Chapter 9 - Make it your own

Your machine doesn't have to look and act like everyone else's computer does. You can adjust its settings so everything is exactly where you want it, or just give it a personality all your own.

It's kind of like organizing your desk where everything is exactly where you want it. You'll work more efficiently if you have easier access to everything you need. On a computer, you can reach the files and programs you need with fewer mouse movements and clicks.

The place to go to make these adjustments on both Windows and Mac computers is the Control Panel.

In Windows XP, click on the Start button and select Control Panel. In other Windows versions, click on the Start button and select Settings, then Control Panel. On the Mac, go to the Apple menu and choose Control Panels, or you can also get to the Control Panels by opening the hard drive and clicking on Control Panels.

If you're comfortable tinkering with settings, you can adjust these yourself. Or you can tell a friend or consultant how you'd like your computer to work and let them do the work.

Let's take a look at what we can do in the Control Panel:

Desktop image (wallpaper)

Where you'll find it:

 

Windows: Control panel - Display - Background tab
Mac: Control panels - Appearance - Desktop tab

This is one of the best ways to personalize your computer. Instead of your desktop showing a blank screen or your computer manufacturer's logo, it can display a picture of your grandchild, pet or your favorite sports team's logo.

Just choose the file you want to use and it will replace your existing desktop image. In Windows, the graphic files have to be in a .BMP (bitmap) format, which is not how most files are exchanged on the Internet. We'll cover graphics types and converting between them in "Chapter 11: Getting graphic."

If you want a desktop that's fancier than a solid color but less distracting than a photograph, both Windows and the Mac offer a set of standard patterns that can be used instead of an image.

Screen saver:

Where you'll find it:

 

Windows: Control panel - Display - Screen saver tab
Mac: Control panels - Screen Saver

In the days of the old monochrome monitors with amber or green text, screen savers had a necessary function. If an image on the screen stayed motionless too long, it would permanently burn into the display, leaving a ghost of that image even after the monitor was turned off. The screen saver's job was to run a short animation sequence so nothing on the screen was lit long enough to burn in.

Today's color monitors have no risk of burn-in and have made screen savers obsolete - at least as far as its original intended task. The modern screen saver remains an integral part of both Macs and PCs as a decorative gimmick.

Just go into the screen saver control panel and you'll be able to choose from a series of cute animations ranging from passing stars to flying toasters. You can also download screen savers from the Internet (there are scores of free sites) and run them on your computer.

Screen savers are set to start showing the animation a certain number of minutes after the computer detects inactivity (usually 15 minutes or so). If you'd prefer the make the time longer or shorter, you can adjust the delay time in the control panel.

Setting a desktop theme

Where you'll find it:

Windows: (Not available on some older versions of Windows 95) Control panel - Desktop themes
Mac: Control panels - Appearance - Themes

If you'd like to change your wallpaper, cursors and sounds all to suite a particular theme, this is the place to go. Although its functionality will remain the same, the computer will take on a new look and feel after you select a new desktop theme. It's kind of like giving your computer a makeover, although some of the themes' sounds can tend to annoy after a while.

Sounds

Where you'll find it:

Windows: Control panel - Sounds (or Sounds and Multimedia)
Mac: Control panels - Appearance - Sound tab

Another way to personalize our computer is to assign various sounds to different occurrences. For instance, we can have the computer play our alma mater's fight song when it boots up and yell "Goodbye!" when it shuts down.

You browse through the sound files that come with your computer, or download some off the Internet and use those. We'll cover sound in more depth in "Chapter 12: Music to your ears."

Desktop settings

Where you'll find it:

Windows: Control panel - Display - Background tab
Mac: Control panels - Monitors

The first main setting in this area is the screen area. Your screen is made up of a grid of dots (called pixels), so if your size is currently set to 640x480, that means you have 640 dots across by 480 dots high. If you were to change it to 800x600, you'd have more dots, but each of those dots would be smaller. In other words, bumping up the screen area will give you more area in which to work, but everything will appear smaller.

You might want to increase the screen area if you're using a 19- or 21-inch monitor. You'll get more real estate on which to work, but everything will appear smaller. You might want to decrease it if everything is too small and difficult to see, although you can't go lower than the 640x480 setting.

We can also adjust the number of colors the computer can use. The computer uses a palate just like a painter, and each of those dots we mentioned can be any color on the palate.

While a painter might have only six or eight color paints on his palate, Windows typically allows you to choose between 256, High Color (thousands) or True Color (millions). On Macs you can select 256, thousands or millions of colors. In general, the higher the setting, the better your screen will look, so it's usually best to leave this setting alone.

If you're unable to choose more than 256 colors, you likely don't have the proper device driver for your video card installed. See "Chapter 12: Software."

Some programs, often kids games, won't run unless you set your computer to 256 colors. This is where you change that setting, and you can change it back after you're done running the program.

Appearance

Where you'll find it:

Windows: Control panel - Display - Appearance tab
Mac: Control panels - Appearance

Here's where you can make hundreds of minor adjustments to the look of your operating system, ranging from icon and font size to title bar colors.

On a PC, once you have the Appearance window up, just choose what you want to adjust in the Item pull-down menu and you'll find all the adjustable settings. When you're done tinkering, you can hit Apply and OK.

There are also several pre-designed Schemes to choose from, which make all the available adjustments at once. Some such as Lilac and Marine are purely decorative, which others such as "High Contrast #1" and "Windows Standard (extra large)" are more functional.

On a Mac, you'll find tabs in this control panel for Appearance, Fonts, Desktop, Sound and Options. In the Fonts tab you can adjust the size and style of the Mac's on screen fonts, as well as choose to smooth the fonts on screen (which makes it easier on the eyes). In the Appearance tab, you can choose an overall color scheme for the system, as well as change the highlight and menu colors.

General Controls (Mac only)

This control panel is only on the Mac, but users will find two important settings here. You can select whether to hide or display the Launcher and Documents folder. The Launcher window provides an easy way to start programs, and the Documents folder offers a central place to store files, similar to My Documents on a Windows-based computer.

Creating shortcuts (Windows only)

Windows allows you to set up "shortcuts" to help you find commonly used files, folders and programs. Consider a shortcut as a pointer to another file. That pointer can be moved to a location that's more convenient for you without moving the original file, folder or program.

To create a shortcut, move your cursor to an open area on the desktop and right-click. Click on New and then click Shortcut. To find the file you'd like to create a shortcut for, click Browse and search around.

When you find it, click the program or file, click Open and click Next. Choose a name for the shortcut then click Finish. You can also create a shortcut by right clicking on the file or folder and clicking Create Shortcut.

Once a shortcut is created, it can be moved anywhere without affecting the original file. And deleting a shortcut will not get rid of the original file. If you look at the Programs section under the Start menu (that's All Programs in Windows XP), it's actually just a collection of shortcuts organized in folders.

Creating aliases (Mac only)

Although it's not as common as in the Windows world, the Macintosh also has a shortcut-like feature called aliases.

Click on the file you want to create an alias for, the go to the File menu and click Make Alias. The alias file can then be moved anywhere while the original file stays in its location. The alias can also be deleted while leaving the original in tact.

If you'd like the item to appear on the Apple menu, open the System folder and drag the new alias file to the Apple Menu Items folder.

Customizing programs

There are plenty of ways to customize your computer desktop, but most computer users spend thee majority of their time in their favorite programs. Most programs have their own setting adjustments to help you customize that experience as well.

For instance, you could tell an Internet newsgroup program to save all your downloads to a particular folder. Or you could choose which toolbars Microsoft Word displays at the top of the word processor.

You might have to browse around your program's menus to find where these settings are kept, but it will usually be labeled something like Options, Preferences or Settings.

NEXT - Chapter 10 - Accessibility