Shell Replacements

Date: 2008-11-02 11:52:02 Created: null

What's a Shell Anyway?

Somewhere in the land between plain vanilla Windows and exciting alternatives lie the realm of shell replacements. The shell for Windows is called explorer.exe and is what you see when you start windows; the taskbar, start menu and desktop. As you might imagine, switching those out for something else can change the appearance and functionality of Windows quite radically. It can also be a slightly overwhelming experience at first, at least if you start with LiteStep as I did. Other shell replacements provide very nice and easy installation procedures that makes shell switching as easy as installing any other program.

So It's All About Looks?

Well, not really. The change in looks are the most appearant thing, but if it was only about that it wouldn't be too exciting. Most shells also offer a whole lot of different/additional functionality to take the place of the taskbar et al, often through plugins. LiteStep in particular has thousands of plugins available to do everything from controlling Winamp to providing a command bar to supplying multiple desktops.

Also, changing the shell doesn't change all the looks. All windows still look and work just like they always have, it's still Windows running behind a new and nicer facade. The programs that look and work as usual also include Internet Explorer and the file explorer by the way, explorer.exe is a totally different thing from those two. Also remember that this isn't anything like installing a different operating system, switching out the shell doesn't affect compatibility in any way.

Will Shells Hurt Me?

Well, not unless you're running Windows ME it seems ... If you look in your Windows folder you'll find the file explorer.exe there. That's the one working as default shell. What a shell replacement does is take over the job of that file. This is done by setting the exe file of the shell to load instead of explorer when Windows starts. Doing this takes all the work of changing one line in the text file system.ini. The line, by default, goes "shell=explorer.exe" and will be changed to point at the new shell instead. Simple as that! And removing a shell is no more difficult than changing the line back to point at explorer again. Most shells can even do these settings by themselves, even better if you worry about editing system files!

... which brings us to the problem I found with Windows ME. I did a prefectly legal install of LiteStep on a friend's computer, and after reboot the stupid Windows went "couldn't load this file. You need to reinstall Windows." That wasn't the case of course, re-editing system.ini fixed everything again. Only we couldn't get into Windows of course, and ME has got rid of DOS, so we had to use an old Win95 bootdisk to get to system.ini ... So, there can be problems, but they're nothing you can't get around. Since I don't have ME myself I haven't conducted any research in getting around that problem, but I do know all other Windows flavours will happily run under other shells.

Many people also state that moving away from the usual Explorer provides vastly increased stability and/or speed, but I'm afraid I haven't noticed much of that myself. Maybe I just tinker too much :-) ...


... you say. They're different from Windows, they take some getting used to, they might come without the documentation and support of Windows, and it seems they can sometimes be less stable than Windows as well. Why get them?

Well, I'd like to list the first thing above as a reason. Difference is cool, and differences are often improvements as well. Most shell replacements liberates the start menu from the annoying start button and put it one click on the desktop away, along with additional goodies as well. Virtual window managers very common in different shells gives you lots of extra desktop real estate without requiring a larger, better monitor. Advanced command prompts gives you the power of the run prompt squared, with aliases for your favourite programs (type icq to start ICQ and so on).

Configuration is another huge advantage. The amount varies from shell to shell of course, but most have lots more of it than explorer. Hordes of different plugins or modules can be loaded and configured to make exactly the interface you like. How about nothing but a command prompt on a black background? No problem. Sixteen virtual desktops, a system resource indicator, quick Winamp controls and skinned shortcut buttons on the right side of the desktop? You name it, you can have it! All it takes is a little more interest in shells than you had before :-) ...

Another important point is that a different shell has a much higher geek value than boring old explorer :-) ...

Anything Else?

Well, check out the sub pages to read more about the shells I've tried. I've used LiteStep the most by a wide margin, but I've installed and played around a little with several more. Stability and configuration issues have made me go back to Explorer a few times, but sooner or later I tend to come back when Explorer grows too grey :-) ...