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Five replacements for the Windows 7 desktop

Think the Windows desktop is limited, inflexible, and boring? Good news: You're not stuck with it. Here are five cool alternatives.

For some, the Windows Explorer shell is a fine desktop. But for anyone who has played around in the land of Linux long enough, that less-than-flexible Explorer interface just doesn't work. Thankfully, there are ways around that. One way is to install a replacement Explorer shell. There are plenty of shells to choose from, some open source, some proprietary -- and all of them offer something different for you to feast your eyes and mouse upon. Let's take a look at five of the most appealing choices.

Note: This list is also available as a photo gallery.

1: Aston Shell

Aston Shell (Figure A) is one of the most feature-rich of all the replacements. With plenty of add-ins, plug-ins, themes, and widgets to play with, the Aston desktop can become pretty much anything you like. You can also find animated skins and themes, live wallpaper, effects, and much more. Aston is shareware and will run you $29.95.

Figure A

Aston Shell

2: SharpEnviro

SharpEnviro (Figure B) might remind you a lot of Classic GNOME. The goal with SharpEnviro was to create a flexible, user-friendly desktop shell that would please new users as well as more advanced users. They succeeded. This shell will especially appeal to users who want a shell whose every aspect can be customized. This shell is open source, so it's free of charge.

Figure B

SharpEnviro

3: WindowBlinds

WindowBlinds (Figure C), by Stardock, used to be a full-blown desktop shell replacement. That is no longer the case. Now WindowBlinds is a means of making the Windows 7 shell more user-configurable. This is mostly with regard to look and feel. You won't be adding widgets and new and improved menus. But the improvements to the look of the Windows 7 interface can be fairly dramatic with WindowBlinds. This shell is proprietary and will cost you $19.95

Figure C

WindowBlinds

4: bbLean

bbLean (Figure D) is one of two BlackBox clones listed here. BlackBox was always considered one of the lightest, fastest window managers in the Linux environment. So for anyone who wants a desktop shell for Windows that is incredibly fast and minimal, bbLean is a great choice. With this shell, you will also have hotkeys, window skinning, the slit, the taskbar, the icon box, and the mouse menu. Lean and fast. This shell is open source, so it's free of charge.

Figure D

bbLean

5: Xoblite

Xoblite (Figure E) is the second BlackBox clone for Windows in this list. I include it because it offers a few more advanced features than does bbLean, such as plugins, some extra tools, and a font pack. The default Xoblite desktop is similar to that of bbLean, but out of the box it looks more polished and advanced. Xoblite isn't quite as lightning fast as bbLean, but it offers more features and power. Like bbLean, Xoblite is open source, so it's free of charge.

Figure E

Xoblite

Other shells?

Each of these replacement shells offers a different look and feel from Windows Explorer. If you're a fan of customization -- or just not a fan of the Windows desktop metaphor -- you will certainly appreciate what each of these shell replacements has to offer.

Have you installed a different replacement shell? Share your recommendations with fellow TechRepublic members.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

28 comments
d1zy
d1zy

It says no unicode support. But many apps have unicode built in. So i'm not bothered. i shall try it.

d1zy
d1zy

No use case really needs explorer.exe. And technical people HATE its limitations. In the history of IT, the greatest obstruction to workflow, utility and productivity is mswin's UI. The better alternatives work well and SHOULD be used. (BTW, Xoblite was maintained through 2012!!! People should use it without hesitation.) Due to mswin's networking and IO issues, some excellent apps only work properly on bare-metal (not in an emulator or vm). So, for certain things, technical people MUST use mswin (even if they prefer *nix) . And when they MUST use it they don't need 5hi77y explorer.exe destroying productivity. I am grateful of practical alternatives.

Decemba AD
Decemba AD

Tried SharpE and I would say I was rather impressed...gives you that great GNOME look...love it!

ion_tichy
ion_tichy

Looking at the websites of these offerings, I see that WinXP, Vista, Win7 are generally supported. So, if you have a mixed environment of WinXP, Vista, Win7 in a business, and want to provide a consistent user interface to your user community, then any of these window managers can make that happen. Ion

Olderdan
Olderdan

I used BBLean as my XP desktop for years. But now I'm simply using the Win7 desktop as it comes (well, with a few modifications). I really *need* multiple desktops like Linux and OSX have out of the box. http://dexpot.de does the trick quite well and runs very handsomely on Win7. I like the trend towards a "heads up display" on Linux. For that I use http://www.candylabs.com/Skylight which nicely integrated into Win7. And as a command-line shell, I think PowerShell is quite handy.

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

A couple of them look like they have a pager widget ... that's the one big feature i miss when i'm not on my Linux box, multiple desktops. Though you don't need a whole shell replacement to get that for Windows. A comparable article on individual widget enhancements to the existing Windows shell would be interesting. Docky for Windows, anyone?

pmshah
pmshah

As rendered on my desktop (Full 1080p HD) no text is legible with out invoking the magnifier. Even than they are barely so. At lest should have provided links or the standard internet method of click and magnify in higher resolution kind of links. BTW there are plenty of freeware utilities available which would allow one to customise the shell to heart's content.

roy.evison
roy.evison

Mr Wallon, much as I like your colourful submissions about things Linux, showing people exhibits from gimp might freighten windose people off. If you like Windose why would you pay for something to look like "Linux" when "Linux" is both free, as in gratis and (sometimes) freedom? Roy.

DSchr
DSchr

Why would someone download and install these shells if they have no idea what benefits would come with them? You seem to assume that your readers all come from Linux and are familiar with the Linux shells. Take more time with eadch one and carefully list what precisely what capabilities it adds to Windows 7. Otheriwse, this article is mostly a waste of effort.

eclegian
eclegian

I went to the SharpEnvironment link and clicked download. A message popup said the project was closed in December, 2011. So no further development or fixes will be made.

dhays
dhays

From a picture standpoint they all look the same. Two boxes that look like remote controls with some kind of stuff on them, a third box that apparently has no purpose. What is the purpose of these programs? What do they change? As I said on the other version of this, I don't use W7, but rarely. The desktop even more rarely. I have never used Linux except for the Android version on my phone and that not much. I am clueless as to the purpose and usage of the itmes shown. Not nearly enough explanation.

janitorman
janitorman

Palmetto, Just think Classic Gnome (Sharp Enviro) without leaving windows. You get all the advantages of an Open Source OS while running Windows, such as being able to customize all parts of it easily.. even making XP look like 7 if you want! It's for tweakers, who can't stand the standard Windows shell. If you really don't care what your desktop looks like, or that your XP didn't include a calendar on the clock, or something like that, and aren't willing to spend years customizing it to work "properly" like I did.. then this is for you. I probably won't EVER get Windows 7 or 8, I'd use a Linux distro first, but my XP (now that it's going out of support) FINALLY works the way I want it! I pretty much would not recommend getting a new Microsoft Windows release for at least 2 to 5 years, or until at least service pack 2 (or whatever they'll call them in the future) is released, anyway. Better, don't get it until the next OS has been released, or until the second one after that has been released, as it takes that long for them to finally get the first one right, and allow third party developers to fix it for them.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I've never tried one. I run most apps maximized or tiled to fill the screen, rarely looking at my bare-nekkid desktop. Do these provide any functional features, or just enhance the appearance of something I don't see anyway? Thanks.

Evert Meulie
Evert Meulie

According to their site Xoblite hasn't been updated since 2005... Windows 7 was released in 2009. So I doubt it's optimized for use with Windows 7...

robsku
robsku

...it doesn't have the usual "pager widget" as you put it, but rather two arrows to switch to next or previous workspace... of course most blackbox users use alt-F(1-4) to switch between default 4 workspaces... Set your shortcuts properly with bblean so you won't have the same key close window and switch to workplace 4 in windows ;)

janitorman
janitorman

You neglected to say which OS and what shell you're using. It might be a simple as changing your resolution, or switching to a different theme, or toying with your font sizes? Without knowing the basic information, however, no one can help you!

robsku
robsku

GIMP isn't Linux - it's a cross platform GNU Image Manipulation Program (=GIMP)

robsku
robsku

If you know your OS, and if it's Windows, you know what shell means in Windows... For those not interested of knowing their OS, being interested to spend extra time to change the shell probably isn't in their interests anyway.

janitorman
janitorman

who are "tweakers" and pretty much can't stand the out-of-box windows (or any other OS) look and feel. I've always customized my OS, different colors, desktop wallpaper, icons, shortcuts, etc. I really hated XP, and switched to classic, which helped, but still didn't do it for me. Gone was the Windows Explorer background for each folder, the preview pane (since restored using a tweak) and other capabilities. Plus it looked like a cartoon with the standard themes. I then tweaked not only the way things LOOKED but the way things WORKED, adding right click shortcuts, programs, etc. If you're one of those who likes the way an OS looks and feels right out of the box, this isn't for you. If you like the car the way you drove it off the lot, it's not for you. I don't know how many times I've customized a CAR (such as removing the stupid emissions controls, or for that matter, just switching out the engine to make it work better, for instance) or replaced the door handles because they just didn't make any sense...

JWahl
JWahl

In short the "Shell" is what the user uses to work with Windows. Explorer.exe is the "Shell" by default. a programmer can write their own if they have the time and energy but it's a lot of work and for not really all that much pay back. If the explorer was truly missing something major I could see the point. If you wanted to make your Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 or other flavor feel more like some other O.S. but still be a windows platform, then you might have a good reason to truly replace your Shell. Changing your wallpaper, your icons, your colors, your fonts, the size of bars and components of explorer is a far more simple way to give a slight over-haul to the existing shell then to replace the whole thing. The point of the article is, if you want to try some alternatives, here they are... x, y and z.. You can still replace your shell on Windows XP if you want, the windows 7 thing is just got more bells as it's newer.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm not familiar with Gnome, classic or otherwise, and can't tell one Linux desktop from another if the name isn't on the wallpaper. However, your answer did provide enough information to indicate this class of software probably isn't for me. Thanks.

jlwallen
jlwallen

i used Xoblite on Windows 7 for quite some time and, even though it hasn't been worked on for some time, the window manager performed quite well.

scott.wichall
scott.wichall

Looks like Xoblite is a fairly dead project, Sharpenviro was ended in Dec 2011 so that will be no more use going forwards if bugs are found, and it also looks like bblean is fairly quiescent. So of all the 5 replacements listed here, the only ones that will be supported going forwards are the proprietary ones.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is even clearer than the explanation you gave me. The car analogy is perfect.

dhays
dhays

Thanks. Kind of like the Korn Shell in UNIX, then. It had different capabilities than plain ol' UNIX, back in the days when I worked for AT&T (over 20 years ago) we used UNIX as our operating system on the PDP-11 mini computers and dumb teminals, some of my co-workers had PC's but they weren't prevalent like they are now nor, as cheap. I miss some of the capabilites of the old UNIX, someone had written a program in C to do the Jumble puzzles by taking each set of letters and running every possible combination through a spellchecker (command line of course) to give you possible answers. I have tried to do something similar in Windows by dumping the whole mess into a text file for running through Word's spell checker or my own perusal of the sets of letters produced for real words. I didn't get it to work, as I am not a programmer, so I haven't taken time to find out where it fails. (The last is just an anecdote. having nothing rally to do with the subject at hand). Thanks again for your explanation.

jlwallen
jlwallen

but even though they are not being developed, they still work well. and for anyone wanting to get rid of the standard shell (and don't want to pay) these are in fact options.