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"Disable desktop composition" flag disables Aero (transparent glass border) effect for the duration of the application's run, which seems like all there is to "visual themes", but toggling the "Disable visual themes" option doesn't seem to do anything. What exactly are these "visual themes"? How does disabling them affect the system?

From what I can guess, a "visual theme" is a custom window border style around window content area created using hooks and WDM API calls, though I am prepared to be corrected.

I'm talking about the checked option:

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4 Answers 4

"Disable desktop composition" flag disables Aero (transparent glass border) effect for the duration of the application's run, which seems like all there is to "visual themes"

Correct; it tells Windows to not use the Aero glass or the Desktop Window Manager (or by extension, hardware acceleration) when that program is run. Therefore, when a program that is configured like that is run, all of the windows on screen share the same frame buffer instead of each getting their own. This is only necessary with a small handful of programs that expect things to be a very specific way and use hard-coded (and possibly undocumented) methods instead of using provided interfaces. Fortunately this is generally limited to very old programs.

What exactly are these "visual themes"? From what I can guess, a "visual theme" is a custom window border style around window content area created using hooks and WDM API calls, though I am prepared to be corrected.

You are correct; visual themes or styles are fancy, graphical renderings of the Windows interface chrome (borders as well as controls like buttons, radio buttons, check-boxes, scrollbars, etc.)

In Windows XP, it was the Luna theme (figure 3) which had the thick, rounded, blue Windows borders and glossy, red [x]. In Windows Vista and 7, there are the Aero theme (figure 4) which includes the “Glass” transparency effect, as well as the Windows Basic theme (figure 5) which does not, yet is still a theme/style.

How does disabling them affect the system?

The option simply has Windows use turn off themes and use the Windows Classic theme (figure 1) while the program is running. This is usually not required, but again, there could theoretically exist a (probably very old) program which gets borked if run on a themed Windows. Note that Windows themes have existed for quite a while (Windows XP was the first to include them and was released in 2001), so in most cases, only programs written before that would have a problem unless as previously mentioned, they are new but poorly programmed (I’m using “poorly” here for anything written using direct calls and such instead of the API; it is possible for an incompatible program to be well written, but simply be specialized).

but toggling the "Disable visual themes" option doesn't seem to do anything.

To see the effect, you need three conditions to be true:

  1. Windows must be configured to use a theme (you won’t see anything if it’s currently set to the Classic theme)
  2. A program must have that compatibility option checked
  3. The program must be windowed so you can see it; obviously, you won’t see any change for a fullscreen program

The effects of the compatibility options are more obvious for the Disable desktop composition option than for the Disable visual themes option because when desktop-composition is disabled for a program, it remains off universally until the program exists (just like how using a video-program that uses hardware acceleration will turn off Aero until it exists). However, turning off themes only affects what is actually displayed on screen, so if it is set for a fullscreen program, Windows turns themes off, but you can’t see it because the program is fullscreen, but if you press Alt+Tab to switch to the desktop, it will turn them back on and then off again when you switch back to the program. It is only visible if the target program is windowed; then you will notice that all windows are un-themed.

Figure 1: Run dialog in Windows 2000 (and earlier)

Run dialog in Windows 2000 and earlier

Figure 2: Windows Classic theme replicates Windows 2000 (and earlier look)

Run dialog in Windows XP Classic theme

Figure 3: Windows XP’s Luna theme

Run dialog in Windows XP Luna theme

Figure 4: Aero theme from Windows Vista and 7

Run dialog in Windows 7 Aero theme

Figure 5: Windows Basic theme of Vista and 7

Run dialog in Windwos 7 Basic theme

Figure 6: And just for good measure, the default Windows 8 theme, aptly called simply “Windows”

Run dialog in Windows 8 theme

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This sounds nice, but in practice it's not correct. The "Disable visual themes" does not effect the window border, the close button, or transparency. It doesn't matter what your windows theme is, it doesn't matter if it's fullscreen or not. The three conditions you give does not explain why it doesn't work with some applications. – Jason Jun 16 '14 at 15:22
What I said is supposed to be the case. If you’re not seeing an effect, then it could be something specific to the program(s) you applying them to. You said it doesn't work with some applications, which implies that it does work for some. What happens when you use that setting for the ones it does work for? Ostensibly it does exactly what I described. In that case, your question isn’t what does that option do? but rather, why doesn’t that option do anything for some specific program? That is a different question and you’ll need to provide more information (program names) for an answer. – Synetech Jun 17 '14 at 20:22

The keyword here is compatibility. This option exists in order to provide compatibility mode for some older programs that will just not run correctly with modern windows elements. It is a tradition of Microsoft to ignore the principals of backwards-compatibility and substitute it with options like this one. Note that sometimes the same option is useful for new programs that have their own fancy visual style conflicting with modern windows theme. This typically happens because of bad / not flexible coding or outdated software.

Use this option only if you need the particular version of the application and cannot execute it within your system. Preferred way to resolve compatibility issues is by upgrading your applications to the latest version. The option might help to resolve problems but does not guarantee anything.

It is important to understand the difference between disabling visual themes for a single application (via shortcut or executable-specific settings) and disabling visual themes globally for user (in Advanced System Settings>Advanced>Performance). The second option is not for compatibility but rather for performance improvements of the entire system. Visual themes in new versions of windows are very resource-hungry.

Note that the compatibility option is only available on Windows up to version 7. From version 8, this functionality is disabled (see discussion on Microsoft forums)

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Not all applications are effected by this setting. For example, Notepad is not, but my other text editor (SciTE) is. I don't know what the criteria for this is.

Below you will see there's lots of little differences. With visual themes disabled, the menu selections are solid blue with inverted text, the menu bar background looses its shading, the menus are more compact, the hot keys are left-aligned, and the scroll bar is entirely different.

You ask how they effect the system. They don't really; 99.9% of the time it's just aesthetic. However, it is conceivable that it could interfere with the function of an old application that was never tested with the Windows 7 visual themes. For example, the fact that the menu is less compact could cause large menus to extend past the height of the screen.

Visual themes enabled: dfdsds

Visual themes disabled: enter image description here

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I'm fairly sure the 'theme' its talking about relate back to Windows XP's Luna interface, so disabling it would force Windows to draw it in the standard '3.1/95' (I think classic is the proper name) style.

For a Vista or later I think it will disable their in-built theme and do the same thing (use Classic)...not got one of those around to double check right now.

Classic on Windows 8 ugh :-)

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That's a custom win8 theme btw, it resembles the classic, but isn't really it. I suppose it means it won't conserve any CPU that way, or maybe will even further increase the RAM use. And the primary goal of those compatibilities I'm talking about is to reduce CPU and memory use. – user1306322 Jun 10 '14 at 7:37
@user1306322 ok, not sure about the latter, the primary goal is to make Windows behave like it used to, nothing to do with conserving resources. – cjb110 Jun 11 '14 at 6:22
I'm fairly sure the 'theme' its talking about relate back to Windows XP's Luna interface Actually, it refers to the Windows 7 theme (either Aero or Basic depending on what’s being used). Windows 7 doesn’t use Luna. Classic on Windows 8 ugh :-) Agreed. The Classic theme in Windows 7 is just fine (assuming you set the taskbar to small), but in Windows 8, it is indeed ugly and doesn’t look right at all. – Synetech Jun 14 '14 at 14:53
I used Luna as the 'theme engine' as that's when this option first appeared, and then it was more obvious what it was supposed to do: disable Luna so the app looked like it used to. Yea on 7/8 its disable Aero, but the idea is the same dont apply any theme engine, so that it looks like classic. – cjb110 Jun 15 '14 at 17:30

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