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Step By Step: How to Use Custom Windows Visual Styles 9/30/08 6:16 AM

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STEP BY STEP 4:00 AM on Tue Sep 30 2008


By Jason Fitzpatrick
5,211 views

Customizing the appearance of your Windows


installation can be frustrating, because both Windows
XP and Vista are limited to the Microsoft's default
themes out of the box. However, with a bit of
tweaking under the hood, your Windows setup can try
on a wider range of looks than come pre-installed.
Let's take a look at how to patch your Windows
installation to allow customized styles, and a few
places to find new and interesting styles online.

Vocabulary and Methods


When talking about the physical appearance of
Windows there are two terms that are distinct but
often used incorrectly in place of each other. Visual
styles, which have the .msstyles file extension, are
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Step By Step: How to Use Custom Windows Visual Styles 9/30/08 6:16 AM

styles, which have the .msstyles file extension, are


the files which supp;y all the information about how
the interfaces within Windows should look. The
toolbar skin, start button skin, borders, buttons, etc.
are all stored in the visual style. Themes contain a
visual style along with additional settings such as
icons, wallpaper, etc. Later, when browsing for
goodies, keep in mind that a theme pack will have
further customization than a visual style pack.

Throughout the tutorial you'll need to be able to


access the menu within Windows where you can
chane your themes and visual styles. The following
screenshots are from Windows XP but the essential
menus are nearly identical in function in Vista, too.
For reference, here is how to access both:

XP: Right-click Desktop -> Properties -> Themes


Tab (or Appearance Tab for Styles)

Vista: Right-click Desktop - > Personalize ->


Themes

First, Back Up Your Current Theme For


Safe Keeping

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Although you'll most likely find a new style that you


really enjoy, on the off chance that you don't, make a
backup of your current theme for you to restore later
if necessary. Backing up only takes a moment and will
allow you put things back exactly as they were before
you started customizing, right down to the wallpaper.
From within the Themes tab click Save As and name
your theme whatever you'd like. Save it in a safe
place.

Second, Patch Your Windows Install


Patching your system for themes allows you to use
non-Microsoft approved visual styles. At the very root
you're simply replacing the Uxtheme.dll with a
modified version that doesn't verify if the style has
been signed by Microsoft. It used to be that patching
your Windows installation was a hassle, a small one,
but a hassle nonetheless. Now both Windows XP and
Vista have patching programs available that make it
no more hassle than clicking a button and rebooting.
There are various programs that can do what the free
patches do with some additional functionality thrown
in, but they are hardly worth the $20 and up fees they
command.

For Windows XP, download the Uxtheme Multi-


Patcher. Run the file, click through the prompts and
reboot.

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For Windows Vista, download VistaGlazz. Run the file,


click through the prompts and reboot.

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Both patching programs will allow you to reverse the


process should anything go wrong by simply running
the program again. (However, I've been patching
Windows installs for years without a hitch.)

Finally, Download and Install Custom,


Third Party Styles
The best way to verify if your patch job has been
successful is to browse some of the great repositories
of visual styles and select a few to try out. Below are
some samples of the most popular styles at
DeviantArt.com. Before you begin downloading
through, a quick overview of where the files go is in
order.

If a style pack is zipped up properly then installing it


is as simple as unzipping the files into the
C:\Windows\Resources\Themes directory. Check
when you open the zip file if the files have nested
directories. If you install a visual style or theme and
something is amiss, check the following list to ensure
the files ended up in the right place:

.Theme files must be in the /Themes/ folder,


not within any subfolders.
.MSStyles files must be in their own sub-
folders. If the style name is
NewStyle.msstyles, then sub folder in
/Themes/ must be /Themes/NewStyle/
If your style pack came with a
shellstyle.dll, that also goes within it's
own subfolder, i.e.
/Themes/NewStyle/shell/
If you have any problem with loading a style or
theme, go back and double check for spelling
and capitalization. The names are case
sensitive. If a file has a combination of upper
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sensitive. If a file has a combination of upper


and lower case letters, the folder name you
place it in must be spelled exactly the same.

Now let's take a look at some popular third-party


visual styles in action.

Luna Element 5.0.5 by tornado5

Pristine OS 1.2 by MohsinNaqi

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Sentinel Beta - 1 by chaninja

For more visual styles, check out the following


resources:

Deviant Art - Windows Vista Styles / Windows XP


Styles
ThemeXP - Most Popular XP Styles
If you have a little bit more time and would like to
grab a theme hot off the press, check out the active
forums where style designers throw up their newest
work:

JoeJoe.org - Vista Visual Styles / XP Visual Styles


NeoWin - Vista Visual Styles / XP Visual Styles

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Step By Step: How to Use Custom Windows Visual Styles 9/30/08 6:16 AM

What's your favorite Windows theme? Tell us about it


in the comments—or show off your customized
Windows in the Lifehacker Desktop Show and Tell
Flickr group.

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18 DISCUSSIONS Classic view | Expand all Start a new discussion Show: Oldest first | Newest first | Most popular

alcyone 4:16 AM
4:16 AM

Oh, Sentinel Beta. I really liked that one. Back in


the days. Like, five years ago.

Jaok1m 4:19 AM
4:19 AM 1 reply

Royale Vista - [dobee.deviantart.com]


I dont understand how people stand this horrible
blue XP default skin, it makes me sick.

1 reply by metalmarious

SmartyCZ 4:26 AM
4:26 AM 1 reply

I use Alduin. It's the most beautiful theme for XP


I've ever used.

1 reply by Avengelist

Harrelson 4:27 AM
4:27 AM 1 reply

I use a program called StyleSelector (google


styleselector for vista). It enables me to change
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styleselector for vista). It enables me to change


the system font and size as well as select themes
without any patching. It creates a folder called
"Styles" where you put your Vista styles and
changing them is as easy as selecting and clicking
apply.

Works perfect for me

1 reply by metalmarious

subtle 4:32 AM
4:32 AM 1 reply

It's amazing how often Lifehacker posts


something I am thinking about ... how
serendipitous.

1 reply by metalmarious

iroQuai 4:51 AM
4:51 AM

I really like "System 5" (found here:


[andymorum.deviantart.com])With matching
winamp skin (found here:
[bigl523.deviantart.com]) and this wallpaper:
[maariusz.deviantart.com]

Cornflakes 5:02 AM
5:02 AM

One year after figuring all of this out, I'm still


using this theme:

[www.askvg.com]

Because it's perfect.

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Ph0Xy 5:05 AM
5:05 AM 1 reply

Great tutorial. I've been using patched uxtheme


for almost a year now, and it's definitly the best
and most performent way of changing the theme.
Better than all those WindowsBlind and stuff.

I recommanded to everyone who wanted a custom


theme.

1 reply by Ph0Xy

metalmarious 5:06 AM
5:06 AM

I like my windows task bar to be up top as well. it


is closer to the menus so my mouse isnt
constantly flying across the top and bottom

Junkan 5:10 AM
5:10 AM 2 replies

Although still by Microsoft. I am using "Royale


Windows XP Theme" originally from New Zealand
MS site, alternatively with "Royale Noir Theme for
WinXP 1.47" [www.softpedia.com]

2 replies by anudeglory, anudeglory

Marco 5:21 AM
5:21 AM 2 replies

@Jason

You should mention that the latest stable


VistaGlazz 1.0 is known to cause problems on
Vista SP1 systems. The developer even warns not
to use this version to patch a SP1 installation.

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Step By Step: How to Use Custom Windows Visual Styles 9/30/08 6:16 AM

I tried it once on XP some time ago, and it killed


my whole system... so you better warn the LH
users.

2 replies by token1, Asian Angel

ste-knows-best 5:34 AM
5:34 AM

I had nothing but issues with Vistaglazz on SP1


vista. Complete and utter nightmare. I will use
default themes if It means avoiding such a fiasco
again. My theme reverted to classic (horrible) and
refused to change. There seemed to be registry
files missing, screen turned a shade of red,
desktop background couldn't be changed
etc.etc.etc. I fixed it all with a system restore
point, but NEVER again.

tomstrummer 5:49 AM
5:49 AM

My favorites are the Advance4 styles by sz1.

Also, don't forget that there's a nice semi-official


XP theme that doesn't require uxtheme patching.

Kaelri 5:50 AM
5:50 AM

I keep going back to SlanXP 2.0, though at the


moment I'm using lassekongo's newest theme,
CleanGlass. His gallery has a wide selection of
attractive minimalist themes.

Now, I'd love it if Lifehacker took the next step


and posted a tutorial on creating and modifying
custom themes ourselves. :)

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JadeEmperor 5:53 AM
5:53 AM

I like a theme that offers maximum screen real


estate and at the same time is light, mean, and
daring.

aaziz 5:58 AM
5:58 AM

[www.codegazer.com]

"VistaGlazz doesn't support SP1 yet" You can


manually patch the DLLs, but check out the last
post on this blog for Beta 3 which is supposed to
support SP1:

[www.codegazer.com]

zubaz25 6:04 AM
6:04 AM

Windowblinds does a more complete job of


skinning everything. I'll stick with that.
Low memory use, more elements skinned, paid
support, and tons of skins to choose from.
[www.wincustomize.com]

elgilicious 6:13 AM
6:13 AM

Normally, I would just say "install Linux and take


half the time to do the same thing." But, at my
summer clerkship, I was barred from using
anything but my XP terminal, and I wish I had this
guide back then.

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