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Microsoft Windows does offer a host of ways to customize you UI but it falls short for some users because once you want to change something that isn’t meant to be changed you’ll hit a very sturdy brick wall. Here are some ways you can make your Windows into your Windows, FOR FREE. First off let me say I in no way guarantee these customizations will work on your PC but the should. My PC is a 64 bit Windows 7 box - which hopefully means any PC from Windows Vista to Windows 7 will support this.
Change your Wallpaper
Windows has implemented a background slideshow allowing you to select many pictures and have your wallpaper cycle through them. This does not mean choose every picture you own, instead make sure you have a wallpaper folder than contains high resolution images than were hopefully meant to be wallpapers. I cannot say how much it pains me to see someone set an image that is 300X400 as there desktop wallpaper and set the mode to stretch. IT LOOKS BAD. DON’T DO IT! By allowing you to customize your PC Microsoft has also allowed you to make it look absolutely hideous, take care to choose something that looks good.
Tweak your Start menu
What you so here is not terribly important to the overall feel but its still nice to do. Start off by changing the number of recent programs that are displayed on the start menu: Right Click on the start menu and click properties > start menu > Customize here you can see a bunch of options including what links to show on the menu and how many items in the jump lists (Windows 7).
Tweak the Taskbar
Another small change to get the full date in the taskbar as well as a custom message in the time: Right click on the clock > click Adjust date/time > Change date and time > Change calendar settings here you can see all the settings for your clock here are my settings to get the long date format in the taskbar. To get the message simply go to the time tab of this dialog box and add whatever you want into the AM/PM symbol boxes.
For me Rainmeter was the biggest and best step toward customizing my desktop it allows you to monitor almost every aspect of you PC and display it on the desktop in every way imaginable here you can see two of my themes. The first one is a modified version (heavily) of Simple Sentence 2 it shows all my PC info in sentences and displays three RSS feeds. The second one has since been modified. (and looks much better thanks) in this one some of the themes at work are: CornerClock, Ants Marching(meters), Windows 8 bar (taskbar), Simple Sentence (weather), Simple Slideshow (slideshow), Enigma (stocks/RSS), Darklines (CPU temp) most of them have been modified by me to fit in with the others. If you notice the icons on the dock at the bottom they belong to a separate app called Rocketdock which is the next step.
This step is (for me) just to see how far you can go away from the Windows GUI without actually leaving. hiding the Windows Taskbar is difficult to do so I didn’t bother I just supplemented it with RocketDock a handy reliable dock for Windows. It’s fast, lightweight, and customizable the above screenshot shows it blending with Rainmeter quite nicely using the Token Dark icons and them default theme Blank. There are a bunch of free docks around like XWindowsDock. For me none of them compare to the Windows taskbar but they can be used in addition to it as launchers and eye candy.
Get your WMP skinned
I’ve stopped doing this because I actually prefer the default look of Windows Media Player and the skins by comparison tend to be ugly or cluttered (sorry skinners) and I need something that fits with the rest of my "look" not try to create an entirely new one.
This is by far the most useful and nicely done app I have ever had the pleasure of using it is always among the first programs I install on a new computer and it never leaves. Honestly kudos to the developer for making it free. Speedfan does several things well but the thing it does best is Show your core temperatures and regulate the fan speed. In the above picture I have set it to always show a dynamic icon in the notification area. I’ve also changed the icon color to match the white Windows icons. Perfect integration. (the circle isn’t part of the icon it was ‘shopped for effect)
I recently read an article on Lifehacker (great site full of articles like this) on how to change the background image in explorer what I didn’t know was that the little app that does it allowed you to specify which folders had images and what those images were. Vey slick. Here is an example using my Photoshopped version of a Bioshock poster. Download it at the Windows Club
There are a ton of tiny things you can do to make your PC look however you want it and lots of them are free. This lists contains only free and lightweight apps but if you don’t mind paying for some head over to WindowsBlinds and Stardock.
*note on the wallpapers: I have NO idea where these came from. sorry.