Windows 7 Tip of the Week
Personalize Your Desktop with Wallpaper and Aero Themes

Tip date: May 28, 2010
Tipsters: n/a

One of the big themes Microsoft addresses in Windows 7 is personalization and customization. With PCs becoming more personal, users rightfully expect to make their PCs match their personalities. And in Windows 7, the ways in which you can make this happen have expanded nicely. There are a number of new and improved customization options in Windows 7, but two of the most obvious, and related, are desktop wallpapers and, new to Windows 7, Aero Themes.

So this week I'll explain how you can make Windows 7 your own by personalizing the desktop wallpaper and Aero Theme.

Note: This tip applies to Windows 7 Home Premium and better. Unfortunately, Microsoft does not provide any (built-in) way to change the wallpaper on Windows 7 Starter, and support for themes is limited. If you are running Starter, my advice is to upgrade. But there are also third party utilities that provide a way to change the Windows 7 Starter wallpaper.


Desktop wallpaper

Desktop wallpaper (which Microsoft now calls "desktop backgrounds") has been around since Windows 95 and is probably well-known to most people. But Windows 7 improves on the experience since Windows Vista and older Windows versions in important ways. For the first time, it provides a built-in mechanism for using multiple, different images on the desktop, and moving between them on a set schedule. And Microsoft provides a number of very high-quality built-in wallpapers, as it did with Windows Vista, though the Windows 7 wallpapers are all unique and fall into certain categories.

You will typically view and change the desktop wallpaper through the Personalization control panel. And while there are a few ways to launch this control panel, the simplest is to right-click a blank area of the desktop and choose Personalize from the pop-up menu that appears.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize Your Desktop with Wallpaper and Aero Themes

Personalization lets you change the visuals and sounds on your computer. We'll examine the other pieces here in just a bit. For now, let's just focus on the wallpaper.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize Your Desktop with Wallpaper and Aero Themes

Click Desktop Background to navigate to the Desktop Background control panel.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize Your Desktop with Wallpaper and Aero Themes

The Picture location drop-down will let you choose between a number of folders on your PC that contain pictures suitable for use as desktop wallpaper. These include Windows Desktop Backgrounds (which include the high-quality Microsoft images mentioned above), Pictures Library (your own photos and other pictures), Solid Colors (a set of solid colors, which explains the name change from "wallpaper" since these are technically not wallpapers), and more.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize Your Desktop with Wallpaper and Aero Themes

To select a single picture as the desktop background, simply select it in the Desktop Background window. The desktop background will change immediately. You can determine how a picture is aligned or displayed on the desktop--they rarely match the exact aspect ratio of your desktop--via the Picture position drop-down. This lets you choose between Fill, Fit, Stretch, Tile, and Center.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize Your Desktop with Wallpaper and Aero Themes

To rotate the desktop background between two or more pictures, you can select multiple images in Desktop Backgrounds. (It provides the handy Tablet PC-based checkbox selection UI, making multiple selection easy, especially for non-contiguous items.)

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Personalize Your Desktop with Wallpaper and Aero Themes

Using the options to the right of Picture position, you can also choose a rotation time (every 10 seconds all the way up to once a day) and whether to shuffle the picture display.

Tip: You can also select single and multiple pictures for your desktop wallpaper directly from within Windows Explorer. Just open up the folder containing the picture(s) you want to use in Explorer. Then, highlight the picture(s) you want (using click-drag or CTRL/SHIFT + click for multiple pictures). Then, right-click and choose "Set as desktop background".

Note: Windows 7 also falls short in a number of areas when it comes to desktop wallpaper. The Dreamscape animated desktops from Windows Vista Ultimate are no longer available, for example. And Windows 7 still doesn't provide a nice way to stretch a single image across two or more monitors, or use a different image on each monitor in a multi-monitor setup. While few people probably miss the Dreamscape feature, there are a number of third party solutions for those looking for multi-monitor support. I've used DisplayFusion for this purpose.

Tip: You're not stuck with Windows 7's built-in wallpaper and your own photos. There are a number of high quality wallpaper sites online. If you're a fan of the Windows Vista wallpaper imagery, which is quite nice, be sure to check out photographer Hamad Darwish's Windows Vista Wallpaper Pack. Also, Interface LIFT provides a nice collection of wallpapers in a variety of resolutions.

Aero Themes

Aero Themes is a formal combination of desktop wallpaper, Aero glass window color, sound scheme, and screen saver. Windows 7 comes with a number of built-in Aero Themes, and users can create their own by building off of them. Aero Themes can be saved, of course, and they're also portable, meaning that they can be packaged up and copied from PC to PC.

Also, Microsoft is building on a feature that was previously unique to Windows XP/Vista Starter Edition by providing built-in Windows 7 Aero Themes that are unique to different regions around the world. The US version of Windows 7, for example, includes Aero Themes oriented towards Australia, Canada, Great Britain, the United States, and South Africa.

Secret: Most of these locale-specific Aero Themes are hidden and thus not available by default. But you can find several of them hidden in C:\Windows\Globalization\MCT. Navigate into each sub-folder (MCT-AU for Australia, MCT-CA for Canada, MCT-GB for Great Britain, MCT-US for United States, and MCT-ZA for South Africa), and then into the Theme sub-folder. Double-click on the file inside to activate that theme and make it available on your PC. Voila! Four new themes! (The United States theme is already available.)

Like desktop wallpaper, Aero Themes are accessed via the new Personalization control panel. A stock Windows 7 install includes whatever Aero Themes you've created (or are currently using), several built-in Aero Themes, and several Basic and High Contrast Themes, the latter of which includes Styles based around the Windows 7 Basic and Windows Classic themes and four high contrast themes. These themes are described in my Aero Themes feature focus. You can also find a lot more information about Aero Themes in that article, including saving themes and theme packs.

Tip: Microsoft offers a number of wonderful pre-built Theme Packs on the Windows 7 Web site. To download and install these Theme Packs, click the link "Get more themes online" in the bottom right of the My Themes section of the Personalize window. (This site also offers downloadable desktop backgrounds, desktop gadgets, and Sideshow gadgets.) I'm particularly fond of the Bing's Best, Bing's Best 2, and Bing's Best 3 theme packs, but there's something there for almost everyone, including other region-specific themes that are included in international versions of Windows 7.

Tip: Some time ago, I also created my own Windows 7 theme packs that you may want to download. Each includes photos I took myself, so they're free for personal use but cannot be distributed elsewhere. These theme packs include:

Paul's Coffee Theme
Paul's Ireland Theme
Paul's London Theme
Paul's Paris Theme
Paul's Washington DC Theme

(You may have to remove an errant '_' character from the ends of these files' names.)