ADD-ONS

Replacing Explorer a step too far for you? Don't worry. You can achieve even more spectacular effects simply by installing the right add-on. The Windows desktop doesn't always seem to have quite enough room to hold all the programs that you want to run, but this is easy to change.

Download, unzip and run Deskspace to get a cube-style virtual desktop. Holding down [CTRL]+left[Shift] and dragging the mouse will rotate the cube, giving you four desktops to play with. Try competitors like 360desktop or DeskHedron (Windows 2000 and XP only) to see which one works best for you.

3D desktops look great, but they do consume more RAM. If that's a problem for you, we recommend a virtual desktop manager such as Dexpot or VirtuaWin. These apps manage four or more desktops, and you can switch between them by clicking on a grid, so no resource-sapping 3D effects are required.

If you're happy with your current desktop but just wish that switching applications was easier, install WinFlip. You'll get a 3D graphical ALT + Tab alternative that lets you cycle through the windows of your open apps.

WinFlip is a souped-up version of Windows Vista's Flip3D. It also works on Windows XP. DExposE2 is even easier to use. If you're running 10 programs and want to switch to another, press [F9] and tiled thumbnails of each window will be displayed on your desktop. Just click one and you'll switch to that application.

Add DreamRender or Microsoft's Video Screensaver for an easy way to give your PC a spectacular new look.

Launching software

A revamped desktop is important, but it won't necessarily provide an efficient way to launch your applications. So if the Start menu and Quick Launch toolbar don't work for you, now would be a very good time to look for alternatives elsewhere.

Vista Start Menu takes the regular Windows Start menu and adds many useful extras. It's resizable, includes tabs, provides one-key access to your shut-down options and includes PC and Internet search bars, a command line and more. And don't be fooled by the name; it works happily on XP as well as Vista.

If you're happy to move further away from the standard Start menu format, give Open Menu+ a try. It's much more compact (no endless cascading menus here), but built-in search and a handy Favourites menu mean that you're always able to quickly find what you need.

Of course, you can avoid menus altogether if you want to by using an application like RocketDock. This provides a Mac OS X-style dock that can hold shortcuts or minimised application windows. It's like a combination of the task bar and Quick Launch toolbar, only far more powerful and configurable.

Circle Dock takes this idea a step further by arranging your shortcuts in circular patterns instead. We're not sure if this makes the program any easier to use, but there's no doubt it makes for a gorgeous-looking desktop.

File management

Explorer can often be a pain to use. Luckily, many others feel the same way, so there are plenty of alternatives available. It's possible to simply patch Explorer with QTTabBar, a tool that provides tabs for easy switching between commonly used folders.

Alternatively, install QTAddressBar, which delivers the Vista breadcrumb address bar to Windows XP. (If you're not familiar with Vista, this feature lets you click on any folder within a path to jump right to it. Clicking the 'down' arrow lets you browse to any folder within it.)

If these tweaks don't solve your issues with Explorer, just ditch the program altogether and use another file manager instead. Free Commander comes with a tabbed dual-pane interface, time-saving file-selection tools, a powerful integrated file viewer, built-in FTP client and more, making it a great Explorer replacement.

Xplorer2 Lite, UltraExplorer and NexusFile are also worth a look. Windows should now have a very different look and feel to when you began tweaking it, but if you're still not happy then there are many other tools that you can use to further change how you use your PC.

GMote allows you to avoid lengthy keyboard-or mouse based sequences by using mouse gestures, special movements that can perform whatever task you assign them to. Vista's troublesome UAC feature can be replaced by Smart UAC or the Norton UAC tool for less-intrusive computing.

Ditto gets around the annoyingly limited Windows clipboard by maintaining a history of everything you copy there and letting you post whatever item you need, regardless of when you originally copied it.

The very useful WinRoll frees up valuable desktop space by letting you roll up windows to their title bars or minimise them to the system tray. And the list goes on. Windows has many problems, but there's almost always a solution available: you just need to look for it.

PRESERVE IT

The problem with building a non-standard version of Windows is that, well, it's non-standard. If you run into PC problems later and decide to reinstall Windows then many of your low-level configuration changes will be lost, forcing you to start the tweaking process all over again.

Unless, that is, you take a few precautions. Make a backup image The simplest way to save your setup is to create a full backup image of your hard drive. DriveImage XML will do the job quickly and at no cost for home users.

You don't have a spare hard drive to hold the backup? It might be worth buying one: a 320GB model will probably hold 500GB of data thanks to compression, and prices start at under £30. Alternatively, try a clean reinstall of your system, with just Windows, your configuration tweaks and whatever shells, file managers and Windows add-ons you might need. This will probably consume little more than 15GB of hard drive space, even if you're using the Windows Vista Ultimate Edition and are generous with your add-ons.

With compression, DriveImage XML is likely to squeeze your entire setup onto a couple of DVDs, keeping any backup hassles to a minimum. If you don't want to create a backup then the next best option is to build a custom Windows installation disc. This can't embed alternative shells or Explorer add-ons into your setup, but it does offer many other shortcuts.

The Tweaks panel, for example, lets you change many default settings for your Windows services, Explorer, Internet Explorer and more. You can also embed Microsoft hotfixes, drivers and even a few applications onto the installation disc. It's not as good as a full backup, but it's quicker to create and will still save time if you do need to install Windows again.

Going further If you want to change a feature that appears uncustomisable, spend 10 minutes browsing sites like LifeHacker, MakeUseOf or Freeware Genius. You'll almost certainly find a way to make Windows behave as you'd like.

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You might also like 10 really useful free Windows system tools

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