I’ve been asked in the past few days to try and explain this whole “desktop customization” thing. I’ve tried to find a reason for it, a reason why I enjoy it so much, but I can’t. All I know is that it’s easy once you get the basics down and that there are so many basics to get down that the web litteraly contains thousands of pages devoted to mundane things like changing and icon. Group those with sites about background wallpaper, helpful widgets and windows themes and you have yourself a community. A friggin’ huge one. Sites have been created to round up folks like me and provide a sort of group theropy by letting us show off all our cool ass desktops in monthly threads about desktops themselves.

It’s an odd hobby I admit, but believe it or not it’s one that I enjoy. I suppose I enjoy the challenge of hacking Windows to bits and redoing everything that could possibly be customized. That, and on the rare occasion that someone sees my computer, I love to get those “what operating system is that” or “how are you doing that” comments. They hit the floor when I tell them that pathetic old Windows is running and OSX-esque dock bar, interactive icon labels, a media player strait out of a scifi movie and that half my desktop moves, blinks, jiggles or is interactive in a dozen other ways.

Anyway, I figured I’d write up a little guide to help explain all this and break down the past of customization into easy to handle chunks. So, press on dear reader, click that read more button…



In the beginning there was wallpaper, and it was good. As far as I can figure out, this and Window Blinds (back in the ’98 days) is how this all started. WindowsBlinds, which still exists in an updated XP form, was able to hack the windows explorer files and replace things like windows colors, boarders and toolbars with 3rd party, user created graphics. That was fine for Windows 98 and people used that in combination with really cool wallpaper for years. Then along came XP with it’s built in theme engine. The default Windows themes sucked and people wanted to change things up a bit. In addition, Windows users caught their first glimpse of Apple’s new operating system, OSX, with it’s sleek new look over OS9, glossy buttons and well rounded edges. From there it skyrocketed. People realized exactly what could be done with a desktop and set out to make Windows (and Mac) systems do everything humanly imaginable.

Basically it breaks down into 5 categories: OS Themes, Application Skins, Wallpaper, Icons and Widgets. I’ll go through each category, explain the basics, what programs work best and where you can start to find some of this stuff. It takes quite a while to get a “perfect” desktop and when you finally do, the urge to do it all over again is somewhat compelling. What I mean by perfect may be different from your definition. What I see as a perfect desktop is one in which all the elements work together in some sort of themed way, looks damn good AND is 100% useable. Some people throw usable out the window and simply want “cool”. Others don’t care about their themes matching their wallpapers and cobble together a collection of the most mismatched (but cool) stuff they can find. To each their own.

Part One – OS Themes:
The real meat in customization lies in the operating system itself. Its there that you’re spending most of you time. Unfortunately for most, myself included, creating a theme for yourself from scratch is about as easily as taking a weekend stroll to the arctic circle to visit the penguins. We are instead left at the mercy of the very talented “skinners” of the world. These folks put together simply amazing themes for nothing but recognition and a willingness to share. I’ll actually start by mentioning OSX and it’s themeing as quite a few of the most amazing windows themes are in fact ports of Mac themes. The mother of all Mac themeing innovation can be traced to one program, ShapeShifter. It’s the equivalent to the holy grail of customizing for Mac users. Windows users actually have several options to change their themes which I will get to shorty, but for Mac users, theres only one.

Shape Shifter – LINK

There are also quite a lot of themes for SS and OSX. A good place to start for Mac users would be MacThemes.net. They have a collection of about 40 of the top themes there at the site and would be a great start to any customizers collection. Also, and this goes for any other site I mention today, check out their forums. There are a few news items worth note on their front page, some interesting new releases and such, but the real meat is in the forums. I actually browse them a bit in my Monday ritual of searching for new and interesting wallpaper. Before we get back on track with our windows themes, here are a few more sites for the Mac theme junkie to check out when they’re done with MacThemes. XiAP, DigitalRamen, MaxThemes, COTL, SwizCore, and XThemes are all places to check out.

Back to Windows. For Windows users we (believe it or not) have more freedom in our themeing. Despite MacOSX being a little more polished looking than XP, we by far have the most options when wanted to customize. The two best ways to theme Windows are the following: Getting a copy of StyleXP from TGTSoft or by manually patching and Windows DLL file called uxtheme.dll, which require doing a few restart/safemode/restart tricks. It’s actually not as hard as it sounds, and the upshot is that it’s free. StyleXP will run you $20. I found it to be well worth it so I ponyed up the cash. If you would like to give the uxtheme route a try, just google the phrase “uxtheme patcher” and you should get a few thousand links to help you out. Now, I’m going to assume at this point that anyone I’m writing this to has the basic understanding of how to install a program and can probably figure out how to use it. It’s also always important to read Readme.txt files. Some themes require and extra step or two and those are usually outlined in the aforementioned files. Strap in cause here we go…

TGTSoft StyleXP – LINK

After you install StyleXP or you patch your uxtheme file, the rest of this is pretty much standardized. You download a theme from any of the million places I’m about to mention, unzip it and place the necessary pieces into a little known folder located at c:\windows\resources\themes . I say C: because that’s what it’ll be for 99% of you. The rest of you probably know full well where your windows folder is located if you have it someplace else.

Now, what will a theme do? Well, it will replace the taskbar, start menu, windows and window edges, colors and buttons associated with your windows explorer system. Take a look at what I mean. Scroll to the right. See how all the buttons are different shapes, colors, etc. That’s what we’re talking about here.

There are millions of places to get themes. I’m only going to mention a few. Both to save time and save you from downloading crappy themes.

DeviantArt – The biggest host of downloadable files I know of. Some 3 million+ files though not all of them theme related. Follow the browse links. (Browse – select “visual styles” as you category, set your search parameters, click Go). We’ll be coming back to DA for a few things later on. You might as well just bookmark it now. For those lazy browsers out there who want to get right to the meat, here’s a link directly to the Visual Styles section. I would suggest for your first time, setting your search method to thumbnail and “most downloaded first”.

GfxOasis – DevArt can get big and loud and really hard to navigate, so thankfully there are places like Gfx where people can go and get right to what they need. Recent submissions listed on the front page as news items, as always, check the forums under the appropriate categories.

AquaSoft – like Gfx only more devoted to getting that perfect Mac looking desktop. Mac and Windows users mingle and share programs, wallpapers and themes. This a 99% forum based. You’ll need to surf the “release” threads in the appropriate categories to find themes. Also, if you want to check out how cool everyone else’s desktop is, the desktop of the month thread is where it’s at. Link.

There are a few others I browse, more to look for files than read news or anything. They’re resources nonetheless. Customize.Org, WinCustomize and ThemeXP. There are hundreds more, but they’re a waste of your time.

There are however, quite a few very talented artists that server to have their work mentioned by name. Kol is at the top of that list. The michelangelo of skinning. Check out his site here. Stefanka, hills-roppongi, Bant, B0se, Megumi-Page and Playboy are also ones to watch.

Part Two – Wallpaper

Is there really any need to explain what wallpaper is? I didn’t think so. So, what you’re basically wanting are places to find some. Well, the internet would be a good place to start. I think if you put “wallpaper” or “desktop” into Google, you’d probably get more links than you could manage. This is the part where you really just have to search out what you like personally. If you like great photography, search for that. If you like comic books, search for that. I could go on and on. There are a few places I go regularly to look for new wallpaper. I’ve already mentioned a few.

DeviantArt, Customize.Org, AquaSoft and GfxOasis are obvious choices. Those are links to the correct sections btw. Select the subcategories of your own choosing. Also, make sure you check out PixelGirl Presents and Gamewallpaper.com.

With brevity in mind, I’m sure you can probably dig up a few wallpapers on your own. If you’re having trouble finding that “perfect” wallpaper, check out that Aqua-Soft desktop of the month thread I mentioned earlier (link). It’s sure to inspire.

Part Three – Icons:

Everyone always forgets icons. They have beautiful desktops with the default system icons sitting on top of them. That’s just not right. For you Mac users, you’ve got a few options. Over at the Icon Factory, they’ve come up with CandyBar, which is tasty little app to change all you icons in the idea of “themes” or whole sets at a time. The Icon Factory is also a great icon resource for both Mac and PC users. For PC users there are (again) tons of options to change your icons. Right clicking an existing icon (except drives and certain “special icons”) such as a folder will let you change it’s icon (last tab) but for those of us who want something a little more in depth, I recommend IconPackager. Its from StarDock and is probably the easiest way to change icons on that whole. You’ll also notice its the only StarDock program I’ve mentioned thus far. That’s because I don’t like the way WindowBlinds works in XP and I don’t recommend it. If you want to give it a shot, thats your call, it’s just not something I’m going to be using anytime soon. Back to icons… Ok, so you’ve got a program or two to change your icons, but what are you going to change them out for. Well, beautiful icons abound.

For starters, make sure you check out my three favorite icon artists, each awesome in their own right. Rad-E8 with his newly released Minium set, MM Icons with his great new sets and themes and Foood with his cartoon-ish vector work.

Of course, you can also check out all the staples, DevArt, Customize, etc. They’ve got icon sections too. InterfaceLIFT is also a great resource for both Mac and PC icons among other things.

Part Four – Application Skins:

For each operating system there are programs that you or I use every day that also support “skinning” or replacing their layout and graphics with new ones. I won’t get into Mac skinning because I simply don’t have that much experience with it. I’m sure you can get a mac junkie to tell you all about it.

Now, it should be mentioned that all these programs are a personal preference and that there are plenty of alternatives to them that are also customizable. Winamp for example, is my favorite music/media player. Some people also like Windows Media Player, QCD player, Kjofol, or iTunes, all of which (except for iTunes) are customizable. That’s just an example of what I mean by application alternatives. I can’t go into detail about every single one of them, so instead I’ll focus on what I use. If you don’t like a particular program I use, skip that section and start searching for skins for whatever program you prefer.

Winamp – MY personal favorite player. Compatible with 99% of the audio and video formats available these days. Quick, easy, processor lite and skinable like you wouldn’t believe. DeviantArt probably has the best selection of skins here. Theres also a few artists who deserve mention such as R.Peter Clark, Playboy and Bartman, but I’ll let you follow the links from their DA submissions. Most everyone hosts their files there anyway.

Thunderbird – My new favorite email client. From the creators of FireFox and Mozilla (see below). Clean and simple to use and skinable as well. Links are built into the program under “Themes – Get more themes” but if you want some 3rd party skins it’s a little more tricky. Places like AquaSoft offer the best odds of finding something you like. Mozilla engine skinning is anything but easy and so there aren’t too many options. My personal favorite is a theme called Pinstripe which you can find here.

Firefox – Thunderbirds big brother and web browser extrodinare. The only browser in the past 5 years to make a dent in Internet Explorers strangle hold on the browser market. I can’t even explain how good this browser is. You just need to get it. Period. Skinning, like Thunderbird, is done the same way. Skins can also be found in the same places. Check out this forum to get started.

Trillian – Now up to version 3, this multi-IM application is really coming along nicely. Capable of chatting with AOL IM, Yahoo!, MSN and ICQ users makes this one friendly application for people who have friends who use different things. Of course, it’s also skinnable. Check out these skins to get you started.

I could go on and on like this. I suggest checking the programs you use now, see if they’re skinable, and start looking for skins. If you want a specific type of program and can’t find one, just drop me a comment or two and I’ll see what I can dig up.

Part Five – Widgets:

This is a broad category. There are plenty of program to do little things for you, like tell you the weather or if you have new mail or not, or what CD is playing in your media player at the moment. In this example here you can see two widgets that I like to use. The bottom right is Samurize which is a scripting engine. With it I’m running CRNI’s CD Covers. He also has a large collection of kick ass Samurize scripts. I’m also running Konfabulator to get that little weather thingy in the top right corner. Konfab has hundreds of widgets in their gallery. You can get Konfabulator to do just about anything, check out the gallery here. There are also alternatives to both of those. AveDesk and Kapsules each do fantastic things. AveDesk can also be used with SyStats for further useability.

Lastly, in the widget category I’m also putting Docks. Mainly because they’re a program launcher as well as a program all their own. I personally use YzDock, which has been discontinued due to legal threats from Apple. In my opinion it was the most accurate representation of a OSX-ish dock bar and Apple didn’t like something so perfect to be available for Windows. There are alternatives. ObjectDock will probably get you the closest to Yz. I’d try finding a old copy of Yz first, but it’ll do in a pinch. With any of those docks, you’ll need PNG files (128×128 preferably) to use as icons. You can either convert them from existing icons using programs like Icon Workshop or by visiting places like The PNG Resource.


Well guys, there you have it. A very basic guide to get you started in the world of desktop customization. It’s far from complete, it’s far from perfect, but there are enough links in there to get started. Soon you’ll be showing off your pimped desktop to everyone who stops by. If you have any questions (and this is directly mainly at Chris A and Jake) let me know and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Matt out.