Improving Your Windows NT 4.0 Desktop.


Windows NT 4.0 introduced users to the "new Windows '95" look desktop. Some would argue that this was a major leap forward in presenting the system and applications to the users, but others argue it had several drawbacks, particularly for those who were used to and grew up with the older "Windows 3.1" interface used in previous versions of NT.

The desktop can quickly become quite cluttered if discipline is not exercised. Furthermore, as supplied, several key features of the Windows NT 4.0 desktop could not be changed to optimise the display. Fortunately add-on tools both from Microsoft and other vendors have solved most of these early "adjustment" problems.

In this section I suggest several "add-on" tools and other adjustments you may want to consider integrating into your NT 4.0 desktop to improve it's appearance and functionality. I have personally tested all these changes, and have found that they do not cause any conflicts or problems on a "normal" NT 4.0 system. Most of these ideas are very much a matter of "personal choice" - implement as many or as few of them as you see fit.

"Active Desktop Update" - A Note of Warning.

Some people suggest installing the "Active Desktop" Update for NT 4.0 that was supplied with Internet Explorer 4.0 and above. My honest advice is to forget this option. The "Active Desktop" would probably rate as the single biggest cause of NT 4.0 stability problems - as such, I would argue that the enhancements it adds are greatly outweighed by the problems it causes.
ATTENTION: Be advised that once "Active Desktop" Update has been installed on a system it may be IMPOSSIBLE to remove it, short of reloading the OS from scratch !

See the following Microsoft Knowledgebase articles for more information on the Active Desktop Update.

165695 - How to Add or Remove Windows Desktop Update

254919 - How to Install the Windows Desktop Update with Internet Explorer 5.x

Obvious Stuff:

WARNING: You should always use the "TEST" button on the "Display Properties" window to ensure the display resolution and / or refresh rate that you choose will work satisfactorily on your monitor. This gives you an opportunity to verify that the settings you have nominated are compatible with your display device. (C.R.T. or L.C.D. monitor) If you do manage to "lock yourself out" with an unsuitable setting which renders your display unusable (some monitors will give reports like "Display Out of Range" or may simply go into "Power Save" mode), perform a hardware reset (remember the reset button on the front of the machine) and select the [VGA Mode] boot option as NT starts - this will get you back to vanilla VGA at 640x480 and 60Hz refresh, and give you the opportunity to select the correct values to match your monitor.

Some things to investigate:

  1. Display Resolution - Pick a resolution that is optimal for size of display you are working with. Typically a 15 inch display will work well at 800x600 or 1024x768. A 17 inch display usually functions best at 1024x768, 1152x864 or 1280x1024. Larger displays can of course support even higher resolutions. Most display cards made in recent years are supplied with NT 4.0 drivers which enable them to function in all resolutions up to 1600x1200, depending on available video card RAM. Operating a L.C.D. monitor at a resolution other than it's "native" resolution will often result in extremely poor quality images and text. Consult the documentation supplied with your L.C.D. monitor to determine the optimal display resolution to select.
  2. Display Refresh Rate - (Note: The following paragraph primarily refers to C.R.T. based display devices. The vertical refresh rate is basically irrelevant if you are using a L.C.D. panel.) Most modern video cards allow fairly extensive adjustment of the vertical refresh rate. Try to use 75Hz or higher whenever possible. I usually use 85Hz or 100Hz if it is available - rates above 100Hz are really "overkill". The faster refresh rates lower viewer eye fatigue, especially in rooms with a high light level and display images with a high average brightness. (eg: a document with a white background - like this one !)
  3. Icon Spacing - most people, myself included, like to have shortcut icons located around the periphery of the screen. Unfortunately, if you use the "Line up Icons" option on the desktop, you will notice that the icons don't neatly sit at the edge of the display on the right-hand side. This is easily fixed - use Display Properties > Appearance > Item=Icon Spacing (Horizontal) and increase the value by 1 pixel. Close the "Display Properties" dialogue and repeat the "Line Up Icons" step - the icons on the right will now be closer to the edge of the screen. You may have to "fine tune" the icon spacing by a couple of pixels to optimise the result, but it does look much tidier. The vertical spacing can be similarly tuned. Don't forget you need to do a fresh call of "Line Up Icons" to see the results of your changes on screen after each pixel value change. Be advised that this setting also changes the spacing of icons within all system dialogues, including the "My Computer", "Control Panel" and "Printers" displays. See knowledgebase article 132667 - "Icon Spacing Does Not Take Effect Automatically" for more detail.
  4. Icon Text - The default font chosen on an NT 4.0 desktop is MS Sans Serif. Later Microsoft Operating Systems now use Tahoma. I believe this is a better font choice and improves the readability and neatness of the text. I settled on a size setting of 8 point on my desktop - this choice will vary depending upon what screen resolution you have chosen, and again is a matter of personal choice. You will probably find that whatever size you ultimately select, it should be constant for all "text" items to create a cohesive result for the desktop. The items you need to adjust are:

Fixing the Explorer Taskbar:

The Windows Explorer Taskbar, as originally supplied for NT 4.0, can only reproduce Taskbar Icons in 16 colours. As a result many application icons when placed in the Taskbar look appalling. Dr. Hoiby published information on the Internet (quite some time ago) to solve this problem for the Windows 9x and Windows 2000 families. Unfortunately, he did not include any instructions for Windows NT 4.0, and I have been unable to contact him.

In March 2007 I was approached by the owner of the site Bear Windows. He has solved this problem, and I am extremely grateful to him for allowing me to republish the details of his patch procedure for Windows NT 4.0 here.

The truly shocking part of this process is the small number of changes that need to be done ! In total, correcting the behaviour of the Taskbar requires the editing of only 2 BYTES in the binary code of Explorer.exe, yet Microsoft have seen fit to leave this issue unresolved all this time, FINALLY addressing it Windows XP !

You can confirm the incorrect behaviour of the Windows NT 4.0 Taskbar by using this test programme supplied by Dr. Hoiby. The instructions for it's use are included in a "readme.txt" file in the .zip archive.

If you unfamiliar with manually editing binary files, using a Command Prompt window and using the Registry Editor (Regedit.exe) I suggest you seek out experienced assistance.

What follows is a step-by-step description of what needs to be done to implement this patch. You will require Administrator privileges in order to complete these tasks.

  1. Make a copy of Explorer.exe from your "active" system. I suggest you call this copy
  2. Open with a suitable hex editor. There are several possible packages that can be used for this procedure. I recommend and use the XVI32 Freeware Hex Editor.
  3. Using the search feature of the Hex Editor, locate the hex sequence:
  4. There should be ONLY TWO MATCHES for this sequence in the entire file. If you can't find these exact two matches check your search criteria. If the search criteria is definitely correct, then it is possible that the version of Explorer.exe you are editing is unsuitable for modification - following the remainder of the procedure is NOT recommended under these circumstances !
  5. Each of the two hex sequences found above need to be changed to read:
  6. Save the amended If it is not already located in the D:\WinNT\ folder on your system, move to this location. (D:\ is the drive letter which holds your Windows NT 4.0 installation)
  7. Now we need to replace the existing Explorer.exe with the "patched" version. ( Unfortunately, you CANNOT simply overwrite your existing copy of Explorer.exe with, because Explorer.exe is in use and the system will refuse permission. If you are able, booting into a "Parallel Installation" of NT 4.0 will allow you to replace Explorer.exe. If you need further information on "Parallel Installation", see Microsoft Knowledgebase Articles 259003 and 244378.
  8. A much simpler alternate approach is possible, by temporarily changing the NT 4.0 User Shell. Start Regedit.exe and locate the key:
  9. Find the ValueName "Shell". The ValueData for this entry should currently read as "Explorer.exe". Change this ValueData to read "Cmd.exe". This makes the Command Prompt the default User Shell on the system.
  10. Close Regedit.
  11. Shutdown and restart Windows NT 4.0.
  12. After you log on, you will receive a Command Prompt window on your desktop. The Start Button, Taskbar and your Desktop Icons will NOT be present - they are created by Explorer.exe which is NOT running. Since Explorer.exe is not running, it can now simply be replaced.
  13. At the Command Prompt type:
  14. The system should respond with two files found:
  15. If is not reported, you will need to locate it and move it to the \WinNT folder. (You should have done this at step 6 !)
  16. Once the files are correctly positioned, at the Command Prompt type:
  17. Confirm for each "ren" (rename) command does NOT result in any error messages. If you do receive an error message, carefully check what you have typed and repeat the commands as required !
  18. To confirm that the replacement process has succeeded type:
  19. The system should respond with two files found:
  20. If the directory listing is correct, at the Command Prompt type:
  21. This command launches Regedit.exe. Renavigate your way to the key:
  22. Replace the ValueData of the "Shell" ValueName to "Explorer.exe" (ie: as it was originally). This returns the system to normal, and makes Explorer.exe your default User Shell.
  23. Close Regedit.
  24. Shutdown and restart Windows NT 4.0.
  25. After logon the normal desktop should be back.
  26. Retest the Taskbar Icon colour depth using the Dr. Hoiby "test programme" as discussed previously - the multi-colour test icon should now be displayed in the Taskbar correctly.
  27. If all is well, you can delete the file Explorer.old from your \WinNT folder. You may wish to keep a copy of the "patched" Explorer.exe now in use in a safe place, in case you need to rebuild the NT 4.0 installation at some future date.

Shell Extensions:

Windows NT 4.0 Explorer has the ability to accept "plug-in" after market add-ons to provide new features and functionality. Microsoft call these "plug-ins" Shell Extensions. A huge industry has grown up around this extension architecture, providing all manner of additions to the behaviour of Explorer. I am only going to detail a few freeware extensions here that I have trialed and have liked. To control your Shell extensions I recommend Shell Extension Manager by Nirsoft . This programme provides a simple user interface that shows you which Shell Extensions are currently installed on a system. Mechanisms are provided to allow for the addition, temporary disabling or permanent deletion of any extension.

Changing Icon Appearance:

The standard presentation of shortcuts on the desktop includes a small "arrow" figure in the bottom left corner of the Icon (denoting it is a shortcut), and the text of "Shortcut to " as the default title. Some people find this particularly annoying. It can easily be changed by using a Microsoft supplied tool called "TweakUI". Version 1.33 is current for NT 4.0 systems and can be downloaded from here. Read the help file included with the package. It is capable of a lot of useful changes to the overall "look and feel" of the user interface - the default shortcut presentation being only one of them.

Transparent DeskTop by Q-Systems - enables you to easily manipulate the colour "background" behind Desktop Icon Title Text and make it either a specified colour or TRANSPARENT. This add-on addresses a major shortcoming of the original NT 4.0 desktop, which had no "transparent" capabilities at all.

Quick Access to Printers and Queues:

I also like to create a desktop "shortcut" to the printers I commonly use. The generic "printer" icon used by Windows NT 4.0 for these shortcuts can often be replaced with one which more closely reflects the printer it refers to.

The shortcut icon can be changed like any other by right clicking on it and selecting Properties > Shortcut > Change Icon and browsing to a replacement icon. Have a look in the .exe and .dll files related to the particular printer in the %systemroot%\system32\spool\w32x86 folder. One or more of these files often contain printer specific icons, but some printer drivers are totally devoid of icons. In this case you may have to manufacture a suitable icon (.ico extension) to use. Several freeware programmes are available to manufacture icon files.

The Task Bar Clock:

The Microsoft presentation of time on the taskbar (in the bottom right hand corner) is extremely limited. According to documentation supplied in Windows NT 4.0 help, the taskbar clock should be capable of showing seconds (by using the time setting syntax of H:mm:ss), but the seconds display has never worked. The third party freeware add-on from Dale Nurden called TClockEx solves this problem, and dramatically enhances the available detail from the taskbar clock. Visit his website at to see what changes this add-on can make.

Screen Saver Improvements:

Microsoft claims in Knowledgebase article 155724 that "Energy Star Compliance Feature Unavailable in Windows NT 4.0". Regardless of this statement, DPMS Screen Saver by Daniel Marczisovszky (D-Systems) enables use of the Power Management features (DPMS) on suitable video adapters and monitors on NT 4.0. The display control is achieved through the addition of a new device driver (called dpms.sys) that allows the screen saver to directly manage the power saving features of the video card, bypassing the hardware abstraction layer (HAL) of NT 4.0

You can still use any screen saver of your choosing, The DPMS screen saver "cascade calls" your choice from within it's own code. Read the information supplied with Daniel's programme to discover what other clever tricks he has managed to come up with.

Also see the article here on adding "Software Power Off" to desktop NT 4.0 machines.

"Walk Away" Security:

A common problem is NT 4.0 Workstations and Servers being left running unsecured and unattended for an extended period of time. This invites unauthorised access or tampering. Considerable numbers of users would be too lazy to use the correct procedure to secure their Workstation - ie: Ctrl-Alt-Del > "Lock Workstation".

The best way to encourage security consciousness on the part of the users is to offer them a simple, quick method of being able to lock their Workstation as they leave their desk. The obvious approach would be to enable the "Password protected" option on the screen saver. Then to make it easy to trigger, provide a desktop shortcut to activate the screen saver on demand. The bad news is, calling the screen saver through a desktop shortcut DOES NOT cause the "Password protect" feature to activate.

This problem has already been solved by Bob Beck. He wrote a simple programme called "savescrn.exe" which can call a screen saver executable, and results in the correct password lock occurring. You can create a shortcut to his "launch" programme, producing the desired simple and quick "lock and screensave" result. The binary file and instructions for use of Bob's programme can be downloaded from a mirror of the JSI Inc. website (the original JSI site is now closed) as

Back to Index

All promotional photographs and advertising material, corporate names and logos, product names, trade names, trademarks and registered trademarks are the property of their respective owners, and are acknowledged as such.
This information is maintained by ZCM Services, Australia. Whilst every care is taken in preparation, I accept no responsibility for errors or omissions. Use the information presented on this site AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Last Update April 7, 2010 at 9:10 PMAEST.