I’ll cover the customisation I did to the new blog in the context of two areas: templates/themes and plugins/widgets.
In wordpress.org, adding a new template is simply a case of finding one, downloading it, then uploading it to the wp-content/themes directory. It is then immediately available under the Presentation option in admin.
There’s not really much else to say other than I went here to look for themes. And here to read up on them. Of course, there are many, many more available than you get on wordpress.com and you have full control of their customisation without having to pay to edit the CSS! Look out for themes that support widgets if you are used to using them.
Widgets are pretty big on wordpress.com blogs, and the good news is that they are supported on wordpress.org as well, that is as long as the theme you are using supports them. There are also a lot more available. There is a list of widget aware themes and third party widgets here.
Widgets are delivered as plugins which are simply uploaded into the wp-content/plugins directory. You then have to go to the plugins tab in admin to activate them. You will want to activate the Sidebar Widgets plugin whilst you are there.
You should then see the Sidebar widgets option under the presentation tab as you are used to in wordpress.com.
It is worth noting that the Askimet comment spam plugin is available as part of the 2.1 package. However to enable it you need a wordpress.com API key. As you are reading this you are probably moving from wordpress.com so handily you already have one. Just go to Users then Your Profile on your old blog and you should see the API key listed. There’s also a Google seach and del.icio.us widget present by default.
The only other plugins/widgets I’ve installed so far are covered in the next post about feeds and stats.