Does Windows 7 return customization to the forefront?

For years it seemed like every new application and operating system was touting its "skinning" capabilities. Then, abruptly, this trend stopped with the release of Windows Vista as developers began to return to providing a more consistent experience for PC users.

To new visitors of Neowin, having a front page story on skinning might seem unusual. Yet, Neowin got its start largely tracking skinning technology back in the run-up to "Whistler" (what became known as Windows XP). Neowin and its users have long tracked the ebb and flow in the popularity of skinning.

At one time, Neowin contained a side-bar dedicated to customization sites and the skinning forums on Neowin were the most popular. Windows Vista and more specifically Aero (the name for the user interface present in Windows Vista and Windows 7) made Windows look nice enough on its own that skinning and customization programs fell out of favor.

Part of the problem is that many of the the skins for these customization programs were either ugly, could affect performance for some people, or showed incompatibilities with lesser known programs. In the age of Windows XP, users tolerated these issues. With Windows Vista and now 7, the drawbacks are no longer worth the benefits that these programs offered.

While programs like Object Desktop, Winamp, Firefox skins, Google Chrome skins, and so forth remain popular, there is no doubt that the skinning features of these programs are no longer major competitive features. Media Player 12 still technically has skins but it no longer comes with any.

That isn't to say that users don't use skins anymore. Sites like WinCustomize.com and deviantART continue to attract millions of monthly visitors. However, I think it is safe to say that skinning, that was once on the verge of becoming ubiquitous has returned to being the niche once was.

Does this mean that customization is over for Windows users? Developers such as Stardock (full disclosure: I work there in addition to Neowin) believe that customization needs to evolve with the times. This month, it released next-generation versions of two of its most popular desktop customization programs that put that question to the test.

DeskScapes 3, as we reported last week, gives Windows users the ability to play animated wallpapers. But unlike previous versions, it also enhances existing "static" wallpapers. In essence, all those Photoshop effects users might play with to tweak images to be proper desktop backgrounds are part of the program (except that it works on the image in memory rather than changing the actual file). A host other features have been added that are designed to "customize" what is already there rather than replace (i.e. skin). See a video example here.

Yesterday, WindowBlinds 7 was released. Unlike every previous version of WindowBlinds, version 7 doesn't focus on providing ever fancier skinning options but rather includes a new option to skin Aero itself. Or more accurately, to customize Aero beyond what the OS provides as well as customizing existing skins (adding textures and color mixing and such) so that users aren't spending all their time hunting for a "visual style" they like and instead tweaking the ones they already like.

This video on our partner site, WinCustomize.com helps give the Neowin perspective on the matter.

The challenge skinners and skin program developers alike are likely to face in the age of Windows 7 is whether users want to replace (skin) their programs or whether they are looking for tools to simply enhance/customize what they already have. Of course, like always, most users won't even change the default desktop background or color - life for those users will continue as it always has.

View: Neowin: Customizing Windows 7 forum
View: Neowin: Skinning forum
View: Neowin: WindowBlinds forum

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32 Comments

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I may be incorrect but I thought skinning died down due to the complexity involved in creating and using skins in Vista as opposed to XP.

^ I hardly call what you showed in that video worth the small price. It's cheap and tacky. If designers wanted to apply basic photoshop textures they would do it when they made it. Ruins the theme and your example proves it.

[youtube]QsogswrH6ck[/youtube]

You're right it is my opinion. I think the other things you can do such as hue and tint are equally bad. As a designer it bugs me when you mess with the original. You can already change the color of Aero using the built-in utility if it bores you.

I trialed the commercial products, with XP and Vista, but couldn't find any skins that I liked. I found the majority, including those by Stardock, tacky. Sugary themes designed by a twelve year old on too much red cordial seems to be the norm.

I ended up using the UX (?) cracks and now something called VistaGlazz and finding themes (styles) on DeviantArt, where thankfully there are some nice simple and stylish themes available that cater to my taste.

Well I'm one of the (few) Aero haters out there, and one of the main reasons I'm reluctant to fully switch over to 7 is the lack of tasty minimalist skins available! So far I've only found *one* which I find usable enough.

hotdog963al said,
Well I'm one of the (few) Aero haters out there, and one of the main reasons I'm reluctant to fully switch over to 7 is the lack of tasty minimalist skins available! So far I've only found *one* which I find usable enough.

You should try Ubuntu. Download some slick gnome icon sets and backgrounds from deviantART, or use gnome art NG. For me, windows vista/7 machines are dull, but I guess some people like their desktops to look identical to every other windows user. I'm like you, I like to be able customise to my hearts content.

Theming/Skinning never died. The want/need for themes never died either. If there were high quality/professional themes regularly released over these last few years nothing would have changed. What changed was the quality of work. I'm not saying everything, but most themes released in the last 3-4 years are just awful. Even the Stardock Premium themes suffer. Most of the releases are re-branding/re-coloring with little new design. It wouldn't be so bad if the initial design was truly exceptional but recycling poor designs again and again drives customers away.

The main reason why theming 'died' is because Microsoft made a nice theme. Aero is really great, 3rd party themes never came close to the quality of the default theme so why would anyone downgrade for pink elephants and dragons? The reason the XP days of theming was so great was because Luna set the bar quite low, Aero raised it and designers didn't have any incentive to up the ante.

So to answer the article question, no Windows 7 doesn't return customization to the forefront. Continue to release crappy themes and prepare for an encore. Stardock has a unique position to set an example for the rest. So quit making mediocre themes and hire some great designers, or re-hire them.

I believe that it was the horrid look of Luna (default style in Windows XP) that drove the skinning community the most.

With Windows 7 I've customized my own desktop background packs with various themes such as cars, space, landscapes and (when the wife's not around) babes! The default look is good straight out of the box although I did tinker with the transparency for a not so glassy look.

WindowBlinds was essential for Windows XP but Vista and especially Windows 7 have relegated it to the sidelines.

Aero is good enough for most people, and perfect for an even greater number of people. It's clean, unobtrusive and professional looking while adding a sheen that makes you raise an eyebrow to notice but not to distract you from your work.

I used to use WB back in XP because Luna was not mine or many other's preference and XP didn't skin all programs or buttons completely sometimes. With Aero, this is not a problem and full out skinning programs aren't needed by most so popularity declines on the subject.

As alluded to in other posts, I don't really think it's the programs that aren't any good, or any particular dip in quality of skins (most have been rubbish for years), it's the fact that Windows 7 just looks nice anyway. You can customise the colour if you want and really that's all you need to do with it.

In answer to the article's question, 'are these new programs the answer' I would have to say no. That's not because they are bad programs, they just are programs that now are redundant.

WindowBlinds lost my support with the lack of customization available in Vista; I've since moved to Windows 7 and I don't feel the need to lag the system down with 3rd party skinning since the UI looks pretty good as is. Honestly, WindowBlinds 7 looks like it's just a fancy way to add backgrounds and colors to the existing UI.

Atm the only thing I want a skin for in Win 7 is WMP12. Unfortunately none of the ones provided on their site is very good looking (to me anyway), and I haven't been able to find any on deviantART.
And themes still appeal to me in firefox.

This article began well. Talking about overall and streamlined experience for applications is important now.
It was meant to talk about Starsock apps, which isn't wrong by any means, but it would be nice if Neowin implemented some sort of "paid-for" reviews or articles. And letting us now, that is.

I think that even with the vast amount of skins, themes, etc the user is more driven by consistent visual elements among windows or applications.

ajua said,
This article began well. Talking about overall and streamlined experience for applications is important now.
It was meant to talk about Starsock apps, which isn't wrong by any means, but it would be nice if Neowin implemented some sort of "paid-for" reviews or articles. And letting us now, that is.

I think that even with the vast amount of skins, themes, etc the user is more driven by consistent visual elements among windows or applications.

Stardock is the largest owner of Neowin. I work at Stardock. Obviously, articles that are of interest to us are going to tend to get coverage.

In addition, customization is where Neowin got its start. In the "old days" articles on skinning and such were the norm. It's only in the last few years, particularly since the release of Aero for the reasons others have stated.

The article is an attempt to talk about whether skinning is still even relevant with Windows 7 and to show how programs that traditionally "skinned" in the past have moved to a different strategy and question whether that strategy will succeed or not.

Frogboy said,

Stardock is the largest owner of Neowin. I work at Stardock. Obviously, articles that are of interest to us are going to tend to get coverage.

In addition, customization is where Neowin got its start. In the "old days" articles on skinning and such were the norm. It's only in the last few years, particularly since the release of Aero for the reasons others have stated.

The article is an attempt to talk about whether skinning is still even relevant with Windows 7 and to show how programs that traditionally "skinned" in the past have moved to a different strategy and question whether that strategy will succeed or not.

It's your site, so you can do what you want with it and I'm not looking to start any trouble, but you don't just "work at Stardock" you own Stardock and therefore I guess you own Neowin.net. Just don't forget why people come to Neowin.net, that's all.

ajua said,
This article began well. Talking about overall and streamlined experience for applications is important now.
It was meant to talk about Starsock apps, which isn't wrong by any means, but it would be nice if Neowin implemented some sort of "paid-for" reviews or articles. And letting us now, that is.

I think that even with the vast amount of skins, themes, etc the user is more driven by consistent visual elements among windows or applications.

Sorta like pulling a "Bel-Air" from under ya, eh? :P

Frogboy said,
The article is an attempt to talk about whether skinning is still even relevant with Windows 7 and to show how programs that traditionally "skinned" in the past have moved to a different strategy and question whether that strategy will succeed or not.

I use to be into skinning back in the day but for whatever reason that doesn't bother me as much anymore. I'll change the wallpaper but Aero is cool enough that I don't bother going any further. So from my perspective, skinning is not relevant.

ir0nw0lf said,
The lack of the "classic" start menu mode out of the box seems to be a big bummer to several of my customers.


I seriously fail to understand why people are upset at the lack of a classic start menu. The new layout, even in classic mode, provides more functionality, and takes all of five minutes to learn.

More importantly the lack of icons on the right hand side of start menu. In XP I can instantly see what everything is at a glance... in Vista and 7, I have to read the labels. Hovering over the label to see the icon defeats the point of icons in the first place.
It's a tiny time waster, but there was no need to create it.

You just type in the program you looking for in the search box, can't be to difficult can it. Far better than the classical menu where it took ages to find the application your looking for. Since Vista, my desktop isn't cluttered with a tonload of icons which I never used.

I agree with Frylock86. I can't stand the classic start menu. The new start menu was a pain to get used to but once you adopt it, you'll find its much easier and quicker to do things. I love the last used programs list. I always choose to show 15 programs and use small icons. I rarely ever need to even go into my "All Programs" menu. Turn on your administrative tools and change control panel to menu and you're flying.

ir0nw0lf said,
The lack of the "classic" start menu mode out of the box seems to be a big bummer to several of my customers.

I wanted to chime in here and express my utter fascination that ANYONE would want to revert to the classic start menu from Windows 7s. It is just superior in every way possible to the prior start menus.

Tim Dawg said,
. Turn on your administrative tools and change control panel to menu and you're flying.

Hell, why bother with that? I just hit the winkey, type in part of the control panel function I want, arrow down once or twice and press enter. No mouse even necessary, and a gazillion times faster than any other method.

I recently upgraded from XP to Windows 7 and for the first time I don't feel like customizing look of applications at all! W7 is good enough for me on its own.