How To: Customize and Streamline Your Windows Desktop


Any car enthusiast worth his salt knows that until you customize your ride, it’s just another commuter. Likewise, your computer is little more than a generic PC in an ocean of look-alikes until you make it your own.

Here at Maximum PC, we don’t settle for out of the box. To us, a computer is incomplete until it’s been forged in our own image. To that end, we’re taking a look at six unbeatable tools that can spice up a drab Windows desktop. When we’re done here, you’ll have given your default Windows interface a much-needed face-lift by adding custom themes, ditching the taskbar for a more attractive dock, and setting up your wallpaper to refresh on a schedule.

This newfound pride in your desktop will raise your morale while you’re working for the man, and these apps will boost your overall productivity by better organizing your applications and icons on different virtual desktops and placing to-dos, system statistics, and other important information a keystroke away.

Sound appealing? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s time to turn that dreary Windows default into something you can be proud of.

Time = 44 min

What You Need:

1. Theme Windows with WindowBlinds

If you want to make a dramatic change to the look and feel of your desktop, theming is the place to start. With the right application and skin, you can transform your Windows desktop into a work of art.

A quick trip to Google will net you more Windows customization apps, tutorials, and crapware than you can shake a stick at, but we’re going to focus on just one Windows skinning program: WindowBlinds. This isn’t the only theming tool available by any means, but it works on XP and Vista, is shareware (the free version is actually functional), and takes just a couple minutes to set up. So grab yourself a copy of WindowBlinds and let’s get started.

The app comes preloaded with several starter themes. To enable one, simply choose a theme, click Apply My Changes, and voilà—you’ve themed your desktop. The preloaded default themes are fine, but they’re not mind-blowing. To find a better premade skin, check out deviantART’s extensive collection of WindowBlinds themes ( ). Just find a theme you like, download it, and double-click the WBA file to install the theme alongside the defaults.

Finally, if the artist in you is dying to express your vision to a T, WindowBlinds is packed with options, so you can customize each theme to your heart’s content.

2. Theme Windows with Windows

Granted, Windows comes with a built-in method for changing themes—namely, the Uxtheme.dll file. Unfortunately, the Uxtheme.dll file only allows you to use official Microsoft styles by default. However, the file can be patched to allow you to apply any custom style to your installation. This approach doesn’t provide the same number of options a full-service application like WindowBlinds offers, but since Uxtheme skins Windows using the same native methods that Windows uses by default, it’s generally easier on your system resources.

On Windows XP, the free application UXTheme Multi-Patcher takes care of patching the file for you. On Vista, try VistaGlazz. In both cases, it’s wise to create a system restore point before proceeding—just to be on the safe side. Then follow the prompts and restart your computer.

Now that your Uxtheme.dll is patched, you’re ready to apply custom themes. Again, artist community deviantART boasts a large and impressive collection of themes ( ) you can download and install into C:\Windows\Resources\Themes. Once installed, applying a theme is as simple as right-clicking your desktop, selecting Properties (or Personalize in Vista), then clicking the Themes tab. Select your new theme, hit Apply, and you’re done.

3. Ditch the Taskbar for a RocketDock

The Windows taskbar is functional—but it’s not sexy. Mac users have boasted about the utility of the OS X Dock for years, but in the end, the joke’s on them: The free Windows application RocketDock brings the same functionality, and then some, to your Windows desktop.

The app has a minimal footprint (around 12MB), is completely skinnable (from the icons to the dock itself), and offers a huge repository of free addons for customizing your dock to perfection. Customization aside, RocketDock, like the OS X Dock, let’s you minimize windows to and launch applications from the dock.

Out of the box RocketDock underwhelms, but spend a little time browsing through the addons ( ) and digging through the application settings and you’ll soon have a dock with a look and feel you can be proud of.

No-Install Desktop Tweaking

Want to streamline your desktop without the weight of extra applications? Try swapping out your default icons for more attractive alternatives—like any of the free icon sets from DryIcons ( ). To replace a folder’s icon, for example, right-click the folder, choose Properties, and find the Customize tab. Then click the Change Icon button, which launches a simple dialog from where you can browse for the icon you want to swap in. Next, try auto-hiding your taskbar for a fuller screen experience by right-clicking any empty space on the taskbar, clicking Properties, and then ticking the Auto-hide taskbar checkbox. Last but not least, clear off considerable desktop clutter and better showcase your wallpaper by disabling desktop icons. In Vista, right-click the desktop, select View, and then untick Show Desktop Icons. XP users, right-click the desktop, select Arrange Icons By, and then uncheck the Show Desktop Icons entry.

4. Create a Custom Desktop Hud

The free application Samurize embeds an information-rich heads-up display (HUD) on your desktop, including anything from a simple to-do list to your system’s stats. You can customize virtually every aspect of Samurize, and it’s extensible through plugins developed by an active community.

Samurize comes packaged with an example configuration file that demonstrates how to use the application as a system monitor—embedding your hard drive, RAM, CPU, and network stats directly on your desktop. That’s a nice start, but this app doesn’t really shine until you roll up your sleeves and open the Samurize Config Editor (right-click the system tray icon, then select Edit Config File). It’s here that you define exactly what you want Samurize to do. To get familiar with your options, take a look at the Add Meter drop-down menu in the sidebar on the right. This menu contains every control Samurize can add out of the box.

As a quick example, embed your to-do list in Samurize by clicking Add Meter > Add Text File. Click the Source tab and point Samurize to your to-do list on your hard drive. Now save your config, right-click the Samurize system tray icon, and select Reload Config. Your to-do list now lives on your desktop. Whenever you edit it—whether you’re adding, editing, or removing an item from your—the changes will instantly update on your desktop.

Quick Tip

When you feel comfortable working with Samurize’s defaults, you’re ready to graduate to the big leagues: Head to the Samurize scripts and plugins page ( ) to try out some user-contributed plugins.

5. Organize Your Apps with a 3D Desktop

Virtual desktops have been around forever, allowing users to relegate windows to different desktops and providing a more organized experience for the power user. But besides being functional, virtual desktops can be jaw-droppingly cool.
DeskSpace is a 3D virtual desktop that allows you to organize applications and icons on multiple virtual desktops on a three-dimensional cube. If you’ve seen the 3D Compiz Fusion desktop manager for Linux, you know what we’re talking about. The 3D space makes the idea of virtual desktops much more intuitive, and DeskSpace allows you to customize each desktop individually.

That means each virtual desktop can sport a different look, so you know exactly where you are at any time. All it takes to spin the cube to a new desktop is a stroke of your mouse or keyboard. To invoke DeskSpace, just hold Ctrl+Alt+Shift or middle-click the taskbar. When you do, your desktop will pull away from you, revealing a translucent desktop cube. From your keyboard, you can switch to any of the six virtual desktops DeskSpace provides by simply pressing one of the arrow keys in the direction of the desktop you want to switch to. To complete the switch, just release the Ctrl+Alt+Shift shortcut (or middle-click anywhere with your mouse) and the new active desktop will fill your screen. You can even set rules so that specific applications always display on a specific desktop, allowing you to create context-specific desktops (e.g., an Internet desktop, work desktop, media desktop, etc.).

DeskSpace is shareware and costs $25 for a full license. If you’re willing to do a little searching, you can find an older version called Yod’m 3D—DeskSpace’s name when it was still a freeware application.

6. Keep Your Wallpaper Fresh

If customizing your desktop is like customizing a car, so far we’ve souped up the engine and added new chrome plating. But just as every car needs a paint job, a customized desktop needs killer wallpaper, and your choice of desktop wallpaper can make or break the whole aesthetic. Lucky for you, finding gorgeous desktop wallpaper is a breeze if you know where to look.

Our favorite resource is the popular photo-sharing website Flickr ( )—more specifically the Wallpapers pool ( ). That’s a good start, but even the best wallpaper can feel stale after a few days. The Flickr Wallpaper Rotator is a free application that automatically downloads and sets a fresh wallpaper from Flickr on a regular schedule, so your desktop background never gets old.

Flickr isn’t the only place online where you can find extraordinary wallpaper, of course. Online artist community deviantART is another popular repository that hosts a large collection of incredible wallpaper images ( ). If you’re sporting multiple monitors, Mandolux ( ) serves up stunning, high-res panoramic wallpapers that can stretch over up to three monitors. Can’t find a dual-screen wallpaper to suit your taste there? Try InterfaceLIFT ( ), a site that hosts wallpapers for every size of screen, from your mobile phone to your triple-monitor desktop.

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