hen you consider how radically different Windows Vista looks to XP, you might be forgiven for thinking it's a lot of hard work to get anything like Vista's look and feel in XP. You couldn't be more wrong. The Windows Vista Transformation Pack is a single installer that brings together a number of different utilities to effect a spectacular change of your user interface. Don't believe us? Click on the Annotation below - that screenshot is from a Windows XP PC running the Transformation Pack...
Note: the guide was written around version 7.0 of the VTP. Version 9.01 is now out, which may rectify many of the problems we encountered. We'll update this page when we get a chance to try out the new version.
Annotation: The Windows Vista Transformation Pack revealed
A. THE WINDOWS VISTA LOOK
The Vista Transformation Pack (VTP) provides replacement icons, desktop backgrounds and both transparent and non-transparent versions of the Windows Vista skin for dialog boxes and windows depending on how powerful your PC is. To make your icons larger, click Effects on the Appearance tab of Display Properties and tick the appropriate box.
B. START MENU
A replacement Start menu is provided in the form of ViStart, which looks almost identical to its Vista counterpart. The Search box only works on the contents of your Program Files folder, but it's indexed for lightning fast results. The Start menu is also semi-transparent to blend in with the new look.
C. WINDOWS EXPLORER
The dialog boxes may look more like Vista's, but they're a triumph of form over function - there's no Favorite Links shortcut and the Search box merely opens the Search Companion when clicked. We reveal some additional add-ons to improve its functionality later on in the feature, so keep reading.
D. THUMBNAIL PREVIEWS
These are provided courtesy of Visual ToolTip. Roll your mouse over a tab on the taskbar and a miniature preview is displayed. Right-click the Visual ToolTip icon in the Taskbar and choose Options to configure the thumbnail size and transparency among other things. It's a little buggy - we'll reveal a better alternative later on.
One of Vista's standout features is the Windows Sidebar, and there are plenty of third-party options for XP users. The VTP bundles the Lite version of the Thooseje Vista Sidebar, which looks good, but is lacking in the gadget stakes. Install the full version from the cover disc for more options.
Switching between open windows can be a bind using XP's task-switching tool. WinFlip does a brilliant job of emulating Vista's impressive 3D Flip tool - press [Win] + [Tab] to access it, then press [Tab] to cycle through the windows, pressing [Enter] to select your chosen window.
Safely install the Pack
You'll need a PC with 512MB RAM running a fully updated version of Windows XP SP2 to use the Vista Transformation Pack - visit Windows Update prior to installing it to make sure you're up to scratch. It's also recommended you install Internet Explorer 8 and Windows Media Player 11 too - both should be available to download through Windows Update. Once done, you're almost ready to install the pack, which you can download from the link provided here. Once downloaded, right-click the zip file and choose Extract All to extract the program installer into its own folder. Start by creating a System Restore point - if things go belly up, you can return to this point via Safe mode if necessary.
Finally, we strongly recommend you image your Windows drive prior to installing the VTP using a tool like Macrium Reflect Free (see here for a guide) - just in case something major goes wrong. And remember you follow this tutorial entirely at your own risk.
Install the pack
The simplest way to install the pack is to reboot into Safe mode - restart your PC and tap [F8] after your PC's initial messages appear. Select Safe mode from the menu and press [Enter] twice. Log on as your user account and choose Yes when prompted.
If the screen feels a little cramped, right-click the desktop, choose Properties and switch to the Settings tab. Click Advanced > Adapter tab and click List All Modes. Select a higher resolution and click OK three times.
The moment of truth is here: browse to the folder you extracted earlier and double-click the downloaded VTP installer file to launch the setup process. You'll immediately see an interface that's familiar to Vista users, and it's pretty straightforward to follow.
Work your way through the wizard, leaving Install Vista Transformation Pack into the Windows OS selected when prompted. If you have a widescreen monitor, or want larger icons, select the appropriate options. We recommend choosing Express mode to keep things simple. The default options are fine from here on in - when you click Transform, your Windows installation will be overhauled. After rebooting when prompted, you'll find yourself back at a slightly revamped desktop. To finish the job, read on.
Post setup tweaks
1. PICK SETTINGS TO IMPLEMENT
After the pack is installed, the Welcome Center will appear. Click Configure user account to start. If you want the full gamut of features and are feeling brave, untick Keep stability and performance as top priority; instead, tick Detect moderated resources consumption settings to automatically pick settings based on your system's capabilities.
2. START BUTTON FIX
If you ticked the Use TrueTransparency option, you'll need to untick the Use Viorb option beneath it. This provides a full-sized Start button, but renders your system virtually unusable if transparency is enabled. Check out the Fixing Problems box below for an alternative if you're desperate for it. Click Apply current configuration.
3. SET UP WINDOWS AERO EFFECT
The Display Properties Control Panel will open (assuming you left Visual Style selected in the previous dialog). Select Windows Aero under "Windows and buttons" and click Apply. Switch to the Desktop tab and select one of the "img" entries. Click OK - after a short pause you'll be prompted to reboot - click OK again.
The Vista Transformation Pack does much to bring XP closer to Vista, but there is a price to be paid in terms of stability - you may find the interface clunky and unresponsive with minor crashes a-plenty when attempting to enjoy transparent backgrounds or features like WinFlip.
If your system proves uncooperative to what's provided by the Vista Transformation Pack, you can dump certain sections of it for other third-party solutions. If TrueTransparency is causing you problems, install the trial version of WindowBlinds from here and pick Aero Style (WindowBlinds skin) under Configure User Accounts on the VTP Welcome Center. Choose the Diamond skin when prompted, apply your changes and reboot.
One cool feature in Vista is its ability to display the free space available to each drive when you open My Computer - you can add this functionality to XP by installing the open-source Vista Drive Icon program from here. Once installed, open My Computer, opt to view as icons and then tick View > Arrange Icons By > Show in groups and select View > Arrange Icons By > Type to get a similar look.
(Note: Vista Drive Icon is now included as part of VTP from version 9 onwards.)
Vista's address bar enables you to move between folders and drives very quickly - to get the same feature in XP, install the QTAddressBar from here. Once installed, log off and on again, and enable the address bar by opening My Computer and selecting View > Toolbars > QT Breadcrumbs Address Bar.
If your system doesn't get along with Visual ToolTips, try Visual TaskTips instead (click here). It doesn't look as nifty as the version bundled with VTP, but it's less resource-intensive and more stable.
We've already touched on the fact that VTP bundles a cut-down version of Thoosje's Sidebar with a limited range of gadgets. You could install the full version from here - this has an extended range of gadgets. If you do this, disable the version bundled with the VTP via the Configure User Accounts screen. Once done, you'll need to manually drag the program shortcut from Start > All Programs > Thoosje Sidebar 3.0 to the Startup folder on the Start > All Programs menu to have it launch with Windows.
The Start menu bundled with VTP proved unreliable on our test machine - the only alternative is the Vista Start Menu Emulator, available from here - it's free, but slow, although its search box will search your entire drive as opposed to just the Program Files folder.
Remember - these were written based on version 7 of the VTP - it's likely some if not all of the bugs have now been ironed out.
After installing, the Welcome screen tells me my files are out of sync. What should I do?
Click Repair system files to fix the problem. Leave the default options ticked and click Perform Repairing. Reboot when prompted, then verify the files are now marked "Up to date".
How can I customise the taskbar without running into problems?
Open Task Manager, switch to the Applications tab and end the ViStart process. You can now resize the taskbar and move items around it, but note that the taskbar works best at just one level high. Once complete, relaunch ViStart from within the C:\Program Files\ViStart folder. If you run into problems with the taskbar, use Taskbar Repair Tool Plus from here to fix them.
What's the best way to remove the pack?
If you find your system is now too unstable to use, click Remove Vista Transformation Pack to uninstall it; don't use System Restore to revert your system unless you're unable to remove it any other way. If you're removing the pack after a short period of time, and haven't made other changes to your system you wish to keep, uninstall the pack and then use System Restore to mop up any detritus that's left behind.