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.

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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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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....