There's nothing wrong with the Windows 7 desktop per se. But for freeware developers, that's no excuse not to tweak, hack, and otherwise modify every possible piece of your screen. And it's not that difficult to add new functionality to your desktop that doesn't otherwise exist in the operating system. The hardest part is finding software that makes a substantive change to what you already have. After all, the last thing you want to do is install a ton of different freeware apps and find your desktop in even worse shape than it was before (if you do, take a quick trip to Revo Uninstaller).
The intensity of the following five free applications ranges from apps that completely revamp your desktop's look and feel to programs that add new ways for accessing common apps and folders straight off your desktop. How far you want to go with your tweaking is entirely up to you--these are just some of the more interesting tools I've come across that should go a long way toward raising your "Windows Power User" level a few notches.
Here's an easy one. Desktop Media emulates one of OSX's most basic and useful features. Whenever you stick a new CD in the drive, connect a portable USB storage device to your system, or fire up a network drive (amongst other options), Desktop Media slaps a shortcut to said device right on your desktop. Remove the device (or take the CD out), and the shortcut automatically disappears. Fire this one up in front of your friends and they'll swear that you've built some crazy Mac/Windows hybrid--you'll be the life of the Windows 7 party.
I've always enjoyed how Windows 7 has managed to simultaneously de-clutter and improve the usefulness of the default Windows Vista and Windows XP taskbars. However, every icon on the bar at the little bottom of your screen still only represents one program. Sure, you can get some added contextual items to select if you click on an application's arrow icon on the Start Menu, but this isn't a universal feature for all applications--and you're still only interacting with a single program.
StandaloneStack 2 allows you to move one step beyond these features and create program "stacks," or graphical lists, based off of a single icon. When you click on this icon, you can use the ensuing menu of items to launch new programs, folders, or settings options. It's like having a number of different Start buttons that you can customize as much as you'd like.
This app might be limited in its prettiness, but it more than makes up for it with its usefulness. As you might expect, 7 Taskbar Tweaker is a simple utility for adding additional functionality into your default Windows 7 taskbar. For example, you can switch between either a default jump list or standard window menu when you right-click an icon, toggle application grouping on and off, and make use of new middle-click functionality that either opens a new instance of a taskbar program, closes the window, or focuses the window. You can also disable thumbnail previews, should you so choose. It's not a weighty list of items to play around with, but 7 Taskbar Tweaker's modifications aren't normally customizable options in the Windows 7 OS.
Speaking of the Start Menu, let's suppose you have a ton of different files, programs, favorites, and shortcuts that you want to be able to access from a single location. Let's call this set of objects "work." Normally, you'd have to make a folder somewhere on your system or desktop and dump all of your pertinent files in there, as well as all of your bookmarked Web sites, shortcuts to all the programs you need to access, et cetera. To organize this folder, you'd have to use subfolders related to the items you intend to store. Fun.
MenuApp removes the ugliness from this organization by allowing you to create Start Menu-like hierarchies based off of a single icon on your desktop. Now, you can simply click on your newly created "work" icon and pull up all of your files, shortcuts, and other objects of interest via an easy-to-access system of menus without having to move a single piece of data around your PC. Just tell MenuApp where the documents you want to access are located on your computer and it'll automatically create menus based on the contents of those folders--from there, you can shuffle and create organized pathways through your data at your leisure.
For the ultimate in desktop skinning without a ton of crazy configuration files to wade through, Rainmeter is an excellent tool for changing the look of your entire desktop without sacrificing a large amount of system resources. A recent update to the application adds a little feature called RainBrowser, which lets you run through the different skins you've installed for the application and tweak their settings or preview their look before you start changing up your desktop en masse. The Rainmeter developers do the best job of summarizing the coolness of this free app: "Every inch of a skin is completely customizable."
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!