Should You Consider Alternative Windows Shells?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably either brand new to the world of Windows shells, or simply want to find out more about changing the Windows operating environment to match something more suited to your needs.

The first question you need to ask yourself before undertaking the task of applying an alternative desktop environment to your current Windows installation is whether or not this is really something you want to do. After all, part or all of your experience on Windows takes place within a graphic user interface (GUI) that has thrived through familiarity and benefited from countless dollars of usability research on the part of Microsoft. Changing this experience through installing an alternative Windows shell over the existing GUI will change a large amount of your experience.

This article isn’t intended as a how-to (that will come soon enough), but as a general guide of the benefits and drawbacks an alternative Windows shell provides.

Performance Increase

The graphic user interface (GUI) that comes installed with Microsoft Windows is what it is: a robust operating environment with very little customization and a sizable resource overhead. Windows Vista is a prime example of how the default Windows GUI can drain system resources while your computer does little more than display a clock and perhaps a handful of icons.

Many — if not most — shell replacements offer a trimmed interface that frees up valuable resources that would otherwise be hogged by a bloated transparency process. Many of these shells come from the open source world, namely from the same people who create similar desktop environments for Linux. Many Linux distributions boast a remarkably frugal idle resource requirement without sacrificing the gloss and shine that commercial operating systems are known for.


Imagine what your optimal desktop environment would look like given your current monitor and general needs. Chances are, there is a Windows shell replacement out there that comes pretty close to what you might imagine this looking like.

Perhaps you want four virtual desktops that can easily be switched between, or two task bars with one on the top and another on the bottom of your screen? There may even be a particular Linux distribution that you like the look and feel of, but wish you had the program compatibility of Windows. This is the very purpose of shell replacements: to make your experience as suited to your personal needs as possible.

If you want your Windows machine to look and act like a Mac, you can make it happen through one of several themes that turn your task bar into a dock and almost everything else into a complete duplicate of OS X.

Most Are Free

The open source community is an incredible force behind the creation of alternative desktop environments. In fact, the majority of the shells you’ll find are made available in an open source capacity, free for anyone to try and enjoy without any investment required.

Operating on Windows XP, Vista, and even Windows 7, these free environments range from simple and barebones to extremely complex.

Some notable free Windows shell replacement solutions for Windows 7 include:

There are also plenty of options out there to turn your Windows desktop into something that looks and feels as though you were running OS X. If all you really want to experience is the look and feel of OS X without losing program compatibility or spend the extra money for a Mac, you may find what you’re looking for in a shell replacement.

Easily Installable, Easily Removed

Perhaps one of the biggest sources of hesitation among first-time shell replacement and advanced theme users is based around the assumption that if something changes the way Windows looks or functions, it will probably break the operating system or require a full system restore to fix.

Should You Consider Alternative Windows Shells?While it is technically possible for any piece of software to corrupt a Windows installation, the folks behind most (if not all) of the alternative desktop environment projects out there make their themes to be easily added and removed. During the time I wrote this article, no less than two completely different desktop environments were loaded (and safely removed) on my Windows 7 machine using tools built in to the theme management software.

One method theme creators use to make installation and uninstallation easier on the user is by going through a tool pack such as CustoPack Tools. These programs will manage and provide customization options for each theme, making minor adjustments and toggling various features a matter of a few mouse clicks with no programming or design experience required.

While writing this post, I tried out the Mac OS X Lion Inspirat theme made available through CustoPack. This theme was fairly easy to install, with plenty of room for customization. All I needed to do was download the theme after installing CustoPack tools, run it, and reset the machine after setting a couple preferences. Removing the theme after testing was even easier, with just two mouseclicks between one desktop environment and the default Windows 7 theme.

Final Thoughts

Technology is there to enjoy. Why should you suffer through a mediocre experience when you can customize it in a way that fits your personal tastes and needs? Exploring third-party (and built-in) tools to help create an environment that allows you to maximize productivity is part of a greater experience technology can provide, and one of the main reasons that I enjoy doing what I do.

If in doubt, use the tools that sites such as SourceForge make available and read the reviews other users have left regarding a particular shell prior to trying it out. Back up any important data and/or programs prior to installing anything, which is good advice no matter what type of software you’re adding to the existing operating system.

Who knows? You might find the perfect working environment out there without having to change your operating system or replace any existing software at all.

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.

  • Diablo

    Great article, I used some that were made for Vista years ago and it totally messed my whole system up. But that was ages ago I’ll have to give them a go again. SharpEnviro looks pretty sleek.

    • Matt Ryan

      What happened, specifically? Do you remember which shell gave you the issue? The ones I’ve been researching for this article (and my own personal use) have been easy in / easy out, though any warnings would certainly benefit the readers.

  • It

    How about alternative Mac OSX shells?

    • Matt Ryan

      That’s a good idea.

  • Lyle

    I’ve been using Aston Desktop since I got if free from Give-a-way-of-the-day nearly 2 years ago now for my XP VM.   I’m pretty happy with it.   I can pretty much make it look like anything including Win7, but settled on the one in link below.   I highly recommend customization definitely for XP OSs for sure.   :)

    • Matt Ryan


  • Kerns Phoegon

    I believe the problem with is, is that to install custom UI and not fluff it up to high heavens and back, and understand what’s being shown, you actually need to understand windows, and those that do are able to find this out for them selfs.

    Though anyone who’s not fully sure what’s going on, or what’s being shown, or what changed is being set up to fail in frustration and failure if in the likely case they mess it up some how.

    • Matt Ryan

      I’m not sure I follow. You’re saying that this isn’t for the faint of heart, and there are issues that will cause frustration, but not mentioning any specific problems that have/may arise? Please share and we can all benefit from the information. :)

  • Ernest Koncaba

    Sorry, but I like my Windows, as is.

  • Simon Robinson

    Thanks for the tip I’m off to give a Mac one a go at work!

  • Cunawarit

    I find it best not to stray away from what Microsoft intended. Windows isn’t Linux, and using a different shell will never feel as slick as the default Windows 7 UI. It may be better in some places, granted. If you are used to Mac OS X, you might prefer a dock. But something else will no doubt suffer. 

    I also disagree that Aero is mediocre, Aero in Windows 7 is slick. I would argue that you are better off learning to use Aero well than making Windows to be something that it isn’t.


    Thanks for the
    clarification. Now I know what a Windows Shell is.

    Before Windows, heck
    before DOS, (Using a TI99/4a) we used to call it our display and
    after Windows it was called, heck, I can’t even remember. (My first
    IBM clone had Windows 3.1)

    I understand that new nomenclature
    sometimes is necessary to try and explain a new procedure, but does
    it have to happen seemingly every few months. Please give us old
    timers, those of us who do not make our living with computers a
    break, and try to keep the name the same so we can keep up with the
    game. :-)

  • johnwerneken

    Which ones..esp for win8…do you believe at least work and may be worth lookin at?

  • Mcudahy

    I’m no techie, and every time I try to modify Windows, I get snake bit!

  • Derek Witt

    How about LiteStep (if that still is being made)?  A very good approximation of Windowmaker/AfterStep. :)

  • Derek Witt

    I could see someone coming up with a Windowmaker like theme for Emerge Desktop. :)

  • frozen_dude

    I remember that I tried BlackBox for Windows (both as is, and as included in a desktop suite with many included programs; henceforth called “bb”), and after running it a while, while I did love it, some programs decided to crash at certain points, which I concluded probably is because bb probably does not register the same com and abi interfaces towards programs that explorer.exe does. So I actually think running bb on Linux, and then running your program under Wine gives better mileage, since Wine emulates the explorer abi near-perfectly.

  • Jonathan Wakeman

    These sound pretty cool I will try them out.

  • ijcl

    I was half expecting you talking about CLI alternatives such as PowerShell… XD

  • ashley isbitt

    what did you do with your superbar in the os x theme?