Windows is malleable. It’s designed to be tinkered with, adjusted, customised.

When you first run Windows – whether it’s Windows 7, Vista, Windows XP or even an earlier version – what you see is Microsoft’s idea of how the operating system should work and look. You don’t need to settle for that. In fact, you shouldn’t, because Microsoft makes some pretty poor decisions on your behalf.

Take, for example, the way Microsoft hides file extensions in order not to “confuse” you. That’s a really bad move, as the file extension – the part of a filename following the full stop (period) – not only provides important information, it may also sound a warning if spyware or other mischievous software tries to mess with your computer.

Instead of settling for Microsoft’s default settings, take charge of your computer. You’ll not only end up with a PC that works better, you’ll also create a computing environment that’s more comfortably your own.

Size matters

The first thing to adjust is the screen resolution and text size.

The resolution determines how much you can see on your screen. A high resolution, such as 1600 by 1024, lets you fit more icons and more open windows on screen and eliminates the need to scroll around Web pages and documents as much. But that high resolution also makes icon labels and text almost impossible to decipher unless you have 20/20 vision. Lower resolutions, such as 800 by 600, make reading the screen easier for those lacking perfect eyesight, but limit screen real estate, so the information is bigger but there’s less of it displayed.

The choice of resolutions depends on your personal preference and your hardware’s capabilities. The range of resolutions your computer can display is a function of your graphics card and monitor. Some monitors, in particular LCD monitors, restrict the resolution to a
single setting; other monitors let you pick and choose.

To adjust the resolution in Windows 7:

  1. Right-click in an empty space on the desktop and choose Screen Resolution from the pop-up context menu.
  2. Click the down-arrow beside Resolution and drag the slider to the setting you desire.
  3. Click OK to check how the setting looks. Your screen will go blank and then the new resolution will be applied. If you’re satisfied with how it looks, click Keep Changes; otherwise click Revert and then click Cancel. If nothing appears on your screen when you test the new setting, don’t worry – your screen will automatically revert to the previous resolution in 15 seconds.

On earlier version of Windows, follow these steps to adjust the resolution:

  1. Right-click in an empty space on the desktop and choose Properties from the pop-up menu to display the Display Properties dialog.
  2. Click the Settings tab and drag the Screen Resolution slider to the setting you desire.
  3. Click Apply to check how the setting looks. If you’re satisfied, click OK.

When setting the resolution, keep in mind that many Web sites and some programs are designed to run at a resolution of at least 1024 by 768 pixels, so try to keep this your minimum.

If text looks too small or too large in your chosen resolution, adjust the DPI (dots per inch) setting.In Windows 7:

  1. Right-click an empty spot on the desktop and click Personalize in the context menu to display the Personalization settings.
  2. Under “See also” on the left-hand side, click Display.
  3. Click Medium or Larger to increase the size of text and other desktop items.
  4. If you prefer, you can use a custom DPI setting by clicking Set Custom Text Size (DPI) and choosing a percentage setting from the drop-down list.

In earlier versions of Windows, do this:

  1. Right-click an empty spot on the desktop and click Properties in the context menu.
  2. In the Settings tab of the Display Properties dialog, click the Advanced button, select Large Size (120 DPI) from the DPI Setting box, or select a Custom Size.
  3. Your changes will take effect when you reboot.
  4. You can then adjust the font size, if needed: Open the Display Properties dialog, click the Appearance tab, select a Font Size setting and click OK. This font setting affects all icon labels, dialog boxes and menu settings in Windows. Your applications, including your Web browser, email and word processing program, have their own controls for adjusting the text display. In your browser, for instance, hold down the Ctrl key while rolling your mouse wheel up or down to change text size, or press Ctrl+ to increase the size, Ctrl- to decrease it.

A better desktop

Now that you can see what’s on your screen, it’s time to reorganise things.

Unless you thrive on chaos and colour, it makes sense to arrange your desktop so it facilitates your work and play, rather than impeding it.

Start by turning Auto Arrange off: Right-click an empty spot on the desktop, select Arrange Icons By and, if Auto Arrange is ticked (checked), click it to untick it. This lets you put your icons where you want, instead of having them all shunted together into the left-hand side of the screen. Note that in Windows 7, Auto Arrange is switched off by default; if you’re looking for the setting, right-click the desktop and select View.

Once you’ve switched Auto Arrange off, rearrange your icons into functional groups: stick the Recycle Bin off by itself so you can dump things in it easily; stick like programs together; group drive icons and so on. Drag unused shortcuts into the Recycle Bin.

If you share your computer with someone else, you might want to corral each of your most-used shortcuts in a separate corner of the desktop; although a far better customisation option is to set up separate log ons, so each of you has an entirely separate desktop (click Start -> Control Panel -> User Accounts and create additional users as required).

In pre-Windows 7 versions of the operating system, your most frequently used programs should sit in the Quick Launch bar, immediately to the right of the Start button. Items in the Quick Launch bar can be opened with a single click. If the Quick Launch bar is not displayed, right-click the Start button, select Properties from the pop-up menu, tick the Show Quick Launch option and click OK. To add a program or document to the Quick Launch bar, drag its icon from the desktop or from an Explorer window onto the bar. If you can’t see all the icons in the bar, right-click an empty spot on the taskbar, select Lock The Taskbar, drag the resizing tab at the right of the Quick Launch bar, then reselect Lock The Taskbar.

To make the Programs menu easier to read, click Start -> All Programs and then right-click anywhere in the list and choose Sort By Name from the pop-up menu.

Windows 7 does away with the Quick Launch bar. Instead, it lets you pin programs to the taskbar. This means that icons for currently running programs and icons for pinned are all displayed together, with running programs identified by highlighted icons. This is one of those “advances” which some people love and others loathe. To pin a program to the taskbar, locate the program in the Start Menu or in the Program Files folder, right-click it and select Pin to Taskbar from the context menu. Alternatively, you can drag and drop a program’s icon onto an empty spot on the taskbar.

Windows 7 also lets you pin files to the taskbar. Simply drag any file – a Word document, a JPG image, an MP3 audio file or whatever – onto an empty spot on the taskbar and Windows 7 will pin the file, together with the default program used to open it, to the taskbar. You’ll see the program’s icon in the taskbar and, when you right-click the program icon to display its jumplist (a new feature in Windows 7), you’ll see the pinned data file in that list.

Finally, select your desired wallpaper and screensaver: right-click in an empty spot on the desktop, click Properties, click the Desktop tab and select a wallpaper, then click the Screen Saver tab and select a screen saver. In Windows 7, right-click the desktop, choose Personalize, click the Screen Save link and then select your screen save from the drop-down list.

Efficient folders

When you open My Documents or any other folder, the files are listed in one of a number of views, such as List view, Icons, Details and so on. If you have a favourite view, set it as the default view for all folders:

In Windows 7:

  1. Open any folder, click the Change Your View button on the toolbar and select your preferred view.
  2. Click Organize -> Folder and Search Options.
  3. Click the View tab and click Apply To All Folders. Note that in Windows 7, you can set a default view for folders, but not for the new Libraries.

In earlier versions of Windows:

  1. Open any folder, click the Views button on the toolbar and select your preferred view.
  2. Click Tools Menu -> Folder Options.
  3. Click the View tab and click Apply To All Folders.

While you have the Folder Options dialog box open, it’s worth making a couple of changes on the View tab.

First, remove the tick/checkmark beside Hide Extensions For Known File Types, so you can see file extensions. Next, although you’ve set the default file view for all folders, in pre-Windows 7 versions of Windows you can also maintain particular views for specific folders by ticking Remember Each Folder’s View Settings.

Check out the other settings available on the View tab, make any changes you’d like, then click OK.