If there’s one thing that PC users like, it’s to customize things. There’re custom cases, aftermarket fans, water cooling systems, and dozens other ways to boost your system’s cool factor and (hopefully) its usefulness. But there’s one thing you can customize that’ll really take your computer to the next level: the shell. Your system’s shell, the software that allows you to interface with all those tender, juicy files stashed away in your computer, defines how you interact with your PC. As a power user, you owe it to yourself to explore the ways that you can alter your experience by altering your shell, and we’re going to tell you how.
A shell replacement is software that takes over the role normally filled by explorer.exe, which you’re probably most familiar with as the ubiquitous taskbar/start button combo. There are plenty of ways to go about shell replacement, so we’re going to take a look at members of three major classes of the software: Talisman, a commercial, user-friendly shell replacement; bbLean, a replacement focused on performance, a clean aesthetic and expandability; and the popular and powerful LiteStep.
, from Lighttek Software, is a shareware shell replacement. It’s available for free for 30 days, after which you have to pay a one-time registration fee of $25. Talisman’s main strength is that it’s relatively user friendly, allowing even a shell-replacement novice to get up and running with a swank new desktop in just half an hour or so.
Getting started is as easy as running an installer and then talisman.exe. This will start Talisman in application mode with the default theme, shown above. Application mode means that Talisman is operating not as a true Shell Replacement, but as a sort of glorified launcher (
á la Object Dock
). Application mode works fine, generally, and doesn’t take up much in the way of system resources, but if you want to replace Windows’ standard shell (explorer.exe) with Talisman, the program makes that a matter of pressing a button, sparing you the trouble of screwing around with your Settings.ini file.
Talisman’s themes define how the desktop looks and functions. The program comes with a few themes, which are pretty nice on the whole, but the real fun comes from experimenting with the hordes of user-created themes that are
available on the web
, collected at Lighttek’s website. To try a new theme, all you have to do is download it and then drag the .zip containing the file onto the Talisman desktop. A theme installer will open, and give you the option of (you guessed it!) installing the theme. Once a theme is installed, it can be switched to at any time from the right-click menu.
Trying other people’s themes is fun, but part of the benefit of shell replacement is being able to make an interface that’s perfectly tailored to your style. When you want to start customizing your themes, Talisman provides a system of menus that allow you to create your own UI elements for the desktop. Creating elements is a complicated process, and takes quite a bit of practice, but it’s still way more user friendly than the freeware alternatives, which we’ll cover next.
Talisman’s biggest downside is that it doesn’t quite have the same community that the freeware shells have. User-created plugins can massively expand the functionality of a shell replacement, and Talisman’s plugin selection is pretty abysmal.
So what’s the final word on Talisman Desktop? If you want to give your desktop a unique look without taking on shell replacement as a major hobby, this is the software for you. There’s a wide variety of premade, easy-to-install styles that look great, and when you’re ready to start customizing for yourself, Talisman’s menu-based system will help ease you into the process.
There are other commercial shell replacements that offer much the same experience as Talisman, most notable Aston Shell. You’re free to experiment with others, though Talisman Desktop gets our seal of approval. But if you’re looking for a freeware shell replacement program, or one with a stronger community, it might be time to consider…