I’m convinced that there are millions of Windows users out there who spend a large proportion of their time just sitting staring at their computer, without actually running any programs. Maybe they can’t afford to buy the latest cool applications. Or the ones they’ve got don’t work on Windows 7. Or perhaps it’s a just a new incarnation of Zen meditation techniques. How else would you account for the increasing focus on, and proliferation of pretty background pictures and animated wallpaper? Even to the extent of having a different one every time you turn on the machine?
OK, so I spend plenty of time just sitting staring at a computer screen, but in most cases this is displaying either a recalcitrant chunk of code, or some half-written Word document that seems to be going nowhere (a bit like this post, I guess). Maybe that’s the point where I should hit “Show Desktop” and just relax as the calming scenes of flowers and landscapes lull me back into a more productive and positive frame of mind. Though the fact that my new Windows 7 box just has a plain green Windows 2000-style background doesn’t particularly promote that remedy. I remember reading once that using a wallpaper eats up valuable memory and slows down your applications. Though I guess, running 64-bit Windows 7 with 8 GB of memory installed means this may not really be an issue any longer…
However, there is one thing that I am weirdly particular about: drop shadows on desktop icons. Perhaps they make it easier to read the icon captions when you have a glorious full-color photo of the Grand Canyon on your desktop. But they sure look ugly and make it harder to read the text when you don’t. Despite the natural tendency to look for the setting to turn them off in the various Themes, Colors, and Windows Appearance dialogs, everyone knows that you can get rid of them by opening the System Properties dialog, going to the Advanced tab, clicking the Settings button in the Performance section, and unchecking the last but one option. I mean, surely that’s the obvious place to find the setting.
And, while you’re in there, you can turn off other stuff as well to make your machine go faster; or just so it behaves in a way that you, the user, want it to. Do you need your menus to slide or fade? Do you really want your windows to animate when you minimize them? Is it vital to have your combo boxes slide open and scroll smoothly? I don’t know about you, but these seem to be options that I, as the user, should be able to specify. It’s hard to see why only an administrator can decide if I need to see shadows under my icon text.
But, if you have finally bowed to the pressure to stop running everything as an administrator, this actually is the case. You can only change system settings if you have admin rights for your account. That makes sense because the same dialog allows you to fiddle about with the paging file (virtual memory), restore the system, allow remote access, and change the computer name. All tasks that you probably don’t want ordinary users to play with when they get bored looking at their wallpaper. Perhaps there is a Group Policy setting you can specify? I’ve searched the GPO templates and the Web, but I can’t find one.
So on my new Windows 7 box, after several days getting everything installed and configured, I followed the usual route to the System Properties to turn off the awful black icon drop shadows; as I usually do on all my machines. But now I’m an enlightened non-admin user, I have to enter the admin credentials to get to the settings. Most of the settings in this dialog are applied computer-wide, such as virtual memory and the computer domain membership, so that makes sense. But some are user-specific display settings, yet I can only change them under the context of an administrator-level account. So when I get there, changing them makes no difference. Well actually it does, but not for me. As I’m running the dialog under the admin account context, the changes I make are – of course – applied to the admin account settings.
However, after performing my usual process of wildly clicking on (and swearing at) every part of the UI I could find, the answer became clear – if not exactly obvious. You just type Performance in the Start menu search box, select Performance Information and Tools and click Adjust Visual Effects in the left-hand list. All of the visual effects settings are available, and apply to the currently logged on user. The other settings that require Administrator permission to change are all disabled. Easy! Probably if I’d looked in the Help file first I’d have found the answer.
Of course, it’s just possible that nobody else in the whole world cares about drop shadows on their icons. Except, maybe, the millions of people who will buy a computer this Christmas just so they can stare at the wallpaper…