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A guide to customising Windows 7

Despite all the news about Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 Preview, right now Microsoft's most popular operating system is still Windows 7. With over half a billion users running this version of the OS, it makes sense to show our readers how to get the most out of Windows 7.

In this article, we’re going to dig into the many ways that you can make the operating system your own through interface customisations.

Customisability reached new heights in Windows 7. New themes, backgrounds, gadgets, mouse pointers, user images, and more were introduced to let the user change how their PC looks and works.

Most of the customisation options can be reached just by right-clicking on your desktop and selecting the Personalise option, but there are plenty of other places to look for options that make Windows 7 your own. Here are some of our favourites…

Change window border glass colour

Vista had transparent window borders in multiple colours too, but Windows 7 also lets you set their intensity, transparency, hue, saturation, and brightness.

Change the theme

Windows 7's default theme is perfectly pleasant, but the Personalisation dialog offers some pretty captivating options. Among them are: architecture, cartoon characters, landscapes, nature, and art scenes. Microsoft commissioned some gifted artists to create many of these, so check them out. And, of course, to make the desktop your very own, you can still set your own photos as the wallpaper or screensaver. For all of this, just right-click on the desktop and choose Personalise.

Change your account picture

From the User Accounts control panel, choose one of the 36 included images or browse your own pictures for your representation in user icon form.

Change the system sounds

If you're sick of the standard old Windows error and other sounds, try switching to "Afternoon," which uses gentle guitar notes; "Raga," with its South Asian sitar sounds; or "Sonata," with its classical instruments. Changing your theme also changes your sounds, but you can mix and match so that it fits your idiosyncratic tastes.

Add a toolbar to the taskbar

When you right-click the taskbar, click Toolbars, and you'll be able to add search bar links and more to the toolbar. Some apps you've installed, such as iTunes, can add their own toolbars as well. With that media player, you'll see a player control bar, which lets you go back and forward in your playlist and adjust the volume. A maximise button closes the toolbar and opens the iTunes app. The Links toolbar is also useful for getting you to frequently visited sites.

Move the taskbar

Just as with Vista and XP before it, users of Windows 7 who prefer the taskbar to live at the sides or top of the screen can easily drag it to any of those locations.

Customise the Start Menu

Right-click on the Start button, and choose Properties, then Customise. From here you can decide whether to display things like Computer, Games, Music, Control Panel, Documents, and more. You can also decide whether these should offer a menu when clicked; for example, the Control Panel button can pop out a menu of all the icons within the actual Control Panel. One option I highly recommend here is Recent Items, which shows you what you’ve accessed lately (Vista also offers this).

Change the power button action

With Vista, a lot of people were confused by the Power button, which by default put the PC in Sleep mode rather than shut it down (not that this is always a bad idea). In Windows 7, the default was restored to actually powering down the PC. But you can change it to Sleep, switch user, log off, lock, or restart from either the Start Menu tab on the taskbar or the Start Menu Properties dialog, which you can open by right-clicking the taskbar and choosing Properties.

Pin your frequently used folders to the taskbar

This works a little differently compared to pinning an app. You have to right-click the Windows Explorer default pinned icon to see your pinned folder – your new folder doesn't get its own icon.

Use the gadgets

Gadgets don't appear by default as they did in the Vista Sidebar, rather, with Windows 7 they can be placed anywhere on the desktop, including being snapped to the right side. There are just a few gadgets included with the OS (you can go online to find more) but those few are useful: weather, headlines, clock, calendar, and CPU and Memory usage. Any Vista gadgets you find should work as well. You can easily customise your gadgets by right-clicking anywhere on the desktop and choosing Gadgets.

Tone down Notifications

Or pump them up. I always want to see everything, so in the Notification Area Icons control panel I check the “Always show all icons and notifications on the taskbar” check box. But many will want to tone it down, choosing "Hide icon and notifications" for some services and apps.

Change the tray and icons

By default, Windows 7 hides many of the system tray icons, which you have to hit an up arrow to reveal. I prefer seeing all of them, especially since some apps install system tray icons that I might not know about otherwise, and from which I can easily perform functions of the app. To get to the setting, right-click on the taskbar, choose Properties, then click the Customise button under Notifications. This lists all tray icons, and you’ll find the check box to show everything at the bottom.

Make the display bigger with Magnifier

You can make the whole screen bigger, use a lens, or a portion of the screen to show a magnified view. If you'd rather just set a larger screen size, you can also do that from the Display control panel.

Set up a HomeGroup

When you designate your Internet connection as Home, you get the option to make all PCs connected to the same router members of a HomeGroup. This means they can share files and stream media to each other. When you create a HomeGroup, you get a password to enter into any other machines you want to join the HomeGroup.

Set up your Libraries

Libraries are basically folders that can draw their contents from multiple folders, whether on the same machine, an external drive, or a networked PC. Each library folder has a little link stating the number of locations it draws its contents from; just click this to add more locations.

Change your mouse cursor

You can choose large, extra-large in Aero, black, inverted, or standard styles. The Aero style is slickly designed, but you may want something that stands out better against a given background. Note, too, that you can speed up and slow down the mouse cursor, have it snap to the default option in a dialog box, or show it with animated circles when you hit the Ctrl key. You’ll find these options under Mouse Properties in the Control Panel.

Change your screensaver

Windows 7 doesn't offer many screensavers, but then the threat of monitor burn-in is pretty much gone with today's displays. However, you can still customise the resting mode of your PC with these, and any Vista screensavers will work too. You can get to the option from the lower-right icon in the Personalisation control panel.

Change Autoplay options

When you plug in a device or disc, the AutoPlay dialog pops up automatically, offering a number of actions you can perform with what you've inserted, such as running an app or viewing files in a folder. Go to the Control Panel's Hardware and Sound area, and you can specify exactly what actions you want AutoPlay to offer.

Pin your device to the Taskbar

Some devices – such as cameras, smartphones, and printers – give you a customised experience using Windows 7's Device Stage feature. You can actually pin this photo-realistic representation of a piece of hardware to the taskbar just like an icon for an app. Theoretically, you can plug a supported device in to the PC and its Device Stage will appear on the taskbar as an icon you can pin. It will also appear in the Control Panel's Devices and Printers page.