

1

Enhance Your Background With Windows DreamScene


Windows DreamScene, the video-enabled wallpaper that's the über-eye-candy of the Vista ecosystem, is finally out of its prolonged preview phase. Was it worth the wait? Kind of.

DreamScenes are full-motion video wallpapers, which can replace the plain, fixed backgrounds used traditionally.

My experience with DreamScene proved that some work well, while others can be decidedly funky. Even on a dual-core system -- I'm running a 3.2-GHz, Intel Pentium D 940 -- DreamScene sucks up a lot of processing power. One other caveat: my sense is that DreamScene doesn't appear to work and play all that well with any security programs you're likely to have on your machine.Of course, the big software existential question surrounding DreamScene remains: What is the point? These things don't do anything. They just look cool, which only reinforces the rap on Vista that it's an operating system whose raison d'etre is its eye candy. Setting that aside--because, again, these backgrounds are nothing if not pleasing distractions--here's how they work:

five SKUs of the operating system. As with many of the Vista command sequences, accessing DreamScene requires an idiosyncratic combination of the intuitive and the idiotic. Here's the sequence: Go to Windows Ultimate Extras from your Start menu. That'll take you to Windows Update With Windows Vista Extras, which is the regular Windows Update dialog box.

The second title therein will alert you that "There are Windows Ultimate Extras available for download." Sensible so far, but when you click through to view available extras, you have to scroll through a list of pending security updates, foreign language packs, and other OS detritus before you get to your objective. In my case, Windows Dreamscene Preview from earlier this year, and the more recently released Dreamscene Content Pack, which added some videos (the preview only had one).

The 51.3-Mbyte Content Pack adds four DreamScene motion wallpapers to the basic animation, which came with the Preview release. (That "basic" offering is a listlessly meandering variant on the classic green-hue Windows background, featuring what looks like a bunch of wispy rays of sunlight beating down on a large net of the kind they keep beneath circus trapeze artists.) The beefier "Pack" included -- these are my names, not Microsoft's -- dandelions in pollen season, rainfall at dusk, babbling brook, and (my favorite) "Burning Down the House" (golden fire).Enabling the DreamScene video backgrounds is a simple process. The command sequence is: Start > Control Panel > Appearance and Personalization > Change desktop background.

Here's another idiosyncracy: If you've already installed all Microsoft's available Extras, when you go through this command path, Vista will tell you there are no Extras available. This is needlessly obtuse. Let's say you've forgotten what you previously installed (a common occurrence, in my case), or you're using another family members' computer. It should tell you that there are no additional Extras out there, and list the ones you do have installed. But I digress, again; such is life under pre-SP1 Vista.More powerful than the paltry collection of DreamScenes offered by Microsoft are the third-party Deskscapes by Stardock. As a teaser to get you to try it, you can only download 20-Mbytes of free Deskscapes-- roughly, four or five -- beyond which you have to start paying. I went for Bay Bridge, Detroit By Night, and Small Waterfall. Once you run out, it costs $19.95 for a year's subscription, which promises "unlimited downloads."

Rather than adhering to the standard MPEG format used by the DreamScenes, Stardock has rolled its 'scapes into a proprietary file standard called ".Dream." Stardock claims these use less CPU power then the MPEG's or WMV's used by Microsoft's wallpapers. That didn't pan out in my tests. My processor meter varied between 17% and 38% for both the Microsoft and Stardock animations. Such excessive use of computing power is all the more shocking when you consider that these are ancillary apps that don't add any real value to your installation.

DeskScape can be downloaded for free. (Windows DreamScene must be installed on your system, too, for Stardock's DeskScape to work.) Unfortunately, DeskScapes don't automatically download to the virtual folder in which the "choose a desktop background" control dialogue expects to find them, which means you have to browse to find them (hint: they're probably in "downloads"). No biggie, except if you intend to enable them for another user, in which case they'll likely turn up as "hidden." The workaround here is to move them to the "Public Downloads" folder.

There have been reports of possible alternative solutions, which would enable users of the other SKUs, such as Vista Home, to try DreamScene. Most notable was a March discussion thread on the Vista Wired blog. The talk centered on VLC, a purported cross-platform media player offer by a site called VideoLan.org. For now, it appears this won't do the trick. However, Vista Wired strikes me as an interesting resource, worth following in its own right.

2

Make Vista's Flip 3-D Work More Like Mac OS X

Many pundits have pointed out that Vista's design borrows heavily from innovations which have previously appeared in OS X. Here's a tip that will make your Vista setup even more like a Mac, by enabling it to mimic the way Apple switches between open apps.

In Windows XP and prior releases, users had to retrieve minimized applications from the toolbar. Once restored, they'd compete with whatever else already was open on the screen. All in all, it's a fairly clunky way of moving stuff around one's already cluttered screen.

Enter Flip 3-D, through which Vista took a conceptual clue from Apple--and a direct lift from the way application-switching is handled in some Linux distros. By hitting the Windows logo key and then the Tab, Vista stacks up slices of all your open apps, at a 45-degree angle on your screen. You can then use your mouse wheel to locate the app you want to work on. Release the Windows key, and voila, restored app.

The user interface is even easier, and the presentation is much better, in SmartFlip, a useful little system app, which replaces Vista's stack-on-a-bias flip with the "rotating wheel" view used in OS X.

SmartFlip first surfaced in a Neowin forum in November of 2006. A demo has been posted in the form of a YouTube video.

While it's always slightly risky to install an unsigned app, my installation has caused no deleterious side effects. In operation, SmartFlip couldn't be easier. "F9" places the open apps into the "wheel" presentation. The mouse is used to scroll the desired program to the fore; it's selected with either a click or by depressing the enter key.

There are a couple of minor annoyances. First, SmartFlip has to be separately installed for each user logon in your system. The other nit is, because SmartFlip is an "unsigned app," when you first boot up your PC the next time, you'll get a security warning asking whether you really want to run the program. Say "yes," and unclick the box that says "Always ask before opening this file."

By the way, my characterization of the program as "little" is literal: The SmartFlip executable is only 616 Kbytes. I'm betting it didn't take a team of developers to create this one.

3

Turn Off Those Annoying "User Account Control" Security Notifications

This one's quick, simple, and obvious -- though it's also very, very bad, if you hew reflexively to the philosophy that shutting off any security feature is a mistake. Unfortunately, as I've (previously pointed out Vista's User Account Controls (UACs) are counterproductive.

They're intended as warnings -- Windows needs your permission to continue -- designed to prevent you from installing spyware and virus-laden programs on your PC. In practice, they distinguish not a whit between authorized apps from major vendors or worms written by the kid down the street (or in Eastern Europe). Furthermore, they pop up so frequently that the "Cry Wolf" factor quickly comes into play.

As several blogs have pointed out (e.g., TweakVista and Vista Rewired), shutting off Vista's security notifications is trivial in its simplicity. Both aforementioned blogs show you how to shut off the UACs using the taskbar's Windows Security Alerts icon as your starting point.

Alternatively, you can get to the Windows Security Center via the Control panel. Sequence through Start > Control Panel > Check this computer's security status. Next, click on the left-side link within the dialogue box, Change the way Security Center alerts me.

That'll open the Do you want to be notified of security issues? box. To kill the UAC notifications, select Don't notify me and don't display the icon.

While ditching the UACs gets rid of a nuisance, it still leaves unaddressed the very real problem of Vista security. For years, I've been down on the major PC security programs because I thought they created too much of a performance drag and protected too little against increasingly sophisticated threats like AIM-borne viruses (e.g., "Check out this photo: http://your_PC_is_screwed.com").

With Vista, I've changed my stance. Mostly, it's because of my kids. The only time I've ever been blindsided by spy- or adware has been when I've gone to sites which I probably shouldn't have been visiting in the first place. (Of course, my readers would never do such things.) I can't say the same, though, about my children. Even if I wanted to ban them from the likes of MySpace and Facebook -- unlike many parents, I don't -- that's not enforceable in the real world. (Friends' houses and young peoples' computer expertise trump parental controls every time.) Hence, the need for a security program. I'm currently working my way through Symantec's Norton Internet Security, Trend Micro's PC-cillin, and Microsoft's Windows Defender to decide which one I like best.

Realistically, you can erect an electronic barbed-wire fence around your PC, and you'll still get whacked by malware every now and again. In this regard, no security feature is more important than System Restore. That's Windows' built-in capability to roll your installation back to its configuration on a prior date. It's accessed via Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Backup and Restore Center.

Windows Vista is much better at creating "restore points" -- rollback date options -- than is XP. That's a big plus; I never was much good at remembering to create XP restore points, and so often got stuck deleting working apps along with the bad stuff when I had to run a restore. So, while you no longer need to remember to set restore points, you'd be well advised to do frequent backups.

Aside from the obvious reason -- it's good practice -- I've still got the lingering suspicion that Vista may not be totally buttoned down when it comes to Restore's promise to only remove apps and systems software, not any docs or pictures. Fortunately, archiving is much easier to accomplish than in XP; Vista's Backup and Restore Center makes it simple.

4

Make Firefox Look Like A Native Vista App

The comparisons between Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox have been pored over in numerous reviews.

I won't belabor the battle, other than to give you my personal impressions. IE7 is vastly improved over IE6, to the point where I was all set to make it my browser of choice on my main Vista PC. IE7 looks great and handles tabs adeptly. Personally, I have some issues with the way it presents Favorites and History, but those aren't deal-breakers. I also still rely on Bloglines as my primary RSS reader, though I expect I'll eventually migrate to an embedded reader like that in IE7.

Moreover, I've never been a particular fan of Firefox. Mostly, that stems from my desire to see how competing Web sites are "really" supposed to look. Most Webmasters and producers design their sites to look good under IE, and then do a second check to see if they also render properly in Firefox, Safari, and other browers.

In addition, I've never found much of a disparity in performance between IE6 and Firefox; I use them both on my Windows XP ThinkPad at work. However, on my Vista setup, Firefox (I'm running version 2.0.0.3) simply runs better than does IE7. This is a subjective judgment, sure, but I've had the impression that Firefox loads faster and more consistently.

However, where Firefox once held the lead in terms of look and feel, it's been leapfrogged by IE7. Maybe this is because IE7 has been tweaked to look like a native Vista app, while Firefox still hints at its University of Illinois heritage.

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