Engineering Windows 7

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Creating, Saving, Sharing Themes in Windows 7

Creating, Saving, Sharing Themes in Windows 7

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When we posted the new "inbox" desktop backgrouns, the reactions showed just how personal, personalization can be.  Building on that theme of personalization (pun intended), we wanted to share some of the work we did on themes in Windows 7.  We’ve shared data about customization in previous releases of Windows and this post builds on that.  This is also an area where we know there is very broad spectrum of desires (needs) for personalization and we definitely had to balance the engineering and design efforts.  I’ve received mail from many folks wanting to personalize (tweak) nearly every pixel on the screen—from border width, to title bar transparency percentage, to height of taskbar, to color/size/location of the close button (I’ve received each of these in email more than once).  At the other end are customers who are enormously happy when they can easily change the background picture and color scheme, and many do.  With Windows 7 we picked a group of settings that we believe represent the most satisfying settings to broadly personalize, and would also provide the most robust platform that maintains application compatibility, and made those easy to change.  In addition we wanted to make it easy to package up those settings so you could save and share them.  We think of this as the start of bringing robust personalization (and customization) to a broader set of customers.  Katie Frigon, a program manager on the core user experience team, authored this post. 


PS: Things are "slowing" down as we have talked about in how we will get to the RTM milestone.  You might have noticed the announcement we made today in Asia regarding Windows 7 release and availability. Thank you to everyone who has been using the RC and helping to reach the next milestone.

Creating and Sharing Windows 7 Themes

In early builds, you may have noticed that Windows 7 includes a variety of themes that change your desktop background, window color and sounds with a single click. These themes are located in the Personalization Control Panel which is easily accessed from the desktop context menu.

Personalization Control Panel

Personalization Control Panel

Desktop Context Menu

Desktop Context Menu

In the RC, you can see a number of new themes, for example the “Architecture” theme. This theme is comprised of six architectural photos which cycle on the desktop background, a complementary “Twilight” window color and the “Cityscape” sound scheme which was inspired by the sounds of an urban jazz club.

Elements of themes in Windows 7

A theme is a coordinated set of Desktop Backgrounds, Window Colors and Sounds.

Windows provides a set of themes in box and if customers want more there is a prominent link in the Control Panel to get additional themes online. This link takes you to the Windows Online theme gallery where Microsoft provides additional content including a variety of international themes.

Personalization Control Panel: Get more theme online link

Personalization Control Panel: Get more theme online link

Creating a theme

While our customers enjoy the content we’ve provided both in the box and online we also know that they enjoy and desire the option to customize their PC’s even more than choosing a theme. Windows 7 continues to be about your PC reflecting you and what you do, as well as putting you in control of that experience. So, if you do want to go beyond the options in the box and on the web, it is easy to create and share your own themes. Creating your own theme can be as easy as just changing your desktop background image while keeping the rest of the settings the same or you can change all the settings one-by-one.

From our Beta Customer Experience Improvement Program data we see that customers are changing and creating themes. We also see many users changing the different settings, the most popular being desktop background:

Figure 1: Break out of theme type

Figure 1: Break out of theme type

Note: Only 15% of the beta users kept the default theme. 77% of the beta users created a custom theme by changing one or more elements of the inbox themes.

Figure 2: Percentage of Beta users selecting each theme component in a session

Figure 2: Percentage of Beta users selecting each theme component in a session

Note: 35% of beta users who opened the Personalization CPL clicked on “Desktop Background”.

Now let’s look at how you can change the different settings and save a custom theme. To start, you can change any of the theme settings by starting in the Personalization Control Panel.

Personalization Control Panel: Click on the items beneath the theme gallery to change your theme settings.

Personalization Control Panel: Click on the items beneath the theme gallery to change your theme settings.

Let’s start with the desktop background control panel. This control panel has been enhanced for Windows 7 to support the pictures library and the new desktop background slideshow capabilities. If you choose the “Pictures Library”, we will show all of the pictures in that library including subfolders. All you need to do is select more than one photo to have them cycle as your desktop background slideshow. In this example, I have selected some of my favorite photos from a recent trip to Hawaii to use as my desktop background.

Desktop Background Control Panel: Windows 7 adds support for libraries and desktop background slideshows. I’ve selected the pictures I want to use in my theme.

Desktop Background Control Panel: Windows 7 adds support for libraries and desktop
background slideshows. I’ve selected the pictures I want to use in my theme.

When personalizing your PC, you might want to go further than just changing your background. Changing your window color or sound scheme is simple, just click on the items beneath the themes gallery. We provide 16 window colors to choose from and the ability to pick a custom color as well. New to Windows 7, we include 14 sound schemes with the OS inspired by a variety of regional music traditions, so you have plenty to choose from. If that isn’t enough, you can include your own sounds if you want.

Windows Color and Appearance

Sound control panel

Window Color and Sound Control Panels: It is also easy to change your window color
or pick from 14 diverse sound schemes.

After you change the desktop background, window color or sound scheme, you will notice that we have created a new “unsaved theme” that contains your changes. Your unsaved settings will be preserved when trying other themes in the gallery so you can get back to your most recent customizations. If you are happy with your personalization settings, you can ensure that they are always available in the themes gallery by clicking “Save theme”.

Personalization Control Panel: I clicked "Save Theme" to ensure that my current personalization settings will always be available in the themes gallery.

Personalization Control Panel: I clicked "Save Theme" to ensure that my current
personalization settings will always be available in the themes gallery.

Sharing themes

After saving your personalization settings for your own use, you might want to share these settings with friends and family or bring the settings to another PC. Windows 7 allows you to share your themes by right-clicking on your current theme and selecting “Save theme for sharing”. After specifying a name and folder destination for your theme, Windows will collect all of your custom desktop background images, sounds, mouse pointers and icons into the new .themepack file format that can be applied on another computer running Windows 7.

Personalization Control Panel: When I’m ready to share my theme with Friends, Family and on the Web, I right-click on my current theme and select “Save theme for sharing”.

Personalization Control Panel: When I’m ready to share my theme with Friends, Family and on the Web,
I right-click on my current theme and select “Save theme for sharing”.

Sometimes after I take a fun vacation I like to create a theme that reminds me of the trip. To do this I select the best photos from the trip to rotate as my desktop background and then pair those with a matching window color and Windows 7 sound scheme that best matches the mood of the trip. After I save as a new .themepack I can either share this file via Windows Live to friends and family or use it from another PC in my house via Homegroup.

Sharing with Windows Live

Since all of the personalization settings are now contained in a single file, it’s easy to upload the theme to Windows Live Skydrive and post a link to the theme on a Windows Live Spaces blog. Once my friends and family upgrade to Windows 7, they will be able to download themes from trips that we went on together so they can enjoy my photos on their desktop background.

Windows Live: I can also upload my theme to my Windows Live Skydrive and add a link to the theme on my blog.

Windows Live: I can also upload my theme to my Windows Live Skydrive
and add a link to the theme on my blog.

Sharing via Homegroup

In Explorer you can create a themes Library. Then from another computer in a Homegroup you just browse to the shared location and click on the desired theme to apply those settings with a single click.

Explorer: I created a themes library on one of my PC’s and shared it with my Homegroup. From another PC in the home, I can click on any of these themes to apply them.

Explorer: I created a themes library on one of my PC’s and shared it with my Homegroup.
From another PC in the home, I can click on any of these themes to apply them.

But wait…there’s more.

One additional way we’ve added value with Windows7 themes is by capitalizing on the growing popularity of RSS photo feeds to share photos. Enthusiasts can create a theme where the desktop background slide show points to an RSS photo feed. For example, my sister lives across the country and we only see each other about once a year. An easy way for me to keep her up to date on my family is to send her a Windows 7 theme which points to my RSS photo feed. When I upload new photos they will appear on her desktop automatically.

Because there are a few different ways to create an RSS photo feed, the process to include an RSS photo feed in a Windows 7 theme will only work if your RSS photo feed links to the high resolution photos using the “enclosures” method. The feed should only reference picture formats such as JPEG or PNG. Due to this limitation themes must be created manually when including an RSS photo feed.

So, to create one of these themes you can follow these steps:

  1. Download the template from MSDN.
  2. Open the template using Notepad.
  3. Replace {themename} with the name you want to appear in the Personalization Control Panel themes gallery.
  4. Replace {rssfeedurl} with the full path to your compatible RSS photo feed.
  5. Save the changes as a file with the “.theme” extension.

It is ready for you to share! Send the file via email, etc. to your friends and family.

Photo sharing sites can also offer these Windows 7 RSS photo themes which provide more ways to connect their customers.

Looking ahead

Themes in Windows 7 make it possible for you to make the PC reflect you. Beyond my example of sharing personal photos as a theme, we hope that users will find new and creative ways to use themes in Windows 7. Wedding photographers can include Windows 7 themes in the packages they deliver to their clients, Artists can create themes that showcase their creative style and businesses can create themes that promote their brand. We look forward to seeing how you are using themes to Personalize these aspects Windows 7.


PS: We've posted some additional themes you can download and use on which is the US English link from the Themes control panel.

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  • I know this is off topic, but here are some quite important problems I experienced recently by using Windows 7 RC:

    1. The DEll Touchpad Software is very unstable. Crashes all the time.

    2. I installed Real Player but after a while I wasn't able to open it. I just clicked on the icon but nothing happened.

    3. The CISCO VPN software of my university doesn't work with Windows 7. I installed it but it slowed down my hole system in a very strange way, it just all went slower.

    4. Sometimes when I click on Icons like the one from firefox, the icon changes to a starting programm, then it goes back to being just an icon and after a while, when the programm acutally starts it changes again.

    5. I have the Gmail notifier Plus which shows a "Open File Security Warning" all the time.

    6. The fingerprint scanner software built into Windows doesn't always work.  

  • 1 wish, 1 word: UxTheme - please, don't put hurdles in our way of customizing windows anymore!

  • 1. Editing themes is a PITA in the RC because it's not possible to overwrite themes as easily as it was in the beta.

    2. RSS-based desktop slideshows are beyond undiscoverable as the user needs to know the feature exists before they can use it. Then they need to get the template off MSDN (or an existing .theme from appdata) to modify a text file, which is in no way considered user friendly. I suppose subscribing to RSS image feeds is probably an "enthusiast" feature anyway but it's very odd Microsoft opted not to make any UI for this.

    I still do appreciate the personalization features. I changed my desktop numerous times and with themes it has always been a breeze.

  • Firstly, I am happy that theming and customization capabilities are revived again in Windows 7. However I've a few grudges and issues I'm not yet happy about:

    1.  Why is there no easy to use GUI (a simple text field or Browse to point to an OPML) to point to an RSS photo feed URL?

    2.  Why is Starter Edition deliberately crippled to disallow personalization? As if it's some huge hardware-intensive premium feature!

    3.  There's this really useful option in Mouse control panel called "Allow themes to change mouse pointers". Why not be consistent and have the same option for sounds, window colors, screen saver and desktop background as well? Or add this feature while saving/loading a theme?

    4.  Something's seriously wrong with the quality of sound schemes that are provided inbox? All of the sound schemes are mere variations of the Vista sound scheme? The Windows XP and Windows Vista releases had powerful & original sounds. Where are the corresponding fresh impressive Windows 7 sounds? The Plus! Packs for Windows 95 and 98 also had such a great variety of sounds.

    5.  I end up accidentally clicking on a theme far more often because 1-click changing feature. It would be nicer if clicking a theme put a selection rectangle around it and there was an Apply option below. Or maybe an "Undo theme change" for reverting to the settings that I hadn't saved as a theme earlier and were lost. At least, a warning maybe that your existing theme settings would be lost if it was unsaved.

    6.  Windows XP had a "Desktop Slideshow" powertoy as well that added a "Slideshow" tab to Display properties. It also had an option to change the desktop background upon every new logon. Also, the frequency of changing wallpaper could be set by the user, now we only get to choose from pre-defined intervals?

    7.  I wish there was a powertoy for converting old .theme files to .themepack ones.

    8.  The property sheet UI is still unproductive over the old tabbed dialog where a single Apply option applied all changes we made across all tabs instead of navigating back and forth. It was more keyboard acessible as well and required less "tabbing". For Windows Vista, copying "Desk.cpl" from an XP installation worked however it seems to be broken on Windows 7.

    9.  Instead of requiring hacks, why can't Microsoft officially support customizing look and feel of Aero glass to something completely different? MS need not supply custom skins but the ability for third parties to customize this without in-memory patching or modifying system files would be better.

    10.  Whatever happened to customizing fonts and desktop icons when changing themes? Why is quickly previewing sounds in the "Browse sounds" dialog impossible (someone forgot to include 'preview/stop' when moving to the new common dialog? The Preview pane should offer the ability to play/preview sounds instead of/besides displaying album art.

    What's new over Windows 95-XP (except RSS wallpaper and libraries support), where we could all customize wallpaper (even slideshow with a powertoy), screensaver, window (now glass) color, sounds, mouse pointers? Same package in .themepack format and new UI?

  • Any Windows user (XP users as well) can get any screensaver as wallpaper app such as this one ( and use the Google Photos Screensaver to use RSS wallpaper with nice custom transitions and with a nice GUI as a bonus.

  • Disappointing story about the tweakability of W7...

    Im sooooo agree with many people here, it makes no point to me to put it out more.



  • As far as customization can go these days, this unfortunately isn't very impressive. It's nice that it's made easy and such, and I think the RSS feed thing is a brilliant idea. But so many programs feature much more than this already, for instance being fully skinnable. In something as essential and all-around as an OS, and with something that's supposed to be as cutting edge as Windows 7, I would even dare to expect this kind of feature. You already see many users with custom layouts (including start menu button, icons, startup screen etc.), even if Windows doesn't support it out of the box - indicating a strong wish for this.

  • What I don't like in W7 customization:

    - I hardly found the "Delete" Theme - it shows only when right click the theme. It should be near the Save Theme button.

    - There is no way of editing an existing theme. If I created a theme and for some reason I want to tweak-it a little bit more, if I already saved it, I cannot. I have to make a new theme based on the old one, save it again and after that delete the old one. Not so nice. If I saved with same name it does not overwrite older one.

    - There is no 3D effect on the taskbar anymore. I've loved the Royale Theme in XP and Vista taskbar. This one has nothing to appeal.

  • That's very nice but there are some serious problems in the implementation. Apparently it only supports JPG, and all the other formats are converted to it prior to use. As usual, the conversion is low quality; the chroma is subsampled to half resolution. There are also the typical JPEG artifacts, but these are less visible.

    You can work around this by converting it to JPG manually with a program that allows you to save it at high quality (that is, not Paint!)

    Example image:

    Vista at least supported BMP, 7 supports no lossless format.

  • Good post.

    I do share the disappointment that to skin anything will still likely require replacing system files.  Changing the colour of the glass doesn't constitute customization.

    More flexibility with layouts would be amazing too, I know with Gnome I can make panels anywhere that do anything, and are sized arbitrarily.  They can hold performance graphs, launch icons, expanding lists of things or can function as taskbars.  People enjoy building their "own" desktop experience.

    Win7 isn't offering this, however I understand standardization is important for support.  And when your product is used on ~90% of the world's personal computers, you don't joke around.  Slight disappointment that a compromise wasn't possible this time around though nonetheless.

  • What's up with the oldschool INI file format :-/

  • good post

    I prefer the color black in windows media center. Why not also create some color themes for Windows Media Center in Windows 7 the users can choose from?

    Good work, windows 7 is a big steep forward

  • Wednesday, June 03, 2009 6:15 AM by JaviAl

    I totally with this person. I think windows 7 is great to a point but I miss the simple ways thats XP work. I finally got 8 gigs of ram and I put on my system Windows XP 64 bit and Wow I love it its fast its clean and I get to use all my memory. I like things simple. You know I work at a computer service shop and I asked people how many times do you use the windows search to find your program. 100% of my customers so far said 0.0% Nobody uses that stupid feature they make shortcuts to there programs. The Windows Search ie Indexer should be removed from vista and 7. Its nothing but bloat. I allways turn that stupid thing off and every computer I send back to the customer wonders why windows vista now runs so fast.

  • It would be nice to be able to change even more things (like themeXP let us do in XP). Aero glass is nice, but it would be great to create another UI like this one as we only have the choice between classic VS Aero AFAIK.

    Keep up the great work being done on letting us personnalize our windows experience.

    I'd like us to be able to use such personnalization at work too, it's such a shame so many company won't let us put a wallpaper or even changer windows theme :(, where is this all heading ? Lack of personnalization definatly makes me feel less comfortable working. (that's for me, being used to my stuff at home) Maybe microsoft should make it harder to block those "personalization settings" ...

  • Wolf-Tech > Search is a very very usefull feature (even with 5.5TB of stuff like I do) that might take some extra "working time" but this work is being done when the computer is idle (like the "new" auto-defrag in vista+)

    If you would teach your costumer how to use the new "search" to hit the windows key + first few letters and hitting enter to start the program (much less effort than to click your way through it. (only way to replace Launchy as it doesn't work in vista :()

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