Customizing Windows

by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. Originally published in Our Computer Player, October 16, 1992

If you're one of the 10 million or so people who've gotten a copy of Windows in the two years since the release of version 3.o, take a minute right now and go over to your computer. Start up Windows, and take a look at your screen.

If you see a pale yellow background, with the familiar rectangle of Program Manager on it, you've got boring, old default Windows. Read on. This article will help you make your Windows computer unique... all your own.

Many people think that screen IS Windows... that Program Manager, and the setup that you get out of the box is the way it's got to be. Not true ! Windows is an operating environment that lets you run Windows software, and lets you multitask DOS programs if you have a 386 or 486 computer. Anything else... the "look and feel" to quote a recent spat of lawsuits, is entirely in the hands of the user. If you don't like the colours, change them. If you find Program Manager awkward, replace it. It's like having a computer that's made out of plasticene... you can make it look like anything you want.

(I can already hear some of our readers thinking "Who cares? This sounds like an article for artists, or kids, or something. Will it make my computer more productive?" Well, yes and no. If you want (and the editors agree), I'll write another article on speeding up Windows for a future issue. But you CAN customize Windows to show your company's logo on screen if you want, or you can let your employees personalize their computers. Users who do this feel more involved in their computers, and are more productive (when they're not spending company time playing, of course!) And the more your employees get familiar with the Windows environment, the more easily they will work with all their Windows software).

First, a warning... before making any changes in your Windows environment, make copies of your important Windows files. At a minimum, copy the files Win.ini and System.ini (in your \Windows directory). Even better, make a new directory, (mine is called \setup). Copy your autoexec.bat and config.sys files into it. Then copy all your *.ini and *.grp files from your \Windows directory. Most of the changes I'm going to discuss are harmless, and easily changed back, but having backups is always a good idea.

Lets start with Program Manager itself. There's so much that you can do with Program Manager, that I'm going to focus on it in this article. In future articles in this series, I'll look at other ways to enhance your Windows working environment.

Out of the box, you get a number of standard Program Groups: Main, Games, Non-Windows Apps, Accessories, etc. When you install programs, often they create their own Groups. There are no reasons to keep these names, or even these groups if you don't want to. I renamed the Main group "Utilities", which makes more sense to me, and then added other icons to it. Here's how:

-- Click once on the Main group icon, so it's selected, but not opened up.
Look in your File menu, for Properties. The dialogue box has a space labelled "Description". Type in a new name, click on "okay". That's it.

-- Maybe you have other groups with utilities in them. ATM (Adobe Type Manager) creates a useless program group for this useful utility. Open up that group, click on the ATM icon. Hold down your left mouse button, and drag the icon over to the Utilities (or Main) group. That group can be open or closed. When your icon is on top of the new group, release the button. If you open up your Utilities group, the ATM icon is now there.
(You may want to click on "Arrange Icons" in the Window menu, so you can see your new icon better). Close the ATM group, select it, and press your Delete key. You can get rid of this program group, even if it has program items in it.

You can make new program groups if you want. In the File menu, choose New. You'll be asked Program Group or Program Item. Select "Group". In the "Description" space, type in a name, and click okay. Your group will be created, and ready for you to add Program Items. Make groups that reflect how you want to work. My program groups, for example are:
-- Accessories with the standard Windows mini-apps, like Write and Notepad and Paintbrush
-- Utilities, which I got by renaming the original 'Main' group, then adding anything else that looked like a utility.
--  Games, an original group installed by Windows, but with a lot of other games added
-- Graphics, with another copy of the Paintbrush icon (yes, you can have the same icon in more than one group !), and other programs working with graphics
-- Text, for Write, Notepad (again, copied from the Accessories group) as well as AmiPro and PageMaker, moved out of the groups created by their installation programs, which I then deleted
-- Grades, for spreadsheets about the classes I teach
-- Spreadsheets, for other spreadsheets
-- Windows Apps, for miscellaneous Windows programs
-- DOS Apps, (aka Non-Windows Apps in the Windows installation)

You can put any programs you want into your new program group... Windows programs, DOS programs, even documents, which will automatically load the right program to edit them. There a number of ways to do this:

-- Open up your target program group. Again, Open the File menu, selecting "New", this time choosing a new program item. Type in a name in the "Description" space, and a complete path and file name in the "Command Line" space. You can add a hot-key, and set it to start up as a minimizes icon if you choose.

-- If you're not sure of the file path or EXE's file name, click on the Browse button. This lets you browse your drives, directory-tree, and files, and select the one you need.

-- Alternately, open up File Manager. Play with its size until you can see both File Manager and Program Manager on screen at the same time. Find the file you want in File Manager, and select it with your mouse. Hold the mouse button down, and drag the file icon over to the Program Manager. Bring it over to the program group you want, and let go of the icon. Congratulations. You've just used "Drag and Drop" to automatically create a program item. You may want to edit the item's "Properties" as mentioned above to change the item's description.

You can use either of these techniques with any file... not just with a Windows program. You can create program items for your favorite DOS program, or for a document created by a program. If your document's file extension (the three letters after the period in the file name--- for instance "TXT" for this file, CUSTOM.TXT,) is "associated" with a program, that program will start up automatically when you click on the document's icon. This is a nice trick, that more people should be using.

For instance, I'm a teacher. I keep records on each of my classes in an Excel spreadsheet. As I mentioned, I've created program items for each of these spreadsheets, in a "Grades" program group. When I click on the Math 11 icon, Excel starts up, with the records of my Math 11 class already loaded.

This trick only works if the file extension (*.XLS for Excel) is associated with the program. Most Windows programs will do this automatically when they're installed. If this isn't the case for your files (for instance if you want to associate a file extension with a DOS program), here's a simple way to add a new association.

-- Using File Manager, select a data file with the right extension. Click on the menu item "Associate" in the File menu. Enter the program name and path in the dialogue box labelled "Associate with". If you're unsure, you can use the "Browse" button (just like in Program Manager) to find the right program. After you've clicked "okay", you can double click on a data file with this extension in File Manager to start up your program, or use the data file for an item in Program Manager.

If your data files don't use a standard extension (many Word Perfect documents, for instance), you can still use them to create a program item.
Most programs let you start them up with a document loaded by typing the document name after the program name at the DOS command line (for example: WP51 MYFILE to start up Word Perfect with MYFILE already loaded). Just create a new program item, with the description MYFILE, and the same command line that you'd use in DOS.

If you create a program item for a DOS program, or for a document (whether it's from a Windows program or a DOS program), you'll find that you get a boring default icon. Have no fear. You can change that. Select the item, and in your File menu, choose Properties. Click on the box labelled "Change Icon". You can now select a new icon for your program item. You can use the icon from another program (I could use Excel's icon for all my class spreadsheets, for instance), or select a totally new one. Just type in the path & file name of the other program (or again use the Browse button). You can get these icons from several sources:

-- Many of the Windows accessories, Progman. exe, for example, include several alternate icons, and you can easily 'borrow' one for another program item. If you are using Windows 3.1, look for Moricons.dll, which is simply a collection of icons just for this use.

-- If you have access to a modem, many BBS's have files with collections of public-domain icons, that you can use. These icons are usually small files, ending with the extension ICO or ICN, and there may be as many as several hundred packed up in a single ZIP file. You can also get a disk full of icons from most companies that distribute shareware.

-- You can get a shareware or public domain icon editor, and make your own. These programs are easy to use mini-paint programs, dedicated to making icons. An icon editor is included with Microsoft's Visual Basic, or you can look for one on your favorite BBS or other shareware distribution source. I like Ike.exe, distributed for free as a PC Magazine utility.

Some people have found themselves getting overloaded with hundreds of tiny icon files. You don't need to keep these cluttering up your hard drive. After you've selected an icon, and associated it with a program item, the icon is added to your program group file (*.GRP). You no longer need the original icon on your hard drive, and can delete the *.ico file, if you wish.

Once you've got your program groups that you want, and the appropriate program items in them, think about how you want to display them. I keep my program groups minimized, in neat rows along the bottom of the screen, because I'm an orderly kind of guy (or obsessive-compulsive, maybe). Other people prefer to leave them all opened up, filling up the whole screen, but with all the icons viewable, ready to run. With Windows 3.0, this caused problems. Each icon that's displayed uses some of Windows small amount of available "Resources", and Windows 3.0 users who habitually kept all their groups open, often found themselves getting a low memory message, even when they knew that they should have had lots of free memory.

I don't want to get into an involved discussion of memory and resource use by Windows... but you can always check on how much of each is free by clicking on "About" in the Help menu of either Program Manager or File Manager. If your Free System Resources drops below about 20%, you may find your system slowing down, or you may be unable to open additional programs, without shutting something down. Start by closing all those open program groups.

Windows 3.1 manages resources better than version 3.0 did, so this will be less of a problem. So set up your Program Manager screen the way you want to work, but if you start getting out of memory warnings, be prepared to change it.

There are a few tricks for Program Manager that are set up from the Control Panel (look for the Control Panel icon in your Main (or renamed) group). Open Control Panel, and double-click on the Desktop icon. You'll see an item for Icon Spacing. This sets how close icons will be automatically arranged, and works both within Program Manager, and for minimizes icons on the desktop itself. I use 100 pixels. Play around. Nearby, if you use Win 3.1, will be the option to wrap long titles. I like this option a lot. More about Control Panel in future articles in this series.

If you dare to edit your Win.ini file, you can set the font, size and style of the letters used in your icon's descriptions. (Remember to always back up Win.ini before editing it). Open Win.ini in Notepad or other text editor (double clicking on an INI file in File Manager will automatically load it into Notepad). Look for a section near the top, labelled [Desktop]. There will be a number of lines under it that in mine read:
You can edit them to set the font, size, and style used for icons, both in Program Manager, and on the desktop, as well as whether the titles wrap, and how far apart icons will spaced, vertically. Make your changes, save your file, and restart Windows to see the effects. A more convenient way to get control over these (and other) functions is to look for the freeware program, MoreControl. This handy (and free) utility, adds a More Control item to Control Panel that lets you make these changes without having to edit Win.ini, and without having to quit and restart Windows. Highly recommended.

Just when I thought I'd finished this article, I came across what's the ultimate Program Manager customizer (at least for now). This is a shareware program called Plug-In, available for trial on your local BBS, or for $20 from Plannet Crafters, 2580 Runic Way, Alpharetta, GA., 30202, USA. It installs as an invisible add-on to Program Manager, and lets you add custom icons for each program group, as well as custom cursors for the hourglass and arrow. As well, it adds a number of new menu groups, enhancing the usefulness of Program Manager. Very nice and good value for the $ (remember to always register shareware if you intent to keep on using it !)
You don't need to live with the way Microsoft set up your Program Manager. There are lots of ways that it can be customized to reflect the way you want to work. It's your computer... it's time you took control. Editor willing, future articles in this series will help you get power over your Windows desktop, looking at colour and sound, wallpaper, and alternatives to Program Manager itself. Have fun with this (but remember not to get carried away playing with the Windows environment. Try to get a little 'real' work done as well).

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