The Best Way To Customize Your Desktop: 3 Top Apps Compared

TheMurph

Just as you have one heart, and one brain, your Windows installation comes with but one desktop. Sure, you can change the look of this digital meeting space by applying new wallpapers, or adding sidebars and widgets, or letting Windows 7 do all that automatic stuff that it does every ten minutes or so. But that's not really changing the desktop per se--at the end of the day, you're still blessed (or cursed) with the same ol' functionality that's been a staple of the Windows platform since its inception.

That's about to change.

There are quite a number of tools out there for stretching the core functionality of your desktop in new directions. Some of these third-party replacements keep your standard setup and add a unique extension--like a 360-degree wallpaper that you can scroll through with mouse gestures. Fun stuff, huh?  Other tools are a bit more comprehensive in their objectives, allowing for a total retrofit of very core of your desktop's operation. In these cases, gone are the typical organizational structures, options, and extensions you can pack into a Windows desktop--it's all brand-new and editable in ways you might have never previously thought were possible.

The best way to really get a feel for what's out there is to see it in action. So we're going to take a look at three unique desktop enhancement tools--one 3D, one  shell replacement, and one widget-based service--and see just how they stack up versus the usability of the trusty Windows setup we've all come to know and love (or hate.)

BumpTop

We'll start our trip down desktop-replacement name with one of the bigger transformations you can make. The desktop is, after all, a two-dimensional experience. Whatever you do is confined to a flat surface on your screen--one single plane for creating shortcuts, moving files, or what-have-you. BumpTop breaks the fourth wall of the desktop and invites you into a new experience that's completely three-dimensional.

Don't break out the goofy glasses just yet. The effect is obviously a three-dimensional cube rendered on your two-dimensional monitor. Still, it's a unique replacement to the traditional Windows desktop that interfaces perfectly with its predecessor: any file commands you make in one will be reflected on the other, and quitting out of BumpTop (if the extra dimension is just too much to handle) returns you to your normal Windows environment without issue.

Awesome

Reactivity: Like a team of hockey players, your icons will go sailing around the desktop at the slightest touch or toss from your mouse. They'll slam into other icons and jostle them around, and bounce up against the sides of BumpTop's cubic desktop as if they missed a body check. It's a simple tweak, but it does much to liven up your desktop compared to Windows' default setup.

Gestures: Provided your input device supports it (a standard mouse does not), BumpTop reacts to gesture-based controls like a tweaked-out version of Apple's iPhone (or similar touch-friendly device). Pinch and pull your BumpTop elements to control their size, shove icons out of the way with the side of your finger, and flick through stacked icons as if you were flipping pages on a moleskin notebook, amongst other activities.

New Organization: Not only do you have access to Windows' default right-click menus with a simple ctrl+click in Bumptop, but you can also use the program's enhanced organizational tools--like lasso-selection, icon piles, and folderizing features--to bring even more control and clarity to your desktop use.

Social Support: Built-in canvases not only give you a rotating display for your system's pictures (or online picture feeds), but you can also integrate Facebook, Twitter, and email updates directly into the walls of your 3D display. Who needs RSS when you have dynamic picture frames?

Unfortunate

Widgets: It's not that BumpTop doesn't support third-party widgets. Rather, there's no direct online community--accessible through Bumptop itself--for building more functionality into your 3D display. You can always hunt around on the Internet to find more widgets and themes... but why should you?

Lasso Selection: I get how to select files and icons on the main display. However, to use the integrated Lasso tool to select elements on your desktop's vertical walls, you... well. You can't do anything--lasso only works with elements on your flat, traditional desktop within BumpTop.

Not Really 3D: I get it. BumpTop creates 3D walls for you to pin various desktop elements on. But it's not as if the program is making Doom-style sprites to simulate the illusion of depth. No matter how much you shift the camera around, the icons on the "desktop" portion of your Bumptop Cube will always appear as flat as Stanley--not a very convincing 3D experience.

Pesky Integration: BumpTop does its best to switch over to Windows Explorer for elements it just can't handle--like dealing with a large number of files in a List view-type format. That said, not only do typical Windows shortcuts (Windows key+e) not work in Bumptop, but it just feels a little silly to be constantly switching between Windows Explorer for some uses and BumpTop for others. That's not much of a desktop replacement , as it were--why can't BumpTop just slap some three-dimensional effects on a giant list view?

Next up, we'll look at LightStep, which lets you customize every part of your Windows UI.

LiteStep

Now we're getting to the big guns. LiteStep is a complete replacement for the standard Windows Shell--otherwise known as Windows' default GUI for everything you do on the software, period. If BumpTop was just an addon overtop your existing desktop, you can think of LiteStep as a new renter--you might still own the house and the core functionality that goes underneath the application, but your desktop is going to look nothing like its previous incarnation once you're done installing LiteStep. Your start menu is going to be completely different; your taskbar is going to be completely different (or eliminated). Every bit of the core experience has the potential to be changed with this application.

Before you begin, you're going to want to make sure that you have both Internet Explorer 4 or greater installed on your machine as well as the DLL files for both Visual C++ 8 (2005) and Visual C++ 9 (2008). Don't worry if you have no idea what any of this means--LiteStep's installer application, or LOSI, will scan your system for these requirements and direct you to the proper download location if you're missing an element or two.

A user-created theme

Awesome

Massive Configurability: Go at your own pace. Want a desktop that's packed with add-ons and extra information elements?  You can integrate new features by downloading a wide assortment of open-source modules that extend new capacities into your shell replacement.

Complete Reawakening: LiteStep gives you the ability to radically change the desktop experience into whatever you want. Remove all click-context actions and rely on moving icons to access your system's vital functions, or build even more characteristics into middle-click and right-click menus. It's but one example in the haystack of LiteStep's configurable options. You can turn your desktop from a shortcut-ridden wasteland into an actual launching pad, should you so choose.

Automated Support: LiteStep is based on themes, which themselves are packages of modules and wallpapers that transform LiteStep's core in significant ways. Installing a new theme is as easy as downloading the .zip file and dumping it in LiteStep's themes directory. The program will automatically grab any specific modules you're missing from the Interwebs.

It's Still Windows: LiteStep doesn't fundamentally change the underlying architecture of your machine. Play all the games you used to play and launch programs that run just as smoothly as they did before: LiteStep is a shell replacement, not a full-fledged Windows takeover.

Unfortunate

What the Heck: I'm not going to lie. You're going to be completely shell-shocked the first time you step into the LiteStep interface. The learning curve isn't great, but there's still going to be a bit of "what the heck is wrong with my desktop" built into any new theme you download. Some themes might not even contain the common Windows interactions you're used to having (like the highlighting of icons you click on.)

Windows 7? Good luck. I couldn't get LiteStep's most recent, full client to work on Windows 7 without the operating system and shell extension battling it out for supremacy. Battling, that is, until the latter crashed. And that's after I realized I had to run everything in Administrator mode, too.

A Downloader's Market: Editing the configurations of LiteStep isn't a GUI affair-you have to hack your way through a sea of text files and a smorgasbord of code in order to achieve any kind of tweaks to whatever it is you've installed. Creating your own custom interface takes work!

Instability: LiteStep is far more crash-prone than your standard Windows interface. I'm not saying this application is nuclear. But be prepared for some system restarts if you're switching between themes to find ones you like most, for example. As well, there's no vetting for themes and modules in this open-source modification: If something is coded incorrectly, you won't realize it until you try and switch over to the theme for the first time.

Finally, we'll look at Rainmeter, which lets you rebuild your desktop with custom widgets.

Rainmeter

Unlike LiteStep, which seeks to complete replace the very core of your user interface in Windows, Rainmeter is more analogous to a layer in PhotoShop. Your primary Windows desktop elements run at the very bottom of the stack--you don't lose common interface options like your start button, your taskbar, nor the layout or functionality of the icons gracing your desktop itself, amongst others. Like a bundled series of widgets, Rainmeter sits on top of your normal desktop and spruces the place up with transparent widgets that provide additional access or features you can't otherwise build into a standard Windows desktop.

Don't like what you see?  Turn off skins or themed skin packages at will. And you're always within a few clicks of disabling Rainmeter entirely if the extra tweaks and enhancements just aren't what you need at the moment. You won't have to restart your computer, nor will you suffer any performance or rendering problems in restarting Rainmeter at will.

Awesome

Simplicity: For the most part, Rainmeter is extraordinarily easy to set up and install. You don't have to futz around with shell replacements or the reloading of your default Windows GUI. Turn the program on, watch your widgets appear, and relax.

GUI-based configuration: Sort-of.  You can edit the basic properties of an item using one of two screens-a skin configuration element that's a part of the right-click context menu, or via the skin browser's configuration menu itself.  You don't get to muck around with the inner workings of a skin (like changing the location for the weather display), but you can position and toggle mouse-based interactivity as you see fit. And you can always click-and-drag on the skin itself to move it around your desktop!

One Big Puzzle: Want to mix and match elements from multiple suites of skins?  Go right ahead. You can call up new skins via the desktop, or use Rainmeter's handy skins browser to add and disable skins (as well as configure their options)

Excellent Support: If you're confused about how to actually use Rainmeter, you'll greatly benefit from the developers' comprehensive support tutorials. They walk you line by line through Rainmeter's basics--screenshots included--and even dip into more advanced functionality like, gasp, how to build your own skins through text-based configuration files!

Unfortunate

Lack of Centralization: Like other programs, there really isn't a single centralized repository ( a la Mozilla's Firefox Add-ons database) where you can browse through themes, plugins, et cetera. Word-of-mouth for awesome new hacks to the platform is one way to go about finding new uses for Rainmeter, but it certainly isn't the best way.

Lowest Common Denominator: If you're new to rainmeter, and want to edit a skin, you'll probably try to click on the "edit settings" option after you've right-clicked on the skin in question. Right?  Wrong--that's the text-based editing tool. Although it's correct and, ideally, the best way to perfectly tweak exactly what you want a skin to do... Rainmeter could stand to incorporate a "basic" and "advanced" mode for those who want to change display options only versus those who want to reinvent the wheel.

Snappy Installation: Instead of having to physically copy new themes and skins into Rainmeter's proper directory, it would be nice to have a simple file extension that automatically does the heavy lifting for you. At least you can delete themes via the theme browser, eh?

Moar GUI, please: When you have to wade through a complicated text file just to change the location that a skin displays the weather for, something's wrong. Give developers more customizable, configurable GUIs for editing options!

So which desktop replacement tool is best for you?  Honestly, I'd put my vote on Rainmeter. LiteStep is powerful, but problematic--hours of fiddling with options, themes, and configurations made me long for the simplicity (and boringness) of the simple Windows desktop. BumpTop is unique, but I can't see it being very useful for a user that requires a desktop that's fun and functional. Rainmeter delivers great customizations with a touch of complexity: Still, it's a lot more navigable than you'd expect, and it's crash-resistant overlay does much to spruce up a boring ol' desktop display.

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.

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