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Windows 7 Mobility Features : Working with the Windows 7 User Interface

4/26/2013 3:55:42 PM

One of the most obvious niceties of Windows 7 is the Windows Aero user interface. Windows Aero offers several unique features compared to the other UI options available in Windows 7, including translucency, various special effects, and even access to certain Windows features (such as the Windows Flip 3D application-switching utility and Aero Peek). Conversely, Windows Aero is more hardware intensive than other display modes and can thus drain battery life more quickly than the other user interface options. Your decision whether to use Windows Aero—shown in Figure 1—depends on how you feel about battery life, performance, and usability.

Figure 1. Windows Aero is gorgeous-looking but can drain a notebook's battery more quickly than other Windows 7 user interface options.

Before getting to that, however, you should also be aware that many portable computers—especially those made before 2008—simply don't include enough graphical processing power to even run Windows Aero. If this is the case, you will typically see the Windows 7 Basic user interface instead. (On some versions of Windows 7, there's also an option called Windows Standard that offers an enticing middle ground between the beauty of Windows Aero and the power management thriftiness and performance of Windows Classic, the low-end user interface that is designed to resemble the user interface from Windows 2000.)

Depending on your hardware, your choice might already be made: if you install Windows 7 on a portable PC and the user interface is set as Windows 7 Basic and not Windows Aero, then you may be out of luck: your system is most likely not capable of displaying Windows 7's highest-end user interface.


It is possible that your mobile computer can handle Windows Aero even if Windows 7 Basic appears by default. There is a chance that Windows 7 simply didn't install the latest driver for your display hardware. Before sinking into despair, consult the documentation for your notebook, find out exactly which display hardware it uses, and then visit Windows Update via the Start menu to obtain the latest driver and see if that makes a difference. Alternately, visit the hardware maker's Web site; sometimes the vendor offers drivers directly to consumers as well.


If you're not the kind of person who reads documentation, Windows 7 offers a few utilities that can help you determine which display hardware your system is utilizing. The first is called System Information (type System Information in Start Menu Search). Under the System Summary list on the left, choose Components => Display. You can also try the DirectX Diagnostic Tool (dxdiag in Start Menu Search): you'll see information about your display device on the Display tab of this application, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. You can find out about your display hardware using the DirectX Diagnostic Tool, a hidden Windows feature.

In order to run Windows Aero, you need a DirectX 9–compatible video card with 64MB or more of discrete graphics RAM, depending on the resolution of your display (64MB is adequate for a 1024 × 768 display, but you need 128MB or more for higher resolutions). Newer integrated graphics chips—the types that share RAM with the system and are more common on notebooks—are now capable of displaying Aero.

Assuming your machine is powerful enough to display Windows Aero, you might still want to opt for the Windows 7 Basic user interface because of its thriftier power management. However, Windows Aero is more stable and reliable than other user interfaces because of the way it interacts with the underlying system and required signed drivers from hardware makers. Like all trade-offs, the decision is not an easy one. Our advice is to test how your particular system behaves on battery power while using both user interfaces. If the battery life difference between the two is negligible, go with Windows Aero.

To change the user interface, right-click the desktop and choose Personalize from the resulting pop-up menu. This displays the Personalization control panel. In the top section, you can choose between various themes, including Aero Themes, which utilize the Windows Aero UI. As shown in Figure 3, the Personalization control panel lets you choose between these Aero Themes and other less impressive themes, such as Windows 7 Basic, Windows Classic, and some high-contrast themes aimed at those with vision handicaps.

Figure 3. Personalization lets you choose between various UI themes.

While using Windows Aero, you can make one change that affects the performance and battery life of Windows 7 while retaining the other features that make Windows Aero worthwhile: you can turn off Windows translucency by clicking Window Color in the bottom of the Personalization control panel and then unchecking the Enable Transparency option that appears in Window Color and Appearance, as shown in Figure 4. Translucency is a fun feature, but it doesn't really aid productivity and it's a bit taxing on the battery, so this is an obvious candidate for change.

Figure 4. From Windows Color and Appearance you can disable transparency.

Alternatively, you could use Windows 7 Basic instead of Aero. To do so, click the Windows 7 Basic theme in Basic and High Contrast Themes.


Back during Windows Vista's development, Microsoft promised that the OS would seamlessly move between Windows Aero, while attached to power, and Windows Vista Basic, while the machine was untethered and running on battery. This feature, sadly, was never added to the final version of Windows Vista, forcing users to manually switch between user interface modes—and it's missing in Windows 7 as well. But there is one related improvement: now, when you move between Windows Aero and Windows 7 Basic, the transition is much speedier. In Windows Vista, the system would often freeze up for several long seconds, making you wait while it transitioned between themes.

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