Windows 7 Feature Focus
Aero Themes

While Microsoft's attempts to streamline and simplify the Windows 7 user interface are arguably the number one focus for this new Windows version, personalization isn't far behind. According to the software giant, a huge percentage of Windows users customize their PC desktop with a picture, using either a personal photo or something that they've downloaded from the Web. And users are clamoring for more ways in which to customize the PC experience and make it their own. In Windows 7, Microsoft offers a new desktop customization feature that addresses these needs. It's called Aero Themes.

Secret: Microsoft waffled on the name of this feature during the Windows 7 beta and it was known, at various times, as Themes and Styles. The Aero Themes name is now finalized, however.

Put simply, Aero Themes is a formal combination of desktop background, 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 machine-to-machine. Microsoft expects users and third party partners to trade and perhaps even sell Aero Themes online when Windows 7 becomes generally available.

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. Pre-release versions of Windows 7, for example, include Aero Themes oriented towards Australia, Canada, Great Britain, the United States, and South Africa.

Secret: You can find several locale-specific Aero Themes hidden in C:\Windows\Globalization\MCT.

Aero Themes can optionally take advantage of another new bit of functionality called desktop slide shows. This feature allows you to specify multiple pictures for the background image and then have the system rotate between them on a set schedule.

Working with Aero Themes

Aero Themes are accessed via the new Personalize option on the context menu that appears when you right-click the Windows desktop. (You can also launch this control panel by typing Personalization in Start Menu Search.)

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
You configure Styles via the Personalization control panel.

As you can see, 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.

The following Aero Themes are available in Windows 7.

Windows 7. The default Windows 7 Aero Theme utilizes the default Sky (clear, light bluish) glass color, the Windows Default sound scheme, and no screensaver. This is a great Theme from which to create your own Theme. The background image used during the Windows 7 beta was, of course, a beta fish. But this has changed in the final release to a more traditional Windows 7 flag image.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The Windows 7 Aero Theme. (Pre-release version.)

Architecture. This Aero Theme features a desktop slideshow of six alternating architectural images, the Twilight (deep blue) glass color, the Cityscape sound scheme, and no screensaver.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The Architecture Aero Theme.

Characters. This Aero Theme features a desktop slideshow of six alternating whimsical cartoon-type images, the Taupe (light pink) glass color, the Characters sound scheme, and no screensaver.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The Characters Aero Theme.

Landscapes. This Aero Theme features a desktop slideshow of six alternating landscape images, the Slate (dusty brown) glass color, the Landscape sound scheme, and no screensaver.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The Landscapes Aero Theme.

Nature. This Aero Theme features a desktop slideshow of six alternating plant- and leaf-based images, the Lavender (bright pink) glass color, the Garden sound scheme, and no screensaver.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The Nature 7 Aero Theme.

Scenes. This Aero Theme features a desktop slideshow of six alternating artistic images, the Violet (soft purple) glass color, the Quirky sound scheme, and no screensaver.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The Scenes Aero Theme.

[Your region]. This Aero Theme is customized for the region in which you live. So in my case, it is customized for the United States. It features a desktop slideshow of six alternating country- or region-specific images, a custom glass color (medium tan for the US), a custom sound scheme (Delta for the US), and no screensaver.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The United States Aero Theme.

To save an Aero Theme, click the Save theme link, which is subtly located near the bottom right of the My Themes section. Aero Themes are saved as a single file with a *.theme extension. These files can then be copied to other PCs and used elsewhere.

Secret: Aero Theme files are, in fact, simple text files, similar to XML or INI files, so you can open them with a text editor, like Wordpad, to see what they're made of. A typical section in an Aero Theme file looks like so:

[VisualStyles]
           
Path=%SystemRoot%\resources\themes\Aero\Aero.msstyles
           
ColorStyle=NormalColor
           
Size=NormalSize
           
ColorizationColor=0X45409EFE
           
Transparency=1
           
Composition=1
           
VisualStyleVersion=10

The problem with Aero Theme files is that they're not portable: If the Aero Theme you're using includes background images, sounds schemes, or screensavers that aren't found in a default Windows 7 install, you won't be able to pass them around to others. Fortunately, there's a way around this issue: You can also save Aero Themes as a Theme Pack (*.themepack), which packages all of the needed files into a single archive that can then be distributed to others.

To save a theme as a Theme Pack, right-click its thumbnail in Personalization and choose Save theme for sharing. Then, provide the Theme Pack with a name and a location to which to save it.

Tip: Microsoft offers a number of wonderful pre-built Theme Packs on the Windows 7 Web site. To download and install these Style 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.

Secret: Theme Pack files are really just ZIP files with a different extension. That means you can open them--and extract their contents--with any ZIP extractor, including Compressed Folders, WinRAR, WinZIP, and others.

Creating a desktop slide show

As noted above, most of the built-in Aero Themes utilize a desktop background slide show feature, which is also new to Windows 7. This works similarly to the static background image feature which has been available in Windows for years. But now, you can configure the desktop to switch between two or more pictures on a set schedule. Here's how it works.

When you enter the Desktop Background control panel (via the Personalization window), you will see an interface similar to that in Windows Vista. You can choose between different background types, such as Windows Desktop Backgrounds (the high-quality wallpaper provided by Microsoft), Pictures Library (pictures and other images you've stored in your My Pictures folder and other locations aggregated by the Pictures Library), Top Rated Photos (based on a meta data ranking system most users probably haven't used), Solid Colors, and, perhaps, other locations if you've ever manually browsed to a different location using this UI. For all of these options (except, oddly, Solid Colors), a new feature has been added in Windows 7: You can multi-select images.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
The Desktop Background control panel.

Multi-select works here as it does elsewhere in Windows: You can CTRL-click each item you wish to include. Or, you can single click on the new checkbox that appears in the upper-left corner of each picture thumbnail, as shown here:

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Aero Themes
Using multi-select, you can create a desktop slide show.

When you do select two or more items, some new options become available at the bottom of the Desktop Background window. You can determine how often the images change (30 minutes is the default), whether to shuffle them so that they display in a random order, and whether to disable the slide show when on battery power in order to save power.

Secret: If you remember the old Plus! packs for Windows 95 and 98, you may recall they included a Desktop Themes feature that was an early predecessor of Aero Themes. The Plus! Desktop Themes feature used Task Scheduler to rotate the theme, custom desktop icons, window color schemes, cursors, and screensavers, and more.

Final thoughts

Aero Themes helps create a truly customized desktop in Windows 7. One unfortunate omission: While the glass window color customization feature is nice, the dull blue Windows 7 Explorer toolbar never changes to match. Maybe Microsoft will enable that in Windows 8. Until then, however, Windows 7 is the most customizable Windows version yet. Aero Themes plays a big part in making that happen.