How to get Windows 7 features in XP and Vista
19th Oct 2009 | 10:00
Get the Windows 7 look and functionality today - free
Windows themes and icons
With all the hype surrounding its release, it's hard to miss the fact that Windows 7 is to be released this week.
The free evaluation versions have proved popular around the world, but there are still a huge number of people who are more than happy to stick with XP or Vista. Perhaps you're among them.
Or perhaps you don't have a computer capable of supporting the latest operating system. But that's no reason to miss out.
Windows 7 brings a new look to the desktop as well as a range of new interface options, and in this guide we'll take a look at the various tools with which you can transform XP and Vista into a close facsimile of the new version of Windows.
This means that you can benefit from the revamped look and feel of the operating system without having to go through the hassle of backing up files, performing a clean installation or actually buying Windows 7.
Of course, Windows 7 is about much more than a new look for Windows, and there are functional undertones that we'll never be able to capture, but we'll do our best to bring you the essence of its new functionality.
Things to avoid
One of the easiest ways to get the Windows 7 look would appear to be to use a specially designed transformation pack. Using such a pack is, in theory, an entirely automated process that eliminates the need to manually install individual programs or apply lots of tweaks.
However, it lacks a bit of the sleeves-rolled-up, greasy-fingered tinkering that makes this sort of action special. And, most importantly, you never know exactly what you're going to get.
You could end up installing spyware (or worse, a nasty virus) along with the goodies, opening your refreshed PC up to a fresh bout of attacks. You could unwittingly install less-than legitimate code such as stolen images and icons or other content you're not technically allowed to have.
This is definitely a route we'd advise avoiding and, as such, we won't be pointing you to any such packs in this guide.
Since automated packs are such shaky ground, we're going to look at how separate aspects of the OS can be given the Windows 7 look manually. While this can be a lengthy process, it does allow for a great degree of control and choice.
Once the patching process is complete, you'll need a suitable theme. We recommend paying a visit to www.customize.org, which provides legal themes for both XP and Vista, or www.crystalxp.net, which covers XP only.
You'll find absolutely hundreds in there – some of which look like Windows 7, some of which look completely different; it's up to you which way you decide to go.
When it comes to changing the look of Windows, there are several options available. A patched system file can be used to enable the installation of any theme.
If tinkering with system files in this way is something you'd rather avoid, a skinning tool may be the route to go down.
One such program is WindowBlinds, which has a free trial available. There are a huge number of ready-made themes available for download from a series of customisation sites such as www.wincustomize.com, www.customize.org and www.skinbase.org.
The beauty of the program is that if you are unable to find a skin that suits your taste, you can create your own. SkinStudio is available as a program in its own right or as part of the enhanced WindowBlinds package.
To better mimic the overall appearance of Windows 7, why not try a new set of hi-res icons? We can't point you to the actual icons from Windows 7 for fairly obvious reasons, but there are some repositories of free icons that will do a similarly good job.
Start by checking out www.vistaicons.com, where you'll find a decent selection of 256 x 256 icons (with lower-resolution formats suitable for Windows XP) in PNG and ICO format, including a few sets that neatly emulate those in Microsoft's new OS. There are also a number of other icon repositories online, although not all of these are free.
HI-RES ICONS:You can find plenty of replacement icons for your installation (including some that look like Windows 7's icons)
To replace your current system icons in XP, first open the Desktop Properties dialog by either right-clicking the desktop and selecting 'Properties', or opening the Desktop icon in Control Panel. Next, click the Desktop tab, click 'Customize Desktop' and choose the General tab.
You can now click on each icon in the list and use the 'Change Icon' button to switch them out with your snazzy new set.
To do the same in Windows Vista, right-click the desktop and select 'Personalise', choose 'Change Desktop Icons' from the left-hand side of the resulting window and use the interface that appears. There are also many shareware programs on the web that might help you to get deeper into Vista's icon structure. Check out the excellent IconPackager from StarDock for an excellent example.
Taskbar tweaks, shortcuts and wallpaper
A cute emulation of Windows 7's taskbar can be brought to XP and Vista using a fairly simple Registry tweak. Hold [Windows] +[R] to bring up the Run dialog, then type regedit and tap [Enter] to launch the Registry Editor.
Navigate to 'HKEY_CURRENT_ USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics' and create a new string called MinWidth. Double click this new item and assign it a value of -255 before closing down the Registry Editor and restarting Windows.
After applying this tweak, your open programs and windows will be represented by just their icons in the task bar. Alternatively, take a look at the Leesoft website. Here you'll find a number of tools that can be used to bring elements of Windows 7 to earlier versions of the operating system.
Of particular interest is the Viglance tool, which will give you thumbnail previews of open windows, the option of pinning shortcuts, a replacement Start button, and the ability to rearrange open windows and programs in the taskbar.
The Leesoft site also includes tools that can be used to bring clever facsimilies of Windows 7's File Manager, Start menu and Start button to XP and Vista. If you've applied the Registry tweak to iconise the taskbar, the value of the MinWidth key may have to be adjusted to 56. Experiment to see what looks best.
Windows 7 also features new boot screens, and you're not locked to the plain look of your Windows XP or Vista boot. You can install a different boot screen using TuneUp Utilities 2009. (Be aware that the program is only available freely as shareware.)
TUNE IT UP:TuneUp Utilities can be used to apply themes, boot screens and more
Run through the program installation and then head to the Customize Windows section. The 'Adjust look and feel of Windows' link lets you apply new themes that have been downloaded, but for now click the 'Change boot screen' link instead.
Once you've found a suitable '.tbs' file on the internet – check out www.tune-up.com/services/bootscreens for a good selection – putting it in place is a simple matter of clicking 'Add | Load boot screen from a file' before selecting the '.tbs' file and clicking the 'Install' button.
Mimic Windows 7's shortcuts
Windows 7 is about more than a new look and a selection of new tools: there are also a number of new ways of interacting with the operating system.
In addition to features such as Aero Shake, a number of new keyboard shortcuts have been added to the latest version of the operating system, many of which employ the currently under-used Windows key.
By running the Windows 7 Shortcuts program, it's possible to access the shortcuts used to maximise, minimise and dock windows as well as activating Aero Peek.
Perennial favourite Lifehacker has provided the necessary software, and you'll need to add it to the Startup group of the Start menu to make it run automatically.
Users of the macro and hotkeys program AutoHotKey can use a ready-made script that provides the same functionality without the need for a separate program.
Once you've booted up, there's one more fundamental change that will make everything feel a bit more Windows 7 and a bit less XP or Vista – desktop wallpaper.
Windows 7 style backgrounds are easy to come by; look on sites like www.flickr.com for 'high dynamic range landscapes' and you should find plenty of photography in a similar style, or check out sites like www.deviantart.com for wallpaper of a more painted appearance.
Users offering their work under a Creative Commons licence will generally not mind you downloading it to use as a desktop wallpaper. But of course, Windows 7- esque wallpaper isn't quite as good as the real thing.
Luckily, our chums over at The Official Windows Magazine have been given permission to distribute the official Windows 7 wallpapers. Head over to their website to download them for yourself and give your PC an official Windows 7 backdrop.
Emulating Windows 7 is not just about giving your desktop a new look – the new OS isn't that far removed from Vista in its appearance, after all. Some of the best new features are hidden under the hood.
Thankfully a number of third-party tools can do many of those jobs without even a shred of the Windows 7 code. Take search, for example.
Windows 7's search facility is frankly excellent, particularly if you're used to Windows XP's sluggish search. Thinly veiled digs at Microsoft's online search engine aside, adding Google search can vastly improve your ability to find things in a hurry.
Grab Google Desktop Search and install it. Once it has finished cataloguing your hard drive, you'll find its search facility lightning fast.
It also includes Google Gadgets, giving you the ability to emulate Windows 7's sidebar on a Windows XP desktop. If you've ever longed for an analogue clock on your desktop, you're in luck!
How about the calculator? Windows 7 has a particularly lovely calculator built in, with scientific functionality and a much more advanced interface than that of XP.
NEED MORE INPUT:Replace Windows' calculator with one more like that from Windows 7
It's true that the Windows 7 '.exe' file works on earlier versions of Windows without too much trouble, but we wouldn't recommend trying it when there are much better calculators out there for free. Try out Hexelon Max for a calculator with all of the same functionality and more besides.
The new version of Microsoft Paint is vastly improved from its ancestors and, interestingly, it actually uses a lot of code gleaned from popular replacement Paint.NET. Although PDN (as it's known) doesn't use the ribbon toolbar or offer the same multi-touch functionality that Windows 7 Paint manages, its functionally is far superior to bog-standard XP Paint. If you're still stuck in the past, we'd recommend giving it a try.
There are plenty of third-party media player applications that do a similarly good job to the new Windows Media Center. We've already detailed the ins and outs of using the free multi-platform system XBMC, but if you're already running a Windows installation with a TV card in your PC, you might want to look at something that has built-in PVR functionality.
EASY FOR SOME:Windows Vista already has a similar look to that of Windows 7, so it doesn't take much to get a convincing replication going
Finally, if you're after the advanced drive encryption features of BitLocker, why not try TrueCrypt? It's free and open source, and enables you to encrypt entire drives; try applying it to a USB drive before going the whole hog with your hard drive. You can also encrypt a virtual disk as a file, tucking away all of your critical data in a virtual safe.
It's impossible to fully transform XP or Vista into Windows 7, but if times are tight, getting a little of the new OS for nothing can't be a bad thing.
First published in PC Plus Issue 287
Liked this? Then check out Windows compared: Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP
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