Wednesday, November 13, 2013 by Frogboy | Discussion: OS Customization
WindowBlinds 1.0 was released in November 1998! Since then, it�s gotten over 100 MILLION downloads! Over on CNET�s Download.com version 8 has received over 18 million downloads.
It was the first program to enable users to customize the look and feel of the Windows GUI. 15 years later it is still going strong. Let�s take a look at its evolution in pictures.
Changed window frames, menu bars.
Yea, this was the config UI we had..cough..
Adds per-window skinning, semi-transparent explorer windows, skin colorizing
Desktop light sourcing
WindowBlinds gets into retail!
WindowBlinds used to send data back to us on what skins people had. We took this out because users were unhappy about their �privacy� (anonymous data being sent). Seems quaint now.
WindowBlinds skins supported adding buttons and other objects into the frames (such as this stock ticker).
Remember AOL? Their client was a huge pain the skin correctly. Also, look at the BeOS skin.
MacOS�s �Aqua� look for its newly launched MacOS X helped make WindowBlinds incredibly popular for Windows users who suddenly recognized how ugly Windows NT/2000 were.
In fact, making Windows look like other, less ugly, OSes was a big deal.
Designed with Windows XP in mind, 3.0 was the first version that could skin every part of the Windows GUI. The competition had stiffened as Microsoft had released uxtheme.dll that, once hacked, allowed people to create GUI skins freely. WindowBlinds thus had to provide significant value-add to justify $20.
The quality of the skins had to really go up to compete with the bland but free uxtheme skins.
Third-parties began licensing WindowBlinds for marketing purposes (Nvidia here)
(The Microsoft XBox team here � one wonders what the Windows team felt about this at the time)
Sometiems it was just a matter of making Windows XP look a bit nicer than Windows XP defaulted to.
Other times it was about reminding power users just how gimped the Windows XP �Luna� UI made Windows.
Version 4 was the point where WindowBlinds �won� the contest versus uxtheme.dll in that it could not only do everything it could do and more but version 4 made use of DirectX draw acceleration to make WindowBlinds substantially faster (i.e. noticeably faster) than using Windows XP without it.
However, this popularity would come at a price � the quality of the average skin submitted became substantially lower. WindowBlinds skins acquired the reputation for being ugly, gaudy, fat.
WindowBlinds 4 added a lot of neat controls for controlling how coloring worked.
The era of Aero had arrived. Microsoft was finally taking the aesthetics of Windows seriously and created a new glassy looking UI called Aero. WindowBlinds 5 was designed to support per-pixel alpha blending, toolbar button changing, progress animation improvements, animated per-pixel Start menus, title bars, etc.
Aero all the time
Our own take on Aero
However, the problem Stardock and its community faced was that a �complete� skin was a significant amount of labor. Thus, a lot of the most talented skinners began finding other things to spend their time on. It wasn�t �fun� anymore.
WindowBlinds 6 added the ability to apply effects such as Gaussian blurs to skins in real-time. However, the biggest change came in the new configuration because it was becoming clear that the number of high quality new skins was dwindling (while the user base continued to increase). The new config allowed end users to heavily modify their skin library.
That dragon is fully animated and so is the title bar.
The new config allowed users to do all kinds of crazy things to their skins and then save them as a sub-style
The official World of Warcraft skin got a second life with WindowBlinds 6
The Elemental skin for WindowBlinds 6
It is with some irony that WindowBlinds 7 was ready in time for Windows 7 (the versions being the same was coincidence). WindowBlinds 7 introduced a new type of skinning format called UIS0 which allowed users to just modify the existing Aero skin. This made WindowBlinds a lot more popular for people who liked Aero but wanted a bit nicer look and feel to it.
A new, simpler and just as powerful config window.
Stardock began contracting professionals to make skins to ensure that there were some good, new, benchmark skins available.
Mac inspired skins remained popular
So with UIS0, you could apply a texture and color to the existing Windows 7 Aero making it look, imo, much nicer.
Version 8 was mostly about getting WindowBlinds to work on Windows 8. Microsoft essentially gimped the underlying window theming system they had � they killed Aero! No Aero, no UIS0. They replaced it with the stripped down UI seen in Windows 8 and 8.1.
Once again, a new and improved configuration UI.
WindowBlinds 8 is still very new, what but the challenge going forward is coming up with new and interesting ways to skin the Windows GUI that make it attractive for new users! Visit www.windowblinds.net to learn more about WindowBlinds!
Wednesday, November 06, 2013 by Frogboy | Discussion: OS Customization
Windows 8 comes with the new Start screen which is, especially if you have a tablet, a good way for people to organize their apps. What it doesn�t come with, which is a bit surprising, is a quick launch bar (like iOS and Android have). Launch8 addresses it.
If you have Windows8, definitely give it a try.
Wednesday, October 09, 2013 by Island Dog | Discussion: Personal Computing
Many of you are already using Windows 8, and the Windows 8.1 update is just released. Stardock has several apps that have solved some of the reported problems in Windows 8.
Below is an overview of some of the most popular Windows 8 apps, all under $5!
The start menu in Windows 8 was removed, and in the 8.1 update, Microsoft brought the start button back. Unfortunately, their start button DOES NOT bring the Start Menu with it, it launches the Windows 8 Menu. Start8 returns the missing Windows 8 start menu and brings additional features like customization, pinning of desktop and Metro apps, unified search, and more.
Start8 was listed in the "PCWorld Top 100 BEST" list, covered by USA Today, Forbes, CBS News, the Wall Street Journal and more!
There are some cool and useful Modern UI apps available for Windows 8. The problem is, these apps take up the entire screen when opened, which is annoying when running an app like the weather app. ModernMix takes those apps using the Modern UI (Metro) and puts them in desktop windows so you can easily re-size, switch back and forth through running applications, and easily close out of them.
Windows 8 limits your start screen customization options to only a few provided background images and a few pre-defined color schemes. Decor8 removes these limitations and provides the freedom to personalize your start screen with your own images and colors.
Thursday, October 10, 2013 by Frogboy | Discussion: Stardockians
It can be quite a challenge to work at the same place for 20 years. I think that�s doubly true if you�ve never worked anywhere else.
That said, looking back, I haven�t really worked at the same place for 20 years. I�ve actually worked at 5 places, all called Stardock and all very different.
�This really seems exciting!� �College Student Brad Wardell, 1993
This was back when it was just me. The year was 1993. The closest thing I had to �employees� were friends and family who worked on contract on a specific thing. This Stardock was run out of my dorm room at Western Michigan University (Smith Burnham!).
�Holy cow this is fun! I can format a floppy while downloading on Z-modem and I get paid for it!� �Entrepreneur, Brad Wardell, 1996
This began the day I rented an office in 1995. It was the front office of a tank plant in Canton Michigan. So in the back, they were making tanks and we rented the front office. It was here that we really got our start. The first two people �hired� were Angie Marshall and Pat Ford. They�re both still here!
Galactic Civilizations 2 for OS/2, Object Desktop for OS/2 came out during this time along with a bunch of really high quality OS/2 products. Our days were making cool software and our nights were spent playing Magic the Gathering or Duke Nukem 3D on our company LAN. It was a very fun time while it lasted.
�I can make Windows look like a Mac! And our office has air conditioning and the toilets work!� �Brad Wardell, CEO, 2001.
The OS/2 market collapsed abruptly in 1997. I had to lay off nearly everyone I had hired since 1996. It was horrible. I lost some good friends as a result (lesson #1: Don�t hire your friends. Lesson #2: If you disobeyed lesson 1, don�t lay them off!). I put everything I owned up as collateral to secure loans to pay the people we had left so that we could make the transition from OS/2 to Windows.
By 2000, we had made the transition. Barely.
This Stardock wasn�t quite as fun as the old Stardock. But I began making a lot of friends over the INTERNET. This was the age where WindowBlinds, Object Desktop, IconPackager, DesktopX, Control Center, DeskScapes, WindowFX, ObjectDock, ObjectBar, Keyboard LaunchPad, RightClick, Multiplcity, CursorFX, etc. reigned supreme. We kept a finger in the game market by taking a contract to make a Starcraft expansion for Blizzard called �Starcraft: Retribution�.
As time went on, things got better. We were on a roll. We reached a real high point with Galactic Civilizations II for Windows and new software was being released on a regular schedule to glowing reviews and strong sales. were ready to expand in a big BIG way�
�This company is bullshit. I hate it here. I�m printing my resume on that fancy paper as I type this!� � Disgruntled employee, Brad Wardell, 2010
The expansion we made nearly ruined my life and the company. I had no idea how to manage a company with this many people in it and it showed. About the only good thing that came out of this time period was Sins of a Solar Empire and the fun I had working with Brian Clair and the Irconclad team.
I honestly believe that if it weren�t for the friendships I made with people like Blair and Craig Fraser at Ironclad and Chris Taylor and others that I would have rage quitted before making it through all this. It was such a horrible period that even today I cringe when looking back.
So where did it all go bad? One word: IMPULSE.
Impulse was incredibly successful � financially. But it nearly ruined our company culture. So much money going through so few peoples hands had a highly toxic effect. Combine that with an engineer turned CEO whose understanding of non-engineer motivations bordered on non-existent and you have a catastrophe.
Product plans were made based on what would maximize the short-term bonus/compensation/commission of those drawing up said plans. I was too incompetent at business administration to recognize what was being done until it was far too late. While the people actually doing the long hours got only token bonuses, others gamed the system to enrich themselves. It was a bad time and I was oblivious to how political and toxic things were getting.
What I did know was that I hated going to work. I was miserable. Every time I (or others like me here) wanted to set up a project based on making something good we got the uneasy sense from our opponents (though I had no idea they were our opponents at the time) that we were somehow robbing them of bonuses/commissions. Little care was put into what was good for the company long-term.
This is the period that delivered such wonders as MyColors (which nearly ruined Stardock�s desktop enhancement business), Elemental, Demigod, and wastes of time like NBA desktop themes.
But nothing could compare to Impulse. In order to make it successful, you had to bring in sales people, relationship managers, enterprise managers, etc. And if quality suffered and I (or others like me) spoke of the need of quality I got (to quote) �Incentives drive behavior. You need to make my compensation package such that I am incented to care about quality.� As an engineer, such attitudes were horrifying. Technologically, Impulse was amazing. It was far ahead of its curve. The talent pool Stardock had at the time was still amazing. Our problem was cultural.
The launch of War of Magic was the low-point and the moment of truth. That game was a canary in the coal mine. It was a symptom of everything that was rotten at the company at the time. After taking a few days off, I realized that the source of the rot was Impulse or more specifically, the toxic culture that had evolved around it. [I want to emphasize that the Impulse engineering team was excellent and not part of the problem]. Impulse had to go.
By the end of 2011, virtually every person we had hired during the start of this era was gone. It was a new day. A new company. Or more specifically, it was the previous company having undergone a massive Ctrl-Z.
�I am truly excited about working with such world class-talent,� said Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock Corp. �I am very proud of what we are accomplishing.� (2013)
I basically took a year off to recuperate. But before I could do that, I needed to build a world class management team who could run the company in my absence. I was now very aware of my managerial strengths and short-comings. From this, we got an amazing new leadership team here who in turn brought on board other talented people that has resulted in a renaissance.
Within a year of the new team being brought on, the games unit quadrupled its revenue and the software team more than tripled their�s. At the same time, a host of new programs were conceived and executed on � all in 1 year!
To put things in perspective, in the Stardock Sucks era (mid 2006 to early 2011), the company only released 1 truly new desktop enhancement (Fences) on the software side and the studio produced ONE game: Elemental: War of Magic, which sucked. Think about that. FIVE YEARS and the game studio only eeked out one new game and it was a mess while the software side only got one truly new desktop enhancement out.
By contrast, in the past year or so the software unit has conceived and/or developed: Start8, ModernMix, Decor8, Tiles, a new Multiplicity, Fences 2, ObjectDock 2 and has 2 more all-new programs scheduled for release this year. Simultaneously, the game studio made Fallen Enchantress, Fallen Enchantress �Legendary Heroes, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (coded in partnership with Ironclad) and Dead Man�s Draw. And every single one of these titles is excellent.
And not only is the management team focused on quality and long-term viability, they�ve created compensation packages that award everyone fairly and put into place morale lifting programs like on-sight personal trainers, on-sight chefs/nutritionists, health screening days, an extra week per year of vacation (so yea, the team gets more done while working fewer hours and gets paid better).
I�d be hard pressed to even name anyone who has voluntarily left the company during this period (other than maternity leave). If you work in the technology industry you can probably attest that this is a significant achievement on its own.
It�s good to be having a good time again at this new company!
So there you have it. The 5 Stardocks I�ve worked at!
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 by Island Dog | Discussion: Personal Computing
Nowadays it’s pretty common to have multiple PC’s on your desktop or in your household. With that being said, I wanted to talk about Acoustic Bridge from Stardock and give you an overview on what it does and how to use it. Acoustic Bridge gives you the ability to take the audio signal from one PC, and send that signal to another PC in your network.
A good example of use would be if you have a nice set of speakers connected to your desktop PC, and a laptop or Windows tablet with less-than-ideal speakers. Take that audio output coming from your laptop and send it over to your desktop to listen to your music (or any type of audio) on those great sounding desktop speakers.
Acoustic Bridge is pretty simple to get setup and running. After installing you choose whether this PC will be sending or receiving the audio signal. This can be changed in settings if you need to reconfigure at another time, and options are available in the system tray for easy access.
TIP: You can install Acoustic Bridge on up to 4 PCs!
As you see in the screenshot above, you can configure Acoustic Bridge to send or receive audio. For the PC that wants to receive the audio, make note of the PC name and passcode and then proceed to install and setup on the PC you want to send audio from.
When you select the option to send audio, you just need to enter the PC name and passcode from the receiver setup we mentioned in before. That is the basic setup, but you can click ‘Advanced Settings’ where you can change additional settings such as port numbers and buffering settings.
Once you use Acoustic Bridge you will see how handy it is, and I’m sure it will become one of your favorite desktop utilities!
Thursday, August 29, 2013 by Island Dog | Discussion: OS Customization
Stardock's CursorFX is an application that allows users to easily and safely change the Windows cursor to one of the thousands available on sites like WinCustomize.com. CursorFX works with Windows 7, Vista, and XP. There is a free version, and a Plus version which offers features like cursor colorization, cursor sizing, transparency, and much more.
Creating the graphics
I'm going to show you how to create and put together the actual cursor, but something you have to do on your own is create the graphics for your cursor. Skinners use a wide variety of tools to create their works, including 3D graphic programs that create stunning animations. However, that is not a necessity, you can make your graphics with any image editor such as Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Paint.NET, etc. The only thing you really need to make sure of, is to export your graphics in the .PNG format as it will keep the transparency that you make.
If you want to create animations from static images, the best tool to use is AniUtil. It will create a "strip" of images in the .PNG format that you can use in CursorFX.
CursorFX Theme Editor
As you can see in the screenshot above, the theme editor has vastly improved. You can now see all the cursor states at once, and most of the tools you need to make the cursor are all on one tab.
You can find the theme properties in the File menu. Here you can input the theme name, author name, e-mail, description, etc. Also from the file menu you have the common options such as "new", "open", and "save". Saving your theme will put it into the .cursorfx format which is compatible with both CursorFX and CursorXP.
You can also apply your new cursor from the file menu as well.
TIP: Download more CursorFX themes on WinCustomize
Creating a Theme
Once your images are ready, and you have a new theme started in the CursorFX Theme Editor, then it's time for us to start building a new cursor. There are 20 cursor states that we can change in the theme editor. These cursor states are going to define what cursor image is shown for that particular state. An example would be the "normal state" is the cursor you see and use the most, and "text select" will show the cursor that changes when you are going to enter text.
Select the cursor state you want to change, and click the "import graphics" button that is near the bottom right of the window. From there you can browse and choose your image for that selected state. For my example I will change the "normal select" state with a simple cursor image I made.
TIP: The CursorFX Theme Editor can be found in your CursorFX directory
As seen in the screenshots above, the image I made and imported is now occupied in the "normal select" area. The next step is assigning the hotspot, which is the active part of the cursor image. Clicking your selected cursor with your pointer will move the target to where you want this active spot to be. You can also refine the target by adjust the x and y values of the hotspot configuration.
If you want to remove the image you just place, you can either import another image in its place, or click the "remove this cursor" button. Remember that it will only apply to the cursor state that is selected.
The cursors we are changing here are in the normal state. If you want to add a different image to the pressed state, then click "view pressed state" and import the images as we did before.
What we did before is the basic steps of creating a cursor theme. If you want to create an animated cursor you just follow the same basic steps, but this time you will use the "strip" of images that we talked about before. Once that image is imported you need to enter the number of frames the image has in the Frames value area. You can also set the image to loop by checking the option box.
Another option you have for the animation is setting the interval between frames. This will determine has fast or slow your animation will appear. If you want to alternative the animation, or enter a separate animation script, you can also do that in this section.
All you have to do now is repeat these steps for the remaining cursor states, and your cursor is done. You can now apply the cursor and save to upload to the CursorFX gallery on WinCustomize.
Thursday, August 15, 2013 by Island Dog | Discussion: Personal Computing
If you read our various articles and news you probably see Object Desktop mentioned often. We still get lots of questions about what exactly Object Desktop is, and why a subscription to it should be considered over just purchasing a single product.
Let me first start off by explaining that Object Desktop is a yearly subscription that contains many popular Stardock applications which we’ll cover in detail below.
Subscribing gives you access to all the included applications, and as long as your subscription is current, you will receive any updates and new versions that are released. Being a subscriber also gives you the benefit of having early access to beta versions of software so you can check out the latest updates before it’s released to the public.
You are also getting over $100 worth of software for just $49.99, and yearly renewals are just $34.99.
Own any of the stand alone products in Object Desktop? You may be eligible to upgrade for just $34.99! Upgrade now
You get a whole collection of desktop enhancement apps to both change the look of Windows and to help improve the functionality of it as well. You can download the individual apps from your Stardock account, or use our Object Desktop Manager to keep up-to-date with updates. The Object Desktop Manager is an application that can notify of any new updates available, and lets you download those updates or install any of the various components of Object Desktop which we will talk about more below.
Once you have subscribed, you can download the Object Desktop Manager from your account.
TIP: See a list of all the included apps here.
Now we’ll cover the core applications included with Object Desktop, and a brief overview of what they do.
WindowBlinds is one of our most popular pieces of software in Object Desktop, it has been around for many years, and has millions of downloads. WindowBlinds gives you the ability to completely change the look and feel of your Windows desktop by applying skins to the user interface. These skins will change the start menu, window frames, taskbar, and much more. Thousands of skins are available to download and there are styles to match just about every kind of taste.
TIP: Download more skins for WindowBlinds and other Object Desktop apps from WinCustomize.com
If you are running Windows 8 and are looking to bring back the look and functionality of the missing start button, then Start8 is what you’re looking for. Start8 brings back the missing start menu along with many additional features such as boot straight to desktop, jump list support, customizable start buttons, and more.
TIP: If you use Start8 with WindowBlinds, Start8 will inherit the skin used so it will match.
DeskScapes does lots of cool things, and the top feature would be putting animated wallpapers on the desktop. Whether you’re looking for a subtle landscape animation, or a 3D rendered animation of the solar system, there are Dreams (animated wallpapers) available. Not only does it apply both animated and static wallpapers, it also lets you apply effects to them giving you even more customization options.
Fences is another popular desktop utility programs included with Object Desktop. Fences removes those messy, out-of-control icons on your desktop and lets you wrangle them into "fences" on your desktop. You can label, resize, and even create rules for these fences to keep your desktop clean and tidy. Additional features include, letting you create folder portals so you can have direct access to favorite folders right on your desktop.
TIP: Double-click an empty space on the desktop and your icons and fences will disappear. Double-click again to bring back.
WindowFX lets you add a bunch of cool effects to your desktop. Make the desktop windows wobble, assign them different animations for opening/closing, take control of window focusing, and more! We have several demo videos on the WindowFX website to show exactly the neat things that WindowFX can do.
Another app designed for Windows 8 users is ModernMix. If you have ever used a "Modern UI App" (Metro App) in Windows 8 you may have noticed that it’s full screen, which is pretty annoying for most apps. ModernMix lets you run those same apps in a window on your desktop, just like do with regular desktop software.
These are just several of the popular apps included with your Object Desktop subscription. You get many other applications like IconPackager, IconDeveloper, Tweak7, Keyboard Launchpad, and several more.
If you want total control over the way Windows looks and functions, then you can’t go wrong with an Object Desktop subscription.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 by Island Dog | Discussion: Personal Computing
DeskScapes 8 was recently released and just like WindowBlinds 8, it received a big overhaul along with a completely new user interface. If you aren't familiar with DeskScapes, it's an application for Windows 7/8 users, to apply animated desktop wallpapers. It also gives users the ability to customize and manage static wallpapers by adding effects or recoloring their existing wallpapers.
The screenshot below shows the new user interface. The left side of the DeskScapes window shows all of your animated and static wallpapers that. Choose which folders to display and add or remove folders from the "Settings" option.
Tip! Get more animated wallpapers from WinCustomize.com
Tip! Animated wallpapers have a small filmstrip icon on their thumbnail preview so you can see which are animated and which are static wallpapers.
Selecting a wallpaper will bring up a preview which is displayed on the right side of the window, if it's an animated wallpaper, it will display an animated preview so you can see what the animation is.
Settings and Effects
Depending on what type of wallpaper you're using, there may be additional settings available. For instance, the "Dynamic Shape"s animated wallpaper is dynamic so it can be customized further. There are additional options to adjust the size of the shapes, how many shapes are used, and how fast the animation should be.
Tip! The cool Expanding Shapes dynamic wallpaper is included with DeskScapes
Clicking the "Effects" tab will bring up a large list of available effects. These will work on both animated/static wallpapers, along with your images/videos. Examples include; Grayscale, Motion Blur, Textured, and my favorite, Snow. Selecting each filter will bring up a preview of the effect on your chosen wallpaper for a quick preview. DeskScapes also allows you to combine effects so you can create a custom combination.
Tip! The Snow effect adds animated falling snow over your wallpaper for a very cool effect.
After you've selected a wallpaper to use, simply click "Apply" on the bottom right corner of DeskScapes and your selected wallpaper will apply to your desktop. If you use multiple monitors you will also have the option to "Apply to all monitors", or select which monitor to apply the wallpapers to.
Tip! DeskScapes lets you apply a different wallpaper to each monitor also!
Friday, July 19, 2013 by Island Dog | Discussion: Personal Computing
In my previous article we went over the new user interface in WindowBlinds 8. If you are new to WindowBlinds or just want a refresher, then give that a quick read here. This time I wanted to show users how to find, change, and apply skins in WindowBlinds.
Getting New Skins
WindowBlinds includes quite a few skins to get your started, but there are thousands available for download on WinCustomize.com. There are skins with a minimal look and skins with wild graphics, and just about everything in between. Regardless of your style, I’m sure you will find something that you will enjoy having on your desktop.
WindowBlinds skins come in a .wba format, and sometimes those will be packed in a .zip file that will need to be extracted. When you double-click a .wba file, it should automatically install to WindowBlinds and be added to your skin list. There’s also an option to manually install a skin by clicking through the menu as seen in the screenshot below.
TIP! If you don’t see an installed skin, select ‘Rebuild skin list’ from the WindowBlinds menu.
Viewing and Selecting Skins
The left side of the WindowBlinds window is where you can browse and view all your installed skins. Hovering your mouse pointer over each skin will reveal the name of the skin and selecting one will bring up more options on the right. You will also see a preview of the skin there as well.
TIP! There’s an option available to keep the skin names visible if you prefer.
Right now you could just press the ‘Apply Style’ button and apply the skin, and you will be all set.
Substyles, Coloring, and More
As I mentioned before, when you select a skin you will get some additional skin options on the right side of the WindowBlinds window. One of those will be a drop-down menu for substyles. Substyles are variations of the selected skin. Some skin artists will make different substyles specific to Windows 7 or Windows 8, and some will make light or dark versions of a skin. If there are substyles available to can select which to use here, and remember, you will have to apply the skin again to show it.
There are also options available to recolor skins, add textures, and to change the Explorer backgrounds. We will cover these features in another article.