Advanced skinning, individualized desktops, animated icons, shiny colors and flashy windows: which alternative shell (for Windows) is the best?
Talisman Desktop 2.6 and LiteStep do exactly the same thing: they provide an alternative to the standard Windows Explorer shell. What’s the use in this? Well, let’s not make a huge deal of it: Windows looks dull.
Some years ago I entered the world of KDE. I was astonished with the possibilities it provided. I could make my desktop look exactly the way I wanted it, icons, window borders, appearances and so on. I had this itchy feeling “Why can’t Windows do this?” Besides the occasional wallpaper-change and color-scheme alteration, it just lacked the advanced skinning features KDE (and the other window managers as well) provided. But I was persistent. I just had to accomplish the same thing in Windows. Quite easily I discovered Stardocks WindowBlinds, followed by IconPackager, and other programs from their ObjectDesktop.
But still I was not satisfied. No matter how many exotic themes I applied to my WindowBlinds, It still was not what I was looking for. I wanted something more radical. And so LiteStep emerged on my hard disk. It was a revelation. It was exactly what I had been looking for: not just a different label, but a whole new drink.
LS (LiteStep) was (and is, don’t worry) configured through .rc files, easily editable with every notepad application. This led me to believe that changing your standard shell in Windows was something obscure, for the more techy user (editing configuration files by hand always reminds of “some other OS”). I just could not believe this idea was being commercially exploited. I hoped it was, though, because I just did not want to put so much effort into Windows (hey, that’s where my Linux install comes in).
One day, in my favorite PC magazine, I found out about Talisman. It did the same LS did, but easier, or so the creators of Talisman stated. Yeah right. I kept on using LS, but I kept Talisman in the back of my head. The screenshots in that magazine looked kind of nice. I started doubting already.
Anyway, since I tend to experiment quite a lot on my computer, I bought Talisman and installed it, removing my LS. And now I have been happily using Talisman for some months. I think it is time for a comparison between these two major shell replacements for Windows.
Before starting with the actual comparison I would like to explain the criteria I used.
- Installation: Installing and applying your new shell should not be much of a hassle; it should not damage your system (i.e. placing a wrong entry in the system.ini) and so on.
- Themes: One of the most important points, in my opinion. I will try to address (a) the quality of the themes, (b) the installation, and (c) their availability. I will not talk about the configuration here, since that is more something that belongs to point three.
- Ease of use: A difficult point, since every theme offers a different approach to how you use your desktop, so one theme is more usable than the other. But certain features are similar through all themes, such as the right-click menu, configuration menus, and so on.
The following configuration has been used:
- AMD Athlon XP 1600+ (1400 MHz);
- 512 MB SD-RAM;
- Ati Radeon 9000 128 MB DDR-RAM;
- C-Media CMI8738;
- Realtek 8139;
- 17″ Compaq V75 Monitor, running at 1280×1024, 60 Herz;
- Windows XP Professional/Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition.
Installing LS before the Installer distribution became available was kind of a hassle. You had to manually edit your system.ini file so it started LS as your shell, and not Explorer. With the arrival of the Installer that problem is in the past. Installing LS is quite easy now. The installer lets you decide if you want to install the configuration utilities (such as the Evars configuration utility), if you want the creator’s standard theme installed (I would select yes, it is gorgeous!), if you wish to have a theme selector (I would say ‘yes’ to this one as well). After this the Evars configuration is started. This utility will try to find your system’s default mailer, browser, mp3-player and so on. You can run this utility afterwards at any time, for example when you install a new mp3-player. This is very important, since many themes feature buttons linking to these applications, and they look up the executables by looking at the Evars configuration file. This file is manually editable as well, obviously.
Talisman is as easy to install as any other (regular) program. It is all automated, no configuration necessary. The only thing you have to specify is whether you want to run Talisman in application mode or in shell mode. I think these terms speak for themselves. You can switch between the two modes at any time. I would advise, especially for the novice user, to start off with the application mode. This gives you the opportunity to explore the different possibilities Talisman offers you.
Talisman seems, without a doubt, easier to install, since you do not have to specify any default programs (difficult for the beginner). But, and this ‘but’ is major, this is all kind of a farce; in Talisman, you will have to manually edit the application button’s paths to point to your default programs for every theme. So, at first glance, LS seems more hardcore, more expert-orientated than Talisman, but in the end they really do not differ that much from each other. I would say that configuring your default applications during install makes more sense than doing it manually for every single theme, even though it is quite easy to do say in Talisman. LS wins the ‘Easiest-to-install’ award.
Themes for LS
Giving a proper judgment about the looks of a theme is of course impossible; everybody has their own preferences when it comes to that. Minimalistic, functional, beautiful, Aqua-like, Crystal-like and so on. Anyway, that is not what this paragraph is about.
When it comes to LS themes, there are some things worth mentioning. For starters, LS is open source. This led to the fact that there was not a theme standard from the beginning; every theme had its own manner of installation (some even consisted out of entire LiteStep directories), dependent only on the author’s wishes. This was unacceptable, according to some of the top LS designers/programmers etc. That is why they created the OTS (Open Theme Standard). This was really a giant leap forward for LS. But, as with any open-source based software, there is more than one standard, but, OTS seems to be gaining the most appreciation by the LS community. Look for the ‘OTS compliant’ tag when downloading a theme, it saves you (some) time.
LS is based on AfterStep (http://www.afterstep.org), but nowadays LS bears more resemblance to Enlightenment (http://www.enlightenment.org), in my opinion. Themes for LS tend to have a minimalistic touch, and they are often very functional, with the various objects/buttons using as little desktop-space as possible. LS themes are ‘squared’, not ’rounded’ (you may have no idea what I am talking about, but this is the best description I can give you).
When it comes to quality, LS themes sometimes just aren’t made for ‘every computer on the planet’. This is something that sometimes annoys me. You see a screenshot of a really beautiful theme, you download it, you unzip in the ~\LiteStep\Themes\ directory, you open LSTS (LiteStep Theme Selector), you ‘recycle’ (reload) LS, and you get–Well, you get nothing. Maybe you get your system tray to work; you might get the theme’s wallpaper. And then it is up to you: it might be a missing module, it might be a missing file, it might be the fact that Jupiter aligns with Neptune, it might be anything. Then you remember the solution: shortcuts! LS has shortcuts! You press your keys a hundred times, but nothing happens. Oh yes, every theme has its own shortcuts. Damn.
Installing LS themes is easy, as long as they are OTS compliant. It is really like I stated above; download, unzip, run LSTS, select your new theme and recycle. There is not much to be said here. Just hope for the best when selecting a new theme. As time progresses, though, and you become more of an expert at configuring LS by hand, you will be able to solve the problems new themes give you. But, in the beginning, it can really annoy you. Trust me, I know.
You can get the themes at practically every theme and/or skin site, and they are quite numerous. Remember that downloading/unzipping/recycling is not all you have to do for a new theme: when you get your theme up and running, the fun just started. Many themes come with preconfigured menus/buttons, containing shortcuts to the author’s favorite applications. That’s right, the author’s. This means you will have to edit several .rc files in order to have working shortcuts/buttons. A piece of advice: make a directory, call it ‘menu’ for example, and inside that folder, create directories named ‘apps’, ‘games’ and so on. Place your shortcuts in those directories, and the only thing you will have to do is link your new theme to the ‘menu’ folder.
Themes for Talisman
Themes created for our second contestant are just as easy to install, but they do not have any problems with starting up. As far as I know, they all work. Talisman themes do have another major malfunction: about seventy percent (or so) of the themes are created for the 1024×768 screen resolution, and using them on a higher resolution will leave you with quite a messed up desktop. I do not know whether there is a solution to this, like a convert program of some sort, but I do not believe there is. So if you run 1280×1024, you are in trouble. About thirty percent of the available themes will work, drastically reducing the number of available themes. Since I do not know how many people use a resolution higher than 1024×768 I am unable to tell how serious this problem is.
Talisman themes are a whole different ballgame compared to LS themes. LS themes have this professional look, while Talisman’s are more, how shall I put this, cartoony, colorful, more sugar cane. No, no it does not mean they look childish, not at all, but my knowledge of the English language restricts me in these sorts of terms.
The conclusion is that both shells have their problems when it comes to themes. Their availability is, in both cases, quite good. The general look of the themes is just something that is a matter of taste; or, a matter of what you use your computer for. I would still say that Talisman is the winner here, since themes for this shell at least all work.
Ease Of Use
I have said it a few times before already, configuring LS mainly goes through manually editing .rc files. Luckily, shortcuts to these .rc files are placed during install in your ‘popup.rc’ file (this file describes the contents of your right-click menu, say the ‘Start Menu’), so finding them is quite easy. And even though it seems tricky, editing them is often made easy by the authors; they place descriptions in the .rc files themselves, stating what this and that line is for, and so on.
Talisman, on the other hand, has wrapped the editing up, putting an application around it that they call the ‘Object Editor.’ Instead of manually typing something like: ‘!popup folder c:\LiteStep\menu’ all you have to do is type the directory’s file’s path, and choose an icon for it. The Object Editor is, in my opinion, a really good program. Its usability is high, with help buttons everywhere.
I think it depends on what kind of user you are, when it comes to this point. The more hardcore user will like LS because of the editing that needs to be done. But someone who really isn’t into computers will like Talisman more. It’s the same as with Linux distributions: one will find Mandrake quite satisfying, while others want Gentoo or Debian.
Well, you probably got the point already: there really isn’t a winner when it comes to these two shell replacements for Windows. They both have their good sides, and their bad sides (as with anything, right?). All I can say is: do you want Eye-candy, or do you want functionality? Go for LS for the latter, and go for Talisman for the former.