Windows Vista : Make Your Hardware Perform (part 1) - Get Glass

7/30/2012 5:52:10 PM
There's no end to the tricks you can employ to squeeze more speed out of your PC, but few, hopefully—will end up making that much of a difference. Probably the most effective steps you can take involve your hard disk.

Paradoxically, this section's first topic involves the Glass interface, a new feature that indeed makes Windows run more slowly. But making Vista perform isn't always about making it run faster; rather, performance is as much about the quality of your experience as it is about raw, number-crunching speed.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that there's a certain point beyond which your computer is going to turn into a money and time pit. The older your system is, the less time and energy you'll want to invest in making it run well, and the more you should start looking to replace it. It's easy to calculate the point of diminishing returns: just compare the estimated cost of an upgrade—both the monetary cost and the amount of time you'll have to commit—with the cost of a new system (minus what you might get for selling or donating your old system). I stress this point a great deal, because I've seen it happen time and time again: people end up spending too much and getting too little in return. A simple hardware upgrade ends up taking days of troubleshooting and configuring, only to result in the discovery that yet something else needs to be replaced as well. Taking into account that whatever you end up with will still eventually need to be further upgraded to remain current, it is often more cost effective to replace the entire system and either sell or donate the old parts.

That said, the following sections detail some things you can do to make Windows run faster and/or better.

1. Get Glass

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

—Anton Chekhov

We're all suckers for a pretty face. You may or may not think "Aero" Glass, the translucent new interface in Windows Vista, is actually pretty, but you can't deny that it's a welcome change from the homely, cartoonish look of XP, and a convenient way to see what's behind the window on top (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Glass—the shiny, translucent interface included with every edition of Vista except Home Basic—is nice to look at, but may be hard to come by on older PCs

Glass also includes some flashy goodies, such as buttons that glow a cool blue when you roll over them with the mouse, live thumbnail previews of running tasks in the taskbar and the Alt-Tab window, and the silly Flip3D Rolodex-style task switcher (Winkey+Tab).

If you got Windows Vista preinstalled on a new PC, and you're using the Home Premium edition or better, then you're probably already using the Glass interface. But what if you've upgraded an older PC, or have the Home Basic edition of Vista? Or what if Glass simply doesn't work?

The problems with Vista's Glass feature are twofold. First, Glass has somewhat hefty technical requirements, not the least of which is a fast video card with at least 64 Mb of video memory (or more for higher resolutions), a Vista-compatible video driver, and a 3D gaming feature called Pixel Shader 2.0 in hardware. And because Aero Glass guzzles CPU cycles, you'll want a fast processor and a fast video card to enjoy it.

Second, it can be a little tricky to get all the pieces in place so that Vista will even give you the option of enabling the Glass interface.

So, without further ado, here's a fairly foolproof procedure to get Glass on your PC.

1.1. Part 1: Hardware

The number-one ingredient in a good Glass experience is a fast graphics card with sufficient video memory onboard.

A faster card, which you can only get by spending money on a replacement and installing it in your PC, will help offload the burden of the Glass interface, so your CPU is free to handle other tasks.The card must also support a 3D feature called Pixel Shader 2.0 in its hardware (not software), and must be compatible with DirectX 9.

Modern desktop PCs take PCI-Express (PCIE) cards, and while Glass-capable PCIE cards are common, it can be difficult to find a sufficiently powerful card designed for the AGP slot in an older PC. But if you're not adverse to scrounging on eBay for a used or discontinued card, nVidia's 6800 series of AGP cards are up to the task, and supported by nVidia's frequently updated Vista drivers. If you're looking for top-notch AGP performance, look for a card with the nVidia 6800Ultra chip and 256 Mb of onboard memory.

Video memory may be a different matter. In most cases, video memory is permanently installed on your video card; unlike your PC's system memory, it can't be upgraded unless you replace your card. But if you have a laptop or low-end desktop, your video is likely built into your motherboard, and its video memory is merely a portion of your PC's system memory (which is upgradable). This means that it may be possible to allocate more system memory for your video (at the expense of memory Windows can use) by changing a setting or two in your system BIOS. 

So, how much video memory do you need? It depends on your screen's resolution, but a basic rule of thumb is that you need a minimum of about 48 bytes of video memory for each pixel on your screen, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. The amount of video memory required to use Glass at common screen resolutions
Resolution Aspect ratio # of pixels Video memory required
800×600 4:3 480,000 32 MB
960×600 16:10 576,000 32 MB
1024×768 4:3 786,432 64 MB
1152×864 4:3 995,328 64 MB
1280×720 16:9 921,600 64 MB
1280×768 5:3 983,040 64 MB
1280×800 16:10 1,024,000 64 MB
1280×960 4:3 1,228,800 64 MB
1280×1024 5:4 1,310,720 64 MB
1360×768 16:9 1,044,480 64 MB
1600×1024 25:16 1,638,400 128 MB
1600×1200 4:3 1,920,000 128 MB
1920×1080 16:9 2,073,600 128 MB
1920×1200 16:10 2,304,000 128 MB
2560×1440 16:9 3,686,400 256 MB
2560×1600 16:10 4,096,000 256 MB
2560×1920 4:3 4,915,200 256 MB

As you can see, it may be possible to get Glass with as little as 32 MB of video memory on some lower resolutions—and there are those who have achieved this—but depending on your card and its driver, your mileage may vary.

As for your PC, it's a good idea to have at least 1 gigabyte of system memory (RAM). Although you can get away with less—and you may have to if your video memory is being shared with your system memory as described earlier—you may not find the performance acceptable on a PC with less than 512 MB. 

1.2. Part 2: Software

With the hardware elements in place, the next thing to worry about is your video driver. Although Vista comes with drivers for most common display adapters, the best driver you're likely to get is the one provided by the maker of the chip on your video card.

The most common video chips are nVidia GeForce ( and ATI Radeon (; if you're not sure who makes the video card in your PC, open Device Manager in Control Panel and expand the Display adapters branch. Just make sure the driver supports the Windows Display Driver Model; in most cases, the driver must be expressly written for Windows Vista.

Once you're certain you have the latest video driver, follow these steps to enable Glass:

  1. Update your Windows Experience Index, so that Windows can reassess your video subsystem's capabilities. You may need to restart Windows if the Performance Information and Tools window doesn't update your score after a reasonable wait.

  2. In Control Panel, open the System page, and click the Advanced system settings link on the left side (or run SystemPropertiesAdvanced.exe).

  3. In the Performance section, click the Settings button.

  4. Turn on the Enable desktop composition and Enable transparent glass options, and then click OK and then OK again to close the two windows. (These options may not be present if you're not using the Aero interface.)

  5. Back in Control Panel, go to the Personalization page, and click the Display Settings link.

    If you know how much video memory is on your video card, refer to Table 1, earlier in this section, to determine the highest screen resolution you can use with Glass. If needed, adjust the Resolution slider to the left to choose a lower value; otherwise, if your card supports it, the resolution should set as high as it goes.

  6. From the Colors drop-down listbox, select Highest (32 bit) and then click OK.

  7. Back on the Personalization page, click the Window Color and Appearance link, and then click the Open classic appearance properties for more color options link.

  8. From the Color scheme list, select Windows Aero, and then click OK. After a brief delay, the Glass interface should now be active.

  9. Again on the Personalization page, click the Window Color and Appearance link again, and turn on the Enable transparency option if it's not already on.

  10. While you're here, use the color blocks to choose a tint for the glass, or click Show color mixer for more control. Adjust the Color intensity slider to choose the opacity of the glass; move it to the left to make it more transparent, or to the right to make it more opaque.

  11. Click OK when you're done.

If you still don't have Glass at this point, either your video card or your video driver is to blame. For instance, if the Windows Aero entry isn't present in the Color scheme list in step 8, or if selecting it shows an error message, then Windows doesn't believe your PC is Glass-capable.

1.3. Part 3: Tweaks

It doesn't take a degree from Art Center to notice that Microsoft took some design cues from the Aqua interface in Mac OS X (not that Apple didn't borrow some of its ideas, too). While Microsoft actually managed to outdo Apple in a few areas—the minimize, maximize, and close buttons spring to mind—the Flip 3D task switcher is no match for Exposé, the Mac's all-at-once task switcher. Luckily, you can mimic Exposé with My Expose, free from, and shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. My Expose mimics the Exposé all-at-once task switcher from Mac OS X

If you find the aforementioned title bar buttons—minimize, maximize, and close—too big (or not big enough), you can resize them. Open the Personalization page in Control Panel, click Window Color and Appearance, click Open classic appearance properties for more color options, and then click the Advanced button. From the Item list, select Active Title Bar, and then use the Size control to the right to shrink or grow the title bar. The preview shows the classic interface only, so take your best guess, and click OK to see how it looks.

1.4. Part 3a: Vista Home Basic

Vista Home Basic doesn't support the Glass interface, and this is intentional; why else would you pay extra for Vista Home Premium?

Now, there are a number of hacks floating around the Web that promise to bring Glass to Home Basic with nothing more than a change to the Registry. Unfortunately, these were all written for the beta and CTP (Consumer Technology Preview) versions of Vista that made the rounds in 2006. Unfortunately, the Glass interface is simply not present in Home Basic, but that doesn't mean you can't still come close.

If that won't cut it, check out Stardock WindowBlinds (demo at And while there weren't any themes that mimicked Vista Aero Glass exactly at the time of this writing, there were quite a few Vista-esque themes available from

But that's not all. To get the thumbnail previews that float over taskbar buttons in Home Basic, check out Visual Task Tips, free from
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