Customize Your Windows Installation to Create the OS of Your Dreams
Windows is great, but it isn't exactly what you would call lean. It comes with a whole host of programs, features, and services that, best case, take up unnecessary space, or worst case, slow down your machine. If you'd rather have a slimmer installation of Windows, you can create your own Windows installer with RT Se7en Lite—complete with tons of other customizations so you can turn Windows into your dream OS. Here's how to do it.
RT Se7en Lite (yes, the name is insane) is a configuration tool that lets you edit your Windows install disc. You can remove Windows features you don't want, add drivers you know you'll need, add or remove items from the Control Panel and right-click menu, and lots more. You can even create a disc that includes Service Pack 1 (through a process called "slipstreaming") so you don't have to sit through hours of Windows updates every time you install Windows on a new machine. The tool is remarkably easy to use, and even with heavy tweaking, it does a good job of making sure you don't remove anything that's going to screw up your system.
What You'll Get
The process may seem a tad long and arduous, but the final product is well worth the work. You can use RT Se7en Lite to customize Windows 7 in a ton of ways. For example, you could:
- Cut your install time in half by slipstreaming Service Pack 1 and adding all your favorite apps to your install disc, so you don't have to sit there installing things each time you put Windows on a new computer.
- Create a minimalist version of Windows, which cuts out all the unnecessary apps and services and makes your computer run faster—perfect for old or low-powered hardware.
- Save space by removing apps and services you don't need, not to mention remove the things that annoy you (like those annoying games or the "Welcome to Windows" app you really don't need).
- Make all your favorite system tweaks and registry hacks before you install Windows, so you don't have to make them later on—a clean installation of Windows becomes your perfect installation of Windows.
- Add drivers to your install disc so you don't have to go rummaging for them later on. This is especially great for ethernet and wi-fi drivers, which would require you to find and insert your manufacturer's disc to install them (since, if you don't have ethernet or wi-fi drivers, you paradoxically can't access the internet to download their drivers).
When you're done with RT Se7en Lite, you'll have your own, custom Windows disc containing all your favorite settings, speed-boosting tweaks, and favorite apps, ready to install on any machine—essentially, you'll have the Windows you always wished you had. It's especially great if you install Windows on multiple machines, or reinstall it regularly. You only have to make these tweaks once, and they'll be added every time you do a fresh install. Here's how to use RT Se7en Lite.
Step One: Fire Up RT Se7en Lite
First, download RT Se7en Lite from its home page and install it on your machine. (Update: RT Se7en Lite's home page seems to be gone, but you can still download the program here). Make sure you download the latest version, which is strangely at the bottom of the download page instead of the top (version 2.6.0 at the time of this writing). Before you run it, you'll want to make sure you have a Windows installation ISO handy (an ISO is a disc image—basically it's the Windows install disc ripped to a file on your computer). If you don't have an ISO but you do have a physical Windows installation disc, you can create an ISO from that disc using something like ISO Recorder. You'll also want to download Service Pack 1 if you plan on slipstreaming SP1 into your custom installation CD (which you probably want to do!). RT Se7en Lite will need to extract the disc's files somewhere before it edits them, so before you start, create a temporary folder on your desktop called "7lite temp" or something like that. You can delete this folder when you've finished.
To get started, start up RT Se7en Lite. You can go ahead and close the advertisement that pops up with the program. When the main page appears:
- Click the Browse button on the main page, and locate your Windows 7 ISO.. Point it to your temporary folder as the extract path and click OK.
- When it asks you which image to configure, choose the version of Windows that corresponds to your disc—e.g., Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows 7 Professional. If you want to slipstream Service Pack 1 into your disc, make sure you check the "Slipstream Service Pack" box at this step.
- After you click OK, you'll get a new window that lets you browse to the service pack you downloaded earlier, after which you can click Start to start the slipstreaming process (if you aren't slipstreaming, skip this step). It'll take a few minutes to slipstream, so just let it do its thing.
- If the slipstream was successful, it will continue to extract your disc image, which again, can take a few minutes. When it's ready, it'll say "Loading Completed", and you can get to tweaking.
Step Two: Time to Tweak
Click the Task button in the left sidebar. From here, you can choose which portions of Windows you want to customize. You have six checkboxes on this page, which correspond to the six sections on the left sidebar of the app. They include:
- Integrate: Here, you can add Windows security updates, hotfixes, language packs, drivers, and other 3rd party applications to your Windows installation disc.
- Components Removal: This section lets you remove applications and other features from Windows to make it more lightweight.
- Tweaks: The Tweaks menu allows you to change advanced settings for things like the Desktop, Windows Explorer, and more, as well as add and remove shortcuts from the Control Panel. You can also add your own registry tweaks.
- Un-Attended: If you want to skip user creation, enter your product key, and tweak other regional settings, you can set them here and bypass them during the Windows installation process.
- Customization: In this section, you can add your own screensavers, icons, wallpapers, themes, and other visual tweaks, as well as change Windows' logon screen background.
- Bootable USB or DVD: After you've made all your tweaks, this section lets you create an ISO which youc an then burn to USB or DVD for installation. Check this now, but we won't deal with it until step three.
Check the boxes of the sections you want to use, and then click on each one individually in the right sidebar, making whatever tweaks you want. Here's a more detailed look at what you'll find in each section. Note that when you make your tweaks, you'll need to click the Apply button on each page, which will open up the Log section and let you know which tweaks you're applying.
The Integration section has four tabs: Updates, Drivers, Language Packs, and Applications. If there are certain updates you absolutely need included in the original installation, you can do that here. I usually just slipstream the service pack and then download the rest of my updates through Windows Update. I also leave the Drivers section alone, though it could be really handy if your ethernet or wi-fi driver isn't included with Windows—that way you don't have to insert your manufacturer's disc to install it.
Applications is definitely the most useful part of this section. Here, you can add installer packages for all your favorite apps (that is, the MSI or EXE files you download from their home pages), and it'll install them in one fell swoop along with Windows. It's almost like creating your own custom Ninite package, using whatever apps you want. Here, I'll usually add my essential apps, like Firefox, Pidgin, and Winamp. Note that you'll need to use the silent versions of these installers, which bypasses the installer menus. To do this, look up the silent command line switch for each program you want to install, and put it in the Silent Switch setting of RT Se7en Lite when prompted.
Here's where the really fun stuff happens. Under Feature Removal, you can disable or remove certain features and applications that come with Windows. The left box lets you check boxes to permanently remove apps, while the right box lets you uncheck boxes to merely disable certain features. I usually go for the gusto and start checking things to remove in the left box, like Games, Language Packs, accessibility options, and anything having to do with a projector. The Services section is definitely the heftiest here, since removing certain services can free up some nice resources, but make sure you look closely at everything you remove—you don't want to get rid of anything you'll need later on.
To find out what a certain Windows feature does before checking its box, just click on its name. RT Se7en Lite will provide a description of the feature or service, as well as any warnings you may want to keep in mind when removing it. Entries in red are things you don't want to remove, since Windows requires them to work properly. For a good guide on which services you can disable, check out Black Viper's Windows 7 Service Pack 1 Configurations. However, I recommend leaving the Services portion alone, since you can disable services in the Tweaks section as described below. RT Se7en Lite even has Black Viper's recommendations built-in, so you can do it with two clicks, and not worry about permanently removing services you'll want later.
The Tweaks section contains 10 different tabs, all of which contain different types of changes you can make to your system. Here's a quick rundown of what you'll find under each tab.
Control Panel: Here, you can remove shortcuts from the Control Panel, as well as add a few other useful ones, like a shortcut to the Registry, Group Policy Editor, and more.
Desktop: This tab tweaks specific parts of the Windows desktop and taskbar, such as changing how fast menus open and close, what the taskbar buttons look like, and what the Shut Down button does in the Start menu.
Explorer: This section deals with adding and removing shortcuts to My Computer, the context menu, and tweaking Explorer's display view. There are a lot of shortcuts enabled here in the Context Menu section, so you'll want to make sure you disable the ones you don't want or you'll end up with a very long context menu, even on a clean installation of Windows!
Security: This merely lets you enable or disable anti-spyware protection, User Account Control, or the Windows firewall.
Services: Here's where you can do a lot of bloat cutting. As described above, the best way to deal with Services is to choose a Black Viper preset from the dropdown menu under the Services window. The Default setting shows you what Windows does by default, while the Safe, Tweaked, and Barebones settings each contained different numbers of disabled services, increasing in intensity. Again, be sure to check through the list and make sure your preset of choice doesn't disable something you'll need down the line (though you can always re-enable them later on). I'd recommend Safe, as Tweaked disables some features that a lot of people use, and Barebones disables quite a few security settings. The best thing you can do is choose the Safe preset, and then go through the services on this page in detail to see if there's anything you need (or don't). Chances are, even if you use the Safe setting, there are things you'll want to re-enable (like Windows Search indexing, which is disabled under all of Black Viper's presets).
Settings: These are little advanced settings that deal with things like the system prefetcher, hibernation, how many recent items to display in jump lists, and more.
Visual Effects: Here, you can tweak certain effects related to Windows Aero. You can do anything from disabling transparent glass to turning off Aero Snap and Aero Shake.
Internet Explorer: If you use Internet Explorer, you can edit some nice hidden settings here, like showing the full URL, turning off the search box, and more.
Media Center: This lets you disable the background animation, sound effects, on screen keyboard, and more in Windows Media Center.
Custom Registry: If you have any other registry tweaks you like to make to Windows (like one of these 10 beauties), you can put them into REG files and add them here. They'll be applied automatically when you install Windows.
Make sure you comb every inch of these tabs. Many tweaks are applied by default, and may confuse you when you first install your new version of Windows (for example, the taskbar is set to use small icons and combine only when the taskbar is full—so it looks like the Vista taskbar). You can always change these tweaks after installing, so it's not a horrible thing if one or two slip by you—but the more you fix now, the less you'll have to fix after installing Windows.
The coolest part of this section is the area in which you enter your product key, so it automatically activates you after you install Windows—perfect if you're one of those people that reinstalls regularly. You can also choose to skip user creation, enter OEM information, and change other regional settings here (like keyboard layout, time zone, and language).
Lastly, if you want to include certain screensavers, themes, wallpapers, gadgets, documents, sounds, and other tweaks with your installation, you can add them under Customization. This way, you don't have to re-add those things manually after you install. They'll all be there as soon as you fire up Windows for the first time. You can also change the logon screen background in this section, as well as make a few other tweaks to things like the Start menu.
Step Three: Create and Burn Your Disc Image
Once you're done with all your tweaks, go to the Log section and click the Commit button. It'll make all your changes in the temporary folder you created on the desktop. This could take up to an hour or more, depending on how much you've tweaked. If you want to, you can also click the Export Settings button before you do so, which will save the tweaks you made in case you want to come back and edit them later.
When it's done, head to the ISO-Bootable section to create your disc. Under Mode, you can choose Direct Burn, which will burn you a disc; Create Image, which will make you an ISO; or USB Bootable, which will create a bootable thumb drive. Give the volume a name, and tweak your burn settings, if applicable. Click the Make ISO button in the bottom left-hand corner and let ‘er burn. When it's done, you're ready to install your custom version of Windows.
Step Four: Install Windows and Check Over Your Changes
The last step should be very familiar to you. Install Windows as you normally would, booting from your install disc, going through the steps, and letting your computer reboot numerous times. You may want to do this in a virtual machine first, to make sure everything works before you erase your current version of Windows.
When it's done, you'll have a new, customized version of Windows at your fingertips. At this point, I'd run through and make sure all your changes were applied correctly, and see if there are any things you need to fix. Again, you can fix a lot of these things now without a problem, but if you want to remake your disc with the correct changes, you'll have to go back to RT Se7en Lite and repeat the process (this is why backing up your settings is a good idea).
Got any favorite Windows tips, tweaks, or apps that you think are a must-have in an RT Se7en Lite customization session? Share them with us in the comments below.
Title photo remixed from Fer Gregory (Shutterstock).