If you’re reading this, you’re probably either brand new to the world of Windows shells, or simply want to find out more about changing the Windows operating environment to match something more suited to your needs.
The first question you need to ask yourself before undertaking the task of applying an alternative desktop environment to your current Windows installation is whether or not this is really something you want to do. After all, part or all of your experience on Windows takes place within a graphic user interface (GUI) that has thrived through familiarity and benefited from countless dollars of usability research on the part of Microsoft. Changing this experience through installing an alternative Windows shell over the existing GUI will change a large amount of your experience.
This article isn’t intended as a how-to (that will come soon enough), but as a general guide of the benefits and drawbacks an alternative Windows shell provides.
The graphic user interface (GUI) that comes installed with Microsoft Windows is what it is: a robust operating environment with very little customization and a sizable resource overhead. Windows Vista is a prime example of how the default Windows GUI can drain system resources while your computer does little more than display a clock and perhaps a handful of icons.
Many — if not most — shell replacements offer a trimmed interface that frees up valuable resources that would otherwise be hogged by a bloated transparency process. Many of these shells come from the open source world, namely from the same people who create similar desktop environments for Linux. Many Linux distributions boast a remarkably frugal idle resource requirement without sacrificing the gloss and shine that commercial operating systems are known for.
Imagine what your optimal desktop environment would look like given your current monitor and general needs. Chances are, there is a Windows shell replacement out there that comes pretty close to what you might imagine this looking like.
Perhaps you want four virtual desktops that can easily be switched between, or two task bars with one on the top and another on the bottom of your screen? There may even be a particular Linux distribution that you like the look and feel of, but wish you had the program compatibility of Windows. This is the very purpose of shell replacements: to make your experience as suited to your personal needs as possible.
If you want your Windows machine to look and act like a Mac, you can make it happen through one of several themes that turn your task bar into a dock and almost everything else into a complete duplicate of OS X.
Most Are Free
The open source community is an incredible force behind the creation of alternative desktop environments. In fact, the majority of the shells you’ll find are made available in an open source capacity, free for anyone to try and enjoy without any investment required.
Operating on Windows XP, Vista, and even Windows 7, these free environments range from simple and barebones to extremely complex.
Some notable free Windows shell replacement solutions for Windows 7 include:
There are also plenty of options out there to turn your Windows desktop into something that looks and feels as though you were running OS X. If all you really want to experience is the look and feel of OS X without losing program compatibility or spend the extra money for a Mac, you may find what you’re looking for in a shell replacement.
Easily Installable, Easily Removed
Perhaps one of the biggest sources of hesitation among first-time shell replacement and advanced theme users is based around the assumption that if something changes the way Windows looks or functions, it will probably break the operating system or require a full system restore to fix.
While it is technically possible for any piece of software to corrupt a Windows installation, the folks behind most (if not all) of the alternative desktop environment projects out there make their themes to be easily added and removed. During the time I wrote this article, no less than two completely different desktop environments were loaded (and safely removed) on my Windows 7 machine using tools built in to the theme management software.
One method theme creators use to make installation and uninstallation easier on the user is by going through a tool pack such as CustoPack Tools. These programs will manage and provide customization options for each theme, making minor adjustments and toggling various features a matter of a few mouse clicks with no programming or design experience required.
While writing this post, I tried out the Mac OS X Lion Inspirat theme made available through CustoPack. This theme was fairly easy to install, with plenty of room for customization. All I needed to do was download the theme after installing CustoPack tools, run it, and reset the machine after setting a couple preferences. Removing the theme after testing was even easier, with just two mouseclicks between one desktop environment and the default Windows 7 theme.
Technology is there to enjoy. Why should you suffer through a mediocre experience when you can customize it in a way that fits your personal tastes and needs? Exploring third-party (and built-in) tools to help create an environment that allows you to maximize productivity is part of a greater experience technology can provide, and one of the main reasons that I enjoy doing what I do.
If in doubt, use the tools that sites such as SourceForge make available and read the reviews other users have left regarding a particular shell prior to trying it out. Back up any important data and/or programs prior to installing anything, which is good advice no matter what type of software you’re adding to the existing operating system.
Who knows? You might find the perfect working environment out there without having to change your operating system or replace any existing software at all.