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.
Talisman Desktop, 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…
bbLean is part of a family of freeware shell replacements that also includes BB4Win and xoblite. Most plugins and styles are across all members of this family of open source programs, so although we’ll be talking about bbLean specifically, the other programs function very similarly. The “bb” stands for “Blackbox,” the Unix window manager that they are all modeled after. By default, bbLean takes a minimalist approach to shell replacement, offering little more than a single task bar, an enhanced right-click menu, and lots and lots of empty room.
It doesn’t have to stay that way, though. There are a ton of plugins available, programmed by bbLean’s very active community, allowing you to customize your desktop with everything from calendars to weather reports to Winamp controllers. Installing a plugin involves downloading it, unzipping it into bbLean’s plugin directory, and adding a line to the shell’s plugins.rc file, telling it to use the addon. This last part can be also be done by right clicking anywhere, then selecting Blackbox > Configuration > Plugins > Add Plugin.
Almost all customization beyond simple movement of features (which can be done by control-clicking and dragging) in bbLean is done by altering lines in various config files. There’s a tremendous amount of flexibility in what can be changed this way, but it does mean that the learning curve for bbLean’s family of shell replacements is very steep, and until you become familiar with how all the .rc files and such work, it can be hard to get bbLean to work just the way you want it to.
One of the very cool things about the Blackbox-style shell replacements is that they’re based on the idea that function and appearance should be separated wherever possible. That means that you can drastically alter the look of your bbLean desktop without changing its layout or function. This is done with “.style” text files which contain information about all the aspects of the desktops appearance, like colors and fonts. Thus, you can use anyone else’s style files with your Blackbox shell, even if you’re running totally different plugins. Style files work cross-platform, too, so you can use styles from the actual Blackbox window system.
Below, you can see some example of how users of Blackbox-type shell replacements use a combination of styles and plugins to create some really impressive desktops:
Like Talisman, bbLean does not by default replace explorer.exe as the default shell. To do this, there is an “install” option in the right click menu, or you can just type “Blackbox –install” into the command line. Type “Blackbox –uninstall” to revert to explorer.exe.
Like bbLean, LiteStep is an open source app originally designed to emulate a window manager for the X Window system. In this case the window manager in question was AfterStep, although LiteStep bears less of a resemblance to its progenitor than bbLean. LiteStep has been in development for more than 10 years, and is the most popular replacement shell available. That, of course, means the most available themes and plugins and therefore the most options for customization.
An Example of a user-created theme.
LiteStep’s installation process is pretty smooth, with the latest installers available for download at litestep.net, although you’ll have to sign up for a free account to get them. They recommend running the Omar installer executable, then updating it with the Litestep-Updater pack, either by overwriting a bunch of files or running a .bat. During installation, you’ll have the opportunity to designate which apps you want to be your default for purposes like web browsing, image editing and instant messaging. This is done to allow LiteStep’s themes to know which programs to integrate into the desktop.
Once you’ve installed LiteStep, it automatically makes itself your default shell. Unlike Talisman and bbLean, there’s no application mode, so you’ll have to jump right in. Fortunately, LiteStep’s default theme, “Austerity” doesn’t deviate too far from the standard Windows experience, so you should be able to get your bearings before trying out some of the more extreme themes. Also, LiteStep puts an icon on the desktop which allows you to automatically reconfigure your system to use explorer as the default shell.
LiteStep themes are collected and made available for download at a number of websites. Themes are transferred as .lsz packages, which contain data about both the visual style of the desktop and the configuration of various modules. Modules are LiteStep’s version of plugins, and can add all sorts of functionality to your desktop, from the useful—like one that monitors CPU and RAM usage—to the frivolous, like one that adds a little piano keyboard to your taskbar, allowing you to rock out with your mouse whenever you feel like it.
To install a new theme, you simply download the .lsz file and run LiteStep’s theme installation utility on it. If you’re missing any of the modules that the theme uses, you’ll be prompted to download them. Though this system doesn’t preserve the distinction between style and functionality like the BlackBox shell replacements, it does make it much easier to see a screenshot, think “Ooh, I want my desktop to look like that,” and make it happen.
Customizing LiteStep is pretty similar to bbLean. It’s just a matter of downloading (or programming, for the truly hardcore) the modules that you want to use in your setup, and editing configuration files to define settings, hotkeys and scripts. It’s not something you can learn in an hour, but at least there are plenty of user-made themes available for you to download and learn from.
An Example of a user-created theme.
All in all, with its long development history and active userbase, LiteStep is still pretty much the app to beat for shell replacements. However, both of the other two programs we’ve covered certainly have their strong points as well. Talisman’s user-friendly design and graphical customization engine are great, and BbLean’s minimalist approach to shell replacement is very cool. All three we’ve talked about in this article are free or have a free trial, so give them a whirl and see which one appeals to you the most.