Ok here is my first attempt at a guide for others to use. Please let me know if I've made errors, and all feedback/suggestions/criticism is appreciated.
I will be adding posts with specific step-by-step stuff and detail as requested. And I'm happy to answer questions and help anyone trying to do something here.
1: This might be the most time consuming step, and most frustrating. IF you are using relatively new hardware.
If you're targeting older hardware it will likely be easy.
What I found daunting (ok, outright angering) was that manufacturers stopped providing Win7 drivers. In fact my HP didn't provide ANY. I found out later this was part of the MS contract but that's another story.
HOWEVER, I was able to get 100% driver coverage it just took some googling and luck. One solution that amused me was that many drivers that the manufacturer installer app refused to install (always with snarky messages) actually DID run perfectly! First, I had to bypass the installer and install the drivers manually. Second many times a couple small changes are necessary in an .inf file for the driver. The change relates to the versions of Windows it will target. Once I figured out what to do, it was easy. And in Explorer if you right click a driver .inf file you can pick "Install" and thus you bypass the manufacturers installer exe.
Another solution I had to do only once was determine what chip was being used on the component (I forget now which one!) and because a LOT of hardware from various manufacturers will use the same or compatible chips you can get away (sometimes) with using a driver that isn't specifically from your manufacturer. I wasn't so lucky with that, however, once I knew the chip I did find open source code for the driver and was able (easily) to compile the driver and use it. So open source to the rescue. I will add that compiling source code is what I do for a living so it was an option, it might not be for most people. Although just compiling doesn't require knowing how to write code and usually it's pretty simple.
After all these things I went into Device Manager and there were no exclamations or errors. I tested each component and then slept for a week as I spent 3 straight days doing this 😀
2: Installing Win7 sounds like it should be dead simple. But if you don't have a CD/DVD drive it gets a little complicated because no Win7 distribution or media contained drivers for USB3.0 (to my knowledge). So I had to create the installation media from my original CD. And this was also a bit complex, because adding a driver and making it load during the installer boot process... well MS didn't plan for it 🙁 I will give a more detailed post on this if anyone wants/needs it, but basically you create an .iso of your Win7 install CD and then use the MS utility DISM.exe to modify the image by adding a driver. The DISM utility is actually pretty nice and easy to use. After adding the driver you tell DISM to write out the image, then burn it to a USB stick and bam! It's now bootable via USB and Win7 will install. Another part of the install that bugged the shiat out of me was that Win7 will attempt to create SEVERAL partitions on your drive regardless of whether you want/need them. They're not large but neither is my boot drive. So I had to dance a little to get around that and just create one partition to install on. I'll have to look up the steps I took but they're on the internet all over. In case you aren't aware, if you install onto an SSD drive Win7 will either CREATE or USE AN EXISTING partition on ANOTHER drive that isn't SSD if one exists. And if you have data on it? Tough shit, Win7 will just create a directory "boot" and install the MS bootmgr in the boot sector of that drive and THAT is really the drive which boots - NOT your "C"(primary) drive! If that secondary drive fails or you wipe it out, you're screwed and have to jump through hoops to create a different bootmgr.
3: Immediately after the initial install the first thing I did was disable the windows update services completely. I installed service pack 1 which I had previously downloaded. I reviewed MANY of the available updates for Win7 and found NOT ONE of them that would benefit me. You may want to check for yourself and install them using the Updater in Control Panel before disabling the service. Then I proceeded to disable MANY other services that are unnecessary, after first researching them via googling to make sure. Sometimes anyway. I had to find out the hard way which services would trigger Windows to popup nasty messages about having incompatible hardware and threatending to crash. Very intimidating to anyone who isn't technical. And another one that triggers Windows to deactivate and tell me I was using an illegal copy. 🤣 So I learned the hard way and the easy solution was to just turn those services back on. Being a programmer, I replaced them with my own which faked the functions of the original but nothing more purely out of defiance not because I can prove the services are harmful. I'm going to include a list from one of my machines of all my services both disabled and enabled. Like EVERYTHING I am presenting, each person needs to determine for themselves which things they want to rip out and which they want to leave as is. But I will give comments about what the service (or app) is and what I think it does from my research and why I think it was or was not worth keeping. My own personal goal was to disable and remove everything I possibly could and this list reflects this. Note that you cannot simple "STOP" a service but must also "DISABLE" it or else it will restart itself either immediately or at next boot. To do this use Administrative Tools -> Services, pick the service, right click.
4: Next I adjust some system defaults which might not apply if you're not using a laptop. All my workstations are laptops but plugged in.
A: If you have a multi-core CPU this one is important too because I learned that Win7 "parks" CPUs when it feels like it. I've read a LOT about this one, because some argue that it doesn't affect actual speed that's noticeable to the user. Others say the opposite. My take on this was to not care, but just ask WHY park them? (parking means to reduce the power to varying degrees) Answer: To save battery power. Except I don't use batteries all my machines are plugged in. So I found a great utility app, free too, extremely well written, called QuickCPU. It allowed me to disable that parking shiat, and also allows me to monitor CPU temperature and do a few other geeky things.
B: Also I disabled hibernation because I never use it and it's 16gb of diskspace on C: wasted. It's pretty simple to do just run cmd.exe (command prompt) and type "powercfg.exe /hibernate off" and that's it!
C: Another issue for me was the power settings, some annoying, some I found offensive. For example, Win7 will also turn off your USB ports if it thinks you won't be needing them! Just like parking CPUs and for the same reason, and with the same arguments on the net. The default power settings for Win7 on a laptop are just ridiculous. So on Control Panel -> Power I always use "advanced settings" and adjust EVERY setting or at least inspect it. The USB thing of course, but also, powering down hard drives - it's not a good idea. The most wear&tear you can put on a hard drive is the power cycling of it. Best to leave it on all the time if the machine is used most of the time.
5: Next I decided to move the MS bootmgr off my secondary drive so that if it failed I wouldn't lost a lot of customizing work (I expected it not to work). It wasn't that difficult, but I'm going to hold off posting instructions unless people ask for them because this is the greatest risk that might result in your machine not booting anymore. And I don't want that. Plus it might be different for other hardware. I can and will help you do this if you want, here though I just want to say it's possible and I did it.
6: After rebooting I began periodically reviewing processes running in Task Manager to make sure I knew EXACTLY what tasks were running and when I wasn't sure I goggled it to make sure about what it was. I did find some things over the months that were autostarting at Windows boot or were apps installed that I didn't want. This is a good habit, always know what's running.
7: Next I removed every MS app and Windows feature that I felt was unnecessary. First using Add/Remove Programs (I have to research what apps were installed but I will report on that) and next using "Windows Features" on that same control panel applet (top left). Here I basically uninstalled EVERY "feature" it had auto-installed including and especially Internet Explorer.
8: At this point I had a very lightweight and fully operational Win7 running perfectly, and lightning quick! But next came the most enjoyable task and which I spent probably way too much time on - customizing the UI (and eventually replacing most of it). By this I mean really customizing pretty much every aspect of the appearance. The way a "window" looks, titlebar color, font, the min/max/close buttons, the border, the SHAPE (I prefer square corners not 2 square and 2 rounded 🤣). The taskbar, start menu, file/folder icons. Pretty much nothing I didn't touch and it's all fairly simple to do and does NOT require a programmer. I myself did go a little crazy and eventually did create my own Explorer file/manager, start menu, and taskbar. But that's not something the average person wants or needs. But I'm saying it just to say those parts of the UI can ALSO be replaced or customized. Essentially pretty much every aspect of the Win7 UI can be altered to suit your tastes and there are a lot of apps to accomplish it. NOW, word of caution here: Lots of "free" apps out there that customize parts of the UI are less than professionally developed and can break your system badly. This is because some modifications are achieved by actually modifying Windows system files (dlls). So I hope it will help that I share my experience because I tested every app I could find and very few passed my test. The ones I'm going to list are ones I can say run 100% perfectly for me and my Win7 systems are all 100% stable and never crash. I can't guarantee you'll have the same results, but I think my list is safer than blind luck 😉
First app I always install is ClassicShell which is free and open source. I believe the author retired and the project is OpenShell now, but still open source. I only run the original as the problems that OpenShell deals with are Win10 related. [NOTE: It was reported that the current build of OpenShell has a very harmful bug, so it might be safer to stick with the original ClassicShell] This app allows you to customize GREATLY the Start Menu, Start Button, Taskbar, and Windows Explorer. Highly recommended.
And second for me is "Windows Style Builder"(formerly Vista Style Builder). This is the heart of my customizations because it exposes to you EVERY element of the UI appearance and you can modify items, test it, and save it to an external file. So testing each element you want to change is simple. I used it to alter window titlebars, colors, fonts, min/max/close buttons, borders and corners. This is a massively powerful tool and well written. It's available freely although I donate now and then because it's so valuable to me. And the author responds to support questions and is a very nice person!
If you just want to change your start button(orb) or replace system icons, another utility I've used a lot is by "Door2Windows" and has a bundle of awesome well-written mini-applets to achieve those things and much more. It's the most complete "tweaker" I've found. And that also is available freely, or donating/purchasing - for, when I bought mine, $5. Yep. $5. But you can get it freely. Great support there too.
And of course, Win7 doesn't allow you to install or use what are called "unsigned themes" which is pretty much anything you do to create your own custom theme. You can copy/modify existing themes if you want or create your own. I don't personally do this because I don't need to, all my changes are covered with the above. But if you DO want to use other themes you'll need a utility that runs as a service and forces Windows to allow it. I use the one I think is the best called "UxStyle"(theme patcher) and it's free.
I can give more details about each thing I did as requested so feel free to ask. But anyone who has ever seen my main workstation has asked me what OS I was using because it looks NOTHING like any version of Windows!
9: And of course many of the MS standard apps that come with Windows are less than acceptable so next I set about replacing several of them starting with Windows Explorer and Notepad. Oh and Internet Explorer. Note that you can only remove IE8 (using Windows Features) and NOT IE6 because Win7 won't run after that's removed. I know because I learned the hard way to leave it alone. For a simple Notepad replacement I use Notepad++ which is free, open source and very common and very stable. For Windows Explorer, unfortunately I never did find an open-source or free app that passed my tests. And I can't stand Windows Explorer. Things like multiple tabs and a handful of other features I cannot live without. If you do want a replacement app I found two that were decent and both have free versions and premium versions. One is Xyplorer the other is Directory Opus. Both have a TON of great features. I use the latter when I need to because it's more customizable and stable. And has some pretty advanced features like renaming many files at once, well too many to list. Very nice app and actively being enhanced, lots of updates. Xyplorer to my knowledge is no longer being developed but I'm not sure it needs to be.
The next steps are things I did and still do frequently, to make sure there's nothing causing Windows to get bogged down and bloated. I find that installing a new app often causes things to get autostarted or scheduled updaters to run, stuff like that, which offends me greatly. So I do these things to make my LEAN and MEAN Win7 stay that way. In over a year, it's running as good as day one.
10: By this point I have rebooted dozens of times and I start periodically doing a few things that help keep Windows lean and not get bloated
A: I check the event viewer (Admin Tools) to make SURE there wasn't something causing errors, which can slow Windows or cause instability.
B: And task manager, to make sure there are no processes running I don't know about.
C: Also a good thing to monitor is what things are being automatically executed when Windows boots! And also what tasks are in the scheduler and run without you knowing. I found some surprises. I use a free app called CCleaner to check both of those things, and to make SURE that only the things I know about are autostarted. You can also use the Windows app "regedit" which will bring you into the registry editor. I'll hold off with details because it can also break your system. But if anyone wants to know where the magic key is I will post it.
D: And another thing that can cause Windows to bog down over time is the registry being bloated with entries from apps you remove, or many other causes. It's a good idea to keep an eye on it. I use CCleaner for that as well, it allows me to backup the registry in case of a problem and then it scans it and reports problems. VERY helpful! This one can't be done manually with regedit. But there are TONS of free utils that do it.
E: I also check C:\Users\Me for files/folders that don't need to exist. Perhaps something uninstalled. Usually just an app doing something I don't like. Under AppData the Local folder usually has lots of stuff. This keeps my C: very lean as well.
Tips for keeping it lean and running as fast as possible.
I never install anything on C: I always use a different drive.
I don't defragment my drives, out of paranoia, but also I don't make a lot of changes to them. I keep my data on a network drive and that's what changes most. But I suppose defragging your drives now and then could help performance. Oh and my boot drives are always SSD so fragmentation isn't a real issue.
I always disable or otherwise neuter all automatic updates that any app wants to do. Many reasons for this, mostly I'm just ornery about my computer doing things I didn't ask it to especially where the internet is involved.
Things I do NOT recommend doing.
Install apps to try out. Uninstallers are notoriously horrible and leave stuff all over the place. I use a VirtualBox VM to try things out, and ONLY install things I know I'm going to keep forever on my machine.
Install those "make your PC 80000% faster!" apps. Most don't work, many kill your system entirely. I have found no reason to use them. The NT kernel used in Win7 is actually one of the best builds of it and it works incredibly well. I run at least 1 other OS using a VBox VM constantly, as well as MANY heavy apps for writing code. And a couple browser windows. It's never crashed. Not once.
Leave Windows Update service enabled or run it manually and install every update without knowing exactly what it does and determine that you need it. This is again, JUST ME.