You look at your desktop all day, every day. So you might as well make it something that's inviting and comfortable, reflects your interests and passions, or earns the undying respect from your peers. There is a wealth of resources available for tailoring the look of your desktop-and I mean going way beyond simple Windows themes. For both Linux and MS Windows operating systems there are advantages to choosing an alternative desktop-some of them are more stable and feature-rich than the default, or faster and less resource taxing. Mostly though, alternative desktops allow you to use your computer the way you want to use it. And the sexier it looks, the better.
The wonders of Windows
For some time now Windows has supported the ability to run an alternate "shell" over its default Explorer, which provides the desktop you're familiar with. In fact, technically, Windows 98 and its predecessors were in many ways just a shell for DOS. Aside from functionality and aesthetic sexiness there are other advantages to running a replacement shell: some of the shells covered here, such as Litestep and Geoshell, are faster than Explorer and use less resources as well. Let's take a look at some of the shells you can explore to create sleek, sexy and feature-rich Windows desktops.
A quick search of Google will reveal a plethora of shells for Windows. Some of the more popular choices include:
The Granddaddy of replacement shells, Litestep was first written to give Windows the look and feel of the Afterstep desktop from Linux. It's not surprising then, that it is also released under the GPL. Today it is the longest running replacement shell for Windows and is flexible enough to not just be themed, but also sometimes mimic the operation of just about any desktop you can imagine. There are themes available for many of the Linux desktops; including Enlightenment, Blackbox and KDE!!! However the homepage at litestep.com(site is currently under re-design) provides a selection of more innovative themes that push the boundaries of desktop design.
SharpE is a beautiful and well integrated shell replacement that includes a number of modules to perform the same tasks as Explorer, including the Taskbar, Start menu, and Tray. As with Litestep it also adds features such as virtual desktops, plugins, and schemes. Some of the plugins include Winamp control, CPU and memory meters, and weather report. There's plenty of configurability with SharpE and its available free to download.
Geoshell is very much like SharpE with respect to its functionality and features, with plugins available for just about every function you care to integrate into your desktop. However, Geoshell goes for the minimalist approach, and gives you more screen real estate without sacrificing functionality or looks. Various Geoshell modules can be placed around the screen and can be set to appear opaque when full screen applications are in use. The source code to Geoshell is also released under the GPL.
The Aston shell, like the other shells listed here, has the capability to produce some very impressive themes. Its exstensible design focuses on flexible sliding toolbars to launch programs and like most replacement shells, provides the usual Start bar and Taskbar equivalents. Definitely one of the more impressive shells out there. The Aston shell+Alt Desktop costs US$35.00 to register.
Talisman is one of the more interesting replacement shells in that it allows you to script objects of any size and type to perform actions. This means you can use Talisman to create entirely new interfaces that work quite differently from your Start bar variety. For example, you could create an interface for a home theatre PC that provides a simple non-geeky view with large visual objects to control basic functions. Talisman provides a 30 day trial and costs US$25.00 to register
WindowBlinds also skins virtually every aspect of the Windows GUI that one can imagine. And in fact, the enhanced visual styles used by WindowBlinds can skin things previously not thought to be skinnable such as logon/logoff dialogs, the "please wait" dialog, backgrounds in the Control Panel and other special folders, and more.WindowBlinds works by extending the drawing APIs of Windows to support additional features. These features are designed to provide new functionality, improve performance, and be seamless. WindowBlinds does not hack any system DLLs, it doesn't replace any system files. It follows the Windows programming guidelines which is why Microsoft awarded it its designed for Windows XP logo certification. This is the shell replacement I use personally, Style XP is very similar so I won't discuss it. Window Blinds is available as a free download, but nags you to register. The registered version costs US$19.95, or alternatively you can buy Object Desktop for US$49.95
Its almost a prerequisite for Linux that software comes in a variety of flavours and configurations. So its not surprising that the underlying desktop that runs all your applications also comes in many varied options. There are desktops available for Linux that cater to just about every taste, from lightweight, fast and simplistic desktops through to full-featured, aesthetically sexy, beefy behemoths. More so than with Windows the varied selections under Linux can have a big impact on the way that it looks and operates. Taskbars and Start menu's like KDE and Gnome use are not the standard.
WindowMaker is a mature, light, desktop with a plethora of plugins (called 'dock applications') covering everything from flaming CPU meters through to miniature TV-out!!! While the desktop itself is clean and easy to use, the dock applications lend it its popularity. As a result many other Linux desktops support the ability to load and use WindowMaker dock apps. See www.bensinclair.com/dockapp
for some 200 applications.
Blackbox is a very light, sleek and easy to use windw manager that forgoes unnecessary features in return for speed and simplicity. Blackbox is ideal for low-memory machines or those that appreciate a fst, simple desktop.
Waimea and Fluxbox
Waimea and Fluxbox are relatively new and aim to be efficient solutions for Linux. Combining highly configurable style engines with a lean, clean menu system, its clear they both have a lot of potential. Waimea supports KDE and Gnome applications.
Enlightenment provides immense flexibility for theme makers and adds a host of nifty special effects for your desktop from animated rippling water through to being able to drag one desktop over another as if they were pages in a book. Enlightenment is all style.
Gnome and KDE
Gnome is not as fully featured as KDE, but what it lacks in functionality it makes up for in style. Gnome imho is the core to the future of Linux on the desktop. While Gnome got there first in trying to standardise the Linux desktop, KDE has rapidly risen to be the premiere desktop solution. KDE is finally able to compete with Gnome now in the sexiness stakes, while providing an excellent and consistant interface.
(Originally posted by PV, but due to server issues, was deleted)