Make Windows 7 work your way with customization

Tweakers, rejoice! Windows 7 offers more customization options than any previous version of Windows–from total control over annoying pop-up system messages to homebrew “search connectors” that let you run Web searches right from Windows Explorer.

A few of these options require third-party software, but they're all freebies and all easy to use. Most of the tweaks, however, can be accomplished with a few simple clicks. So get ready to make a good OS even better by adding some personal customization touches.

Change the Log-on Screen's Wallpaper

Windows 7 has a lovely blue log-on screen, but it gets a little boring after awhile. Wouldn't it be nice if you could customize it the way you can Windows' desktop wallpaper? You can, without visiting the Registry. All you need is the Logon Changer for Windows 7, a free utility that lets you turn any image into your log-on screen background.

Run the program, click Change Logon Screen, and then navigate to the folder containing the image you want. If it's too large (Windows limits image size to 245KB), Logon Changer will offer to copy and resize it. Once the new background is in place, you can preview it at full-screen size by clicking Test. If you want the old wallpaper back, click Revert to Default Logon Screen.

Tweak the User Interface

Remember TweakUI, the old Microsoft utility that let you fine-tune the Windows interface? The Windows Club's Ultimate Windows Tweaker, its unofficial successor for Windows 7, goes so far as to bill itself as a “Tweak UI utility.”

Like TweakUI, UWT provides a king's ransom in customization controls, from changing what appears in the Start menu to optimizing performance by disabling various Windows features (like Aero and Tablet PC). Tired of Windows' automatically rebooting after an unattended system update? You can turn off that option and countless others. UWT even lets you wrangle Internet Explorer 8: no more warnings when you're about to close multiple tabs, for example.

Granted, you can reach many of the same settings by delving into the Control Panel, Registry, and other areas. But Ultimate Windows Tweaker puts every imaginable option (and some you never imagined) under one convenient roof. It's a must-have tool for any serious Windows tweaker.

Change Windows Media Center Startup Options

If you use Windows Media Center, you've probably wished for a way to bypass the startup animation and go straight to live TV. Or to start playing your music favorites immediately. Fortunately, by flipping a few hidden “switches,” you can configure WMC to start exactly the way you want.

Click Start, All Programs, find and right-click the Windows Media Center icon, and then choose Properties. Place your cursor at the end of the Target field, where you'll see this line: %windir%\ehome\ehshell.exe. Now it's time to tack on one or more of the following switches:

/nostartupanimation disables the startup animation so you get into WMC a few seconds faster.

/playallmusic immediately plays your music library.

/playfavmusic immediately plays your music favorites.

/playslideshow immediately plays a slideshow of all your photos.

/playslideshowwithmusic immediately plays a slideshow with music.

“/mcesuperbar://tv?live=true” goes directly to live TV (assuming you have a tuner).

Getting back to our initial example, suppose that you want to bypass the startup animation and go straight to live TV. Here's the how the Target field should read (make sure to leave a space before each switch):

%windir%\ehome\ehshell.exe /nostartupanimation “/mcesuperbar://tv?live=true”

Add Your Downloads Folder to the Start Menu

By default, the files you download land in the Downloads folder. So why doesn't Windows make that folder easier to find? Here's how to add it to the Start menu:

1. Right-click the Start button, and then click Properties.

2. Click the Customize button.

3. Scroll down until you find the entry for 'Downloads'. Then enable either Display as a link or Display as a menu. The former will open your Downloads folder in a new window; the latter will display the contents as a fly-out menu.

4. Click OK, OK, and you're done.

Now, click Start and examine the options in the right-hand column: You'll see Downloads ready and waiting.

Turn Off Unwanted Windows Features

If you're running Windows on a netbook or on an older PC, you no doubt want to keep it lean and fit. Like Vista, Windows 7 makes it easy to turn off unwanted features that might slow down the OS. Unlike Vista, Windows 7 also lets you disable high-profile apps such as Internet Explorer 8, Windows Media Center, and Windows Search.

To make changes, click Start, type Features, and then click Turn Windows features on or off. Wait a few seconds for the menu to appear; when it does, clear the checkbox for any feature you want to disable. (Netbook users, for example, might want to send Windows DVD Maker packing, and there's no sense keeping Tablet PC Components around if you're not using a tablet or other touchscreen PC. Click OK when you're done, and wait (a minute or several) while Windows reconfigures itself.

Add Internet Search Shortcuts

One of the great things about Windows Vista is the way that search capabilities permeate the OS. From the Start menu to Windows Explorer to the Control Panel, search is everywhere. The same is true of Windows 7, of course, but in addition you can install so-called “search connectors” that let you search various Web sites directly from Windows Explorer.

If you've ever added search engines to Internet Explorer 7 or 8, you've encountered a similar idea. In Windows 7, click the type of search you want–Amazon, eBay, Flickr, or whatever–and then okay the addition in a few confirmation dialog boxes. When you're done, you'll see the new option in the Favorites section of Windows Explorer. Start typing in the search field and watch as results appear dynamically (that is, as you type).

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