Let's be realistic: Windows 7 is pretty much going to be like Windows Vista with a fresh coat of UI paint and a few needed bug fixes. Granted, some of the new interface tweaks are pretty slick, which is why software developers have already started cranking out copycat tweaks for Windows Vista (and, in some cases, XP). If you don't feel like waiting until the end of 2009, you can trick out your current version of Windows to look and act much like Microsoft's lucky 7.
(Note: Some of the homebrew utilities mentioned below are unsupported and/or still in their beta-testing stage. I've used them all successfully, but proceed at your own risk.)
User Account Control
Vista's most vilified feature, User Account Control, will be a little less obnoxious in Windows 7: You can choose from four security levels that dictate how often UAC will bug you. Norton User Account Control, a free (and "experimental") download from Symantec's Norton Labs, extends similar courtesies to Vista users, replacing the stock UAC with a version that delivers fewer duplicate intrusions, a 'Don't Ask Me Again' option, and useful details about the nature of the security alert. Alternatively, check out UAC Snooze, a system tray utility that puts Vista's UAC to sleep for a designated period of time--helpful if you're planning to do some system tweaking and you don't want to be bothered every step of the way.
Windows 7 has drawn raves for its overhauled taskbar, which sports big, inviting icons and lets you "pin" frequently used applications and documents. Well, guess what: You can get an almost identical taskbar in Vista with just a few clicks.
For starters, right-click the taskbar and then click Toolbars, Quick Launch. You'll see a batch of small icons next to the Start button. Next, make sure the taskbar is unlocked by right-clicking it again and clearing the check mark next to Lock the Taskbar. That action adds a handle to the right side of the Quick Launch toolbar; drag it to the right to make more room for icons.
Finally, make the icons larger and more 7-ish by right-clicking the taskbar a third time and choosing View, Large Icons. (Make sure to click in an open area, not directly on an icon.) To add programs, folders, or even documents to your new and improved taskbar, just drag and drop 'em.
You can take one last, optional, step: When you mouse over a taskbar icon in Windows 7, it produces a pop-up thumbnail preview of the corresponding program (if that app is running, that is). To get the same effect in Vista, install EnhanceMyVista Free, click Customization, Taskbar, and then enable Iconize your Taskbar.
The Taskbar, Part 2
Speaking of "iconizing," Windows 7 uses nothing but icons on the taskbar, even for programs that are currently running. If you like the idea of doing away with the text that traditionally accompanies taskbar program icons, a simple Registry tweak will make it happen.
1. Click Start, type regedit, and press Enter.
2. Find and click the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics value.
3. In the right pane, right-click in an open space and choose New, String Value.
4. Name the new string MinWidth, and then set the value to -255.
5. Exit the Registry Editor, and restart your system.
Presto! Now you'll have only icons in your taskbar. If you don't like the look after all, return to the Registry and delete the newly created entry.