Windows 8 Tip: Customize the Desktop

Anyone who has used Windows over the past decade or so understands how to customize the desktop, and most of the same tools and techniques carry over, often unchanged, to Windows 8. But there are a few interesting new customization capabilities in the Windows 8 desktop.

Note: Windows 8 also includes dramatically improved multi-monitor capabilities when compared to its predecessor. While these features are arguably of most interest to desktop users, I’ll be covering them separately in a future tip.

Automatic Window Color

Windows 7 (and Vista) feature so-called Aero “glass” effects, where Explorer windows and other interfaces in the desktop provide translucency and color options. In Windows 8, Aero is gone because of battery life concerns, replaced by a new opaque and flat look and feel. (Oddly, however, the taskbar retains translucency effects for some reason.) So some of the customization features you may be familiar with are gone as well.

That said, Windows 8 still lets you change the desktop wallpaper, of course, and you can alter the color of the now opaque Explorer window borders. You can also save combinations of these customizations as themes, just like before. The trouble with such themes in Windows 7 was that they were manually created: If you had a lush green photo of Ireland as your wallpaper and wanted green window coloring, you had to make that change yourself. In Windows 8, this change can now be automatic.

To see how this works, launch the Personalization control panel. (The easiest way is to right click on the desktop and choose Personalize.


Then, at the bottom of the window, click the Color icon. This will load the Color and Appearance control panel, which is a bit simpler than its Windows 7 equivalent. But there is one new choice: Automatic (the first of the 16 available window border and taskbar color choices.


With this choice, the Explorer window border and taskbar colors will automatically change based on the wallpaper. So you can see a nice blue color when using a photo with a clear blue sky:


While this fall foliage wallpaper triggers a brown window border and taskbar color.


Change the Size of Items

With the move to the Aero UI in Windows Vista, Microsoft added the ability to scale the display in order to make onscreen items easier to see on large, high resolution displays. (Otherwise, as the screen size and resolution increase, onscreen items like icons and menus become tiny and impossible to read.) Windows 8 retains this capability, but it also adds a unique new interface that allows you to discretely control the size of several onscreen items independently. This interface, called the Display control panel, can be a bit hard to find, especially if you don’t know it’s there. But there are two pretty quick ways to find it: Use Start Search and search for display (the control panel can be found under the Settings view). But you can also find it from the Personalize control panel we used in the previous part of this article: There’s a link to Display in the lower left corner of the window.


The top half of this window works as before, letting you configure a new display scale if desired. But the bottom bit is new: Here, you can individually resize and otherwise change several desktop UI items, each of which displays text in some way: Title bars, Menus, Message boxes, Palette titles, Icons, and Tooltips.


The results of some of these changes—which do require signing out and then back in—can be of great help, especially for those struggling with normally tiny onscreen items.


Note: If you do make changes here, be sure to note the original values, since there’s no “Go back to default” option.

Desktop Settings Sync

If you sign in to Windows 8 with a Microsoft account—which I do, and recommend—one of the niceties you get is settings sync, from PC to PC, via SkyDrive. Part of this settings sync includes desktop settings, which you can see if you look at the Sync Your Settings interface in PC Settings. (Easiest way: WINKEY + I, Change PC Settings, Sync Your Settings.)


This interface notes that Desktop personalization settings sync includes “themes, taskbar, high contrast, and more,” which isn’t very descriptive. (Or accurate: Windows 8 does not sync the pinned items on your taskbar, for example.) Here’s what it really syncs: the desktop theme (which includes the background, the Explorer window color, sounds, and screen saver), taskbar customizations (including which edge of the screen to which the taskbar is connected) and desktop-based photo slideshow options.

Furthermore, the Desktop personalization switch isn’t the only item here that affects the desktop. For example, part of Personalize includes syncing which apps or applications you use to open certain file types. So if you prefer to use the desktop-based Adobe Reader application over the Metro-based Windows Reader app, that will sync from PC to PC too. The Password switch includes web passwords (via IE). The Ease of Access switch includes all Windows accessibility features. The Browser switch syncs IE features across both the desktop and Metro versions of the browser. And Other Windows settings is particularly important to desktop users: This include File Explorer and mouse customizations.

SkyDrive Integration

While the SkyDrive application—which adds SkyDrive storage integration to Windows 8 via File Explorer—doesn’t come bundled with Windows 8, it is literally an essential part of the Windows 8 user experience and is thus included with the free Windows Essentials 2012 add-on, which also provides other useful desktop applications like Windows Mail and Photo Gallery. (You can download the SkyDrive application, and the rest of Windows Essentials 2012, from the Essentials web site.)

I’ve already written a lot about why SkyDrive integration is important, and about how you can more closely integrate your cloud-based storage with the libraries in Windows 8 and your daily workflow, so there’s no reason to rehash that here. But please do refer to Windows 8 Tip: Use SkyDrive to Sync Your Documents and Pictures, 2012: A Cloud Odyssey - From Live Mesh to SkyDrive, SkyDrive Tip: Recover Deleted or Modified Files, SkyDrive Tip: Configure Folder Types, and SkyDrive Tip: Migrate from Live Mesh for more information.

But Wait, There’s More

In addition to a future article about multi-monitor improvements in Windows 8, my next tip will cover a way in which you can make the transition between Metro and the desktop a bit more seamless than it is out of the box.