Your Windows computer finally has enough horsepower to run pretty, interactive wallpaper. It’s time to revisit desktop enhancements. Here’s a few to tickle the fancy of any Windows user.
In the early to mid-2000s, desktop replacements, gadgets, live-wallpapers and all sorts of gizmos were all the rage. These little tools for the boring old Windows 2000, 9x or Windows XP screen were designed to make the Windows UI more functional and, well, just prettier to look at. Even Microsoft experimented with a major overhaul of its UI and the way information was displayed with Windows Longhorn in 2003 and 2004.
All of that got scrapped and reduced to simple desktop gadgets (that are now completely removed from Windows 8).
Back in those days, Windows enthusiasts were divided into two camps. We either turned off all eye-candy and went with the standard NT-look, or we sprinkled an endless amount of gadgets and shell enhancements onto our computers.
Unfortunately for all users who fall into the second category, both Microsoft and the user base seem to have moved away from this: The default Windows 8 desktop couldn’t be emptier and the focus of today’s software (both OS and third party) is more on the content than on the software itself. Also, the advent of apps and mobile platforms probably added to the dwindling popularity of such desktop enhancers.
Plus, there was another reason to get rid of all these sweet additions: These tools were a massive performance hog on my AMD Athlon 1333 or Pentium IV system; when you’ve got one core or 512 MB of RAM, you usually think twice about installing these tools.
Fast-forward 10 years: Even low-budget tablets or laptops sport a dual-core architecture and enough RAM to handle these background tools effortlessly (if you don’t overdo it, of course!).
In this article I show you how to enhance the Windows desktop drastically and make it work more productive for you:
- Reduce the amount of clicks to achieve daily tasks
- Have more information at your fingertips
- Have more fun using your PC, laptop or Windows tablet because it just looks nicer.
Much to my surprise, a lot of the once-popular desktop replacements and enhancers are alive and kicking, and they offer more functionality than any of your smartphones.
Here’s my top six list of desktop tools that either add subtle additions to your Windows system or replace the UI noticeably.
#1: Stardock Fences and ObjectDock
Stardock has a long-standing reputation in the tools business, and rightfully so: Their portfolio enhances both the look and the productivity of your day-to-day work in a positive way. First, there’s Fences, which helps you organize icons and files in transparent rectangles on your desktop:
Each “fence” can fit as many icons as you like without cluttering up your desktop. My “Files & Documents” fence, for example, holds more than 25 documents that were previously scattered all over my desktop. I can now scroll through the fence and quickly get what I want. It’s also a great way to create application categories such as “Development Tools” or “Multimedia” to easier find the stuff you’re looking for.
Another excellent tool in Stardock’s portfolio, ModernMix, is a fantastic addition to any Windows 8 developer’s or enthusiast’s desktop: ModernMix allows you to display all Windows 8 apps in a window and scale them to the size you want. For example, you could dock the Weather or Stock app in a little corner on your desktop instead of having it take over your screen.
Both ModernMix and Fences are available as trial versions but they’re worth their $4.99 and $9.99 cost, respectively.
A discussion about shell enhancements can’t be had without getting the big one out of the way: Rainmeter (try the Beta 3.0, it’s stable enough for day-to-day use). It is probably the resource-friendliest, cleanest, and most customizable Windows shell replacement.
You’ll be a bit disappointed at first, as it just adds a bare clock, resource, and disk gadget to your desktop:
Right-clicking on the gadget gives you access to a couple of more widgets. But what makes this really powerful is the incredible number of high-quality third-party skins and gadgets that you find here and also here. Rainmeter is extremely versatile as it lets you go from having just a few gadgets (e.g. RSS readers, CPU meter)….
… to making your desktop look very neat and clean with all social information and feeds…
…to the Star Trek LCARS menu system:
Rainmeter is more than eye candy, however. You can basically add all the information you’d ever want to look at, and – if properly configured and with the right gadgets picked – make you work faster.
#3: Emerge Desktop
Open-source project Emerge Desktop has been around at least as long as Rainmeter and sports at least as many beautiful styles and widgets. However, its integration with Windows goes a lot deeper:
While Rainmeter sits on top of your Windows shell, Emerge Desktop completely replaces “Explorer.exe” as your main shell.
This sounds far more dangerous than it actually is, as Emerge Desktop basically makes Windows load its shell instead of Explorer without actually harming your system. Also, the process is easily reversible. Each module and gadget can be enabled and disabled. Go out and let the themes inspire you (check out the theme in the screenshot above).
#4: DMEX: Boost up that Context Menu
Now from all those full-desktop replacements to something more subtle: DMEX drastically enhances the capabilities of Windows Explorer and especially the context menu.
DMEX sits in your context menu and offers frequently-used OS tasks. Here’s some examples of what you can do:
- Align windows in different positions and save/restore windows arrangement.
- Create new folders, subfolders, or wiping directories with just a click.
- Manage several clipboards to paste things easier and faster.
While I don’t think that every user needs all parts of this new context menu, the window management alone makes it worth the free download.
#5: UltraUXThemePatcher: For a bit more eye-candy
One thing that I still hate about Windows 8 is the flat, 2D-esque look of the user interface. Since I spend 8-12 hours a day staring at my screen, I want to feel more comfortable while using it. Unfortunately, by default, Windows doesn’t really allow you to change the look and feel of its visual style except for changing the colors in Control Panels.
Good news: UltraUXThemePatcher allows you to install third-party visual styles that you can find here. Just download the themes, put them in the C:\Windows\Resources\Themes directory, and double-click the theme file.
Note that this does not add any extra functionality. It does, however, completely repaint all the visual elements in Windows (such as windows, buttons, and taskbar).
#6: Gadgets for Windows 8
In Windows 8, Microsoft decided to remove the rather popular gadget infrastructure that was introduced in Windows Vista/7 in favor of the new Metro app platform.
Miss the good old gadget? Good news: 8GadgetPack brings back all these gadgets so you can still dock tools and feeds, such as Weather, Radio, Reminders, Slideshows, Volume Controls and Unit Converters to your Windows 8 desktop. It even brings back the Sidebar.
Got any more desktop eye-candy replacements and gadgets you can’t live without? Let us know in the comments.