Windows Vista (which is nearly two years old now) represents the most dramatic interface change since Windows 95 was released. Some would argue the change is for the better and some would argue otherwise. I like Vista but I will admit there are some shortcomings and annoying inconsistencies in the user experience. If you can’t wait for Windows 7 and can’t/won’t take the Vista plunge, then here are some items that should give your XP install a fresh Vista look. All of these tweaks are free and independent of each other, so you can pick the ones you want to implement.
1. Highly Recommended: The most dramatic single UI change you can make is implementing the Royale Noir theme. I don’t know the full story on this theme, but it was developed at Microsoft as an alternative to the default blue/olive Luna theme. For some reason it was not included with the original XP release or any subsequent edition or service pack. It is obviously the basis for the default look in Vista. I am using it now on my work laptop. You can download Royale Noir here – I’ve included a read me.txt file on where to copy the files. Here is more info on Royale Noir at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royale_Noir
2. Highly Recommended: Most people know about PowerToys. These are XP add-ins that have been around since 2001. These are free useful utilities developed at Microsoft that weren’t included in the base XP code. http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/powertoys/xppowertoys.mspx
a. You will want the alt-tab replacement. Although this is not as cool as Vista’s “Flip 3D” it is a definite improvement over XP’s out of the box alt-tab look. This PowerToy gives you a screenshot of the Window (verses a boring icon) as you alt-tab through your open windows.
b. Also consider Virtual Desktop Manager. This may not be a Vista specific tool, but it is useful if you have a need for multiple desktops. This utility allows you to switch among different desktops without having to login as a different user. You may have one desktop for work, for home, etc. Or you may have a specific desktop config for working on photos, one for gaming, etc…
3. Highly Recommended: Turn on Clear Type. This is a font smoothing technique that has been built into XP forever. I’m not sure why Microsoft didn’t turn it on by default. It dramatically improves the way fonts look on your screen. (This same option is also available and disabled by default in Windows Mobile.) Display Properties > Appearance > Effects.
4. Replace the old yellow XP balloons with new glass notifications. This guy has created a free simple balloon replacement meant to look more Vista like. The source code is also available if that interestes you. http://mpj.tomaatnet.nl/vista/glasstoasts.html
5. Convert the XP start menu to a Vista-like start menu with this free utility. This is a nice utility for freeware but it is a little sluggish on my system. http://www.vistastartmenu.com/index.html
6. One really cool Vista feature is the live previews you get when you hover over a minimized item in the taskbar. Visual Task Tips is a free XP implementation of this. http://visualtasktips.com/ Again, it’s good for freeware but has room for improvement. For example, previews are not available for all minimized windows.
7. IE7 and QuickTabs. Don’t forget the QuickTabs (Ctrl-Q) feature that is built into IE7. If you have IE7 then you already have QuikTabs and didn’t know it. This allows you to quickly see all your IE tabs in a simple thumbnail layout. You can rearrange the thumbnails by dragging them around.
8. If all the above still doesn’t do what you are needing, there is a highly rated utility call Vista Inspirat which should do all the above (except for the PowerToys) in one install. I have not used it myself, but it does look cool.
Obviously this does not turn XP into Vista and you don’t get all the new Vista features like window transparency, enhanced security, media center, a new graphics model, etc. These tools will give you a fresh look to an aging Windows XP.