Fix Windows Taskbar appearance with StartIsBack++

After extensively fixing and fine-tuning how the Windows 10 taskbar works with 7+ Taskbar Tweaker, you can go further and fix how it looks too. The default appearance of the Windows taskbar is not very friendly and greatly decreases ease of use. Let’s see how to fix Windows Taskbar appearance with StartIsBack++.

Rant: Design problems with Windows 10’s taskbar appearance cause reduction in ease of use

The default appearance of the Windows 10 taskbar leaves much to be desired. The biggest problem is that the design is completely flat with no 3D elements or 3D looking appearance. To make things worse, there are no lines separating adjacent taskbar buttons making it less visually appealing and less accessible. Instead there are underlines for apps that are running. Every open app will have an annoying line underneath it that you may want to get rid of.

Windows 10's taskbar
Windows 10’s taskbar is flat, has no separators between buttons

The icons used are too small in size (24 x 24). The taskbar highlights the active (foreground) window very subtly so it is not immediately clear which window that is. Knowing if a window is minimized, in the foreground or background is all very confusing due to very less contrast between active and inactive taskbar button backgrounds.

When you hover your mouse over one of the taskbar buttons, the color change is again too subtle. The color hot tracking from Windows 7’s taskbar is gone. There is no button animation when a pinned app is launched. All these changes make it more difficult to use the taskbar. The design is especially hard on those who are visually challenged. The jump lists also now have a subdued colorless appearance.

Light Theme
The light theme is even worse. It’s harder to tell the active (foreground) window.

A simple fix is not possible for the Taskbar’s design and appearance to improve ease of use

There are no themes or skins offered by Microsoft to change the appearance of the taskbar. All you can do is apply color to it or make it black or extremely light. Furthermore, applying themes (visual styles or .msstyles) at the operating system is not supported unless the theme is digitally signed by Microsoft.

There used to be apps like UxStyle to that relaxed the Windows theme signature requirement so that third-party customization was possible. However, it required a kernel-mode driver and regular updates to work. .msstyles are not compatible across the various builds of Windows 10. The developer of UxStyle even said that hotpatch bytes were disappearing in newer builds of Windows 10.

In other words, Microsoft has been doing everything possible to reduce the ease of use of the UI. They also prevent changing the appearance of user interface elements, even if the need to do so is not purely cosmetic but usability and accessibility-oriented.

StartIsBack++ to the rescue

A third party app developer, Stanislav Zinukhov, popularly known as Tihiy in the Windows MSFN community, recreated the Windows 7 Start menu back when Windows 8 removed it. The StartIsBack++ Start menu is compatible with Windows visual styles (msstyles). As a bonus feature of his Start menu replacement app, he also supports taskbar customization and custom .msstyles can be applied to the taskbar as well !

This gives us an opportunity to fix the Taskbar appearance with StartIsBack++ so it looks more visually appearing, usable and accessible. While it is a paid app, what it enables for Windows 10 at such a low price for multiple PCs makes the app absolutely worth purchasing. Another good thing about StartIsBack is that you don’t have to use its Start menu. You can use it just for skinning the taskbar.

Fixing the Taskbar design with StartIsBack

Getting StartIsBack++

Head over to http://www.startisback.com/ and buy the app. Then download the appropriate version of the app for your version of Windows 10 and install it. Activate the license and if you use the Start menu, configure it as you want.

Out-of-the-box, StartIsBack++ comes with taskbar themes which restore the Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 appearance. However those taskbar skins / visual styles themselves were also flawed in the original systems.

In Windows 7, the appearance of the taskbar was too glossy and had too much glow even though white text was used. So glossy in fact that the active window was represented very poorly with hardly any visual contrast.

Windows 7 taskbar
Excessive glow and glossy appearance, poor contrast with white text in Windows 7

Windows 8.1 reduced the glossy appearance but introduced see-through transparency causing certain desktop backgrounds to make the taskbar text unreadable. It still kept the contrast to a minimum and retained the white text with pale background colors and transparency without any kind background blur.

Windows 8 taskbar
See-through transparency without any blur, white text on pale background colors in Windows 8.1

Get the Taskbar theme / visual style

To truly fix this issue, in addition to the app, you also need a custom msstyle specifically created for the active taskbar button to stand out and to fix these contrast issues.

StartIsBack can apply this style to the taskbar that restores its 3D look with clean lines separating adjacent buttons, beautiful gradients and visual effects for color tracking. But the most important change is that this theme for the taskbar makes the button of the active window more prominent due to its sunken (pushed) appearance.

Download the taskbar msstyle for StartIsBack++ below to make the active button prominent.

Installing and applying the taskbar theme

Open Pushed Button.zip and extract its contents to
C:\Program Files (x86)\StartIsBack\Styles

Then open Control Panel from Start search and open Start Menu configuration settings for StartIsBack++. Go to the Appearance section. Observe the previews of the various taskbar themes. You will notice one theme that looks this the image below with the button icon looking sunken (pushed down). That is the theme you just installed. Click on it to select it. It will be highlighted by a pale blue background color. Now, press Apply.

This custom theme/visual style fixes Windows Taskbar appearance & design using StartIsBack++

You will instantly notice the difference on your Windows taskbar. The buttons will all appear cleanly separated by vertical lines. And the active window button will appear pushed down, just like previous versions of Windows from Windows 95 to Windows Vista.

Taskbar Buttons Appearance & Design Fixed with StartIsBack++
Default Windows 10 Taskbar appearance before and after applying the taskbar skin for cleanly defined lines and pushed button look
Taskbar Buttons Appearance & Design Fixed with StartIsBack++

You are done! This should fix the Windows Taskbar appearance with StartIsBack. You now have enough contrast with white text on darker background color, without any transparency. The color hot tracking also returns and the active window is clearly demarcated.

The light theme is also fixed fairly well. At least now you can easily tell the active window.

Light Theme Fixed

The button animation for pinned apps also returns with this msstyle when the app is launched.

Button Launch Animation

Adjusting icon size and taskbar margins with StartIsBack++

As a bonus, StartIsBack++ also lets you adjust the taskbar icon size and margins similar to 7+ Taskbar Tweaker. For the most compact taskbar with large icons, I choose a setting of L for the size and XS for the margins. The margins refer to the spacing or padding between each icon button on the taskbar.

Margins

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