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6 Ways to Customize Windows 11

Windows 11 brings some new aesthetic elements to your desktop. Here's how to get it looking and feeling the way you want.

Windows 11 is now available for general distribution, and it even comes preinstalled on new machines. While it provides some important security improvements, the first thing you'll notice upon upgrading or installing is the modernized user interface, with the Taskbar centered on the screen:

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But what if you don't want a nice new user interface? What if you yearn for that ol' familiar Windows 10 look? What if you want the Start button where it belongs, on the left of the taskbar? What if you just want to tweak things?

In this article, we're going to spotlight six tools and techniques that will help you tweak the look and feel of Windows 11. For those who aren't upgrading yet, we'll even include a tweak near the end for making Windows 10 feel a little more like Windows 11. 

#1 Taskbar Settings

To move the Start button back where it belongs and slide the whole Taskbar to the left, just 

right-click anywhere on the Taskbar, and then click on Taskbar Settings:

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You'll see the taskbar personalization screen:

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Scroll on down until you see Taskbar behaviors, change Taskbar alignment to left, and then enjoy the old, familiar Taskbar position.

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#2 PowerToys Run

One feature that I rely upon heavily pops open a search pane as soon as I press a key combination. This allows me to launch applications quickly, without having to dig through the menus.

This functionality is available for free for Windows 11 users. It's part of the venerable PowerToys pack. Once it's installed, all you need to do is press Alt and Space together. You'll get a search bar like this:

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Then, let's say you want to launch PowerPoint or PowerShell. Just type "power":

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That's it. It's simple and elegant. I initially missed the search box that's ubiquitous on the Windows 10 taskbar. But this is a much nicer and faster way to get to the applications you'll want to launch. It's a simple add-on, and it improves the user experience by quite a bit.

The PowerToys package is described on this Microsoft page. The page says you can download the tool from the Microsoft Store, but I couldn't find it anywhere. However, I did find it on Github (recall that Microsoft spent a few spare billions to buy Github). Here's the download link, but since it represents the latest stable build as of this writing, you might want to poke around the Github for PowerToys to find the latest stable build at the time you're reading this.

#3 Windows 11 Classic Context Menu

Windows 11 has simplified the traditional Windows context menu. As you can see below, there's an icon bar at the top of the menu, and a Show more options item at the bottom. 

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But back in Windows 10, right-clicking on a photo would show a lot more. That's where Windows 11 Classic Context Menu comes in. It tweaks your context menu so it shows everything it used to, like this:

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You can regain the classic context menu with some Registry hacks, but poking around in the Registry is generally not recommended. The developer of this tweak provides a little application that makes the Registry changes for you:

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There is one gotcha. When you point yourself to the developer's website, you'll get a page with a whole bunch of spammy-like ads. There are a bunch of download buttons and links, but most of them take you to who-knows-what from some advertiser. Just be careful and scroll down until you find this download button, just above the Related Posts section:

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Then, make sure you're downloading the file W11ClassicMenu:

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Finally, you may have to tell Windows to bypass some of its protections and install from an unknown publisher. Think hard on this. How badly do you want that classic menu? Because you are about to trust an unsigned executable. I tried it and had no ill effects, but we're promising nothing. You and only you are responsible for your decisions when it comes to installing software from the Internet.

#4 Taskbar11

Next up is a very simple tool that lets you tweak a bunch of Windows 11 taskbar settings. As you can see, it not only will let you left-align your taskbar, it can move it to the top of the screen (a feature apparently gone from Windows 11), and make the icons bigger or smaller:

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You can download the executable from this Github repository.

#5 Start11

So far, we've spotlighted free techniques for tweaking Windows 11. Now, we're going to introduce you to two tools that will be familiar to many users of Windows from back in the day.

Stardock has been around since 1991. They got their start with IBM's OS/2 platform and switched to making Windows utilities in the late 1990s when Windows became the dominant PC operating system. 

They have been tweaking and customizing Windows for most of that time, but they began shipping the must-install Start8 utility when Windows 8 changed everyone's Start menu by taking it away. As it turns out, they also did a Start10, but that wasn't quite as mission-critical.

Start11 does a lot of what the previous tools do, but it integrates all the features in an easy-to-use way. For example, it can move your Taskbar back to the left and also change the menu back to what you're used to:

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If you wanted to, you could put the old, messy, full-page Windows Start menu back on your Windows 11 computer, like this:

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And, for those who want the Windows 11 feel but don't yet feel ready to abandon Windows 10, Start11 will give you that futuristic UI right in Windows 10:

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You can buy Start11 from Stardock for $5.99. There's also a 30-day trial version, which I recommend you download and try out before buying.

#6 Fences

Unlike everything else I've shown you, Fences is not a new tool just for Windows 11. But since we're tweaking your newest operating system's look and feel, one of the first things I install when I want to tweak mine is Fences.

Fences is deceptively simple. It allows you to group sets of desktop icons on your desktop into frames. Each frame acts like a mini-window you can drag around and organize. Here's an example:

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What I really like is that you can roll up the mini-windows, effectively giving you quick access to your icons while keeping your desktop tidy:

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Another of my favorite features is using Fences to create portals to folders. Here's an example going to OneDrive, but I like to use this feature with projects. I can keep all my files for a project organized in a folder deep on my NAS but see them all right on my desktop. It's the best of both worlds.

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The latest version of Fences, Fences 4, is currently in beta. There's a 30-day trial version or you can buy it for $9.99.

More to come

If previous major releases are any indicator (and there's no reason to think they won't be), Windows 11 will be with us for a very long time. I'm sure there will be more and more tools unique to Windows 11 that will make for some very entertaining tweaking.