Windows 7 themes, task bar and other tips and lets get to know some old friends like Movie Maker 2.6 and Power Toys

Windows 7 has been out, officially, for a short time now and the sheer volume of articles about the new operating system is just staggering.  I’ve been fixated on it myself.  And, yes, this is another post about customizing the new operating system.  There’s just so much you can do, that it is nearly impossible to cover it all in one post.  Consider this a sequel to this post.

Themes

The shipping US (and other) version of Windows 7 contains themes for other locales as well.  You can find them in the C:WindowsGlobalizationMCT directories.  Navigate there, then, under each country, there is a theme folder. Go there and double click the theme file to add it to your themes library.

There are LOTS of themes floating around now.  The number of nice themes to show up since the RC1 released is amazing.  At the end of this post, there is a list of links that point to either themes or other lists of themes.  At any rate, go explore them. There are some really nice themes out there.  I also posted about themes earlier and you can read that here

Also, if you are an Object Desktop subscriber, there are a ton of themes for WindowBlinds that do much more than change the background and sounds.  WindowBlinds changes the windows borders, dialog boxes, buttons, start ORB and more.  Pretty much every facet of the interface can be changed with WindowBlinds.  There is a trial version available or you can subscribe to Object Desktop and get WindowBlinds and other nice applications as part of your subscription.  Go to Stardock and check it out.  (And, no, I am in no way affiliated with them, I just love their products.)

Task Bar
Because the task bar has changed substantially, there are, of course, many ways to change it.  Below are a few things you can do to change it plus a handy tip.

One of the things that Microsoft did to the task bar when they introduced Windows XP was add the ‘Quick Launch’ bar.  Unfortunately, they removed it-or, more appropriately, they removed the easy way to turn it on.  Well, thanks to a Microsoft blogger, details on turning it back on are below.  Please note, the tip is taken from his blog and is not mine.  I don’t want to take credit for something I did not do.

How to restore the Quick Launch bar on the Windows 7 Task Bar (credit to this site):

  • Right-click the taskbar, choose Toolbars / New Toolbar
  • In the folder selection dialog, enter the following string and hit OK:
    %userprofile%AppDataRoamingMicrosoftInternet ExplorerQuick Launch
  • Turn off the “lock the taskbar” setting, and right-click on the divider. Make sure that “Show text” and “Show title” are disabled and the view is set to “small icons”.
  • Use the dividers to rearrange the toolbar ordering to choice, and then lock the taskbar again.

One of the better changes Microsoft made to the task bar was to devote a small part of it as a ‘hot area’ where you can quickly get to the desktop.  If you move your mouse to the far right side of the task bar and click the area, you can minimize all windows and see the desktop.  Alternately, you can right click and choose a default action (either peek at the desktop or show desktop.)

Movie Maker 2.6

While the Live Essentials Movie Maker is very nice and it works well, there are a few things that were left out, namely some of the effects and the ability to put the bloody credits over video (why, why, why was this removed?)  Well, unfortunately, the Vista version of Movie Maker disappears when you upgrade and it is not downloadable from Microsoft. BUT…the non-Aero version that was released for XP and Vista Home Basic: version 2.6.  It is still the old interface and retains the old effects, wipes, etc.  Grab it here.

Power Toys

One of the things that used to accompany a Windows release was the un-official release of the Microsoft Power Toys.  These were usually a collection of small applets or registry changes that altered a small part of Windows functionality or, in most cases, enhanced it.  Well, for whatever reason, those power toys seemed to have ceased development.  There were a few really handy ones like the Send to/Copy to any folder.  I’ve never really understood why ‘Send to any folder’ is not just there in the context menu.  It is an odd omission.  Anyway, I am happy to say that some-not all-of those power toys still work under 7.  And, with Vista, a Microsoft employee developed a few for the UAC as well.  It is a lengthy article with downloads and you can go here to read it. 

The marvelous Windows XP Power Toys are still available and you can get them here.  Be careful, some of these do not work under 7 and a few are now better supported and there are newer versions of them (like SyncToy.)  Go here for the Power Toys.  NOTE:  the Tweak UI on that page WILL NOT WORK and might cause you problems if you try it.  Clear Type Tuner is now part of 7 and you do not need the Power Toy.  The photo related toys are still useful.  The HTML slide show wizard and the CD Slide Show generator are pretty handy for creating a quick slide show that you can post or burn to CD without having to start an application.  They are quick and easy to use, but very bare bones.  Finally, SyncToy graduated to a more full application. It works very well and is available here.  I used it for a long time to keep my Zune in sync with iTunes.

Stay tuned for more tips and tricks for Microsoft’s terrific new operating system.

Links:

Windows 98 Plus! Pack Themes

Windows 7 ‘Bliss’ Theme pack

Nice collection of themes for Windows 7

Themes, gadgets and wallpaper for Windows 7

Another nice collection of theme links

 

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The ‘other’ OS release this month: Ubuntu 9.10 (AKA Karmic Koalas) Is it ready for Joe User?

Today, the Ubuntu crowd got it’s new operating system, Karmic Koalas.  Also known as Ubuntu 9.10, the operating system is now available for download.  If you believed the tech world-or, at least, the Linux faithful-downloading the OS could be problematic because, you know, everyone would want to download it.  Well, I had no problems downloading the 700mb ISO file.  It downloaded in just a few minutes after which I installed it in a Virtual Box VM.

Installation, I have to say, is much, much easier than it used to be.  Booting the VM with the ISO resulted in a rather ugly text mode selection box for language, then a cute little menu to select how I wanted to install/use the ‘live CD’.  I chose to install.  It then presented a very cute little glowing graphic and began the installation process.  It asked me which drive I wanted to use and then asked a few basic things like time zone, my name, a password to use and then it went on its way.  The installation took, maybe, twenty minutes or so.  I am rather impressed by how easy and quick it was.  unbuntu1

Once booted, I was presented with a pleasant enough desktop.  And here is where it falls flat.  Again.  I went to install the Virtual Box extras so I could have the better graphical experience and also test how easy it would be to install SOMETHING, anything.  Well, unfortunately, the extras required a trip to Terminal.  And that is the problem.  As long as you have to use Terminal to INSTALL something or even to change a system setting, it fails.  Yes, I know there are funky things in Windows as there are in Mac OS X but they are relatively few and far between.  Just about everything I need to change in Windows is reachable from within the user interface and does not require a CMD window. 

I did get the extra’s installer (for lack of a better term) to do something, but I don’t know what.  I see no visible change and accessing the display panel didn’t yield any changes.  

I also tried to access a file on one of my Windows computers.  While the big U KNEW about my network, it was not able to access anything on it, rather it enjoyed letting me know that it could not find a server.  While I am sure some Linux savvy soul out there could tell me in, what, two seconds, what the problem is, the point is that I shouldn’t HAVE to ask nor should I even have this issue.  It should find all of my attached PC’s and storage and allow me to use them. 

Performance seemed iffy as well, but I am not sure how much of that is due to the operating system running in a VM.

The usual suite of applications was already installed:  Firefox, Open Office, Tetravex and gnomtris and others.  There weren’t as many pre-installed apps in this release and that’s fine.  Getting additional software is fairly easy IF YOU KNOW WHERE TO GO.  Once again, Linux falls short.  While there is a ‘package manager’, you have to hunt for it and then, when you use it, you must enter your password (bowing to a very UAC like feature from Vista.)  Next, you have to traverse a myriad of choices to find something you want.  There seems to be multiple ‘universes’ with which to get software.  And, once you find something, you may be required to download and install additional software to make what you want work.  It is a bit confusing and cumbersome.  Worse, some of the applications require a different window manager or, at least, that window manager has to be installed so its libraries can be used.  And, please, correct me if I am wrong about that.  While the flexibility of having multiple interface managers is cool, it does nothing for Joe User.

I find it interesting, too, that there are quite a few little things that seem to have been taken from either Windows or Mac OS X.  The UAC like prompts, the warm and fuzzy text on many of the dialog boxes and even the choice of backgrounds are similar to what you get in the other operating systems.  There’s nothing wrong with it, why not take the good bits?

My goal was to take a very quick look at this release through the eyes of an ‘average’ user.  In my opinion, Ubuntu 9.10, while nicer than previous releases, still has a very long way to go before it can challenge Mac or Windows on the desktop.  Even with the warm an fuzzies that the developers seem to have at least tried to put into the GUI, it still falls way short.  For an enthusiast, however, Ubuntu is pretty darn cool.  If you don’t mind the limitations I’ve mentioned or if you like getting down and dirty with the operating system, this is the way to go.  The operating system is far more customizable and extensible than Windows and the price is certainly right. All in all, Ubuntu is a worthwhile download and, if you aren’t tied to Windows or Mac or whatever, it would make a nice desktop OS, as long as you don’t mind getting intimate with your hardware.

You can download the ISO files here.

UPDATE: 10/30/2009ubuntu3

ubuntu2In  the post, I mistakenly said that the software packager was hidden.  Indeed, the one I looked at, the Synaptics Package manager, is buried. However, I totally missed the Ubuntu Software Center.  Available from the Applications menu, you can select it and have a plethora of pre-compiled applications at your fingertips. You are presented with an easy to navigate list of categories like games, accessories, science, development and others.  When you select a category, you are then presented with a list of available applications.  Installation is fairly painless. Just double click an application and it will be downloaded and installed. Any necessary dependencies are also installed.  This repository is much nicer than what I found earlier, and it does make installing available software much easier. However, I still stand by my conclusion.  This does little to make Ubuntu any closer to Windows or Mac OS X.

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Windows 7 ‘spotty’ driver support? I don’t think so

Once again, our favorite industry tabloid, InfoWorld, has published a stunner of an article detailing why Windows 7 has ‘spotty’ driver support.  According to the author of the post, ‘any hope that Microsoft and HP would surprise me by releasing working drivers for all devices supported by Windows Vista in time’ for the Windows 7 release. His problem:  his 64 bit desktop couldn’t scan from his networked HP printer.  Apparently, you see, it is both Microsoft and HP’s responsibility to make sure all of the crap you have works with every release of the OS.  Well, guess what?  IT DOES.  My all in one HP printer, scanner, fax, wipe your butt machine has worked since the Windows 7 public beta was released.  So, since MY HP All in One device works, the support MUST be good, right?  After all, the whole article is based on one person’s in-ability to scan, wirelessly, from his all in one device using his Windows 7 computer.  Oh, he did ‘spot check’ other companies (Brother and Epson) and also checked on HP’s driver situation for its laptops.  He found that some HP laptops won’t be updated.  Well, no they won’t.  Those are probably older laptops and, most likely, didn’t support or had limit support for Vista.  Surely, they cannot be expect to support something that was state of the art when XP was released, right?

The post complains about having to connect the device to the computer to install the printer.  The author says ‘The work-around is unsatisfactory’.  Well, he must have forgotten that YOU HAD TO DO THAT to set the bloody thing up anyway.  Once you’ve set it up, you unplug it from USB if you want.  From my own experience, because I had already set the device up under Vista, all I had to do was tell Windows 7 to look for it via wireless. It took about thirty seconds for it to find the device and install the drivers.

As for HP, they had updated drivers-for Windows 7-ON THE DAY that 7 released. It was all there.  Both laptops and my desktop.  They even had updated versions of the media smart software that they bundle on the computers.  Far and away better than they did with Vista.

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths that this publication will go through to make Microsoft look bad.  PC World, the slickly produced consumer magazine, loves to put these posts on its site and call it ‘news.’ 

Anyway, go here if you want to read the article yourself.  Poke around and you will find a bevy of anti-Windows ‘news’ and commentary.  It is about as credible as those PC switcher ads that Apple runs (and have now out lived themselves.)

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Wow, Internet Explorer 8 works well after all…time to eat crow and say sorry to Microsoft

OK, time for me to eat crow and give a big apology to the Internet Explorer 8 team.  I’ve posted, several times, about how Internet Explorer 8 was broken.  For me, on three machines, it was broken.  On two of them, I had constant issues with tabs not rendering the pages.  I’d have to kill the browser and restart it.  Often, nothing seemed to work and I, finally, resorted to punting that browsers and moving to Safari for Windows.  As I wrote in this post, even that browser was beginning to give me problems since the last update from Apple. 

Well, funny thing happened after that last posting. I got some helpful advice from some Twitter people and some readers. Plus, Windows 7 was finally released.  A bit of investigating revealed that several IE add on’s were installed, including Google ChromeFrame. After disabling many of them, IE 8 began to act more like IE 7 did. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.

Windows 7 comes along and I upgrade two of the three machines that IE 8 was acting badly on and, guess what? It is working just fine.  Starts up much faster, renders the pages each time, feels more responsive and generally works better.  Now, I’m not sure why on the third machine it is still acting a bit wonky, but it is my home media machine and I don’t browse often on it anyway.  The only constant I’ve noticed was the 32/64 bit mixture.  Maybe it was more of an issue with Vista than Windows 7, although one of the two machines that had the problem was a Windows 7 RC1 install (which was upgraded from 7 Beta 1, upgraded from Vista 64 Home Premium, so that might have made it unstable there.)

No matter.  The browser is now working just fine on the Windows 7 machines.  No hiccups, hang-ups or hang over’s. The browser works well.  Now, how does one prepare crow? 

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Taming the Windows 7 interface – turn on or off the Aero features and gain control over the user interface

Yep, another Windows 7 post.  This time, I wanted to share some ways to ‘tame’ the user interface.  Realizing that not everyone likes or wants all of the eye candy and graphical features of the Aero interface in Windows 7, I thought I would share a few things you can set from one handy dialog and show some somewhat dramatic results by changing one of them.

System Properties, Visual Options To begin, click the Start Orb and then right click on ‘COMPUTER’ and select properties.  Select the ADVANCED TAB and then click SETTINGS.  You should not be on the Visual Effects tab of the Performance Options dialog.

From here, select CUSTOM to turn on or off the eye candy.  Personally, I like the effects, so I leave them all on, but there are a few that seem to annoy many people and Microsoft made it easy to disable them.  Oddly enough, one of them that I’ve heard people say was useless or somewhat annoying was Aero Peek.  I’m not sure why this is, I find it pretty useful.  At any rate, un check the Enable Aero Peek and you will turn it off. Window Shadows

Another feature I’ve heard many complain that was introduced with Vista are the shadows under windows.  There was no easy way to turn it off in Vista, but in 7, you can simply un-check the box.  The difference is amazing and now I am not sure which way I prefer it.  I will have to try it both ways for a few days.  I like the depth that the shadows seem to give, but I also like the clean lines of the overlapping windows. 

Other features you can control here are font smoothing, control animations, minimize and maximize window animations, No Shadows the way menus slide in or out, shadows under labels or the mouse pointer and you can disable part of the theme engine here by un-checking the ‘Use Visual Styles on Windows and Buttons’. 

Of course, the easiest way to turn most of this stuff off is to use the now extremely dated ‘Classic’ theme.  Sigh.  Why is this still here?  To each, their own, I suppose.

Win 7 Classic Theme

In Classic, you still have the window docking feature, but not Aero Shake or Aero Peek.  Task bar thumbnails are text only.  Transparency is gone in most places and the end result is an odd Windows 7 Aero Basic Thememixture of Windows 2000 style controls mixed with Vista / Windows 7 style controls.  It’s really odd and looks like an early attempt at skinning Windows.  Sort of works, mostly doesn’t. I think if you want bare basics, the Aero Basic theme looks nicer.

Finally, if you want to go all out and have more control over the appearance of your desktop, you should check out Stardock’s Object Desktop.  This suite of applets lets you skin the entire interface so you can make Windows look like ANYTHING you want, from a MAC OS X desktop, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, OS/2, Amiga, Star Trek themes, Simpsons, etc.  There is also Object Dock which gives you a Mac OS style dock, the Sound Packager which you can use to replace your system sounds and an icon manager.  There are other apps in the suite.  Go to Stardock and check it out.  Some of the apps are free, others are only in the suite and there are demo versions for most of the ‘biggie’ apps.

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Windows 7 features that you might not know about and a few useful tips

I know you’ve probably had enough with the Windows 7 stories all over the tubes, but, I’ve got more to share.  Even though I have been using the RC1 version for months, I am finding things that I either missed or, rather, were not in that version. Certainly, many of the themes were missing and Microsoft has a few really nice ones on the downloads site at Microsoft.com.  There are some branded themes that are also really nice, among them are the Bing theme with some fantastic photos, the Coca Cola theme is whimsical, I personally love the Infiniti theme since I have an I30 and Zune themes are colorful.

Themes aside, Microsoft added quite a bit of little things that, individually, are not much but, collectively, they add up to a really nice experience.  Now, I’m sure you’ve read about the Aero features like shake, dock and peek, so I won’t talk about those.  Instead, I’m going to talk about some other, lesser know things that I think add value and, a few of them that I don’t recall seeing in the RC1.

For example, for laptops, there is a new feature that will dim your screen after x minutes of use.  ‘X’ is anywhere from five minutes to 5 hours or never.  This feature may have been there before, but not turned on.  It defaults to ten minutes, I believe.  I don’t recall since I have changed it.  ThemeBackground

To change the timing:

  • Open Control Panel
  • Select Hardware and Sound
  • Power Options
  • Edit Plan Settings
  • Next to Dim the Display, select either On battery or Plugged in and select the interval you want
  • Click Save Changes and then close the window by clicking the X in the upper right corner

From that same screen, you can also set the normal brightness-something I think was available in Vista.

Another nice little feature, part of which was in RC1, is the improved theme manager.  While this was present in RC1, I didn’t play with it too much because themes in RC1 were a bit wonky for me.  It was definitely the video driver as the problem is gone now.  One of the nice things you can do is select a range of background photos and have them rotate every few minutes, hours or day.  You can also have them shuffle so the order is different each time.  

To do this:

  • Right click on an empty part of your desktop
  • Select Personalization
  • Pick a theme, I always use the standard Windows 7 theme
  • Click Desktop Background
  • In the Picture location, select a folder that contains the pictures you want to use.  Note: YOUR photos are in the Picture Library
  • Click CLEAR ALL to uncheck the pictures
  • Now, for each photo you want to include, click ONE time on the check box in the upper left of the photo icon
  • Once you have selected the photos, set the ‘Change picture every:’ timing selection
  • Click Shuffle if you want them to be in a somewhat random order
  • For Picture Position, it is best to leave it at Fill, since that will fill the whole screen, but you can experiment with the setting to get it right for you
  • If you are using a laptop, there is an additional setting (that I don’t remember being there) that will suspend the slide show if your are running on the battery
  • Click Save Changes when you are done

Context menu (right click)You can also set the sounds for your theme.  The works much the same as the pictures select, but you have to click on each event and select a sound file to play.  I usually leave it on the default or select no sounds.  This is a bit more tedious to perform.

Start Menu

The Start menu has undergone some subtle changes as well.  Gone are the auto pinned items at the top.  You have to do this yourself, and, I think, that’s OK.  I didn’t  always want the items that were there under XP or Vista, so this is a welcome change for me.  Pinning is easy, too.  Right click the item you wish to pin, select Pin To Taskbar or Pin to Start Menu.  Once pinned, you can unpin simply by right click the pinned item and selecting Unpin. Pretty easy and very handy.Start Menu list

Other start menu changes include a menu on items that support lists or previously used files.  For example, say you use Notepad enough for it to stay in the recently used applications list in the Start Menu OR you have pinned it.  When you open the Start Menu, you’ll see a right arrow next to the icon.  Click the arrow and the right side of the start menu switches to what ever list the program supports.  For example, the Getting Started guide, which should be the first non-pinned item right after you’ve installed Windows 7, shows the various tasks you can perform that Microsoft thought you would want to do after installing the operating system.  This is just like the jump lists in the task bar.  There is, of course, an API for that if you are a programmer and wish to add such support to your own software.  This is one of the handiest features yet.

Not part of Windows 7, but these are a few things you should get…

One of the things that Microsoft did to streamline Windows 7 is get rid of some of the applets that shipped with Vista and some previous versions of Windows.  Namely, the mail application, photo gallery and movie maker are now separate but free downloads.  Go to Windows Live Essentials and run the installer from the web page. Select the items you wish to install and let the installer do its job.  Please note: if you use Parental Controls, you will also need to download the Family Safety program as well.  This is one thing they took out of Windows 7 that should have stayed.  Click here for instructions on using this part.

Next, head over to Lifehacker and check out this article on some cool software to augment any version of Windows. While at Lifehacker, check out this story on 10 things to boost Windows 7.

I will post more findings after having gone through the retail even more.  Stay tuned!

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Windows 7 Family 3 pack upgrades and general observations

Following up on my previous post about my upgrade experience, I thought I’d share my Family 3 Pack upgrades.  The first was on a DV7 family HP laptop.  Since we have two laptops from that same family, and I had already performed one upgrade, I knew what to expect and about how long it would.  The upgrade itself took around three hours and I spent another hour or so updating drivers and installing a couple of applications that I wanted to wait to install until I got Windows 7 on this particular machine.

The computer, which is my son’s laptop, is a near twin to my personal laptop, yet it did not have all of the same drivers that my machine has, which means there are some subtle hardware differences.  Not an issue, and, no doubt, due to his computer being a few months older than mine.  At any rate, I ran into no issues on the machine.  Windows 7 upgraded without a hitch.

The Family 3 Pack comes with two DVD’s:  a DVD with the 32 bit version of Windows 7 and the second DVD has the 64 bit version.  Also in the package are the little ‘here’s what’s new with Windows 7’ booklet, the DVD case insert with the activation key and a slip of paper that talks about what to do if you are upgrading from XP.  The package is quite like the Home Premium package, only it is orange.  In fact, except for the color scheme and the product name on the disk, the contents are the same.  You only really know it is the three pack because the DVD is labeled as the Family 3 Pack.

Both laptops only required an in place upgrade.  For the next computer, I had to do a custom install.  This machine was running the Windows 7 RC1 version.  I didn’t even try an in place upgrade since the RC1 was Window 7 Ultimate and you aren’t supposed to be able to upgrade from Ultimate to Home Premium.  Besides, it was the RC1, which was itself an upgrade from an earlier beta.  I didn’t want to mix in the released code with that beta and RC1 stuff.  Starting over is sometimes a better way to go.

So, even though this was a custom install, it still took nearly three hours for it to install.  I suspect it was because I have four relatively large USB external drives. I noticed that for an hour and a half to two hours, there was a tremendous amount of activity on all four, in sequence too.  More than likely, had I unplugged them, it would not have taken as long.

The upgrade went pretty smooth, all of the devices were detected and drivers installed.  Connecting to my HP Office Jet over WIFI was easy and the driver installed.  I have not, however, tried to fax or scan and I’m not too worried about that as it worked great under the RC1.  One interesting thing I’ve seen is the number of Windows updates that have been pulled down.  The two laptops had three Windows 7 updates and a few several Internet Explorer 8 updates.  The desktop, however had FOUR Windows 7 updates and two Internet Explorer 8 updates plus updates for a couple of drivers that I had already updated, specifically the ATI 3200 chipset and the Atheros Ethernet driver.

Re-installing the applications I use regularly is going to be the real pain.  Not a problem, just a pain.  The one thing I have yet to figure out is why can’t Microsoft migrate the installed applications.  The go through the trouble of moving the Program Files directories and the User directories, so why couldn’t they migrate the apps too?  I suppose it has to do the now unwieldy Registry, but it sure would go a long way to easing the upgrade.  Of course, the flip side is that you’ll only install the stuff you really want and use and leave the junk you’ve installed off of the machine.  There’s some junk that I had that will not be going back on the machine.

So far, the Family 3 Pack experience, installation wise, has been no different and I would not expect any differences.  Activation was just as easy as before and only took a couple of seconds. 

My experience with both the single upgrade and the Family 3 Pack has been pretty good.  No problems, no incompatibilities and no driver issues.  Quite a difference from my Vista experiences-which were not that bad any way-and way, way better than XP.  Microsoft deserves lots of credit for the improvements to both the installation and upgrade experience as well as the user experience in Windows 7 itself.

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