Customizing the Default User Profile in Windows 7 (Part 5)

by [Published on 10 Feb. 2011 / Last Updated on 10 Feb. 2011]

This article discusses more issues that can arise when trying to customize the default user profile in Windows 7 and describes some possible workarounds.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

In the first three articles of this series we learned a seven-step process for customizing the default user profile in Windows 7:

  1. Create a Task Sequence for Deploying your Reference Build
  2. Create a Task Sequence for Sysprepping and Capturing your Reference Build
  3. Customize the Reference Build using Unattend.xml
  4. Deploy and Verify the Partially Customized Reference Build
  5. Further Customize the Reference Build Manually
  6. Sysprep and Capture the Fully Customized Reference Build
  7. Verify All Customizations Made to the Default User Profile

While some of the customizations we tried to make to the default profile using this approach worked, several customizations didn't work. In other words, several customizations of our default profile were not applied to new user accounts created on the computer using the customized default profile as a template.

In the fourth article of this series we found workarounds for these issues, but the question arises—what customizations made to a Windows 7 default profile will not be applied to new user accounts are created on the computer? This article and the next discuss this difficult issue and other related questions relating to customizing the default profile in Windows 7 in the form of a FAQ on the subject.

Tip:
If you have a question about customizing the default user profile in Windows 7 that is not answered in this series of articles, feel free to email me your questions and I'll try to answer them in a future article on this subject. You can also follow me on Twitter and/or friend me on Facebook for further tips on this and other deployment-related topics.

Question #1: Is there a definitive list of all customizations of the default profile in Windows 7 that are NOT applied to new user accounts created on the computer?

Unfortunately the answer is No. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of user-configurable settings in the shell (the Windows desktop environment) and as far as I know no one has tried to sit down and test which settings aren't copied from the default user profile to new user accounts created from that profile. In fact, one deployment expert at Microsoft that I talked to said that he thought the majority of customizations of the Windows 7 default profile don't survive the CopyProfile process used in part 3 of this series. The only sure way you can discover whether a user-configurable shell setting will survive CopyProfile is to try it and see what happens.

Question #2: I'm not happy about that! Customizing and using the default profile was easier with earlier versions of Windows. Why did Microsoft change how to do this for Windows 7?

Because the old method never actually worked properly in the first place! From Windows NT up to and including Windows Vista, the method most people used for customizing the default profile was something like this:

Log on to your master (reference) computer using a local user account and perform any shell customizations desired and then log off. Log on as the local Administrator, open the System applet in Control Panel and select the Advanced tab. Then under User Profile, click Settings to open the User Profiles dialog. Select the user profile for the account you customized and click the Copy To button. Click the Browse button and copy the customized profile over the default profile on the machine.

This approach was documented in several KB articles on TechNet, but these articles have since been rightly pulled from the site. Why rightly so? Because as Windows NT evolved into Windows 2000 then Windows XP and then Windows Vista, the number of issues caused by this approach have increased, particularly with the release of Windows Vista. These issues include but are not limited to things like Start Menu problems, IE first run problems, how the My Documents folder appears in Explorer, applications not saving files to My Documents as expected, and so on.

Why would such things happen? Because the Windows user profile is a complicated structure and was never designed from the start to simply be copied in entirety like this. So when it became evident that with the release of Windows 7 things were going to get even worse with this approach, Microsoft finally decided to disable this Copy To functionality for the System applet so that administrators couldn't use this approach anymore for customizing the default profile.

Unfortunately, lots of admins I've talked to said they felt perfectly happy with the old approach and that it worked "well enough" for them once a few workarounds were put in place. Terminal Services admins have been particular upset as the new approach (described in the first three articles of this series) for customizing the default profile in Windows 7 seems a lot more time consuming than the old approach. But there's no going back as the desktop shell has become increasingly complex with each new release of Windows, and this will very likely continue with future releases.

Question #3: What should I do then if some of my default profile customizations aren't supported by the CopyProfile process?

Find another way of deploying those customizations. Some of the other approaches you can use for customizing the end-user desktop environment include:

  • Group Policy – Can be used to enforce any shell settings found under User Configuration\Policies\Administrative Templates. The downside of this approach is that users cannot reconfigure shell settings that have been applied using Group Policy.
  • Group Policy Preferences – Very useful for one-time (initial) configuration of various end-user shell settings such as drive mappings, desktop shortcuts, network connections, printers, and so on. If you've never used GPP before, learn about them today!
  • Custom scripts – Can be used to directly modify registry entries within the HKEY_CURRENT_USER hive, either during the deployment build process or afterwards during deployment of target computers. There are three drawbacks to this. First, you must somehow determine which registry entries are the ones you want to modify. Second, some HKCU registry entries are dynamically determined which can overwrite any manual changes you make to them. And third, if you make a mistake directly modifying the registry you can trash your system. So be careful with this approach and use it only as a last resort.

Conclusion

The new method in Windows 7 for customizing the default user profile is more time-consuming and involved than the method used in previous versions of Windows, but at least it works as intended. Unfortunately not every desktop shell setting can survive the CopyProfile process, so alternate approaches such as Group Policy, Group Policy Preferences and/or custom scripts may have to be used if you need to customize certain undetermined aspects of the shell. In the sixth and final article of this series, we'll discuss some other issues and provide you with some tips and additional resources that can help you work with the sometimes difficult problem of customizing the default profile for Windows 7 deployments.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

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