Themes, screens, skins
Skinning your computer's interface is one of the oldest and best ways to pour on the sparkle and make it your own. The free-to-try application WindowBlinds lets you slip-on several gleaming themes that drastically improve your desktop's face, even more so if you've configured it further. These professional-looking skins are worth a try, especially if you have top-end hardware and RAM to spare.
Another eye-catching replacement for the Windows Start Menu, Taskbar, and side panel, Aston2 Panels brings a blast of fresh air to your display. You'll be able to quickly see your top 10 programs, desktop search bar, and folders list, and instantly view submenus just by scrolling over the folder. Yet, variable skin quality casts a shadow, as does the unfortunate circumstance of the skin for the side panel and Taskbar requiring to be changed separately from its Start Menu kin. There are many good reasons to recommend Aston2 Panels, and the generous trial is long enough for you to give it a thorough test drive.
Swap out your static Windows XP log-in screen for a preselected screen or custom design you make yourself. The free LogonStudio for XP may be a dinosaur by software standards, but it's not extinct yet, and is a good entree to the world of customized skins and themes. If you're familiar with programming languages such as Visual Basic, you'll have no problem hammering together a screen of your own. Others can choose from about 30 free log-on screens from the WinCustomize site.
Dynamic animated wallpaper is one way to bring your desktop to life with sparkle and motion, and it's a good one. Start with DeskScapes' free trio of scenes. If you like them, you can upgrade to the premium version and begin downloading more wallpaper from the online gallery, including some truly creative user submissions.
- CNET editors' rating: 4.5 stars
Microsoft's takes a decidedly dark turn in this black-tinted Zune theme for Windows XP. A bright orange Start box, sharp gradients, and effective gray-on-gray accents make the theme--based on the company's Zune media player--a welcome change from the default blues and greens. We're not especially enamored of the default desktop wallpaper, which lunges away from the cool factor generated by the rest of the theme in favor of cheesiness, but that's an easy enough user customization. The theme looks especially good when coupled with the Firefox Zune theme created by an independent developer.
Free and blockhead-basic, VistaGlazz unlocks several DLLs orchestrating Vista's interface to let you have a crack at prettying it up. Unfortunately, it won't play nice with Vista Service Pack 1 Release Candidates, which you'll have to uninstall to get VistaGlazz going, and then you can reinstall the service pack.