Turn off sound effects, put your desktop on the taskbar, make your mouse pointer easier to find, thicken your blinking cursor, and always show menus in folder windows.
Dennis O'ReillyFormer CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Recently, a server upgrade caused my office XP system to reset to its defaults. I knew as soon as I heard the Windows startup chime that something was wrong. The first change I make on any new or renewed PC is to set the Windows sound scheme to No Sounds.
As I reset Windows' default sound settings for the umpteenth time, I got to thinking about the many Windows customizations I make on any machine I use on a regular basis. Here are my five favorite Windows interface tweaks. (Note that the last two default-beaters apply only to Vista.)
Tell Windows to shush
As I mentioned above, the Windows startup sound drives me batty. In fact, I do just fine with none of the operating system's sound effects. To shut them off in XP, open the Sound and Audio Devices Control Panel applet, click the Sound tab, and choose No Sounds in the drop-down menu under Sound Scheme. In Vista, right-click the sound icon in the system tray, choose Sounds, and select No Sounds in the Sound Scheme drop-down.
Move shortcuts off your desktop and onto your taskbar
Most people load the Windows desktop with shortcut icons pointing to all manner of programs, files, and folders. I prefer to keep my desktop clear, though technically, I drop just about every file I save and program I download there. To access them, I click the Desktop toolbar in my taskbar and scroll through the list that pops up.
To rid your desktop of icons, right-click it and choose Arrange Icons By (XP) or View (Vista). Uncheck (or deselect) Show Desktop Icons. To replace them with the Desktop toolbar, right-click the taskbar, uncheck Lock the Taskbar (if necessary), and choose Toolbars > Desktop.
Save taskbar space by dragging the Desktop toolbar to the right until only the word "Desktop" and the double chevrons show. Then click the chevrons to scroll through and select your shortcuts in a pop-up window.
Press Ctrl to locate a lost mouse pointer
When you think of all the text, icons, and other elements that fill up a standard computer screen, it's no wonder that you sometimes lose track of your mouse pointer. There's a quick and simple way to make it easier to spot. Open the Mouse Control Panel applet, choose the Pointer Options tab, and check "Show location of pointer when I press the CTRL key."
Give your blinking cursor more heft
If your mouse pointer is easy to miss on a crowded screen, finding that skinny blinking cursor in text boxes is the proverbial needle in a haystack. In Vista, you can make the blinking vertical bar more visible by making it thicker. Open the Ease of Access Center in Control Panel, click "Make the computer easier to see," and scroll to and check "Make the focus rectangle thicker." Choose a thickness (any setting greater than "3" might be overkill), and click either Apply or Save.
Show menus in all Vista folder windows
I can appreciate Microsoft's efforts to streamline Windows Explorer and other folder windows in Vista, but getting rid of the standard File-Edit-View-Tools-Help menu was a mistake, in my opinion. You can see them by pressing the Alt key, but the one-time fix is to click Organize > Folder and Search Options > View, and then check "Always show menus" in the "Advanced settings" window.