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From Google Desktop to the Windows Sidebar introduced in Vista, there have been several attempts to integrate our online life onto our desktop. But none of them come close to Rainmeter, a totally customizable platform for decking out your desktop with a variety of useful applets that can stand prominently in the foreground or blend into the background.
There's a lot you can do with Rainmeter thanks to a diverse collection of available 'skins' (think of them as widgets), all of which can be individually tailored in look and function. There are skins for keeping tabs on system resources, displaying RSS feeds, sending and receiving Twitter messages, and even recording notes.
Rainmeter isn't at all difficult to use, but there is an initial learning curve as you come to understand just how powerful this unassuming app really is. On the following pages, we'll guide you through the setup process and show you the ins and outs of using Rainmeter. We'll also highlight the 12 best skins out of the hundreds that are available to give you a head start on decking out your desktop like never before.
Hit the jump and let the fun begin!
Long time readers of Maximum PC magazine may recall that several years back we printed a tutorial showing you how to HTMLify your desktop (courtesy of Google Books, you can still read the guide in the July 2003 issue starting on page 56). In it, recently resigned Editor-in-Chief Will Smith showed you how to add HTML elements to your desktop background and even embed a large webpage right smack dab in the center of your display. It was a pretty awesome trick with several upshots, all of which are improved upon with Rainmeter.
Rainmeter essentially streamlines the process of HTMLifying your desktop by allowing you to easily add all kinds of online elements to your display, be they RSS readers, a Twitter feed, Facebook updates, and really just about anything you want. It's a highly flexible platform, too. Code junkies may want to write their own applets, while those who are intimidated by a Command Prompt can still jump in and easily customize any skin without ever feeling lost or overwhelmed.
Image Credit: customize.org
Rainmeter isn't the only app of its kind, and the biggest alternative is probably Samurize. The two are similar in what they can do, but Rainmeter's generally easier to use, especially with the latest update. Rainmeter also boasts better OS compatibility and fully embraces both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors of Windows, including Redmond's latest, Windows 7.
Comparisons aside, here's a brief rundown of what Rainmeter offers:
Sounds pretty great, right? It is, and you can get started by downloading a copy of Rainmeter from here. Rainmeter installs just like any other app, and with the latest release (version 1.1), it also comes bundled with the popular Enigma suite of skins, as well as a couple of handy tools (RainBrowser and RainThemes) for managing everything.
You'll notice several different elements when you load Rainmeter for the first time, all of which are part of the Enigma suite, and all of which can be customized. There's a taskbar at the bottom with several launchers (iTunes, Picasa, Firefox, Notepad, and Trillian), plus a system monitor pushed over to the right side. All of these can be changed or substituted, which we'll get to in a little bit.
On the right you'll notice a transparent sidebar containing a news feed, the date/time, a notes section, and other odds and ends. And in the middle of the screen is a control panel, which we'll focus on first.
One way to customize the default Enigma skin is by pressing the Configuration button on the control panel (you can also access this by clicking the middle mouse button on the Sidebar). Enigma comes preconfigured with a ton of applets, most of which are self explanatory. Streaming information to your desktop begins by filling out the appropriate fields. To view Twitter feeds, for example, you would click on and fill out the TwitterUsername and TwitterPassword fields. Be warned, however, that Enigma doesn't hide your password, so not only will anyone standing behind you be able to see what you're typing in, but so too can anyone who has access to your PC.
Other settings you'll encounter include Google Calendar, RSS feeds, hard drive information, and other odds and ends. Once you've filled out the appropriate fields, your next step is to make them show up. For this, you'll use the familiar right-click context menu specially designed for Rainmeter. On the sidebar or custom taskbar, right-click and take a peek at the menus. It's a little confusing at first, but once you poke around and get acclimated to the terms, you'll be whizzing through the menus in no time. For now, the one you're looking for is the Configs menu, as this holds all the skins that are installed. Not all skins share the same layout, so be sure to poke around to see what all is offered.
Let's say we want to enable our Twitter feed in the Sidebar. To do so, we would right-click and navigate to Configs>Enigma>Sidebar>>Reader>Twitter-Reader. In there you'll see an entry for TwitterReader.ini. Rainmeter's magic works by reading .ini files (short for initialization), which are text files containing configuration information for Windows. We'll dive into this in a minute, but for now, click/check the box to the left of TwitterReader.ini.
Don't see the applet you just enabled? That's because it doesn't show up on the Sidebar by default, and instead is sitting in the upper left corner of your desktop. Applets float freely on your desktop, so relocating them is as easy and clicking in dragging, but usually not right in the center. In this case, you'll notice two faint lines bordering the Twitter applet, one on the top and one on the bottom. Click on either of these and drag it anywhere on your desktop, including the Sidebar. You can also click on your Twitter feed to load up your Twitter account in your default browser.