12 tricks for improving your computer’s appearance and sound

Make everything look and sound great.

When you boot up a brand-new computer, you expect it to deliver the most up-to-date technology, from gorgeous visuals to perfectly clear audio. While your experience will be pretty good right out of the box, desktop operating systems like Windows and macOS cater to the tastes and preferences of most users, which won’t necessarily match your personal preferences.

To make the software work just right for you, you can tweak a variety of visual and audio settings. From transforming the appearance of your operating system to enabling all of your connected speakers, these 12 tricks for PCs and Macs will give you full control over the look and the sound of your computer.

For Windows

1. Transform the theme

Bored of the same old Windows colors and wallpapers? Change the theme: the operating system’s prepackaged look. A single theme can include a wallpaper image, color scheme, cursor icon, and even associated sounds.

To switch between themes, hit the Start menu and click the cog icon to open Settings. Then choose Personalization and Themes. At first, you’ll only see a handful of themes on the screen, but you can access a whole lot more by clicking Get more themes in the Store. To download a theme from the Store, select it and click Get.

Once you’ve chosen your favorite theme (and downloaded it if it wasn’t immediately available), choose it from the Themes dialogue. If you like most aspects of the theme, but, say, the wallpaper isn’t your favorite, then relax—you can customize each element individually. Just click on any element to change it.

2. Adjust colors and transparency

If you don’t want to make wholesale visual changes with a new theme, you can instead tweak the colors, accents, and transparency. The accents settings control how frequently an accent color appears, for example, whether you see it on the title bars of windows or on the Start menu. Transparency settings determine effects such as whether you can see the wallpaper through the taskbar.

Again, open settings by hitting the cog icon on the Start menu. Then choose Personalization and Colors. Want to base your new color scheme on your wallpaper? Tick the box marked Automatically pick an accent color from my background. Otherwise, choose a color from the palette. Any changes you make will appear immediately, so you can look at the effect and adjust it as needed.

Underneath the color picker, you’ll see options that let you add a custom color of your own, set how extensively an accent color is used, or turn transparency effects on and off.

3. Turn off visual effects

Windows comes with visual flourishes, such as shadows under the mouse pointer and having menus fade in and out of view, that make the operating system easy on the eye. If you don’t like these effects, you can turn off any or all of them. As well as cutting down on the eye candy, this can also improve the computer’s speed slightly, because the machine won’t have to do as much work processing all those visuals.

In the taskbar search box, start typing “adjust the appearance…” and you should see an option that reads Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows. Click it, and then open up the Visual Effects tab. Here, you have three choices: let Windows choose these options, optimize them for the best appearance, or optimize them for the best performance.

For more granular control, select Custom to turn individual visual effects on or off using the tick boxes. Pick whichever set of options suit your tastes best.

4. Hook up your speakers

If your computer has a beautiful 5.1 surround sound setup, then you want to make sure your operating system and all your applications take advantage of it. Here’s how to coordinate your software with your speakers.

Type “sound” into the search box on the taskbar, and when the Control Panel option appears, choose Sound. Under the Playback tab, you should see a list of devices. Choose your speakers from the list, click Configure, and a drop-down list will appear. Based on the number of speakers you’ve connected, select the correct setup from this menu.

Once you choose your speakers, you’ll see a diagram of the audio configuration on the right side of the screen. Click the Test button to make sure it’s working. To complete the process, hit Next and then Finish.

5. Customize your notifications

Don’t like the low-battery warning sound, or the shuffling effect that accompanies the emptying of the Recycle Bin, or any other random noise your computer emits? You can customize all of these notifications.

Type “sound” into the search box on the taskbar and choose the Sound option that appears above it. Then open the Sounds tab and select any of the notifications to disable the sound completely, or merely pick a different sound file from the drop-down menu.

From this menu, you can perform a few other tasks. If you have specific sound clips in mind for events, click Browse. To turn off sounds altogether, open the Sound Scheme drop-down menu and choose No Sounds. You can even enable or disable the Windows startup sound with its own individual checkbox.

6. Switch to mono audio

If you only want to listen to music through one earphone, or you need to pay attention to the outside world while watching movies on your computer, consider switching Windows to mono rather than stereo sound.

To do this, open Settings by clicking the cog icon within the Start menu. Then choose Ease of Access and Other options. You’ll find the Mono audio toggle switch under the Audio options heading. Once you turn it on, all of the applications on your system will emit sound in mono. To change back to stereo, simply toggle the switch off again.

For macOS

7. Change the color scheme

The macOS interface uses set colors to accent the elements you see on the screen, including dialogue boxes and the menu bar. You can adjust these hues to change your view and emphasize your favorite shades.

To do so, open the Apple menu, choose System Preferences, and go to the General section. Here, you can choose a new accent color for menus and highlights, as well as changing the menu and dock from light to dark by clicking Use dark menu bar and Dock. On the same screen, you can also adjust the size of sidebar items and opt to show or hide scroll bars.

8. Pick the perfect wallpaper

When it comes to the overall look of your computer screen, your choice of wallpaper dominates the appearance (particularly when you’ve closed or minimized all your applications). While picking a good wallpaper is important, Apple also lets you choose to cycle through a set of images, giving your screen an ever-changing backdrop.

To set the wallpaper, click the Apple menu, then System Preferences, then Desktop & Screen Saver. Open up the Desktop tab to choose a picture. Apple offers its own selection under the Apple heading, or you can pick your own from the hard drive by clicking the plus icon.

If you want your wallpaper to change regularly, then create a folder of pretty images and decide how frequently you want them to switch. Then go back to the Desktop & Screen Saver menu, select your folder, tick the Change picture box, and specify a time schedule. Now macOS will cycle through all the wallpapers in that folder.

9. Tweak the Dock

As they launch and switch between your favorite applications, macOS users find themselves visiting the Dock a lot. So make sure you customize it to suit your personal preferences. Open the Apple menu and select System Preferences, then Dock, to adjust the app launcher’s appearance.

Start with the Size slider at the top, which changes how big or small the Dock is. Then toggle the Magnification option to set whether Dock items will grow and shrink as you move the mouse cursor over them. The Position on screen checkboxes let you shift the Dock from its usual place at the bottom of the display to the left or right sides of the screen. Finally, you can decide whether the Dock will automatically hide when it’s not in use and control the animations that applications perform when they open.

10. Browse better

Finder is your window into the contents of your macOS machine. And it comes with all kinds of customization options to make it easier on the eyes—whatever you consider “easy on the eyes” to be.

Start by opening a Finder window. Click on the cog icon at the top of the window, then choose Show View Options from the menu that appears. Here, you can adjust settings such as the size of the icons and the grid on which they sit, the text size, and the positioning of labels. The drop-down menus at the top of the window also let you alter the way files are listed and sorted: by date, size, name, and so on.

11. Customize sound effects

As you interact with macOS, you hear a variety of sound effects. While some people will be happy with these default alerts, you may be interested in customizing them to suit your own preferences.

You’ll find most of these options by clicking the Apple menu, then System Preferences, then Sound. Under Sound Effects, you can see all of the different clips macOS uses to alert you about an update or warn you about a problem. Click on any item on this list to hear the sound. You can also individually adjust the volume level of each effect using the slider below it. Finally, you can turn all audible notifications off by unticking the Play user interface sound effects box.

12. Configure external speakers

If you’ve want to play the audio from your macOS machine on multiple external speakers, then you need to configure them correctly. The best way to do this is through the Audio MIDI Setup app.

You can find this app by searching for it in Spotlight: Click the magnifying glass icon on the menu bar or hit the Cmd+Space keyboard shortcut. If you’ve set up your speakers properly (by following the instructions that came with the hardware), then they should appear in the list on the left. Click on the speakers’ names, then choose Configure Speakers. At this point, you can tell macOS how they’re arranged so it knows the right configuration in which to pipe audio out to them. When you’re finished, click Apply and then Done.

Audio MIDI Setup also lets you make your settings even more specific, if necessary: You can adjust the volume of each individual speaker.

David Nield
David Nield

David Nield is a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.