Windows Vista's Default Programs tool more than what you'd expect

Windows Vista's Default Programs tool contains a new twist as well as several other additional features.

While exploring in Windows Vista recently, I discovered something that I had previously overlooked because of its lackluster name -- Default Programs. I just assumed that Default Programs was akin to Windows XP's fairly innocuous Set Program Access and Defaults tool. That tool was added at the SP1 stage and was designed to alleviate charges of Microsoft's anti-competitive business practices by allowing Windows users to easily specify the third-party browser, e-mail, messaging, and media programs as the defaults. Because of that, I relegated Windows Vista's Default Programs tool to the bottom of my list of things to investigate and moved on to more interesting sound features and tools.

However, when I finally got around to running the Default Programs tool, I discovered that while it does serve the same function as its predecessor, it also contains a new twist as well as several other additional features. In this week’s edition of the Windows Vista Report, I’ll take a look at the Default Programs tool.

Launching Default Program

You’ll find the Default Programs tool languishing near or at the top of the All Programs section of the Start menu. When you launch the Default Programs tool, as shown in Figure A, you’ll see that there are four links you can use to configure how Windows Vista works with programs in four different ways:

  • Your default programs
  • File type associations
  • AutoPlay settings
  • Computer default programs

Figure A

The Default Programs tool provides you with four different ways to configure your default program options.

Default programs

When you select the Set Your Default Programs item, you’ll see the window that lists all of the programs that Vista considers the defaults and possible defaults for the browser, e-mail, messaging, and media programs. When you select a third-party program such as FireFox, which contends with Internet Explorer, you’ll be given the option to set the program as the default, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

When you install third-party software, you can choose in your user profile which program you want to be the default.

As you can see, this is very much like Windows XP’s Set Program Access and Defaults tool; however, there is one significant difference. The options you set in this part of the Default Programs tool apply only to your user account -- they won't affect any other user accounts on the computer.

File type associations

Changing file type associations in Windows XP wasn’t a very straightforward procedure because you had to monkey around with all the controls on the File Types tab in the Folder Options dialog box. However, changing file type associations in the Associate A File Type Or Protocol With A Specific Program window, as shown in Figure C, is a real piece of cake.

Figure C

Configuring file type associations is an easy task in Windows Vista.

All you have to do is select a file extension and click the Change Program button. Then, at the Open With dialog box, as shown in Figure D, just select the program.

Figure D

The Open With dialog box will show you all capable programs for a specific file type.

AutoPlay settings

When you insert a CD, USB Flash drive, or other removable media, AutoPlay kicks into action and immediately prompts you to use the application associated with the files on the media. When you choose Change AutoPlay Settings, you’ll see the window shown in Figure E, and will be able to configure the program that you want AutoPlay to launch when you insert the device or media. You can even completely disable AutoPlay if you desire.

Figure E

Having a one-stop location for all of your AutoPlay configurations is a very nice addition.

Program access and computer defaults

When you select the Set Program Access and Computer Defaults, you’ll encounter a User Account Control dialog box and will need to respond appropriately. Once you do, you’ll see the Set Program Access and Computer Defaults window, as shown in Figure F. As you can see, this user interface and its configuration options are identical to the Windows XP’s Set Program Access and Defaults tool. And, like the Windows XP version, this one sets the defaults for everyone that uses the computer.

Figure F

This part of the Default Programs tool looks and works just like its Windows XP counterpart.


Now that you know about all of the features in the Windows Vista’s Default Programs tool, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of everything that it offers.


Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.


Set Program Access and Computer Defaults module will not allow me to save AOL as my default emailer. What can I do?


I just discovered the Default Programs tool and to my dismay it is impossible to UNCHECK some defaults. For example, Opera is my preferred browser, but I had Firefox and IE on my machine. When I click on an https link in Eudora it opened Firefox instead of Opera. When I look at th default settings for Opera it showed the Firefox icon instead of Opera's and it was checked. There was no way to uncheck it. So I unnstalled Firefox and looked at Opera's defaults again. Now it showed IE as the https default. Again, no way to "uncheck" it. Why? What do I have to do?


How do I add a new way of opening a file instead of setting the default? For example, when you right-click on a .bat file it can be run (open), edited (with notpad), printed, run as administrator, or scanned for viruses. I would like to add a new way - and this was pretty straight-forward with XP, but I cannot figure out how to do it with Vista.


So... here's the issues: 1. For the HTM file, there's Open, Edit, Open in same window, Print, &c. I'd like to add an option to Edit with Notepad, and remove the Open in same window. However, there's apparently nothing for me to do that. Moreover, if I go to the Open With... menu, I get tons of different programs, which I guess I must've used before to open HTML files: Acrobat Reader, Microsoft Word, Windows Media Player (that one I did use once for sure), Notepad, EDIT.COM, Microsoft Office. I'd like to be able just to click a menu rather than go to a submenu and then search for the right program. Moreover, I don't want the extra menus sitting around taking up space and making it more difficult to find the Open With submenu. 2. Also, what if I wanna print. There used to be an option where you right-clicked it and then clicked "Print". But for any new file types, even though I know the command, "QBASIC.EXE /p filename.bas", I cannot choose that, neither as an option or even as a default. Similar stuff when I wanna have a "QBASIC.EXE /run filename.bas", to execute the file as an option. Is there anything I can do about that? 3. When I try to associate protocols with a program, I do not have a choice. I guess really the only thing I'm after is that I wanna open FTP sites with WINDOWS EXPLORER: no sense in looking at the list of folders and not be able to put anything there when you can do the same with HTTP. Likewise, if I open My Computer and type in the FTP address, it brings up an Internet Explorer window. Then, I go to View => Open FTP site with Windows Explorer. This opens up yet another window from the My Computer, even when I set it to reuse windows when launching shortcuts. Its excuse? Stuff in different security zones must open in different windows, *for your safety*. Then, it AGAIN asks me for the password. Moreover, it does not save it, and every time I try to open a new window, it asks for the password. It can get really annoying when you're browsing folders. Please suggest something, like maybe some TweakUI-type tool or something. 4. I reinstalled some programs, like MicroSoft Word and Acrobat Reader, because they were causing problems, and now all mine icons show up as the TXT icons. The Default Programs does not have any way to change the icons. This item was short, so I decided to add on to it instead of starting a new one. When I open files from the internet, it asks whether I'm sure I wanna open it; there's a checkbox that says, "Always ask before opening this type of file." If I uncheck it on accident and want it checked again, in XP, I could go to "Confirm open after download" in the Advanced options for the filetype. How do I do that in Vista? 5. And what about the .LNK files? Windows XP had an option, "Always show Extension". Windows VISTA has nothing of the sort, even though I have the Ultimate version: you'd think it'd have everything XP Home Edition used to have. So if I wanna open a .LNK file, I have to open EDIT.COM and open it thence. Because if I try to do it through MicroSoft Word, it tries to open FILENAME.LNK.DOC. And if I have a shortcut to an FTP site, there is no option, "Open Site with FTP Explorer" from mere right-clicking. I have to actually go to the site, and then do the whole business with enterring the password again and stuff. So to avoid all that I have to make the shortcuts say 'C:\WINDOWS\EXPLORER.EXE "FTP://USERNAME:PASSWORD@FTP.SITE.COM:21/"'.


If I assign the file type association, I cannot change it back to unknown application.


I have switched over almost totally to portable programs (ones which do not require and install and do not write to the registry. Vista refuses to offer me Firefox Portable and, when I navigate to it to choose it, it does not save or use the program. It appears that Vista will not offer for use programs not captured by the registry. Oddly enough, it has allowed me to use Portable Thunderbird. I don't know why. Damn nuisance, I say. -----Paul-----


My HUGE complaint about setting file type associations is that Microsoft have faiuled to provide a facilty to add a new action. For example, I might wish open certain files for editing in say Wordpad. In XP (and most other versions of Windows) I could Add a New Action, call it "Edit Wordpad", set the program association for that action to "wordpad.exe", and then a new action would be listed in the right-click-popup against that file type: "Edit Wordpad". So never mind the pretty looks, which are not everything, let's have "real stuff behind the curtains". Kenneth Spencer


Yeah, nuisance. To less than 1% of people who use Vista, I say. These applications are meant to be used occasionally and in other PC's, not at home in our PC. You might aswell just install these apps in your PC like any normal person and run them without needing to have your pen or external hard drive plugged to your PC.


I do that all the time to edit my webiste files. Just open these certain files you wish to edit in WordPad with WordPad once and then, every time you want to edit them in WordPad, just select them and choose WordPad from the "Open" drop-down menu in Windows Explorer. The option to open them with WordPad will be right there.


actually, I run them all from a 60GB USB drive. My goal is to be able to carry everything, programs and data, in one pocket and run on any machine, Windows or Linux. (Yeah, a linux partition with the same programs, more or less.) Not a reality yet, but close. Was closer with XP than I am able to get with Vista. And I do not aspire to be a normal person, enslaved to one machine and one OS.