Before we discuss downloading and installing skinning software, there is an alternative skinning possibility that you can use. You can patch the Windows XP uxtheme.dll skinning engine so that you can then apply visual styles that are not digitally signed (which is a requirement for any visual style using the unpatched uxtheme.dll).
Now, skinning software, such as Style XP or WindowBlinds have their own strategies for taking control of the visual aspects of the Windows interface and they are designed to do this without damaging the Windows OS or messing with files that are part of the OS such as the uxtheme.dll. In the case of Style XP it works with the uxtheme.dll skinning engine. WindowBlinds uses its own strategy to take control of the Windows skin using a skinning language.
Patching the uxtheme.dll means you are messing with a system file. And this isn't normally something you should undertake. However, we are not talking about modifying the OS kernel or a .dll file that is essential to the basic functioning of Windows. So, you can patch the native skinning engine file (uxtheme.dll), but you have to do it cautiously.
Let's take a look at how you patch the uxtheme.dll file using a freeware utility. The first thing you should do is make a backup copy of the file. Because this is the file you will patch, it makes sense to make a copy of the original (unpatched) and place it in a folder for safekeeping. Then, if your system doesn't seem to be operating correctly, you can copy the original uxtheme.dll back to the proper location (C:\Windows\system32). This should restore your system to normal.
If you attempt to patch the uxtheme.dll file, you are taking a risk and can make the system unstable. So, this free alternative to buying skinning software might be more trouble than it is worth (because you are modifying a system file). Even though patching the uxtheme.dll file isn't necessarily a recipe for disaster (however, again, attempt at your own risk), I don't recommend that you patch it if you have just one computer that serves an extremely important function (say, for a small business or for someone's educational purposes).
Several utilities can perform the patching process. One of the latest tools (at the time that this book was written) for patching the uxtheme.dll file is UXTheme Multi-Patcher (and it seems to be the most foolproof of the bunch).
UXTheme Multi-Patcher can be downloaded from www.themes.belchfire.net (do a search for "Multi-Patcher" from the main Belchfire page). The Belchfire website also provides a number of Windows skins and visual styles. After patching uxtheme.dll, you should be able to take advantage of the visual styles provided by Belchfire (as well as other websites).
UXTheme Multi-Patcher version 2.0 is compatible with Windows XP SP2 and provides the capability to restore the original uxtheme.dll file.
The UXTheme Multi-Patcher program downloads as an executable file (see Figure 5.5). When you are ready to begin the patching process, locate the file (in the folder you used as the download target) and then double-click the downloaded file.
Figure 5.5. The UXTheme Multi-Patcher downloads as an executable file.
If you are running SP2 on your computer, you might receive a security message. Click Run to continue. A second message appears, letting you know that Multi-Patcher 2.0 works only with the Windows SP2 English version. Click OK to continue.
The Multi-Patcher window opens (see Figure 5.6). It provides a short summary of the installation process (basically, you run the patch and then reboot). If you want to unpatch the uxtheme.dll file, all you have to do is run the Multi-Patcher a second time.
Figure 5.6. Click the Patch button to patch the uxtheme.dll file.
To run the Multi-Patcher, click Patch. A new screen appears; it asks you to wait until a Windows File Protection box opens. This box is attempting to restore the file you are patching (because uxtheme.dll is a system file). In the Windows File Protection box, click Cancel. You are then asked whether you want to keep the unrecognized system files. Click Yes.
This takes you back to the Multi-Patcher message box. Click OK to close the box. A final box appears, letting you know you have to reboot the system to complete the installation; click OK to reboot.
Now comes the real test: After rebooting the system, you can test whether the patch worked. To do so, you need a visual style file that is not digitally signed (meaning a file other than the default XP style Luna. You also can't use any visual styles provided by Microsoft Plus! for Windows XP because they are digitally signed.
The easiest way to get a visual style file to test the patched uxtheme.dll is to download the visual style. See the section "Downloading Themes and Skins," later in this chapter. But for continuity's sake, the best place to quickly snag a visual style is http://themes.belchfire.net/. Navigate to the XP Visual Styles link on the Belchfire main page.
You can also manually patch the uxtheme.dll file on your system. Go to http://themes.belchfire.net/index.php?showtopic=9001. This page provides links to patched versions of uxtheme.dll (depending on which service packs you have installed) and provides instructions for performing the manual patch.
When you click this link, you are taken to a list of themes and visual styles that are available for download. Download the themes and visual styles to an appropriate folder on your computer. The files come in the Zip format, so after you locate the file, you can use the Extraction Wizard to extract the files.
Because we are interested in the visual style files, you should set up Windows Explorer so you can see the file type when a list of files is shown. In the Explorer window, click the View menu and then select Details. Now you can see the file type for each file you have extracted from the Zip file. Visual styles are listed with a file type of Windows visual style file.
After you have extracted a style file to a particular folder, you can see whether the patched uxtheme.dll will load it. Double-click the downloaded visual style file. The Display Properties dialog box should open with the Appearance tab selected (see Figure 5.7).
Figure 5.7. The Display Properties dialog box opens with the new visual style loaded.
The new visual style (the one you double-clicked) should be selected in the Windows and Buttons drop-down box and the Color Scheme box. To apply the visual style, you can click Apply or OK. The visual style is then applied to the Windows interface.
One of the disadvantages of using the patch is that you have to manually load the visual styles you download. This means double-clicking the visual style file each time you want to add it to the Display Properties dialog box. Remember that the various skinning software tools we have discussed in this chapter let you easily access a list of downloaded visual styles and themes and quickly load them. This isn't the case with the free patch.
Although I was lucky and the patch worked on my system, it doesn't always work. If you check out the discussion posts on the http://themes.belchfire.net/index.php?showtopic=8767 web page (the page for the Multi-Patcher download), you will find that a number of users attempting to patch uxtheme.dll have had problems. Some of them have been able to fix the problems, but others have not.
So, the free patch can work, but something you don't get with the free patch is a set of tools that make it easier to control themes, visual styles, and other visual elements of the Windows desktop (such as logon and boot screens). You have to decide whether you would be better off using one of the skinning software packages discussed in this chapter. They all offer a custom interface for dealing with skins, and some of these programs are closely integrated with software that enables you to create your own skins. Considering the relatively low cost of these packages (and the fact that they won't destabilize the Windows environment), you might want to purchase one.
Remember in the case of Multi-Patcher that you can attempt to restore the original uxtheme.dll by running the Multi-Patcher software a second time. This should restore the original file.