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Display Properties

Change the appearance of the Desktop and most application windows, choose a screensaver, and change the settings of your display adapter and monitor.

To Open

Control Panel [Appearance and Themes] Display

Right-click on an empty portion of your Desktop Properties

Command Prompt desk.cpl

Command Prompt control desktop

Command Prompt control color [9]

[9] This opens the Display Properties window and automatically switches to the Appearance tab.


The Display Properties window allows you to configure a wide variety of settings that affect the Desktop, display, and appearance of just about anything on the screen (see Figure 4-26).

Figure 4-26. Configure the appearance of most screen elements in Windows with Display Properties

Settings are divided into the following tabs:


A theme is a name under which a collection of display settings is saved. After you’ve selected the preferences in the other tabs in this dialog, click Save As to create a new theme. Then, if you ever make a subsequent change, you can easily revert back to your saved preferences by selecting the desired theme from the Theme list. Don’t confuse themes with styles (available in the Appearance tab).

Saving your theme is a good idea, as it will allow you to restore your settings easily if they’re ever changed. It also allows you to quickly switch between multiple groups of settings, which is useful, for example, if you use two different monitors. When you click Save As, you’ll be prompted to enter a filename with the .theme filename extension. However, the default folder for these files is My Documents, which is not where Windows looks for themes when it populates the Theme drop-down listbox. To have your theme listed in the Theme list, save your .theme file in the \Windows\Resources\Themes folder.

Due to a strange quirk in the way Windows XP handles themes, several other Control Panel settings will be reset whenever you change the theme. Preferences like your mouse pointers (see “Mouse Properties”), sound scheme (see “Sounds and Audio Devices”), and your Media Player skin (see “Windows Media Player”) will all revert to their defaults. What’s even more confusing is that while these settings appear to be linked to the Themes setting in Display Properties, none of them are actually saved with your theme when you click Save As.


The Desktop tab allows you to select a background image. If no background image is selected, a solid color is used (set by the Color option here or by Appearance Advanced). The background image (also called wallpaper) can be centered (displayed actual size in the middle, surrounded by the background color if it’s not big enough), tiled (repeated so it fills the screen), or stretched (displayed once, but enlarged or shrunk so it fits the screen exactly).

Click Customize Desktop to selectively show or hide the My Documents, My Computer, My Network Places, and Internet Explorer icons on the Desktop (see Figure 4-27). You can also change the icons for My Computer, My Documents, My Network Places, and the Recycle Bin. The Desktop cleanup section helps remove less frequently used Desktop icons.

Figure 4-27. Selectively show or hide certain Desktop icons with the Desktop Items dialog

Note that most items on the Desktop are merely shortcuts and other files, stored in the folders \Documents and Settings\{username}\Desktop and \Documents and Settings\All Users\Desktop. See “Desktop” in Chapter 3 for details.

Screen Saver

Years ago, monochrome monitors, when left on for long periods of time, would be ruined when the images displayed would get “burned in.” So, screensavers were invented, which blanked the screen after a certain period of inactivity. It wasn’t long before screensavers started showing animations instead of just a blank screen.[10] Today, the concept of monitor burn-in is obsolete, but screensavers are still fun and can even provide security from prying eyes by obscuring the screen when you walk away from your computer. Choose from one of the available screensavers here and click Settings to configure it or Preview to see it in action (see Figure 4-28).

[10] At one time, the After Dark screensaver (made by Berkeley Systems, famous for their “Flying Toaster” animation) was the bestselling software program in the world. For some reason, the screensaver frenzy appears to have died down.

Figure 4-28. Select and configure a screensaver with the Screen Saver tab

Choose the length of inactivity before the selected screensaver is activated. A computer is considered inactive if no mouse or keyboard entry is received; updates to the screen, such as progress indicators or animations, don’t count and won’t stop a screensaver from being invoked. Use the “On resume, password protect” feature to lock up access to the computer once a screensaver has been invoked.

Third-party screensavers are plentiful; one of my favorites is Jim Sachs’ fabulous SereneScreen Aquarium (http://www.serenescreen.com/), of which a scaled-down version is included in the Microsoft Plus! add-on for Windows XP, and even comes preinstalled with some copies of Windows XP.

Note that the screensaver can interfere with some programs, so you may want to temporarily disable it if you’re experiencing a problem backing up to tape or burning a CD, for example.

Any particular screensaver can also be started from the command line or from Windows Explorer by launching the corresponding .scr file.


The following settings are available in the Appearance tab:

Windows and buttons

See the discussion of Styles at the beginning of Chapter 3.

Color scheme

Save your color selections into a scheme, which is a subset of the theme selection (see the Themes tab, above).

Font size

If you’re having trouble reading the text on your screen, try adjusting the font size here. Better yet, click Advanced and choose the typeface and size for each screen element independently.


Choose visual goodies, such as animation, fading, and shadows. These settings are really just eye candy and can significantly slow down your system (see Figure 4-29). See “System Properties”, later in this chapter, as well as TweakUI in Appendix D, for additional related options.

Figure 4-29. You can make Windows seem faster and more responsive by turning off some of the visual effects


This window allows you to choose the colors and fonts for all of the various screen elements. Choose the desired element from the Item list and change any available options to your liking. In addition to colors and fonts, you can also change the spacing of Desktop icons, the thickness of titlebars and menus, and even the colors of buttons (see Figure 4-30).

Figure 4-30. Even though the preview here always shows the classic style, this dialog can be used to configure some aspects of the new Windows XP style as well

Although the preview in the Advanced dialog is shown using the “Classic” style, most settings will apply regardless of the selected style. For example, you can shrink down the huge titlebars that are the default in the Windows XP style by choosing “Active Title Bar” from the Item menu and changing Size to something more reasonable, such as 20. Note, however, that you can’t change any of the colors when using the Windows XP style (other than using the “Color scheme” listbox under the Appearance tab, discussed above), a limitation that will hopefully be lifted in subsequent versions of Windows.


Last, but not least, comes the Settings tab, which allows you to change your display hardware settings (see Figure 4-31). Here, you can choose the resolution and color depth of your screen. There are two limitations of your video card that may affect the settings here. First, the amount of memory on your video card dictates the maximum color depth and resolution you can use. The memory required by a particular setting is calculated by multiplying the horizontal size times the vertical size times the bytes per pixel. If you’re in 32-bit color mode, then each pixel will require 32 bits, or 4 bytes (there are 8 bits/byte). At a resolution of 1024 768, that’s 1024 768 4 bytes/pixel, or about 3.14MB. Therefore, a video card with 4MB of video memory will be able to handle the display setting, but a card with only 2MB will not.

Figure 4-31. Choose your screen resolution, color depth, and multiple monitor setup with the Settings tab

As you adjust your color depth, Windows may automatically adjust other settings depending on your card’s capabilities. If you increase your color depth, your resolution might automatically decrease; likewise, if you raise the resolution, your color depth might go down.

The other limitation that may affect your available settings is the refresh rate that your card will be able to generate. Although the maximum refresh rate does not depend on the amount of your card’s memory, you may have to lower your resolution to achieve the desired rate. Windows should automatically adjust your refresh rate to the highest setting your card supports, but this is not always the case. If you notice that your display appears to be flickering, especially under fluorescent lights, you’ll need to raise your refresh rate, either by adjusting the refresh rate setting directly or by lowering your resolution or color depth. (Note that this does not apply to flat-panel or laptop displays, which never flicker.) Consequently, if you hear a slight whine from your monitor, it means your refresh rate is too high. The minimum refresh rate you should tolerate is 72 Hz. People with corrective lenses seem to be more sensitive and might require a higher setting to be comfortable. Most cards available today support refresh rates of 75 Hz and higher, so this is usually not a problem. Click Advanced and choose the Adapter tab. If your display driver supports it, you can adjust your refresh rate with the Refresh Rate setting. If the setting is not there, you’ll either need to obtain a more recent video driver, reduce your resolution or color depth, or get yourself a better video card.

If you have more than one monitor, either using two separate video cards or a single video card that supports two monitors, all configured screens will be shown in the preview area. Click any screen icon to activate it; the settings below apply only to the selected monitor. You can even drag-drop monitor icons to rearrange them so that, for example, a different monitor assumes the role of the upper left. Click Identify, below, if you’re not sure which monitor is #1 and which is #2.

The Advanced button allows you to view the hardware properties for your video adapter(s) and monitor(s). You’ll really never need to adjust these settings unless you’re updating a driver for your monitor or display adapter, adjusting your refresh rate (see above), or configuring color profiles (for matching the color output of your printer with your scanner and monitor).


  • All of the settings in this dialog are also covered in Chapter 5.

  • A bug in Windows’ handling of themes may cause your sound scheme and mouse pointer schemes to revert to their defaults whenever you change the display theme. However, neither the sound nor mouse schemes are saved with the display theme.

  • No piece of hardware inside or attached to your computer is more important, in my opinion, than your monitor (with the possible exception of the keyboard and pointing device). A bad monitor can give you headaches, not to mention neck and back pain. I strongly recommend one of the newer flat-panel displays, if you can afford them; in addition to consuming less desk space and power, the better ones actually provide superior image quality and color reproduction than any CRT.

See Also

“Control Panel”, Chapter 3

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