Each of us is different. We work, think and organise ourselves in our own unique ways. And yet we all use Windows, which means that we all launch programs from the same Start menu, switch applications from the same taskbar and use the same mouse clicks to manipulate our program windows, all of which behave in exactly the same way.

Sure, you can change the desktop background, add a new sound scheme or tweak the colour and size of your windows' borders. But all you're doing is creating a prettier strait jacket; you're still forced to follow someone else's rules. That's just not good enough. And it really doesn't have to be this way.

The reality is that virtually every aspect of Windows can be changed if you have the right tool. Don't like the Start menu and taskbar, for instance? Install a new shell and get rid of them forever. Annoyed by Windows bloat chewing up all your RAM?

Remove the components you don't need and see amazing improvements. Does a cluttered desktop makes you less productive? Install a 3D desktop and get room to breathe.

There's an answer to every problem. It's time to fight back, then. It's time to regain control of your own PC with a working environment that reflects your personality, your PC's power and your way of working. It's time to build your very own faster, more stylish and more productive version of Windows.

Slipstreaming Windows

Let's be honest. The standard Windows installation is rubbish. Your Windows disc doesn't include the latest patches, service packs, drivers or third-party applications you need, yet it still manages to pack your hard drive with unnecessary junk. You don't have to put up with this. It's easy to build an up-to-date, faster, slimmer version of Windows that's customised for your needs. And the benefits can be spectacular.

vLite is a powerful tool that allows you to create a custom Windows Vista installation DVD. (You have Windows 2000 or XP? Try nLite.) You'll need a Windows disc of your own – it almost certainly won't work with OEM restore discs – but if that's not an issue then you'll find that it offers several benefits.

These programs support slipstreaming, which is the ability to embed the latest service packs, drivers, language packs and even a few third-party applications into your Windows installation. This can save you hours of downloading time.

vLite also makes it easy to remove Windows components. Don't need the applets, scanner drivers or fax support? Can you do without Windows Vista User Account Control, file and printer sharing or all those unnecessary services? Clear a box and they're gone. You can even embed your product key, name and other details into the installation.

The set-up program will then run unattended, without you being hassled by prompts. To see what vLite could achieve, we installed two versions of Windows Vista Ultimate on the same system. The first used the standard setup and default settings.

The second we tweaked with vLite, removing all but the most essential of components. The results were impressive, with our tweaked version not only using much less RAM (300MB vs 462MB) and hard drive space (4.2GB vs 12.3GB), but also nearly cutting the boot time in half (59 seconds vs 103 seconds).

These are great results, but be careful. Doing this kind of thing to your system is not without risk.

Experiment first

Removing standard features from Windows can lead to problems. vLite will happily get rid of Internet Explorer, for instance, but that will break any programs that rely on IE components. And it's a similar story with other Windows features. There's no way to tell how your stripped down version of Windows will affect individual apps until you try it out.

Fortunately, there's a simple way to experiment with your custom version of Windows without risking an installation on your real hardware: use Microsoft Virtual PC to experiment. This free tool lets you create a virtual machine, a simulated PC in a desktop window that you can use to install your tweaked copy of Windows.

It's not perfect – there's no DirectX support, so you can't test games – but the program is perfectly adequate to see if 2D apps like, say, Microsoft Office will run on your setup. Don't let this potential danger put you off vLite altogether. If you'd rather not get into extreme Windows tweaking then you can still use it to add service packs, drivers and more to your default Windows setup, a welcome benefit that could save you hours of reinstallation hassles. It's well worth an evening of your time.