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(started this topic first at answers.microsoft.com, but I have no high hopes it I will get a solution there...)

Finally bought a new laptop with Windows 8.1, installed my Office 2010 on it, got all excited about the speed and new functionality, but then reality hit hard;

Question: how can I persuade Excel 2010 to show font and background colors again when using a high contrast Windows theme (accessibility option)? Bonus question: how to do this also for other Office applications (less important, but still an issue)?

I know the high contrast setting can be turned off and Excel will show cell and text colors again, but that is not a resolution for me: I do not have an inverted color scheme (white text on black background) applied for nothing. As I live as a freelance MS Office specialist designing Excel solutions, I really need to see what colors my sheets use, let alone check if conditional formatting works... Keeping high contrast on makes designing Excel / Office solutions with any kind of color formatting guesswork to say the least. Switching off high contrast just to be able to work with Excel will make the whole experience even worse, since Excel only has 3 themes build in, which are all too bright for me (eye strain after 10 minutes, mouse pointer not trackable, squinting to be able to read the ribbon options, etc.)

Up to 2 weeks ago I worked under Windows XP; while Excel hides colors under a high contrast theme, I worked around that by making my own Windows theme. I based the theme off of a regular Windows Classic theme ("high contrast #1"), but didn't turn on the accessibility option "high contrast" (these were separate options in Windows XP). This made the theming effectively high contrast, non-aero without switching on the "we're using a high contrast theme" system flag. This way Excel did display all user defined colors in cells, while all the Excel chrome (menu, dialogs, etc.) respected my custom theme colors. All undefined cell colors also defaulted to show white text on black, while still not hard-coding my inverted color theme in them so the sheet remained perfectly useable by others.

But now with Windows 8.1, classic themes are just scrapped by Microsoft. Gone. The only non-high-contrast color adjustment that can be done is to change the title bar colors and the taskbar color - all else remains black on glaring white. The only way to truly customize the color scheme is to use a genuine high contrast theme, but that in turn makes my whole Excel environment useless! (same goes for Word, but coloring in Word is less important to me).

Is there anything I can do? What I've come up with so far is:

  1. Downgrading to Windows 7 to use my own custom themes again. This is not an option - the new laptop I bough came with 8.1 installed and I suspect not all hardware has Windows 7 drivers. Besides: that would be a major disinvestment and a set-back, since I truly do like the features and speed of Windows 8.1.
  2. Working in a virtual machine under Windows 7 and doing all my Office work there. Also not an option; this is a hassle since I've integrated all sorts of home-made Office solutions into my daily workflow - I'd effectively have to live my entire life in the virtual machine. Might as well keep using the old laptop then.
  3. Hack the system into installing third-party Windows themes. I explored UXTheme Multi-Patcher with the Abisso theme. But this opens up a whole other can of worms about system stability and upgradeability and such. I tried it, but it didn't work successfully enough - theme instability & not all Windows apps like Explorer, control panel side panels, ribbon elements, etc. picked up the style, making it a sort of Frankenstein experience with bright white patches here and there with white text on it amidst properly themes dark regions...
  4. As an expansion on option 2: Windows XP mode might have helped here, but this is discontinued since Windows 8. It would allow me to (somewhat) seamlessly run Office 2010 in it's own XP virtual machine, so with an old-school modified theme, without influencing the rest of the OS. Under a non-high contrast theme in a virtual Windows XP environment Excel 2010 does respect the selected theme colors for unformatted cells, and even in (most parts of) it's dialogs (although not in the ribbon). Combined with the "Grey" Excel color scheme for the chrome this might be the most workable solution. I already use VirtualBox, so with that solution I can get as far as sharing the whole D: (data) drive with that virtual machine, mapping it to D: there as well, and then integrate the taskbar, desktop, mouse & keyboard, clipboard, and drag/drop. But (at least with VirtualBox) this works only so far; starting Excel via double-clicking on documents, alt-tabbing, COM interfacing etc. are unsupported, and I get 2 taskbars stacked on top of each other (the Windows 8 one and the XP one)...
  5. Do not use any theme, then run Windows Magnifier at 100% zoom level, but use Magnifier's 'invert colors' option. Not an option either; while it helps making things readable by creating a light-on-dark "theme", and while color coding is preserved, the new colors are the inverse of what they truly are - i.e. totally not representative of the final result my clients would see. And it also influences all other open windows applications in the same way.
  6. Use Sandboxie to make a sandbox with a regular Windows theme selected inside it, and re-route all Excel file associations to run in that sandbox. Would be great if it worked (so do not use Sandboxie for security but for personalization), but switching themes in a sandbox plainly doesn't work. The selected plain theme only sticks partially, in that the 'unchecked' high-contrast flag isn't honored in the sandbox but regular themes are now open to color customization, which in turn doesn't affect anything - Windows get seriously confused by this :)
  7. Hack the appropriate Excel/Office binaries (mso.dll + excel.exe?) to let Excel honor the 'high-contrast' flag for dialogs and the ribbon, but disregard it for the document. But this is an academic solution at best - after some/a lot of Office updates all work has to be re-done so this isn't practical, although I'm seriously intrigued by this idea if only for the experience doing it...
  8. Sheet / select all / background: black, text: white. Optionally also saving this as the default template. This works so far as that it allows me to (temporarily) work with Excel under a regular non-high contrast Windows theme, but this will make printing the document requiring a hair dryer to get fast results, and this is no way to distribute documents to my clients :)

All of this because Excel refuses to show colors under a high contrast theme...

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  • Regarding the 2 taskbars and other integration problems mentioned in #4, I believe VMWare's paid solutions (perhaps Player Pro) can make host and guest interaction a lot more seamless, so you'll be able to work with an Excel 2010 on XP window in Win8.1 as if it were running on the host OS. – Karan May 31 '15 at 5:33
  • @Karan, the Unity mode in VMWare indeed gives a more seamless integration than is possible with VirtualBox - I really have to take a look at VMWare! It also has alt-tab support to switch between host and guest apps, which is very nice. You can even have shortcuts directly to apps on the virtual machine, also a nice thing. Only thing that seems to not work quite well yet is associate file extensions with apps in the VM (like VMWare Fusion does on the Mac), although I might be able to hack something together with vmrun.exe? Though I really hoped for a native solution instead of VM's... – Carl Colijn May 31 '15 at 10:04
  • Regarding my last comment: VMWare's thinapp and thinreg seem to be available now for just that purpose. – Carl Colijn May 31 '15 at 10:23

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