There are many things I like about Windows Vista. The OS's approach to folder views isn't one of them.
XP had it right: To change your default view in Windows Explorer and folder windows in Vista's predecessor, you just open a folder, change it to the view you prefer (for me, its View > Details), and click Tools > Folder Options > View > Apply to All Folders > Yes > OK.
If only things were that simple in Vista. XP's successor (I use the term lightly) has five different types of folders. Changing the view in one type won't apply to the others. Also, because of Vista's content sniffing, a folder's view may change depending on what type of file you place in it. What does a guy have to do to get all Details view, all of the time?
It turns out, you can edit the Registry to deactivate this feature. You'll find step-by-step instructions on Kristan Kenney's Windows Now blog. Be sure to back up the Registry by creating a restore point before you begin.
I'm usually not averse to a little light Registry editing to get Windows to look or act the way I want it to look or act. But it bugs me that Vista won't let you set your default view for all folders without having to edit the Registry. So instead I opted for the long, tedious approach of changing the view one folder at a time until they all looked like I wanted them to.
Open Windows Explorer or any folder window (pressing the Windows key and E simultaneously is one way), click View (or press Alt-V), and choose your preferred folder view. Now click Organize > Folder and Search Options (or press Alt-T, O), choose the View tab, click Apply to Folders (make sure "Remember each folder's view settings" is checked in the Advanced Settings window), and click OK.
Back in Explorer, click each folder in the left pane in succession, and whenever a folder doesn't have the view you want, repeat the steps above. Even though there are officially only five types of folders in Vista, I found that I had to change the view settings of about eight different folders until they all opened in Details view by default.
Note that several of the shortcut folders aren't accessible; clicking them opens a scary warning. These folders, which include Documents and Settings, My Documents, and My Music, are there for backward compatibility with Windows XP and don't store any files.
Your preferred view won't be applied automatically to Open and Save As dialog boxes in Word, Paint, and other applications. These you'll also have to change manually via the Views dropdown menu. Even though Folder and Search Options is grayed out in these dialog boxes, Vista appears to remember your choice the next time you view that folder in the Open or Save As dialogs.
Change Vista's default Details categories
The problem with Vista's Details view is the lame categories that appear by default. I don't have much use for Ratings. And for better or worse, I don't do much tagging of my Word documents. Yet those are two of only four Details categories that are shown automatically in some folders.
Altering the lineup is a cinch: Right-click any existing category, check or uncheck the options as you wish, or click More to see a complete list of available options. Once you've made your selections, click OK. You can also change the order of the categories by dragging their headings left or right.
There's no guarantee some Windows update or program installation won't reset all my folder views. In fact, I expect Vista to revert to its content-sniffing ways before long. Maybe by then Microsoft will have wised up and given us the ability to set a single view for all folders in Vista, no matter what. Well, I can dream, can't I?