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How do I make my Windows 7 desktop look and feel like a Linux desktop?

Jack Wallen shows you how to use free third-party tools to modify the standard Windows 7 desktop into a desktop that resembles Linux.

Those of you who have worked on a Linux desktop know how much more efficient you can be. You also know that the possibility of having your Windows desktop look and feel more like a Linux desktop would be a boost to productivity, not only in efficiency, but in ease of use as well. From virtual desktops, to multiple panels, to focus switching and window shading, there are plenty of tricks to use (thanks to third-party applications) that can help you get a far more efficient Microsoft Windows 7 desktop than the one that exists by default.

But how is a Linux desktop any more efficient than the standard windows desktop?

When you use the standard Windows desktop get used to minimizing windows on a single desktop. If you have multiple windows open up on a desktop, to work on another window you click it to get that windows' focus. To get a window out of the way you minimize it. If you have a lot of windows open, you then have to search all those minimized icons for the window you want to work on (or you cycle through all of your open windows with Meta-Tab or Alt-Tab.

The GNOME developers have done an incredible job of melding the Windows and the Mac OS X desktop together to make a very efficient desktop. But we can take that one step further by using features from all of them. The resulting desktop will have very quick access to applications, multiple workspaces, and ways to keep your desktop clutter-free that the standard desktop can't touch.

This blog post is also available in the PDF format in a TechRepublic Download.

Figure A shows the standard desktop with a number of windows open. Figure B shows that same desktop with all of the windows shaded and out of the way. A quick right-click of a title bar and you have that window back.

Figure A

A typical cluttered Windows desktop

Figure B

A much neater, and easy to manage desktop, thanks to WinRoll.

I am going to show you how to mimic a very usable, efficient desktop on your Windows 7 machine. This desktop will have the simplicity of Windows, the cool-factor of OS X, and the efficiency of Linux. This may not be to the liking of everyone, but for those of you who prefer a more flexible environment, you will appreciate what these little additions do for the standard Windows work environment.

So, hold on to your hats, we're going to take that tired, old desktop of yours and make it fresh, and Linux-like.

Step 1: The panels (aka Taskbar)

One of the things I like about GNOME is that the desktop is divided between two panels. The top panel is the primary panel and contains the menus, shortcuts, and notification area. The bottom panel is home of the Window List, Trash, and Show Desktop. To be perfectly honest, I always get rid of the lower panel, in favor of a dock (I'll address this in a moment). But for the time being, let's work with the main panel.

The first thing you need to do is move that Taskbar to the top of your screen. Why? To make room for the dock you will add later. To do this right-click the taskbar, select properties, and change the positioning from the bottom to the top (Figure C).

Figure C

You can either just drag the taskbar to the top, or use this method. I prefer this method as you are less likely to bring Explorer to a screeching halt.

Once you have done that you will want to clean that baby up. I prefer to keep my launchers pinned to the Start Menu and not the Taskbar. To pin a launcher to the Start Menu locate the application in the Start Menu, right click the application icon, and select Pin to Start Menu. After you have all of your applications pinned to the start menu you can then unpin them from the Taskbar.

You will also want to add a folder shortcut to the Taskbar, like the Places menu in the GNOME main Panel. To do this, follow these steps:

  • Right click the Taskbar.
  • Select Toolbars | New Toolbar.
  • When the Explorer window opens, navigate to the folder you want to add to this toolbar (I like to use the Documents folder I the Libarary).
  • Click Select Folder to add the new toolbar.

Once the new Toolbar is added you can then change it to only show Text or Text and Title.

Step 2: Add a Dock

The next step is to add a Dock to the bottom of your screen. Windows 7 will not allow a second Taskbar so you have to use a third-party software to add a dock. The one I like is StarDock's ObjectDock. This application is simple to install and run.

Step 3: Add a desktop Pager

One of the most efficient tools for desktop space is the Linux pager. With this tool you can effectively have more than one workspace on your computer. It's like having dual (or tri or quad) monitors without the extra hardware.

Since Windows does not have this feature built in, you will have to add a third-party solution. One of the better solutions for this is WindowsPager. This is a fairly good copy of the Linux pager and will give you similar features and functionality. You do not really install WindowsPager, you just fire up the executable.To have the WindowsPager tool run at startup simply copy and paste the .exe file to the Startup folder by typing shell:startup in the run dialog and then copying the file there (Figure D).

Figure D

Copy the .exe files to this directory to ensure the applications start upon login.

Step 4: Window shading

One of the features I have used since the early '90s is Window Shading. What this does is roll your window up (like a window blind) so that the entire window rolls up into the title bar. This allows you quick access to your windows as well as the ability to arrange your windows in such a way that you always know what window is what - even if the application is "out of the way".

The best tool I have found for this is WinRoll. This is another tool that does not actually install but runs via .exe file. Do the same with WinRoll that you did with WindowsPager, by copying the .exe into the startup folder.

Step 5: Autoraise

I don't know about you, but I hate having to click on a window to get it to raise. Since my early days of Linux I have enjoyed the focus follows mouse and auto-raise behavior. Fortunately you do not have to install a third-party software for this feature. Instead do the following:

1.               At the Start Menu search dialog enter "change how" (no quotes).

2.               From the results select Change How Your Mouse Works.

3.               In the new window select "Activate a window by hovering over it with the mouse".

Now when you hover your mouse over a window it will automatically raise to the front gaining focus.

Figure E shows you all the visible elements of the transformation. The only aspect you cannot see is the autoraise feature.

Figure E

Visible difference

The final look

For the curious, Figure E shows a sample of what the Windows to Linux desktop can look like. Although you do not get to see it in action, it is much more like the Linux desktop now in both look and feel.

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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.

94 comments
kschumake83
kschumake83

i have been a linux user for quite a few years now and very much hate how windows is set up. So i was really disturbed to find out that the new job i will be starting soon requires a citrix vm which only works on windows (and yes i have tried running that vm inside another vm in linux). I found this post an interesting read even though i had most of these features implimented already. One thing i think you should add is an application like gmail notifier. that was the biggest thing i miss from my gnome desktop that my email didn't pop up on the bar. I am almost half able to stand windows now that i modified it all to hell.

Josh233
Josh233

What is the theme that you are using?

jfreedle2
jfreedle2

Goofy idea, why would anybody want to do that I will never know.

jred
jred

I like RocketDock: http://rocketdock.com/ I've tried Stardock's stuff, but it always feels resource heavy, and it's not free (as in beer).

linux for me
linux for me

Why bother? If you want Windows, run Widows...If you want Linux, run Linux...Trying make an OS look like a different OS is a waste of time, and adds too much complexity where it is not needed.

peter
peter

Jack, you must be bored, who the devil would want to do that. All this article for a 1% operating system. Aren't there more important things in the computer world to write about.

nitin9193
nitin9193

Tips are amazing.. thanks for this post Nitin ray

Jaqui
Jaqui

when the "raison d'etre" of KDE4 is to let it be used on windows instead of windows gui. a simple compile and edit the registry to make KDE the gui would give you the whole bloated KDE4 with it's lack of usability designed to make windows users feel right at home. :p

john3347
john3347

Now we need the complementary post to this one. How can those of us who have used Windows exclusively for more than 20 years make the various Linux desktops look and feel like Windows to ease the transition and learning curve from Windows to a Linux OS?

tech
tech

Dock on top _and_ bottom, shading, and autoraise. You've just added the 3 single most irritating "features" of nix to windows. Congratulations!

sudweb
sudweb

I find the start menu very clunky after the traditional kde menu. To get around this i have enabled the quick menu, - created sub-folders in the quick menu by function; eg: internet, image processing, development, games etc - drag and drop programs into each as required - reduce the size of the quick menu so that the folders are not show. this gives a double chevron >> which, when you hover over it, shows the folders as above. Much easier to maintain and add programs....

wolsonjr
wolsonjr

Frankly, I think this is overkill for Linux and Windows, with the exception of the Pager. I work in Linux and think most of these features are more trouble than help. But, we all have are own ways of working!

rico.thorn
rico.thorn

Thought this would have some info about getting a customizable right click context menu like in linux. Until then I can't stop using litestep (replacement shell for windows)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"When you use the standard Windows desktop get used to minimizing windows on a single desktop. If you have multiple windows open up on a desktop, to work on another window you click it to get that windows? focus. To get a window out of the way you minimize it. If you have a lot of windows open, you then have to search all those minimized icons for the window you want to work on (or you cycle through all of your open windows with Meta-Tab or Alt-Tab." Or you could just go to the Taskbar and click the icon for the app you want to shift focus to it. Jack, no wonder you find Window inefficient; you're not using it in the most efficient manner. Only a neophyte thinks it's necessary to minimize all other windows in front of the one he wants. At this point I stopped reading. Such a gross fallacy at the beginning of the article didn't bode well for the rest of it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Exactly what does adding a dock do that I can't do with the existing Taskbar features?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It may be of benefit to the savvy users who want there work issues Windows to behave more like there machines they may have at home. It would depend on what changes one can make to a work machine without admin access though I guess.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

windows has a bigger share than 1% :D in the destop market anyway...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Ubuntuism. Can't tell the difference between a desktop and an OS...

seanferd
seanferd

People who have to use Windows, but are allowed to customize, and want some or all of the features Jack is offering. He didn't exactly come right out and so so explicitly, unless I missed it, but I gathered it was his intent.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm in support. I'd go nuts sitting down at someone else's desk and having to relearn to click to bring focus. Hell, I went nuts when I had an ergonomic split keyboard every time I went to someone else cube.

jlwallen
jlwallen

if you are used to the way Linux does things, and you try to use the Windows desktop, you quickly see how inefficient the Windows desktop is. i tend to work with a LOT of windows open. to keep that organized I place related windows on different workspaces so I know exactly where those windows are. i don't really have to spend time cycling through windows. once you've spent enough time using Linux you realize how well organized the desktop can truly be. windows, on the other hand, is simply a flat workspace that causes the user to have to constantly be minimizing, cycling, and clicking.

Jaqui
Jaqui

is more like the quick launch bar for windows taskbar than anything else for the taskbar. it's a customizable widget that lets you collect specific tools in each one used. I personally think they are a waste of time, don't use them at all.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

'Windowsism' is characterized by NO difference between the desktop and the OS; or, at least no ability to separate them.

Jaqui
Jaqui

gives them a REAL linux desktop, not just a fake one. :D

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I thought it was an attempt to improve the 'efficiency' of Windows users.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

those things. Couple of my colleagues have got them, can't deal with it all.

Slayer_
Slayer_

I use one of those, I like them, the giant ball for a mouse is what I hate.

kjmartin
kjmartin

Everyone who took the time to argue about this take your meds. Now, debating clicky-top versus twisty-bottom pens is something I could get into.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Seeing as the monitor is flat, yes a flat workspace. A desktop you could say. I can only assume in your 3D workspace you need not click anything to switch between applications ALT+TAB as a task switcher is quite useful as well I would add.

Slayer_
Slayer_

I find the multi desktop kind of useless. I don't have enough productivity tasks on Nix to make use of more than 1 desktop. on Windows however, I have 3 desktops. 2 of them filled up with windows and programs, the third I keep empty and use it for support calls. http://www.dexpot.de/index.php?lang=en That will give you very good virtual desktops in windows.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Aero Peek, Shake, Snap and Task Bar Thumbnail Previews. I also have more than 1 physical monitor.

JuliaX111
JuliaX111

precisely.. how can 1 desktop with everything all cluttered together on a single tasking OS ever compete with 4-256 desktops in a true realtime multitasking OS .. basically it can't. Using windoze is a nightmare for me.. because it feels like what it is.. something out of the ark and nothing like a modern efficient multitasking setup.. It must be the perfect example of "by monkeys, for monkeys" Dumbed down to the point where you need to be verging on a retard for it not to really annoy you within 5 minutes!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

based the paragraph I quoted above, that you either don't know how to use Windows effectively (and I know better than that), or that your Windows examples are apparently going to demonstrate the least efficient methods possible. But okay, I'll look further. "One of the things I like about GNOME is that the desktop is divided between two panels. ... To be perfectly honest, I always get rid of the lower panel,..." So one of the things you like is one of the first things you disable? Sorry, I'm confused. Regardless, having two panels doing the work of one strikes me as ... inefficient. "You will also want to add a folder shortcut to the Taskbar, ..." What for? You've described how to create it, but what am I doing with it? "The next step is to add a Dock to the bottom of your screen." Again, what for? What does a dock do for me that pinning shortcuts to the taskbar doesn't? You've got me pinning shortcuts to the Start Menu, taking up additional screen space with a dock, and adding a toolbar folder for gods know what. How is having shortcuts scattered over multiple places more efficient than having them all in one spot, be it dock, Taskbar, or Start Menu? Is that how 'efficient' Gnome does it? "One of the most efficient tools for desktop space is the Linux pager." This may be the only point we agree on. I prefer VirtuaWin, but we're after the same goal. (My notes say my previous tests with WindowsPager ver. 4 'blanked' the Taskbar, hiding all pinned shortcuts and icons. That was under Vista, so maybe it behaves better with W7.) "Window shading" I used to swear by this category of tools, until I found pager / virtual desktop apps. Since then, with multiple virtual desktops, I find it unnecessary to 'roll up' an app. Why not just move it to another desktop and let it have all the space it wants? "...I have enjoyed the focus follows mouse and auto-raise behavior.:" No doubt if I'd begun using computers with this feature, I'd want it. I try this at least every three years, including as recently as three months ago when I installed W7. Maybe other Windows users will be able to break the habit of clicking on a Window to bring focus to it, or get used to what I consider the annoyance of having an app take focus when I didn't move over it quickly enough. I've never been able to. In this particular case, efficient is what I'm used to. Maybe you've got something here, but I don't get most of it. Apps I run daily get pinned to the Taskbar (if they aren't in the Startup group). Apps run less frequently are pinned to the Start menu. Active apps are arrange either full screen or half-screen on their own virtual desktops. The Taskbar goes on the left side, especially since wider monitors became the default and made horizontal real estate more available than vertical. Vertical space is too important to me to clutter the top and / or bottom with toolbars. Besides, there's more space for shortcuts and minimized icons on a left- or right-side Taskbar, especially if you want the icon to have text.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That is one of the things I miss about Enlightenment and Afterstep previous to that; the menu is a click on the background and the only thing you have displayed previous to open applications is the Warf; a bar down the right with specific displays like time, date, processor load, a desktop "pager". I could bend KDE into something close but if I missed it that much, I'd just go back to Enlightenment with KDE support enabled.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but it is the way it is. For window it's the norm. A nix based appliance user distro like ubuntu has a purpose, not for me but I can see it. Making a desktop that feels like windows to appeal to MS's traditional market share, I can see that as well. Making windows look like Gnome or KDE, is like putting spoilers on a family estate car... Sad. Really, really sad.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'd be all over one. Since I have to lay hands on a dozen or more keyboards daily, I've resigned myself to having a standard one. Even I'm not dumb enough to write a purchase request asking for 250 new ergo keyboards just to make my life easier.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

clicky top are easier to turn into smokebombs Though.. click top-button... two buttons are better than one.. yes?

Slayer_
Slayer_

I used to use that, till I noticed it crashed .Net programs with datagrids. It was also kind of glitchy. I'm on XP, so never had any issues yet with Dexpot. Though I am glad to see there is another good option. Thanks

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Same features, at least as far as the ones I use (programmable hotkeys to switch desktops and move apps between them, assign apps to a desktop, start at login). Rock solid. My notes comparing say VirtuaWin has a smaller foot print (5500k of RAM vs 6600 for Dexpot). More important, they say I began seeing screen 'artifacts' with Dexpot on Windows 7. Window frame 'shadow' effects would not go away when I closed an app, or would appear on other desktops besides the one the app they belonged to was on. That may have been an incompatibility with my video card as much as with W7, but it was easier to switch apps than troubleshoot. The only problem I've seen with VW is that when running Microsoft Management Console (MMC), MMC appears on all desktops. If you're running MMC or not running W7, there really isn't much motivation to switch. If you're really bored, here's my notes on the ones I've tried: * 360desktop - wrap-around horizontal desktop scrolling. Not compatible with multiple monitors; 16K footprint. * deskwin - Not bad. "Drag and drop" window to move apps between windows. Must let app finish saving before changing desktops or app will move. * Desk Illusion - No way to move apps between desktops, but otherwise acceptable. Tray icon shows desktop #. Configurable shortcuts. .EXE requires no installation. * Desktops - Unable to move apps between desktops. * Fusion Software Multi-Desk - didn't appear to do anything besides add a tray icon. * Microdesk - quirky. Annoying activation option; bizarre option settings. Difficult to uninstall. * multiDesk 2001 - Tray icon shows desktop #. Configurable shortcuts. .EXE requires no installation. Has problems opening empty Outlook reminders and e-mail Replys. * PornViewer - Not really, I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. * PowerToys Desktop Manager - disrupts Excel toolbars. * Sdesk 1.66 - Creates one large desktop extending beyond the range of the display. * Sneaky Virtual Desktop - ran once, tossed out an error, and never ran again. * Virtual Desktop 1.01 - If it did anything, I couldn't tell. * Virtual Dimension 0.94 - annoying (un-minimizable?) preview window. Shortcuts for 'next' or 'previous' desktop only; no 'direct to non-sequential' desktop. * Win Desktop Manager Basic - VERY BASIC. 4 desktops, shortcuts. That's all. No d-n-d, no wallpaper transfer, etc. * Windows Pager 4.09 - 'Blacks out' the Task Bar - hides all icons and apps. * Vista\XP Virtual Desktop Manager - Large footprint - nearly 100k. Screen artifacts? Unable to configure rules to lock app to desktop. May be ony option on Vista? Update - Not the only option on Vista; Dexpot and VirtuaWin work just fine. * VividDesktop - Hotkey config tab disabled. Only apparent way to switch desktops is via tray icon. Tray icon doesn't show desktop number.

Slayer_
Slayer_

So far I like the stability and, though I don't use many of the features, it does work well. Tell me about virtuawin

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It's a good app. I replaced it a couple of years ago with VirtuaWin because VW has a smaller footprint.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Offhand, what realtime certified multi-tasking OS are you using as a standard workstation? How is Windows a single-tasking OS? Is it really only allowing one process to run through the cpu at a time? My machine must be a freak of nature with all those multi-ples of tasks running in at the same time. I'd also like to see you use 256 virtual desktops with any kind of efficiency.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

In addition to being inconsiderate to those with mental disabilities, it's clearly intended as an insult. Combined with your 'monkeys' comment, you appear to be more interested in insulting members than in contributing to the discussion.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Where? Besides - I've yet to meet one person that can use two applications (giving key / mouse input to them) the same time.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Many monitors have square mounting brackets, so you can just rotate them. I know for sure that both Intel drivers and nVidia drivers allow you to rotate your display, I would expect ATI to also have this ability. Some monitors have it as an option to rotate the display. Then you get a tall display instead, much better.

jamba
jamba

I started with TOS (C64), then DOS, next Windows, then UNIX (SGI's IRIX to be specific), and now mainly OS X (also a little WinXP). When I left UNIX I really missed the auto window focus. I really don't know why Apple didn't use it on OS X. IRIX also had "multiple desktops" and of course remote system admin along with many other useful tools/capabilities (i.e. gdiff) in 1996. I also really miss copy & paste by highlighting with mouse and then pasting with middle button. I really hate having to go to the keyboard (ctrl-v, ctrl-c). It's just inefficient (wasted moves/loss of focus). I don't currently have Win7, but will use this if I ever get it. Thanks Jack!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Off-topic is SOP around here. Some site mandate staying on topic. The membership decided early on that TR would have more of a 'water cooler' atmosphere, and that discussions would be allowed, even encouraged, to wander where they may.

john3347
john3347

"especially since wider monitors became the default and made horizontal real estate more available than vertical. Vertical space is too important to me to clutter the top and / or bottom with toolbars." Palmetto, I would like to join you and several million other computer users who do not use their computer monitors primarily to view panoramic movies in voicing displeasure with what has now become default and almost exclusive monitor aspect ratio. Thank you for making mention of this issue. Even this TechRepublic publication requires excessive scrolling and yet leaves considerable unused space on both sides when viewed on a wide screen monitor.