Windows

Make your Windows desktop more efficient with Aston

You can perk up that stale Windows desktop with a interface shell replacement while, at the same time, making your desktop more useful. It's not as difficult as it might seem. Aston is a fully-featured replacement for the Windows shell (98/2000/XP/Vista), is just as fast as the original shell, fully skinnable, user-friendly, and stable. Jack Wallen shows you how it works.

Coming from the Linux world it is often difficult to work in Windows for a long period simply because I can't do anything with the desktop look and feel (outside of changing the color scheme.) This may sound a bit trivial to many of you, but not enjoying the computing experience can be a real show stopper by the end of the day.

So why not perk up that stale desktop with an interface shell replacement while, at the same time, making it more useful to you? It's not as difficult as it might seem. And, unlike years ago, some of the replacement shells don't take a giant chomp out of your machines' resources.

This blog post is also available as a PDF in a TechRepublic download.

Aston

One replacement shell that I've been thoroughly enjoying is Aston, which is a fully-featured replacement for the Windows shell (98/2000/XP/Vista), is just as fast as the original shell, fully skinnable, user-friendly, and stable. In many of Astons' themes there are animated buttons (and wallpapers), transparency effects, and a whole host of other configurations and options you can modify. But most of all, it's about breaking free from the shell that has become all too familiar with Windows users.

Getting and installing

The good news is Aston installation is simple. The bad news...it's not free. There is a 30 day trial demo but after those 30 days, you better be ready to pony up one of the following amounts:

  • $29.95 for a personal license
  • $34.95 for a home license (four non-commercial installations)
  • $135.00 for a 5-user license
  • $250.00 for a 10-user license
  • $850.00 for a 50-user license
  • $1300.00 for a 100-user license
  • $2000.00 for a site/domain license (Install and use on 200 or less computers within one network domain or network group.)
  • $4000.00 for a world/smb license (Install and use on 2000 or less computers within one geographical location of the organization.)

Once you download the executable file you simple point and click your way to installation. Once you install you will be asked to log off and log back on and you're ready to enjoy Aston.

First Look

As you can see in Figure A, the default Aston them is, without any configuration, already much more useful than the standard Windows desktop.

Figure A

As you can see there are more elements than the average Windows user is used to.

Aston Desktop takes the standard Windows elements and adds some flavor to them. As you can see, the Start Button is there in its typical spot, as is the usual panel and system tray. Not much has changed with the bottom portion of the screen (At least in the default skin. Some skins take every aspect of the desktop and make some serious changes.)

But looking around the Aston desktop reveals a few extra features. The biggest change is the addition of another task bar at the top of the screen. This task bar (called an Element in Aston parlance) holds a number of features that really make the Windows desktop far more efficient than it was before. Take a look at Figure B and you'll see what I mean.

Figure B

Many new features are available that may make you think "Why didn't Microsoft think of that?"

A new clock, launch buttons, Google search, and Restart/Lock/Log off buttons adorn the new Task Bar. What is interesting is that these features are also called Elements. So you have Elements running on top of an Element. We'll talk about adding elements in a moment.

The launch buttons are fairly self explanatory. They consist of (from left to right):

  • Aston options
  • Theme Wizard
  • Shell Swapper
  • Aston Help
  • Aston Home Page
  • My Computer
  • Control Panel
  • Display Properties
  • Run dialog
  • Search

The Web search allows you to configure which search engine you use. To set up more search engines you click the drop down arrow and select Search Engines. Once the new window has opened you click the Update button to retrieve a new list of search engines. I was surprised how few search engines it added: Google Video, AltaVista, Dictionary.com, and Wikipedia. Of course one really doesn't need much more than that.

The Restart/Lock/Log off buttons need no explanation. It's not until you get to the Elements "hanging" off of the Task bar that you might need some help.

As you can see there are, in this theme, five extra buttons: Graphics, Multimedia, Internet, Tools, and Web. These aren't actually buttons but menus. If you click one of the buttons a new menu will appear. The menus contain entries related to each category. Only problem is, the menu entries aren't necessarily unique to your machine. My machine does not have Photoshop installed (I use The GIMP), yet there is an entry for Photoshop. But worry not, these can be changed.

To change an elements properties, say I want to change the Photoshop entry to The GIMP, click on the Graphics menu and then right click the Photoshop entry to see a new menu containing: Add Element, Edit Element, Remove Element, Setup Plugin. You want to click Edit Element. The new window (Figure C) allows you to change the properties of the Element in question.

Figure C

There are numerous properties to configure here, but only a few need to be changed.

To configure this Element to open The GIMP, instead of Photoshop, we only need to focus on two properties: Element's Title and Application. Although the Element's Title doesn't really effect what opens when clicked, you don't want to give the new application the snub by having it labeled its competition. So we'll change the title to The GIMP.

The last property to change is the Application. Click button marked with ">>". A new window will open up and you will need to navigate to the executable file for the new application. Once you have found that file select it and click "Open". Once that is complete, click OK. The GIMP should now have its own listing in the Graphics drop down menu below the top Task Bar.

You can also add a new Category to these drop down menus. Say, for instance, you want an "Office" category. Right click on one of the existing categories (either Graphics, Multimedia, Internet, Tools, or Web) and select Add Category. In the new window you only need to add a Title and click OK. In this case we would enter "Office" in the Title space. Now you have an Office category where you can add applications relating to this category.

Obviously the Windows desktop is already becoming more efficient -- less and less navigating through cumbersome menus.

Final thoughts

With just a few configurations Aston can quickly make your Windows desktop a far more efficient computing environment. And by not making much of an impact on your resources, it makes perfect sense to add it to your list of necessary tools for every day work. Since installing Aston I have found working with Windows a far more enjoyable experience. And we all know that office moral can always use a boost!

Give Aston the 30 day trial. You'll find it makes some tasks that are generally slow and cumbersome, faster and simpler.

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.

17 comments
p33d33
p33d33

Demo'd & purchased today ... not something I would usually do. This product is pretty damn cool, it has everything and more that I would hope for and allows me to get into the nitty gritty. Probably the best XP info post I've seen in a while. :)

The Listed 'G MAN'
The Listed 'G MAN'

No - Make your Windows more efficent by: Turning off Themes & Graphical Addons Shadows and so on... Moving your page file to another drive Adding faster RAM if possible Adding a faster RPM drive & Adding a larger cached drive Using the correct RAID levels where needed Getting rid of autorun startup programs Having your firewall on another machine / system Use TCP/IP offloading to your NIC's Install OS, APPS & DATA on different partitions ....and so on

bblackmoor
bblackmoor

How does tinkering with this stuff make me more productive?

MikeAinOz
MikeAinOz

I might have a go at this, there are some things that I could probably do in the standard interface, but can't figure out. I want mini menus, sticky notes and the clutter of my physical desk on my desktop. I'm also a tablet PC person which probably puts me closer to the experimental fringe.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Jack obviously likes Aston and the idea of changing the standard Windows interface in XP or Vista. Personally, I barely even notice the user interface -- I just click the buttons to get to an application. As long as I can find them, I don't really care what the buttons look like. But I may be in the minority. Do you change the standard Windows interface shell often? Why? Which interface do you prefer?

larryth
larryth

I downloaded and installed teh demo and as soon as I started using it large patches on my screen turned black preventing me from accessing anything in that portion of my desktop. Admittedly I don't have a normal setup, but still having chunks of your desktop go black is totally unacceptable. Larry

msfixit
msfixit

GMan, I like not buying something else when the capability is already there. is there one or two places where I can find the 'how to' for your suggestions.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I had the same question. Technically, wouldn't time spent customizing the interface contribute to inefficiency? I work on too many different machines during the course of the day to worry about how one more looks, even if it's the one on my desk.

dogknees
dogknees

Aston looks interesting, but you can do some of these things with the standard shell. In particular, you can create additional toolbars with drop-down menus of their content or icons. These can be docked at any edge of the screen, and can be set to display any folder on your PC. Creating one for your My Documents folder gives you a drop-down list of it's content. Clicking folders opens Explorer at that location, clicking files opens the file. You can also add several toolbars on an edge for different sets of programs or files. Create a folder containing shortcuts to commonly used applications and files. Then create a toolbar for this folder and you have a task oriented launch pad. You no longer need to open Explorer to open the files or the Start Menu to run the apps. Making My Documents and other standard folders display as menus in the Start menu also works well when opening files. You even get the same context menus as you'd see in Explorer in these lists. I'm not rubbishing Aston or any other similar shell, but there is a lot of options most Windows users aren't aware of that can make the interface more useful and personal. Regards

desirawson
desirawson

I was starting to wonder if I was the only one who actually has to work, and never sees the top of her desk because I have too many programs open WORKING on 10 things at once. Sick of Windows desk space??? Are you for real?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I occasionally change the color scheme and wall paper, but that's about as much customization as I do.

lefflerster
lefflerster

Take a look at windowblinds.net or stardock.com This is a company that's been around a while so it has stability and a user created library of thousands of skins. Combine with native Windows capability for dockable objects, as suggested in another post. PLUS, I just discovered a Windowblinds skin that let's me do a rollup of any window to show just the title. Clicking a button "unrolls" the window to show full Explorer window, Word doc, etc. Neat, uh? Windowblinds is $19.95, but it may even continue to work without registration. It's been a number of years since I started using it. Hope this helps!

kermidge
kermidge

While I like to have alternatives, and admire the inventiveness, I tend to stick with what the OS provides, beyond a few personal tweeaks. For a while for classes I had three to seven different OSes on the system and retaining their native look helped me keep track of where I was. Nice to see Mr. Peabody again, btw. Thanks.

Larry the Security Guy
Larry the Security Guy

You should be able to find how-to pages for each one of those suggestions, or links to a book that discusses them in detail.

youzer
youzer

Most of the features in Aston are already available in the standard Windows shell. Nearly all but the skinning. Is that one extra feature worth $30?

jlwallen
jlwallen

i doubt the standard windows shell is nearly as skinnable as Aston is. i know you can change color schemes but the skins available for Aston are pretty amazing. of course i realize, being a Linux user, i am used to being able to do whatever i want to my desktop. so that's why skinnability is actually a factor for me.

jlwallen
jlwallen

to someone used to Linux who doesn't want to stare at the same old desktop day in and day out. of course i know plenty of windows users who would also pay for this feature. not everyone ignores aesthetics on a computer like most admins do. ;-)

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