Windows dressing

The Windows graphical user interface (GUI) isn't quite as customisable as the open source desktops are. Microsoft makes Windows dressing less than straightforward by using a plethora of binary files, Registry entries and INI configuration files to determine the look and functionality of the XP GUI. But don't let that stop you: there are many ways to swap out that drab Redmond-designed interface for something more to your liking.

Click here to see a screen shot.

Please note: changes to the Windows XP GUI and Shell require Administrator privileges. As with all tweaks and third-party utilities, be careful with what you do and install, and back up before trying out any of the instructions below. You have been warned.

Microsoft-supplied GUI enhancements

Playing it safe and customising Windows XP's looks according to Redmond rules means that you're unlikely to break anything, but can still do plenty of personalisation. Besides, it's free, so if you don't like the results, there are no monetary regrets.

Starting with the basics, right-clicking on most objects and selecting Properties lets you customise their looks as well as functionality. A right-click on your Desktop brings up a dialogue that can be used to change the appearance of your current Windows XP Themes (the overall look of your desktop), including background, wallpaper, and screensaver, as well as to fine-tune the interface with the Appearance settings.

Most of these options are self-explanatory, but the Themes tab is worth remembering. It restores your desktop to the Windows default if you've mucked it up by tweaking font and GUI-object sizes under Appearance, and lets you load and select additional Themes from Microsoft and third parties. My favourite Theme is the lean and fast but rather ugly Windows Classic one.

Don't forget to click on the Effects and Advanced buttons under the Appearance tab. Plenty of fun there, like enabling the neat but resource-hungry ClearType font smoothing and the menu transition effects, and deciding whether or not to display the contents of windows as you move them around. I tend to change the font sizes and menu bar heights to make things look and fit better on systems with odd screen resolutions, but it can make some dialogues with lots of text become illegible.

The Taskbar is also tweakable. Right-click on an empty area of the Taskbar, pick Properties, and off you go. Worthwhile changes here include adding more entries to the Quick Launch, adding the Address toolbar for quickly going to Web sites, etc., and adding the Windows Media Player toolbar, which saves having to switch applications to change the track to which you're listening. Bear in mind that the last two options take up a fair amount of space by themselves, so you'll probably find yourself having to decide which one is of more use. If you unlock the Taskbar, you can also move it to the four screen edges. In reality, though, sticking it on the right-hand side doesn't work because the cascading menus and their arrows go the wrong way. The Taskbar is resizable and can be made to auto-hide when not in use, but I don't recommend the latter as it annoys after a while.

Once the fundamentals are under control, check out Microsoft's TweakUI and Virtual Desktop Manager from the PowerToys collection at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/downloads/powertoys.asp. Virtual Desktop Manager, especially, is very cool with its four desktops to flick between - great for multi-taskers. TweakUI, on the other hand, provides better control over the UI functionality than the default Windows XP settings tools.

Extreme makeovers

The above look-tweaks are pretty pedestrian; for more radical cosmetic GUI surgery, more serious tools are needed. What you really want are floating taskbars with tear-off menus, transparency, high-colour icons and basically a desktop that Microsoft didn't design.

Good places to start the customisation quest include WinCustomize (www.wincustomize.com), and Skinbase (www.skinbase.org). These sites are littered with themes, wallpapers and icons, as well as hints and tips. Moreover, they have links to a great many vendors who offer replacements for the standard Windows XP front end.

Many of these are shareware, so you can try before you buy. I'd suggest you check out the following first:

  • WinStep, a clean and customisable interface which, as the name implies, will be familiar to NextStep users;
  • Lightek Talisman, with nicely designed icons and a very functional default theme;
  • The different Stardock products in the Object Desktop family such as DesktopX, and WindowBlinds, all of which are excellent and offer lots of customisation ability compared to other shell managers. It's a pity that Stardock has implemented a somewhat intrusive registration requirement before you can download the shareware.
Rolling up the sleeves and digging deeper into Windows' innards is made easier with the Resource Hacker (www.users.on.net/~johnson/resourcehacker/). This freeware tool can be used to accomplish magic like renaming the Start button. It's not for the casual user, but if you're serious about bashing Windows into your particular shape, and don't mind expending some effort and patience, you'll be richly rewarded.

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