Are you tired of the cluttered Windows Start menu, the inflexible task bar, folders that 'forget' their view settings and Windows requiring more and more RAM and system resources to manage the desktop for you? There's a simple answer. Replace Explorer with a new shell and give your PC a new, improved look and feel. Here's what you need to know.
1. A simple alternative
If you like an uncluttered interface, try Emerge Desktop. Install it as the default shell and you'll have no taskbar, Start button or menu: nothing but a single box at the top of the screen to hold your system tray icons. So how do you launch programs, then? Right-click the desktop for quick access to the old Start menu and Quick Launch toolbar. It's easy to add new items to the menu, or create hotkeys to launch the tools that you need.
2. Add more features
This extreme simplicity means that Emerge Desktop is very light on resources, using from around 46MB of RAM. This makes it an ideal choice for underpowered systems. If you need docks, menus, taskbars, file managers and so on, just install whatever third-party products you need. This isn't always straightforward, but the busy Emerge Desktop forums are packed with people ready to help you out. The results of doing so can be amazing, as this example (Windows, not Linux) desktop reveals.
3. Find free themes
Emerge Desktop offers you complete creative freedom, then, but it can take a long time to get everything set up just the way you like it. That's bad news if you prefer an easy life. Litestep takes a different approach. The shell can be configured with many more optional modules, and users can then save the results as themes. Examples like this Mac-style layout are freely available here, and can be installed in a few mouse clicks.
4. Shell troubleshooting
Some Litestep themes are trickier to install than others. This one requires that you install the fonts, mouse cursors and wallpaper separately, so there's a little set-up work to do before your PC will look like this. If you're having problems with a particular theme, try browsing its folders for a ReadMe file or other documentation that might contain the solution to your problem. Check the download site for instructions, or if there's a contact email, try politely asking the theme creator for some advice on how to solve your problem.
5. Commercial apps
If you want maximum features for minimum effort, it's worth trying Aston. This is a shareware program (prices start from around £21), but it's easy to use and it's packed with features. You get flyout menus at the side of your desktop, for instance, while a menu at the top of the screen gives quick access to commonly used applications. A hotkey manager helps you find other convenient ways to launch programs, and alpha-blended animated icons add some attractive eye candy.
Aston can be extended with free plug-ins to control applications like WinAmp or display clocks, calendars or weather forecasts. They're like Windows Vista gadgets, but they work on even Windows 98 PCs. Just about every aspect of the Aston desktop can be tweaked in many different ways, but if that sounds too much like hard work, Aston have made more than 500 preconfigured themes available at their site. You're sure to find something that you like.