Customizing your new Vista...
Wednesday, November 15, 2006 by Frogboy | Discussion:
Our story so far...
In 1999, software developer Stardock released a program called WindowBlinds 1.0. It allowed users of Windows 95, 98, and NT to "skin" the way Windows looked and behaved. It not only could make Windows look better, it could make it more functional by adding more buttons and controls to the Windows GUI.
The screenshots below may cause pain. But back in 1999, it was this or the default Windows look.
In 2001, Microsoft released Windows XP which had "Luna".
Microsoft applied the "Luna" skin using a built in engine called uxtheme. Some users figured out how to crack the digital signing protection in uxtheme to allow for other skins to be applied (some companies actually charge money for this).
Stardock followed up with a new version of WindowBlinds (version 4.0 by this point) which continued to add new things that it could skin.
WindowBlinds 4.0 had significant advantages in features over the built in skinning system in Windows XP such as the ability to skin non-theme aware applications (most programs even now aren't fully theme aware so you get a mish-mash of "classic" and Luna in them) and WindowBlinds could add more controls to the UI, have irregularly borders, independently sized frames and title bars, animation, etc.
But the downside was that all those goodies came with a price in performance. While WindowBlinds was the same speed as the Windows XP engine while running the same skin, most WindowBlinds skins tended to skin more things. WindowBlinds 4 and the XP engine were, from an architectural point of view, nearly identical.
That changed with WindowBlinds 5.
WindowBlinds 5 - faster faster faster
WindowBlinds 5 was a major departure in that it was the first version to truly make use of hardware acceleration. WindowBlinds 4 and the XP skinning system both did everything in software using GDI calls. WindowBlinds 5 made use of DirectX to begin leveraging the performance of 3D cards which in turn allowed WindowBlinds skins to run faster than classic could in many cases (let alone Luna).
Moreover, this 3D acceleration allowed WindowBlinds 5 to have alpha blended borders -- glass.
But now there is a whole new Microsoft OS with a whole new system. And the new look on Vista (the default look) is VERY good -- Aero.
WindowBlinds on Vista in action
Version 5.5 of WindowBlinds has been designed to enable Windows Vista to become skinnable. This is no easy task for a number of reasons. The biggest reason has to do with the new Desktop Window Manager (DWM). While technically WindowBlinds could have hacked its way to work on Vista, it was important that WindowBlinds work natively on Vista and that means using the new 3D composited desktop. By using the DWM you get hardware acceleration and a ton of other possible effects.
The second challenge was making visual styles (skins) made for Windows XP work on Windows Vista without parts missing. So Stardock developed "Smart Skinning" in which graphical elements in XP skins are translated to take care of new parts in Windows Vista.
The new configuration window
The new configuration dialog has been designed to be easier to use and adhere to the new Windows Vista UI guidelines.
WindowBlinds 5.5 should run as fast or faster than the default "Aero" skin thanks to using some of the caching features of the DWM that Aero currently doesn't use. This should be particularly noticeable when moving windows around. Aero is already plenty fast and at this point, where everything is accelerated, performance is no longer really a factor in skinning. But it is worth noting that the days of "slowing your system to a crawl" that was so common in the earliest days of skinning should be long gone at this point.
Compatibility is still being worked on in this beta. This has mostly to do with the sheer number of different skins that have to be tested. WindowBlinds supports 3 different skin formats with thousands of different skins. And many new applications, like the new Office, do some pretty..unusual things (if there ever was a program not designed to be skinned it would be the new Office apps but as you can see in the screenshot, we're doing it).
Since this is being ready more so by technical users than most things we release, let's be specific: Compatibility has to do with the skins. For example, what if a given skin's title bar is really thin. How will it be handled by the new Office which assumes title bars of a certain height? What if they made their start menu in such a way that it gets in the way of the new search field or the new buttons Microsoft added?While most experienced users would simply choose a different skin, we feel it important to make sure that skins, even ones made years ago, function properly on Vista or at least don't cause any problems.
A new life for visual styles
Thousands of WindowBlinds visual styles exist and work on Windows Vista. However, thousands of msstyles were made too. They won't work on Windows Vista. The good news is that they can work vai WindowBlinds after being converted by SkinStudio (a free download). Once SkinStudio has been installed and associated with .msstyles, users can double click on one and convert it over.
Windows Vista includes Aero, a bold new look. But for users feeling a little retro, they can still make Vista resemble great designs of the past. OS/2, MacOS, Msstyles, and of course the Windows XP look itself.
Question: Will WindowBlinds 5.5 support the new blur effects?
Answer: The goal of WindowBlinds 5.5 is primarily to get skinning working on Windows Vista and support existing XP skins. It is adding new features to the skinning format to support Windows Vista elements. Subsequent versions will begin to add support for different kinds of 3D effects such as blurring that skinners can make use of.
Question: What versions of Windows Vista will WindowBlinds work on?
Answer: All of them. Even ones that don't include Aero. As long as your video card supports the DWM (any reasonably decent video card) you'll be able to get the full power of WindowBlinds 5.5.
Question: Will WindowBlinds 5.5 support Windows XP?
Answer: Yes. Stardock will be continuing to make new versions of WindowBlinds for XP users for a very long time.
Question: I've tried WindowBlinds and I don't like the visual styles for it. Are you going to make better skins?
Answer: We don't make the skins. We make the software. At least, historically. That is changing though. Recently we launched a new group called Stardock Design whose job is to create phenomenal looking skin suites. There are thousands of different WindowBlinds skins out there plus there are thousands of msstyles out there that can be used with WindowBlinds. Just look for ones that suit your tastes.
Getting WindowBlinds on Vista...
Right now, the only way to get WindowBlinds on Windows Vista is to have Stardock Object Desktop. You can get that at www.objectdesktop.com. Object Desktop includes over a dozen different programs that improve the user experience of Windows. In January, Stardock expects to make WindowBlinds 5.5 available as a stand-alone download. Current owners of WindowBlinds 5 can upgrade to Object Desktop here.
Get it now at...