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Tech 101 | PC Focus

Slap Some 'Skin' on Windows

November 15, 2001|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Microsoft might have a monopoly when it comes to PC operating systems, but users have some control over how Windows looks on their PCs. That's because it's possible to change the "skin" to give Windows an entirely different look and feel.

For better or worse, it's still Windows underneath, but what you see on the screen can be quite different.

Many users spend hours every day staring at PC screens. In fact, I probably look at my PC monitor more than anything else, including the art on my walls or the view from my window. If you like the way Microsoft designed Windows, leave well enough alone. If not, change it.

It's not just about appearances. Corporate information technology managers--even if they don't care about the aesthetics--might want people in their company to use a simpler or customized desktop. Parents might want an interface easier for young children or one that shows only the programs they want kids to use.

Finally, there is the notion of just having fun with a PC. A lot of people enjoy tinkering with their machines to make them a bit more special and personal.

Stardock Corp., at http://www.stardock.com, offers a number of programs designed to customize Windows and various applications. The $20 WindowBlinds lets you customize the interface including title bars, scrollbars, push buttons and Windows borders. The $20 Desktop X adds custom objects to perform certain tasks. And the $50 Object Desktop combines the elements of both programs to allow radical changes in the way Windows looks and works. Stardock offers free trial versions of all these programs to download.

When my son was in middle school, one of his teachers used WindowBlinds to make the Windows PCs in his classroom look like Apple Macintoshes. I found this to be the worst of both worlds. It made it harder for students accustomed to PCs and not much easier for kids familiar with the Mac.

Stardock runs a site at http://www.wincustomize.com to download themes and objects. A theme can be a complete make-over of the PC's look and feel. An object is a single element--such as an icon, an animated graphic, a calculator or a clock--that can be added to a desktop. There are even themes that make a Windows 98 or Me machine look as if it's running Windows XP. The site also has plenty of other downloadable files for changing the skins on applications such as media players and instant-messaging programs.

There are some caveats about downloading and using themes. A theme can have a fairly radical effect on the way the operating system looks and works and could make the machine harder to use. Most themes found online are contributed by users with varying degrees of expertise and ranges of taste. A couple of the themes I downloaded made my PC a lot more confusing. One included an animated object that caused my otherwise fast PC to operate very slowly. I deleted that object and everything was fine.

Programs such as Object Desktop and WindowBlinds are not for everyone. They require patience and a desire to experiment. Personally, I found most of the skins to be more hassle than they were worth. I did, however, find a few cool objects that I enjoyed loading onto my desktop.

Another option is to use the themes that come built in to Windows. They don't make radical changes or add objects or functionality, but they do offer a modicum of individuality. Users can change desktop background, screen saver and visuals by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting properties. Users also can make modest--and often very useful--changes to the look and feel of a PC by putting some thought into the placement of icons on the desktop or within the Start menu.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com.

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