Microsoft

Customize your Windows environment with Stardock's Object Desktop

Even with a new GUI, Windows XP isn't very customizable. Object Desktop can give you the flexibility you want.

Back when Windows 3.1 was first released, I used to really enjoy customizing Windows to use custom wallpapers, icons, cursors, etc. As time went on though, I began to realize that while these customizations looked good, they didn't really do anything for me. I eventually gave up customizing my desktop and began settling for the default settings. However, a company named Stardock has released a Windows customization suite of software that actually makes desktop customizations both appealing and useful.

A tale of two utilities

The main component of the desktop customization suite is a component called Object Desktop. The idea behind Object Desktop is that it allows you to use various objects as a part of your desktop. For example, if you find that you frequently use the Windows calculator, you could place a calculator object directly on the desktop.

Many of the objects that can be integrated into Object Desktop are designed to pull information from the Internet. Therefore, before you can install Object Desktop, you must download a component from the Stardock Web site called Stardock Central. Stardock Central is the component that works behind the scenes to download object-related content. Stardock Central also offers a chat feature and its own Web browser.

Once you have installed Stardock Central, you can download and install Object Desktop. Object Desktop can be downloaded for free from the Stardock Web site. The software is licensed in a very unique way. Although the Object Desktop software is free, there is a subscription fee for enhanced content.

When you subscribe, you are subscribing to the Object Desktop Network. The subscription gives you access to all of the various objects that are designed for Object Desktop. There are some objects that you can access for free without subscribing, but there are only a few free objects, and some of them seem to have some bugs.

For example, if you look at Figure A, you will see that I have installed a few different objects on my desktop. Pay close attention to the information being given though.

At first, the fact that it is 67 degrees at 8:53 AM on November 3rd might seem like an error. However, the time, temperature, and date are correct. What isn't correct is the city. The script behind the weather object asks for a zip code so that it can access your weather. I entered my zip code and it told me that my zip code didn't exist.

Even though I live in South Carolina, I had to enter a North Carolina zip code because it was the only zip code half way close to where I live that I could get to work. Also, notice that the weather object says that it is mostly cloudy, but has a picture of a blazing sun. When I look out my window, there isn't a cloud in the sky right now. Enough about the buggy objects though, let's take a look at what else this software can do.

Object Desktop comes with several different predesigned themes. The screenshot from Figure A was actually one of those themes. Themes can do more than just place objects on your desktop. They can actually make your PC look and feel like a different operating system. For example, if you look at Figure B, you will see what appears to be Windows 3.1, but this is actually a Windows XP machine.

OK, now that you have a general idea of how Object Desktop works, let's configure it to do something useful. One nice thing about Object Desktop is that even the free version comes with some nice objects built in. You can add these objects as you see fit. For example, in Figure C, you can see that I have incorporated an object that gives me lots of good information. For example, I can see my PC's CPU, memory, virtual memory, and disk usage. This object also has dictionary and Google searches, a crude network traffic monitor and a media player.

Other components

There are some other components that go along with Object Desktop. You can download evaluation versions of the objects that I am about to show you for free, but there is a separate fee associated with each of these components should you want to use them on an ongoing basis.

Icon Packager

Icon Packager is a utility that allows you to create groups of icons and apply those icons to the system collectively. As you can see in Figure D, there are several built-in collections of icons, or you can create your own.

Window Blinds

Window Blinds allows you to customize the look and feel of the Windows dialog boxes and menus. If you look at Figure E, you can see that I have applied a Window Blinds-powered skin called XP Corona to the Windows XP desktop.

Skin Studio

Skin Studio is a utility that allows you to create your own custom Window Blinds skins or to customize those that already exist. You can see what this utility looks like by looking at Figure F.

Subscription information

If you are interested in Object Desktop, it is designed to run on Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP. While it does run on Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0, it isn't officially supported on these operating systems.

A one year subscription to the Object Desktop Network costs $49.95, and renewals are $34.95 per year. There are a few objects that are licenses separately from the main subscription fee. These objects primarily include the enhanced versions of Windows Blinds, Icon Packager, Skin Studio, and the other components that I have mentioned in this article. Prices for these objects range from $14.95 to $29.95.

The verdict

I thought that the idea behind Object Desktop was pretty cool. Object Desktop is a big package with a lot of capabilities even beyond those that I have shown you. For example, we have all see the aquarium screen savers, but there is actually an Object Desktop theme that turns Windows into an aquarium. There are fish swimming around your icons while Windows is active.

From a usefulness standpoint, I really liked a lot of the objects that you can place onto the desktop. Support techs and end users alike will likely see a benefit from being able to see CPU, memory, and hard disk utilization at a glance. I also liked the way that so many handy utilities could be grouped into a single object. After all, who wouldn't want to have a Google search readily available from his desktop?

At the same time though, there were some things about the software that bothered me. For starters, I found the software to be a little tricky to use and a bit buggy. The reason why the software was tricky to use was because of the way that the menu options are laid out. By the time that I had downloaded and installed all of the optional components, there were 23 choices on the Object Desktop menu. Additionally, there were a lot of submenus, bringing the total number of menu choices to 74. The problem is that most of these menu choices point to documentation or Web sites. It's pretty tricky to find the menu links to the actual executable programs.

Even when you do find the right menu links, it takes a second to figure out if you are in the right place because the nag screens don't blatantly point out that you are about to open the program.

Most of the confusion and annoyances with the software were centered around the nag screens. I am assuming that these are probably gone in the full retail version. Even so, I found the software to be a bit buggy. For example, some of the nag screens lacked Close buttons, so you couldn't even close them after you were done using the software. I also ran into problems with the Window Blinds.

While the Window Blinds seemed to work o.k. after I figured out how to use them, certain blinds that were applied seemed to truncate my Start Menu. Some of the menu choices on my Start | All Programs menu that were toward the bottom of the menu were no longer accessible. The strange part was that I would switch to a different set of Window Blinds and the problem would go away.

I also received a lot of script errors. The Weather object would occasionally flood my screen with error dialog boxes. I also had trouble with the network traffic monitor object because it kept insisting that another object with the same name was already running on my desktop. This occurred even after I had closed all other objects.

In my opinion, this software has some potential, but needs some work. Of course, I was using the evaluation version so in all fairness, these problems could be gone in the full version. One of the features of the full version is that it always keeps your machine up to date with the latest versions of the various objects.

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