Customizing Windows pt 2

by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. First published in Our Computer Player November 20, 1992

Windows is the ultimate playdough environment. Like playdough, you can bend it and shape it any way you like. Like playdough, it comes in an almost infinite variety of colours. Last issue, we focused on cusomizing Program Manager, the program that most users think of as being "Windows".

But Program Manager isn't Windows. It's just a program that runs in the Windows environment that you can use to start programs. Because it's free with Windows, and because it's loaded by default, most users look no further. Program Manager is severely limited, however.

-- You can't nest program groups within program groups (the way you can have multiple levels of sub-directories in DOS or folders within folders on a Mac). I can't have a Spreadsheets group, and have a Finances group and a Grades group within that.

-- Unless you use a 3rd party add-in (like the shareware Plug-In I mentioned last issue), all your program group icons have the same picture. This sort of defeats the purpose of easy to recognize icons.

-- File Management functions are only available through a separate program, File Manager, again unlike the Mac Finder where you can start a program or copy a file all on the same screen.


Luckily, Windows is not really dependent on Program Manager. It's set up, by default, as the shell. This means that it starts up when you start Windows, and when you exit the shell, you return to DOS. Windows is designed so that any program can be designated as the shell, just by editing a line in your SYSTEM.INI file that reads (surprise) SHELL=    with the name of your desired program. You can even make that an application. One person I know hates Windows, but likes to use Microsoft Publisher. On my advice, he's listed Publisher as his shell-- when he starts Windows, Publisher automatically starts up, and when he quits Publisher, he's out of Windows. It seems silly to me, but he's happy.

Because of its drawbacks, there's a thriving market for programs that replace Program Manager. These range from minimalist free or shareware alternatives, to highly ambitious commercial products like Norton Desktop for Windows. I'll give two examples reflecting very different alternatives to Program Manager.


I use a freeware program called Backmenu v.1.39 (later versions are shareware). It doesn't use icons at all. Instead, clicking my right mouse button on any blank piece of screen gets me a floating menu. This menu permits up to four levels of sub-menus, that are easily customized to start any Windows or DOS program, load a file into an application, etc. It takes hardly any memory or system applications, and it is very fast. Because of its minimalist philosophy, you have to be prepared to learn how to edit its menus by hand. I like it because it's fast and powerful, and easy for users like my children to use. I'm just as happy using text menus as picking through icons. As well, the practical joker in me likes being able to leave the computer running with a screen running my wallpaper picture, but nothing else. If you don't know the right-button trick, there seems to be no way to get the computer to do anything.

Norton Desktop for Windows (currently at version 2) is the philosophical opposite of freeware BackMenu. This commercial product takes up about 8 megs of hard drive space, compared to 40k for BackMenu, and does slow up Windows (at least when it's first starting up). On the other hand, it provides an enormous number of sophisticated new capabilities. While I don't use it, many people can't imagine running Windows without it. You get an enhanced Program Manager replacement, permitting you to nest groups within groups. As well, you get drive icons on screen, that give you file management capabilities. You can view a wide range of data files, drag files to a printer icon to print or to an eraser icon to delete them (with the ability to store them for a user-configurable period of time before they're really gone). It ships with a wide range of utilities including several calculators, and a backup program. Buy NDW and you may never need to see Program Manager or File Manager again.

In between these two extremes are a huge number of programs, most available as shareware so that you can try them out before you buy. Two other shareware alternatives are SloopManager, which replaces Program Manager with a look-alike, with extra menu items, and, like NDW, the ability to nest program groups, and File Commander, which lets you customize your File Manager menus, so that you can start up your applications from the File Manager menu-bar.

So look around, and pick the shell that feels most comfortable to you. Then let's go ahead and customize the desktop. Unlike the Model-T Ford, which came in any colour you wanted, as long as it was black, Windows is more adaptable. We're going to use colours, pictures, and sounds to make the Windows setup on your machine respond to your personal tastes.

This time, we're going to be mostly working with Windows Control Panel. If you're using Program Manager, there should be a Control Panel icon in the Main group (which I always rename 'Utilities'). Go ahead--- open it.


Let's start with Colours. (Or as Windows, being American, calls it: "Colors".) When you open it, you'll see a small view of your Windows desktop, with many of the customizable sections shown or named. Above that, is a listing of colour schemes. One is already chosen... to see others, click on the down arrow to the right. These are groups of colours, already put together for you by Microsoft's select group of interior decorators. If you select one of these schemes, the mini-view below changes to let you see how it will look, before changing your real setup.

You can choose one of these ready-made schemes, or alter one as you prefer. To alter one of Microsoft's decor ideas, or create a whole new one, click on the Color Palette button below the mini-view. A panel with 48 basic colours will appear, and some empty boxes for custom colours. You can click on an area on the mini-view, or choose a screen element from the drop-down list, then select one of the colours for it. If none of these colours strikes your fancy, click on the Define Custom Colours button. You get a new screen with a colour spectrum. Click anywhere -- move your cursor around until you find just the right shade. Or you can try to enter numbers into the Red-Green-Blue or Hue-Saturation-Luminosity boxes to get precisely the shade you want. To the left of these are two boxes labelled Colour and Solid. The Colour box shows the dithered pattern that is being used to produce your shade, while the Solid box shows you the closest solid colour from the palette of colours that Windows is using for your desktop. You can choose either as your custom colour.

When you've got your colours set the way you want them, save them as a new colour scheme, and click OK to apply them to your real desktop.

Unfortunately, you'll discover that you weren't able to change the colours used in Windows Help screens this way, and that with many vga adapters, the hypertext words (the ones that you can click on to get more information) appear in a pale green that's almost unreadable. Even though these colours aren't choosable in the Control Panel Colours selection, you still can customize them. Here are two ways:

-- If you've got a modem, poke around on local bulletin boards for a program called More Control. This invaluable freeware program consists of a couple of files to be added to your \windows\system directory. The next time you open Control Panel, a More Control icon appears in the box. Open it up, and you've got... more control ! One of several enhancements found here is the ability to set your Help colours directly from a colour palette. There are a number of other things here that Microsoft left out of the standard Control Panel.

-- If you don't have More Control, you can make all the same changes by directly editing your INI files. Before you take the plunge, back up these files. Copy Win.ini and System.ini to Win.bak and System.bak. In fact, why don't you do the safe thing, and back up ALL your *.INI and *.GRP files to another directory. That way, if anything awful happens to your Windows setup, you can always recreate it quickly and easily without having to reinstall and fiddle with everything.

To edit Win.ini (or any INI file), use a text editor or word processor that can save as text. Windows Notepad is a safe way to do this, or the SYSEDIT.EXE program that Windows hid in your \Windows\system directory and didn't tell you about. Win.ini is divided into a number of sections with headings in square brackets... look for a section called [Windows Help]. You may see some lines like these from my file (if not, make some):

PopUpColor=128 0 255
JumpColor=0 128 0
MacroColor=255 0 0
IFJumpColor=255 128 0
IFPopupColor=0 0 128

These list the special words in the help files, and define a colour for each. The numbers are the amount of red, blue, and green (RGB) that combine for each colour, ranging from 0 to 255. You can find the RGB numbers that make up a colour from the Custom Colors dialogue box we looked at earlier, or by opening Paintbrush, and using the Option menu's Edit Colors selection. (My colours, by the way, are bright shades of purple, green, red, orange, and blue).


If you've still got the interior decorator urge, you can do more to your desktop. Back in Control Panel, open the Desktop icon. (What a surprise!)
Lots of neat tricks here... there's the screen saver, for example. Like all the mini-applications that ship with Windows, it's no match for the fancy commercial products like Intermission or After Dark. But it works as is, and there are a growing number of inexpensive shareware saver modules to add to it. One package even includes a randomize module, so you don't always need to look at the same saver. Another shareware program, HotSpot, lets you set screen corners to turn the screen saver on or off, just like the expensive products. As well, if you have any of Microsoft's Windows GamePacks, you can use the Idlewild saver modules by copying them, along with the file IWLIB.DLL into your \windows directory.

Here's also where you set your icon spacing and word-wrap, if your icon titles have been overlapping, and hard to read. You can adjust your cursor blinking rate, and the thickness of your windows' borders.

More fun, though is to play with patterns. Again, a wide variety are included... tulips, scotty dogs, tweed, etc. And it's easy to create your own. And adding a pattern to the desktop does not drain memory or processor speed if these are an issue.

Next, take a look at wallpaper. Again, a selection of bitmaps (*.BMP) were installed in your Windows directory. You can see if you like any of them as backgound wallpaper. Most of the one included are small, 16 colour pictures, that you can TILE, to repeat all over your screen, or center-- one copy in the center.

But you're not limited to those. Any graphic, saved or converted into Windows BMP format can be used as wallpaper. You will need a video driver that supports the number of colours used, however. A 256 colour picture viewed with a standard 16 colour video driver can appear quite ghastly. Here you need to make some choices, however. A large, 256 colour picture can make a lovely wallpaper, but it will slow your system down. 256 colour (or higher) drivers are slower than 16 colour drivers since they make your computer do more work every time the screen is redrawn. And asking your system to redraw a complex picture every time a program's window changes is making a lot of extra work. If you don't have memory and processor power to spare, don't bother. (Note that a small, tiled 16 colour picture makes far less demands than a large, full-screen picture).

As for me, I chose pretty over fast, and have a 256 colour, full-screen picture of two Chinese dragons.


Finally, Windows 3.1 lets you add sounds to your desktop, something that Mac owners have been doing for eons. If you have a sound card installed, then you can play with the couple of WAV sound files included in your \windows directory. Double clicking on one from a File Manager list, should open up the Sound Recorder, and let you play or edit the sound. (Sorry Ad Lib owners, you can't use the WAV sounds). But what about the millions of us without a compatible sound card?

Well, Microsoft ALMOST included a driver for the PC's internal speaker, then chickened out at the last moment. They weren;t satisfied with the sound quality, and it was incompatible with a few systems. Nevertheless, they changed their mind (again) and released the driver on their bulletin board. It has quickly made its way to most BBS systems that stock Wicdows software, and shouldn't be too hard to find. If you get it, install it using the DRIVERS icon in Control Panel. Then, you too can play the WAV sound files. Don't be too disappointed, however. You're still using the 49 cent speaker inside your computer's box. It's not going to be CD quality. You may find that they work better if you use the Sound Recorder to change the speed... you can double or halve the speed to make the sound more audible. As well, you should probably set up the driver to "Enable interupts during playback". This won't improve your sound's quality, but it will prevent a sound from ruining a critical download or other time-sensitive operation. Again, you'll find many sounds available from local bulletin boards if you have a modem.

Listening to your sounds is okay, but when you've installed a sound driver, you get a SOUND icon in Control Panel. You can use this to connect sounds to eight Windows events. On my system, when Windows starts up, Beethoven's 5th Symphony plays. When I quit Windows, a voice says "Time to go home, now!". Okay, it's through the tinny internal speaker, but it still startles the dog. For more control, look for the shareware WHOOP IT UP! (their exclamation). It gives you more Windows events, and even lets you connect sounds to individual program startup.

(Some of us dread the spread of cheap sounds across 100 million PCs-- try and imagine an office full of computers barking, playing snippets of sound, or quotes from Star Trek at random intervals... especially through those 2 inch speakers).

Customizing Windows lets us all put the personal back in personal computing. Even if some of these enhancements seem silly, they help make Windows seem like a comfortable place to work, and let your computer be truly your own. It is important for computer users to feel at ease with their machines. Even in the dullest workplace, this can lead to increased productivity. (As if fun needed an excuse).

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan