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SkinStudio 6.3 brings new power to Windows skinning

Sunday, September 21, 2008 by Frogboy | Discussion: Customization Software

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SkinStudio is a program that lets users create their own user interface for Microsoft Windows.

It walks users step by step the Windows GUI to help them change virtually any aspect of the user interface including title bars, the start menu, scroll bars, push buttons, and everything else.

Version 6.3 is coming out this week and it's a pretty big step up. Let's take a look.

What's new in 6.3

Main window features

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The first change is the addition of mini previews of your five most recently edited skins when you open SkinStudio. You can double click on any of these to open up that skin for editing.

When you first upgrade the previews will be replaced by boxes with the skin names until the previews are created.

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Once you open a skin you may notice a small X at the top right. This allows you to quickly close a skin. If the skin has been edited then you will be asked if you wish to save your changes.

Based on user requests the name of the skin you are editing is now at the start of the caption text. This is especially useful if you have multiple copies of SkinStudio open as the skin name will now be visible in the taskbar.

 

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You may notice a new option in the list on the left hand side called “How do I?”. This feature lets you quickly change settings in a skin which may be more difficult to find or are the kind of feature someone who is editing a skin for their own use may want to change.

 

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Examples of the options you can change from here are enabling or disabling OS shadows, hiding shadows on menus, enabling or disabling sound support in a skin etc.

Preferences

Based on user feedback we have improved the editing window and we now offer two different editing modes which can be selected from the preferences window. On the very first run of SkinStudio 6.3 you will be shown the preferences dialog so you can select which mode you would prefer to use.

The two modes are section based editing and tree view mode editing.

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Section based editing is the default mode and works like it did in SkinStudio 6.2. You can switch sections by using the Previous and Next buttons at the bottom.

Tree mode is a replacement for the basic tree mode that you could enable in SkinStudio 6.2. The tree has been reordered and reduced in complexity to make it easier to use.

Additionally there is a search field under the tree. Typing in here will replace the tree with a list of suggested sections. Clicking on one of the suggestions will take you to that part or if none are to your liking you can press escape to close the search.

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OR

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Users can now decide how they want the editor to appear based on their preference choice.

 

The Edit Window

Another enhancement based on user requests is the ability to maximize the edit window. As well as making the tree show more if you are in tree mode, maximizing the window also changes how some of the tabs show information.

Advantages of maximized mode :

- The image tab will show you a full preview of the image you have selected

- The painting margins tab is larger so you are able to resize image to test margins and also set margins on much taller images.

- The text tab will place the preview under the vertical alignment selection box.

- The extras tab shows you more items

- The layers tab shows you more layers

Under the preview there is also now a layers >> option. This allows you to quickly switch between layers without going back to the layers tab.

Grid backgrounds

As well as the usual white, desktop, dialog, background, and black options you can now use a grid background.

This is perfect for seeing the effect of semi transparency such as the taskbar in the example to the right.

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This grid option is also provided in the painting margin tab and the frame builder window.

Layers

One of the biggest new features in SkinStudio 6.3 requires WindowBlinds 6.3. While SkinStudio 6.2 and WindowBlinds 6.2 introduced the concept of layers in a skin, the layers are only blended using straight alpha blending.

Layers allow skinners to take an existing image and blend it with another image without having to alter the original image.

WindowBlinds 6.3 introduces the concept of layer blend modes which allows a layer to be blended using a number of different blend modes. Some of the blend modes are auto masking which really helps with applying textures to lower layers.

You can control the layer blend mode from the layers tab. Just select the layer you want to edit and then set the layer blend mode in the box above. There are currently 29 different blend modes which consist of a mixture of auto masking modes, modes which only apply to coloured pixels, and modes which only apply to greyscale pixels.

Should you have a need for a different blend mode and can define it mathematically then please contact support@stardock.com and provide all the details along with an explanation of why this mode would be especially useful and we will consider it for future updates of WindowBlinds/SkinStudio.

There is no limit to the number of layers you can have, but naturally the more layers you have, especially with complex blend modes, will be slower than a single layer. So having 50 layers on say a button is probably not a good idea.

The multiply blend mode with automasking is often ideal when you apply a texture to an existing part.

Using layers example

This is a quick demonstration of using layers to enhance a skin. The skin here is the DarkAvatar skin and we will be adding a texture to the top of the startmenu.

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We will be adding a rust texture to the grey parts of the frame but avoiding the red part.

So firstly we add a new layer to the top of the startmenu by going to the layers tab and clicking the add layer button. Then we should set the layer blend mode to “Multiply Blend onto greyscale destination only with automask”

Then we need to go back to the image tab and select our rust texture and then go to the painting margins tab and make sure we have selected tile mode.

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Once you have done that the end result will be something like this :

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Now lets see what it looks like when it is made wider.

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This really shows the power of layers with blend modes. The rust texture has tiled on top of the base layer and due to the auto masking it automatically fits in with the resized frame. Doing this without layers would be impossible as you would always have a point where the margins meet the middle.

Layers with different textures:

So lets try a different texture. Instead of the rust texture I have used a darkish wood texture and set the blend mode to “Overlay Blend onto greyscale destination with automask”. This produces a plastic wood effect as below

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I prefer the rust look so I have set that back and then added identical layers to the bottom bar, left side, right side and more programs background sections. If you have SKS Pro then this can be done using Ctrl-C on the code in the code tab in the first section and then Ctrl-V in the code tab for the other sections.

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Ideally you should use a texture with an alpha channel (I.e. TGA/PNG) for the layer rather than a bmp. Using a BMP will work but the performance on Windows XP will be lower. On Windows Vista it makes no difference.

If a section resizes in use (most of them) then a layer can enhance it. If it is fixed size then you can simply use the layers in your image editing application and you will get the same result assuming you mask appropriately.

Other changes

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Other changes to SkinStudio 6.3 are the addition of text descriptions to the various Vista fonts and colours which are under the Vista Fonts and Vista Colours buttons on the Edit Fonts and Edit Colours windows.

Control over the system fonts has now been added to the edit fonts window. Simply select Show me the skin defined system fonts option from the drop down at the top of the window and you can then control the system fonts.

Finally a quick tip

Double clicking on the preview in the Painting Margins tab will resize the preview to the image size.

MyColors: Introduction Walkthrough

Change your desktop with MyColors from Stardock

Monday, April 14, 2008 by Island Dog | Discussion: Customization Software

MyColors from Stardock is something you probably have been reading a lot about recently.  The new MyColors Theme Manager has a slick new interface, and should now work seamlessly with other customization components such as Object Desktop.  A question I am often asked is..."what is the difference between MyColors and something like WindowBlinds?"

Well are are some fundamental differences, but remember that MyColors uses the technology from products like WindowBlinds and IconPackager.  The real big difference is MyColors is basically an all-in-one solution for customizing your desktop.  Whereas with applications like WindowBlinds and IconPackager, you use each application independently and pick and choose the themes and skins you want to use.  This is not a bad thing at all, but MyColors offers an ease of use, especially for people who do not want to have to install multiple pieces of software to personalize their desktop, or are not that familiar with desktop customization.

MyColors includes all the skinning technology, so all you have to worry about is which themes you want to use.  MyColors themes typically include a new visual style, icon package, wallpapers, and several gadgets like media players and weather displays.

MyColors Theme Manager

You can check out MyColors by downloading the MyColors Theme Manager with the free Quest theme.  As you see in the screenshot above, MyColors has an easy to use interface which shows you a list of your installed themes, and a large preview area where you can apply the selected theme in your list.

To add a new theme to MyColors simply click the "Add Registration" button, and enter your e-mail and registration code in the box seen in the screenshot below.   You can get new themes by browsing the MyColors library.  Once entered, your new theme should show up in your list. 

Adding registrations to MyColors

Need more skins?  Not a problem.  Click the "More Themes" tab and browse some of the sample themes, or click the "View More" button and that will open a link to the full gallery page where you can choose from the many themes that are available.  There are themes that are licensed by the NBA, NHL, and Collegiate sports teams.  In addition there are holiday, automotive, and "Inspired" themes for you to choose from.

MyColors "More Themes"

If you need to return to the default Windows desktop, it's as simple as selecting Windows Desktop in the list and applying it.

One of the best features about MyColors is it will notify you, and automatically update both your MyColors theme manager, and the installed themes.  So if there is an application update, or a fix or addition to a theme, MyColors will update it for you.  Best of all, MyColors is based on years of desktop customization technology, and does not hack or patch your system files, so you don't have to worry about your themes not working when Windows updates are installed.

MyColors Aquamarine Theme

For more information on how to easily transform your desktop into how you want it to look and feel, then visit the MyColors web site.

Link: MyColors

 

Hooray! SkinStudio 6 is here!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 by Frogboy | Discussion: Customization Software

SkinStudio6_Logo
Version 6

 

I have to admit, I'm pretty excited about SkinStudio 6. Which is surprising in some respects because I was deeply involved in the design of SkinStudio 1 through 5.  With SkinStudio 6, the WindowBlinds team wrote it with my part being mostly that of providing input rather than design direction. 

SkinStudio 1 through 5 was designed to provide a quasi-Corel Draw style user interface.  The design worked out well in the early days when WindowBlinds wasn't that powerful.

Here is what SkinStudio 5 looked like:

 sks1[1]

As you can see, it got pretty complicated by version 6.

By contrast, SkinStudio 6 looks like this:

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The difference is application designer versus task oriented design.  That is, with SkinStudio 6, the skinner simply walks through a series of steps and at the end has a finished skin. 

How this will affect the skinning community remains to be seen. But we now have a way for people to easily make their own skins. And best of all, SkinStudio is FREE.

SkinStudio 6 makes skinning a snap

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 by Frogboy | Discussion: Customization Software

After a year of rewriting SkinStudio from scratch, Stardock has released SkinStudio 6.

SkinStudio is a free program designed to make it easy for people to create WindowBlinds skins.  Version 6 has been completely rewritten to provide a much simpler user experience for creating skins.

Making your own skins

SkinStudio makes it a snap to design your own skins for WindowBlinds.  When a user desires to create a new skin, they start out with either Luna (if it's on Windows XP) or Aero (if it's on Windows Vista). From there, they can change as much or as little as they want of a given skin.

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As users go through the different parts of the Windows GUI, they can replace different elements with new images. The WindowBlinds skinning engine is extremely flexible allowing for the repositioning of buttons, independent border sizing, animation, and much more.

A Completed Skin

A complete looking skin will have all new title bars, borders, buttons, Start menu, taskbar, etc.  It can provide a dramatically different look and feel to your PC.  You can share your creations with others on many different websites including WinCustomize.com, deviantART, Customize.org, Skinbase.org and many others.

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A completed skin

 

SkinStudio Pro

Stardock also offers SkinStudio Pro for skinners who are really into skinning or looking to make skins professionally. SkinStudio Pro lets skinners look at the actual underlying code of a given section and includes a live animation editor for Start menu animations (WindowBlinds 6 includes 30fps start menu animations as seen in Dragon). SkinStudio Pro is $19.95.

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SkinStudio Pro adds features for pro skinners like animation editing, code review, etc.

 

Download: www.skinstudio.net

Object Desktop Overview

The benefits of subscribing to Object Desktop

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 by Island Dog | Discussion: Customization Software

I have been receiving a lot of messages lately asking me about the advantages of the full Object Desktop suite from Stardock, and what exactly is included when you purchase an Object Desktop subscription. I thought it was time to give people a brief overview of Object Desktop, and what applications are included with it.

Let me start off by saying when you purchase a subscription to Object Desktop, that subscription will remain active for one year. During that time period you will receive all updates and any new additions to OD (Object Desktop). If you choose not to renew (but why would you) you can archive the current applications and use them for as long as you wish. Some people believe that when your subscription ends, you can no longer use the software, and that is just not true.

Renewing your subscription is the way to keep your applications updated, and a discount is available when renewing your subscription. An upgrade discount is also available to people who have already purchased a product such as WindowBlinds or IconPackager.

So what exactly is Object Desktop anyway? Well it's basically a suite of desktop applications designed to enhance and elevate your Windows experience.

Let's start with an essential part of OD, which is the Stardock Central application. Stardock Central is an enhanced download manager that lets users install and manage software and games from Stardock. It also allows users to communicate with other members through IRC, forums, and you have the ability to download skins and themes from it.

Some of the essential components of Object Desktop are:

WindowBlinds: WindowBlinds is probably the most notable application in Object Desktop. It will allow you to completely change the visual style of Windows Vista and XP. Using WindowBlinds skins you can easily change the look of the taskbar, start menu, windows borders, and more, without modifying or hacking your system files.

IconPackager: IconPackager allows you to change nearly all the Windows icons with a single icon package. You don't have to worry about changing individual file icons (although you can with IconPackager), you can change them all in just a few clicks. IconPackager also supports Windows Vista Live folders.

DesktopX: DesktopX lets users create and use widgets/gadgets (mini-applications), and complete desktop environments. DesktopX 3.5 will also let users create widgets that are exportable as Windows Vista sidebar gadgets.

SkinStudio: SkinStudio is an application that lets you create visual styles, or "skins" for Windows that you can use with WindowBlinds to change the look of Windows.

ObjectBar: This application will allow you to create your own Windows interface. You can create custom start menus, docks, program launchers, etc., and it's compatible with DesktopX widgets for more flexibility.

RightClick: With RightClick you can design and apply your own right-click menu. With this you can add your own custom shortcuts, system commands, and it also supports DesktopX widgets too.

TweakVista: For the Vista users out there, TweakVista is the ultimate tool for "tweaking" Windows Vista in areas such as resource management , memory optimization, security handling, and much more. It's designed for both casual and advanced users.

SoundPackager: SoundPackager (currently in beta) allows you to change Windows system sounds with "packages" of sounds. Users can also easily create their own sounds and package them to share with the community.

This is just an example of some of the applications that come with your subscription. There are several other including Keyboard LaunchPad, IconDeveloper, IconX, ObjectEdit, WindowsFX, and more. The full list of applications included can be found here.

Another benefit of subscribing is having early access to betas. Currently, Object Desktop subscribers have access to the WindowBlinds 6 and SkinStudio 6 betas before they are officially released. Many of these applications are available as stand-alone products as well, but the best value is to purchase the subscription so you can receive all the applications mentioned above.

For more information visit the Object Desktop home page.

Should skinning be part of the OS?

Good intentions, negative consequences

Saturday, April 22, 2006 by Draginol | Discussion: Customization Software

If you don't know Kam VedBrat, you should. To a large extent, he is the one who helping make sure that Windows Vista is going to be customizable by users in a real way.  At Microsoft, Kam is responsible for a lot of the UI work on Windows Vista.  And he is constantly under pressure from well-meaning users who argue that Microsoft should "build in" advanced "customization" features.  The problem that those users don't realize is that if Microsoft were to put in too many customization features it would essentially kill off third-party customization and Microsoft is never going to put in the kind of customization that third parties are willing to dedicate themselves to.

Let's explore it though for a moment. Let's put aside the branding issues (the more Microsoft supports customization as part of the OS, the weaker the Windows brand becomes) and let's put aside all the support issues that would rise as users downloaded third party "skins" that weren't compatible with this or that app and called up Microsoft.  Ignoring those two issues (which in themselves are show stoppers), the problem is that the really cool customization apps we've seen over the past few years would never have come out if something even half as good were part of the OS.

The vast - VAST majority of users are happy with Windows as is.  95% of users of Windows XP are using the plain blue "Luna" UI and most of them are probably using whatever wallpaper came with the computer.  Of that remaining 5% all but a small percent are content with changing to the silver or green (okay silver) Luna.  That leaves about 1% of the user base who wants more.  How much should the other 99% be charged so that the 1% can be made happy with customization when there's a proven market of third party developers who are able and willing to devote resources to create something far more advanced than what Microsoft could ever justify?  Whether you use a feature of the OS or not, you're paying for it.  And if only 1% of the userbase would use a feature, why should the other 99% be charged for it?  Sure, in absolute numbers, 1% is huge. But in terms of percentages it's trivial.

But let's say Microsoft bowed in and put in say skinning and custom shells and super-duper icon tweaking and countless other things. What would happen? The third party developers would go off and do something else. There'd be no market left other than maybe some freeware developers tweaking on the outer edges. And would the vocal minority who demanded these features in the first place be satisfied? Probably not. Because they would then be joined by the much larger group of people who didn't see a big deal paying 10 or 20 bucks for a utility that did a bunch of really cool things that aren't being updated or made anymore.  Microsoft would be stuck with the "responsibility" of supporting and placating those users. And for what? What's the business case? Would those vocal users not have bought Windows? Not have upgraded? Of course they would. 

From Microsoft's perspective, going around adding tons of tweaking features or skinning features to the OS is a lose-lose proposition. They weaken their brand. Increase their support costs. Kill off the ISV market where a lot of innovation on Windows comes from. And they don't sell a single copy more than they would have anyway.

So all users who like customizing the way Windows looks and feels in interesting ways should be glad that Kam VedBrat is the Lead Program Manager for the Windows Client Platform Team.

Visual Styles

A definition

Monday, March 28, 2005 by Frogboy | Discussion: Customization Software

Visual Styles:

A visual style is a partiuclar type of "skin" designed to change the look and feel of the entire user interface of an operating system.

On Windows XP, there are two popular formats for visuals tyles - WindowBlinds and MSStyles.

WindowBlinds visual styles are designed to be more flexible than MSStyles but require the user to use the commercial program, WindowBlinds ($19.95) in order to get the most out of them.

MSStyles are very basic but are also free. They cannot move title bar buttons, cannot change border sizes, cannot add additional buttons to the title bar, cannot change styles on title bar text, cannot control alignment on controls or text.

Advocates for MSStyles will argue that these limitations are a good thing because most msstyles tend to be pretty derivative of the existing Windows XP look and therefore are more "usable".  Proponents for WindowBlinds will argue that WindowBlinds users can use msstyles as well via SkinStudio and that the whole point of "skinning" your GUI is to be able to make it look and feel how you want not just tweak it a little bit. MSStyles cannot change tool bar buttons or progress animations and don't skin as many parts of the Windows XP OS.

The advantage of WindowBlinds (the program) is that in addition to being able to use WindowBlinds visual styles as well as MSStyles via SkinStudio that it can provide hardware acceleration based on graphic card improvements that have been made since Windows XP's release back in 2001.  In addition, WindowBlinds provides features such as color changing on the fly, per application visual style support, mouse button customization, mixing and matching progress animations and toolbar icons, and can skin non-theme aware applications.

For a full list of WindowBlinds features versus the bundled msstyle system, visit http://www.windowblinds.net/wb4

So are widgets killing skinnable programs?

The fall of the mini-programs

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 by Frogboy | Discussion: Customization Software

Long before widgets, in the sense that we know them today, existed there was skinning. A skin is a collection of graphics designed to replace the user interface of a particular program. The first major skinnable program was Winamp.  Skinnable programs became very popular for awhile.

During that time, we saw small, skinnable programs come out. These programs did one thing but they were skinnable.  Programs like Colorpad, Beatnik, Boxnote, Coolplayer, eNotes, EZPop, SkinCalc, XXCalc, Kewlpad, and countless other programs all let users have skinnable programs that did a small but specific thing.

And then came the widgets. Programs like DesktopX and Konfabulator came along. They have the advantage of usually using less overhead than a stand alone program does on a given widget as well being able to provide the functionality of all the skinnable stand-alone programs.

Widgets, currently, do have one downside - it is hard for end users to customize the way they look.  Programs like XXCalc may be able to do only one thing but users could then apply dozens of skins for them.  By contrast, today's widget programs are somewhat harder to make new skins for since each widget is its own thing. 

Regardless of the respective merits, what we have seen is a decline in the # of new skinnable stand-alone programs. The widget enabling programs seem to have taken much of the momentum away from these programs.  Programs like WindowBlinds, which can skin every standard GUI'd application on the computer, probably didn't help them either.

Which brings us to where we're at - widgets or custom mini-programs? Are we better off with widgets or skinnable mini-programs?

Here are some examples (some screenshots courtesy of Customize.org) -- you be the judge:

Mini Program

DesktopX equivalent

Konfabulator

N/A


(coolplayer)


(skincalc)


 


(ezpop)

N/A


 

Don't judge any of the 3 by the screenshots since I mainly just went and found ones that I thought looked nice but your tastes may vary. The point is to show that for every popular stand-alone skinnable program there is usually some sort of widget equivalent to them.  Now whether the widget equivalent is better is a matter of debate.

There very well could be other reasons why we have seen stand-alone skinnable programs become less popular. And there are notable exceptions - Rainlendar (a skinnable calendar) and SysMetrix (a skinnable system resource meter) are very popular. 

Let us know what you think either way.

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