Build Your Skills: New Windows XP shell features for an improved computing Xperience

Learn about many of the changes and improvements Microsoft has made to the client operating system shell in Windows XP

The new Windows XP interface provides a completely revamped look for the desktop and an easier way to use themes to customize the GUI’s appearance. Folder views can be easily changed, as can folder icons, and sophisticated users and administrators will find more shell-related Registry settings for fine-tuning the look and behavior of shell elements. This Daily Drill Down covers many of these changes and improvements Microsoft has made to the client operating system shell in Windows XP.

New look for the desktop
The new default interface for Windows XP (known by its code name Luna) strives for a more modern, “cleaner” desktop appearance. When XP is installed, by default, there’s only one icon on the desktop: the Recycle Bin. Figure A shows the default desktop.

Figure A
The new default interface provides a "cleaner" desktop.

If you want the customary icons, such as My Computer, My Network Places, My Documents, and Internet Explorer (IE), to appear on the desktop, all you have to do is right-click the desktop, select Properties, click the Desktop tab, click the Customize Desktop button, and check the check boxes for those icons you wish to appear, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
Select the standard icons you want to appear on the desktop.

Improved taskbar
The XP taskbar, despite its new look, contains the usual components: Start button, open programs area, Quick Launch bar (if selected), system clock, and notification area (formerly called the system tray). The taskbar now also supports grouping to conserve space on the bar.

For example, if you have three different instances of IE open, they can be grouped together and represented by a single icon with an arrow symbol indicating the multiple Web pages. When you click the arrow, the page names will be displayed, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
Taskbar grouping conserves space on the taskbar.

You can configure the behavior of taskbar elements by right-clicking the taskbar and selecting Properties. On the Taskbar tab, you can choose to lock the taskbar (preventing it from being moved to another location on the desktop), autohide, keep the taskbar on top, group similar buttons, and show (or not show) the Quick Launch bar. You can also select whether to display the clock and whether to hide inactive icons in the notification area.

When the infrequently used notification icons are hidden, you can display the hidden icons by clicking the small arrow in the notification area.

A new Start menu
The Start menu in XP has a very different look, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
The logged-on user's name is displayed at the top.

Recently used programs are shown on the left side (to view other installed programs, click All Programs). In the right column, special folders, My Computer, Printers And Faxes, and the Control Panel applet are shown, along with the Help, Search, and Run functions.

You can customize the Start menu (including reverting to the classic Windows Start menu) by selecting the Start Menu tab on the taskbar Properties sheet. Clicking the Customize button will allow you to do the following:
  • Select the program icon size (large or small)
  • Specify the number of program shortcuts on the Start menu (from 0 to 30)
  • Select whether icons for your Web browser and e-mail client appear on the Start menu

The Advanced tab lets you configure Start menu settings, such as whether newly installed programs will be highlighted, whether Control Panel is displayed as a link or a menu, and whether recently opened documents will be displayed. You can also clear the list of recent documents here.

Themes made easier
If you don’t like XP’s new interface, you can easily switch back to the Classic Windows look using themes, collections of background, icons, color schemes and the “skin” affecting the appearance of the taskbar, dialog boxes, and other elements. Windows users have been familiar with desktop themes since Windows 95 (with the Plus! add-on), but XP makes it easier to apply themes.

Now you simply select the Themes tab from the Display Properties box and choose the theme you want to apply. The Windows XP theme gives you the default appearance, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
To return to the standard Windows look, select Windows Classic from the drop-down box.

You can browse for additional themes online or create your own custom look and save it as a new theme.

New themes can be downloaded from the Microsoft Plus for Windows XP page.

Shared environment support
Another new feature of the XP shell is Fast User Switching. If two or more users share the computer, you can now switch between user accounts without closing the first user’s programs. To switch users, simply perform the following steps:
  1. Click Start and select Log Off at the bottom of the Start menu.
  2. Click the Switch User button, shown in Figure F.
  3. A list of local user accounts will be displayed; select the account to which you want to switch.

Figure F
Fast User Switching support can be turned on or off by administrators in the User Accounts applet in Control Panel.

Note that Fast User Switching is not available if the XP Pro computer is a member of a domain.

Files, folders, and applets
The XP shell has added enhancements to file and folder organization and customization and gives you more flexibility in viewing applets such as Control Panel.

Special folders for organizing your data
Users of earlier versions of Windows are familiar with the special My Documents folder. In Windows XP, it’s stored in each user’s profile information in Documents And Settings\<username> on the drive to which the operating-system files are installed (the drive containing the system root directory, by default named WINNT).

The My Pictures folder resides inside the My Documents folder and allows you to organize graphics files more easily. Windows XP adds the My Music folder to this group of special folders. It’s designed to work in conjunction with Windows Media Player to make downloading and storing audio files easier. The folder also contains links to music-related tasks.

Customizing folder views
In Windows 2000, you could customize folders by choosing Customize This Folder from the View menu, to invoke a wizard. In Windows XP, you customize the appearance of folders by right-clicking the folder, selecting Properties, and clicking the Customize tab. You'll notice the wizard is gone; now you select the folder type from a drop-down list, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G
You can choose a graphic to display on the folder when using the thumbnail view (for example, a picture of a musical note on a folder containing MP3 files).

Changing folder icons
In Windows 2000, power users created a Desktop.ini file in a folder to change its icon. Windows XP lets you change the icon easily by clicking the Change Icon button and browsing to the icon file you wish to use.

ClearType screen fonts
Another improvement to the shell is the ability to use ClearType for screen fonts to improve font resolution for better readability. To configure the computer to use ClearType screen fonts, perform the following steps:
  1. Right-click the desktop and select Properties.
  2. Click the Appearance tab.
  3. Click the Effects button.
  4. Under Use The Following Method To Smooth Edges Of Screen Fonts, select ClearType from the drop-down box.
  5. Click OK.

ClearType fonts look best on flat screen monitors and laptop/notebook computer displays. The fonts may be blurry on a non-flat monitor. Your video card should be set to 24-bit or 32-bit color for the best appearance.

New view for Control Panel
The Control Panel can display its contents in one of two views:
  • Classic View (similar to earlier Windows operating systems)
  • Category View (shown in Figure H)

Figure H
It's easy to switch back and forth by clicking the desired view in the left pane of the Control Panel.

Category View groups similar items together, while Classic View displays each individually. For example, in Category View, the Appearance And Themes selection combines tasks performed with the classic Display, Folder Options, and Taskbar and Start Menu selections.

Customizing the shell through Registry settings
The Windows Registry controls many of the shell features, and those who are brave enough to venture in despite Microsoft’s warnings can make changes to these settings to precisely control shell behavior and appearance.

Disabling balloon tips
Don’t like XP’s “friendly” balloon tips that pop up at the most annoying times? You can disable them by following this procedure:
  1. At the Run box, type Regdt32 or Regedit to open a registry-editing tool of your choice.
  2. Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft
  3. Locate or create a REG_DWORD entry EnableBalloonTips.
  4. Set the value to 0 to disable the tips.

Disabling Infotips
Infotips are the pop-ups that occur when you move the cursor over an icon or object. You can disable them by navigating to the same subkey as above and setting the value for ShowInfoTip to 0.

If you decide later that you miss the balloon tips or infotips, you can enable them by setting the appropriate value to 1.

Disabling disk space checks
Windows XP automatically checks for low disk space and alerts you if disk space on a partition is 200 MB or less. You can disable these checks and alerts by following these steps:
  1. In a Registry editor, navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\
  2. Navigate to or create a REG_DWORD entry NoLowDiskSpaceChecks.
  3. Set the value to 1.

Controlling file processing
Windows XP lets you set the following values on individual file types in the HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT key:
  • NoOpen: This provides a warning if users attempt to open a file of this type.
  • NoOpenWith: This excludes a specified application from being used to open files of this type.
  • AlwaysShowExt: This overrides the settings in folder options and forces display of the file extensions in Explorer even if Hide Extensions For Known File Types has been selected.

For more information on how to create file classes and how to use the NoOpenWith value to exclude applications, see Creating a File Association at the MSDN site.

Other new Registry settings
You’ll find a few new settings in the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\ControlPanel\Desktop subkey. For example, UserPreferencesMask allows you to set the transition effect (Fade or Scroll) that is used with menus and Tooltips. The FontSmoothingType value in the same path allows you to set ClearType or Standard smoothing method. These settings can (and should) also be made through the graphical interface.

Returning to default Registry settings
As with Windows 2000, the HKEY_USERS\.DEFAULT subkey contains the template for new users. If you’ve changed the settings for HKEY_CURRENT_USER values and want to return to the default settings but don’t know what they were, you can find the default value in the matching subkey of HKEY_USERS\.DEFAULT.

Windows XP includes a number of new and enhanced shell features that benefit users and administrators. Users will find that the GUI offers more flexibility for customizing the shell to suit their needs. As an administrator, you’ll find that you can control the behavior and appearance of the shell and override user settings by editing the Registry. Both groups should have no problems getting around the new interface.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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