Whether the skinning software uses the uxtheme.dll visual style engine shouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker in terms of selecting the skinning software you want to use on your computer. An important aspect of a skinning software package is the availability of premade skins that can be downloaded and then used by a particular skinning software package. The packages discussed in this section all provide access to additional themes, theme elements, and visual styles.
You will see that each of the theme/skinning software utilities discussed in this section has its own user interface and command set. Although they do share some similarities, the capability to quickly change GUI settings using the software should play a role in your selection.
Compatibility with Windows XP is also an issue when using skinning software. I have spent time exploring each of the software packages covered in this chapter and have found that they neither slow the system nor do they cause any obvious problems in Windows XP.
In terms of Style XP, StarSkin, and WindowBlinds, good support is available via the Web and each of these packages has been updated over time, meaning they are all viable products. Each of these products has a fairly extensive user base, as well. Chapter 6 looks more closely at each of these skinning software utilities.
Each skinning software package has pros and cons. Because all the packages discussed here can be downloaded as trial software, you might want to download each and spend some time putting it through its paces. It is the best way to select a package to buy.
So, what are some of the choices in terms of skinning software? Let's take a look.
TopThemes Manager (http://www.topthinks.com/) is a theme manager that makes controlling (and modifying) the various theme elements (such as icons, mouse pointers, background, and so on) easy. It is primarily a control center that lets you quickly and easily select the various theme elements (see Figure 5.1).
Figure 5.1. TopThemes Manager provides a simple interface for controlling theme elements.
In the TopThemes Manager documentation, it notes that TopThemes Manager is to be used in conjunction with Windows XP Plus!. So, the software doesn't really qualify as a true skinning engine and does not provide any capabilities that allow you to use or get around the uxtheme.dll visual style engine (as, say, Style XP or StarSkin does). TopThemes Manager does, however, enable you to modify the Windows boot and logon screens.
Style XP from TGTSoft Corporation (http://www.tgtsoft.com/) is a skinning package that allows you to manage themes, theme elements, and visual styles. The Style XP command window (see Figure 5.2) can be used to set options related to the software, and a set of buttons provides quick access to theme elements and other options, such as logons and boot screens.
Figure 5.2. Style XP provides a command window that enables you to download theme elements and visual styles.
Style XP also allows you to control the transparency settings for the Windows interface and to rotate your skin elements (such as the theme or visual style) either each time you log on to the computer or on a daily or weekly basis.
When you want to download new theme elements or visual styles from the Web, you can do so directly from the Style XP window. Other features include the capability to customize Windows Explorer (basically skin it with new icons and other visual settings). We will talk more about using Style XP in Chapter 6.
Style XP uses the built-in Windows skinning engine (uxtheme.dll) to apply skins to the Windows environment. This is good in terms of system performance because it doesn't add its own skinning engine to Windows. However, while this fact is a plus, it is also a disadvantage because Style XP fools uxtheme.dll into accepting skins that are not digitally signed, and system stability problems can therefore arise.
The maker of Style XP, TGTSoft, also provides a separate software tool for creating your own visual styles; this allows you to assemble your own theme elements and then create a specific visual style for the theme. We discuss Style XP in Chapter 8, "Creating Windows XP Skins with TGTSoft StyleBuilder."
StarSkin from RocketDivision (http://www.rocketdivision.com) is a skinning package that enables you to control theme elements; visual styles; and other properties of the Windows GUI, such as the boot and logon screens. StarSkin provides a control window that is highly reminiscent of the Windows Display Properties dialog box (see Figure 5.3).
Figure 5.3. StarSkin provides an easy-to-use interface for theme, visual style, and other interface component control.
StarSkin integrates itself with the Windows visual style engine, and you can download additional themes and visual styles (from various websites) directly from the StarSkin control window, which can be quickly opened from the Windows notification tray.
StarSkin provides the simplest interface of the skinning packages (as already mentioned, it is similar to the Windows Display Properties dialog box). It also uses the uxtheme.dll skinning engine and so requires no additional system overhead. Of the three most popular skinning packages (StarSkin, Style XP, and WindowBlinds), it is the only platform that doesn't provide a utilitiy for creating skins. We put StarSkin through its paces in Chapter 6.
WindowBlinds from Stardock Corporation (www.stardock.com) is a theme/skinning software package that uses its own skinning engine to extend the capabilities of Windows visual style engine. According to the WindowBlinds documentation, Stardock worked closely with Microsoft to integrate WindowBlinds with Windows XP. In addition, WindowBlinds is capable of using the graphics accelerator of newer video cards, meaning the visual styles can be more quickly applied to the Windows interface (don't forget that all the GUI graphics you deal with in Windows do have to be rendered for your monitor by your graphics adapter).
WindowBlinds is compatible with other versions of Windows, including Windows 98, Me, and 2000. This is unique among the skinning engines discussed in this chapter.
WindowBlinds provides control over many aspects of the Windows GUI and goes beyond themes and visual styles in that it lets you quickly and easily change GUI animation and edit toolbar settings. Figure 5.4 shows the WindowBlinds interface.
Figure 5.4. WindowBlinds enables you to completely skin the Windows environment.
WindowBlinds is also integrated with the Display Properties dialog box and can be quickly loaded directly from the Appearance tab of the Display Properties dialog box.
WindowBlinds can be purchased as part of an integrated skinning application package called Object Desktop. Stardock's Object Desktop includes a number of tools for creating icons, creating skins (SkinStudio), and extending the skinnability of Windows XP. We discuss Object Desktop in more depth in Chapter 9, "Creating Windows XP Skins with Stardock SkinStudio."
WindowBlinds differs from the other popular skinning packages (particularly StarSkin and Style XP) in that it supplies its own skinning engine and uses its own skinning language. This is good in terms of system stability (it doesn't hack or manipulate important system files), but it does have a slight cost in system overhead. WindowBlinds is particularly attractive because it is part of Stardock's Object Desktop. The Object Desktop includes a skin creator (SkinStudio) and several other tools for skinning the Windows environment. We cover the features provided by WindowBlinds and its companion Theme Manager in Chapter 6.