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Getting started
So your new to this area of computing ? This is aimed at getting you up to speed in let's say 30 minutes. Should give you an idea how and where to proceed in customizing your Windows OS - for looks, and a couple of enhanced features.
This is aimed at giving you a brief overview of ways to alter your system, for looks and a bit of extra functionality. For conveniŽnce, we've divided it into three general approaches, that's running some extra software, editing your registry and, finally, modifying system files (often referred to as hacking, but let's just call it modding/mods etc - references to anything illegal are unnecessary, we're just taking control of our own machines :).
Introduction to the setup of Virtual Plastic: we've tried to arrange all site content in an intuÔtive manner by using parts of the GUI (Graphical User Interface) as main sections. Want something done with your taskbar? it should be in the startmenu/taskbar section etc. Little menu in upperleft cascades and has links to all info.
But we see people failing to find stuff anyway. Some things could be in different places, we chose one, but you expected it elsewhere... so you might want to have a look at the sitemap to grab an idea of what's available. Also, be sure to notice the search function underneath the menu. It's pretty accurate and really helpful when you're searching for a word that's not too general ("icon" will get you nowhere).
First, necessary steps
Heh, no screenshot, made to look cool, uploaded anywhere with a couple of things done at least. First step, of course, is to put a nice wallpaper on your screen. As a starting point, here are a couple of skin/art-sites that provide a lot of those, and everything else, skinwise, talked about at this page too:
Skinbase, VelocityArt, ArtUproar, Customize, DeskMod, DeviantArt & WinCustomize;
As an introduction, it seems most trendy screenshots are uploaded to Customize these days - have a look and see what you'd like (in general).
Then, showing up on most desktops, a resource monitoring tool, showing you available RAM, CPU speed etc. Yes, mostly for cool looks, but serves a purpose too. We've listed a whole bunch here, but while we're on the subject, some words on some. Loads of people still got Sysmeter (II) running, but that's a dead project. Be cool, growing - skinnable - alternatives are Rainmeter and Inhotus, and (not skinnable, but most configurable, be it quite advanced/complicated) Samurize.
Skinnable: property of an application that tells it has the option to change the complete look and functioning of itself or a component of the operating system radically, using graphic(s) and some (external or internal) configuration settings. You can create your own "theme" for it.
Then, your audioplayer - this needs to be "skinned" for sure :). With the Windows Mediaplayer now skinnable, it's a mainstream choice, along with WinAmp (default). There's more listed here, and let's just add that CoolPlayer seems to have grown to be the alternative for people not wanting a commercial product (though all are free).

Last item you really need to do is change your system icons. We'll always recommend IconPhile to change them, but there are alternatives listed here. Our icon links provide you some sites with good system sets, the skin sites usually have some too.

Looking for some good, clean sets, popular all around for a reason (?), there is Scrow's Prime/Preemo set, and blockOS by LINEstudio. |copland| has the great Gnome set, often used (but much more). No page at the moment, but the sets by D.O.T studio still show up around.
Software tools
That was just cover-up's, on to some changes to your environment. Most easy, mostly safe way to customize some items in Windows is using some program. But, they take resources, so it's not recommended to go all wild here. Then again, there's some things you really need such a tool for. And that's the kinda tools we try to promote. Besides we in general favor freeware (to support some really cool people coding for free), we try to set focus on hasslefree, clean (no ad/spyware) software not taking that much resources. Means all our lists are not complete at all, much more available, but we hope to have the highlights listed.

Here's some typical things people want, that need a program to be running. Tools linked are around for a while, activily being used around, because they've proven themselves to run smoothly, while demanding little resources:
One of first annoyances is the colored block behind desktop icontext. Contrary to popular misconception, this can't be done without a program running - find some here.

Another popular target, the startbutton. Hook99 lets you modify it, and some more taskbar properties. Or - very popular - try Tclock, does startmenu sidebanner, clock and some more too.

Then, lots of people find the classic startmenu, as the only way to access their files/apps, lacking in the end. So they load up an applauncher at startup. Could take any form (working from a systray icon, standalone on the desktop, skinnable or maybe not, there's too much variations to even count them). Starting points: here and here.

There's lots more. Other programs that stick to peoples desktops are Eppie that handles the titlebar buttons of a window, FreeShade, that lets you collapse windows to show titlebar only, and WinScroll, that greatly enhances desktop space.

Sideway; complete software solutions
Consider these a way out of here (cause not our focus). Just running a single (package of) application(s), you can have a complete facelift of your Windows environment. Basically, there's two sorts of options here.

First, there's a couple of very complete, shareware packages out, that are capable of fully changing your Windows experience. Valid and easy option; besides, mostly not thŗt costly. They all provide options to replace startmenu/taskbar, desktop and more, and are skinnable. With the huge amount of themes available, guaranteed to give your desktop some complete plastic surgery: If your technically experienced with the inner workings of Windows, there are "shells" too. The shell being "explorer" by default (not talking about "explorer" the filemanager, but the process that creates startmenu/taskbar and the desktop), can be replaced at startup, so it doesn't even starts running. The alternative shell gets started instead. Like said, it's an effort to get most of the shells available, plus their plugins etc, running. So, not linking to specific shells, but here's some portals:
Master the registry
Ever since 95 got released, the registry is the main place where settings on almost everything get stored. For Windows and other MS stuff, but almost every piece of software writes to it nowadays. While physically in a couple of files, it can be accessed as a whole by running regedit.exe in your windows directory.
Now, while all precautions and warnings are right ofcourse - find our own details, instructions here - and ofcourse you've read the disclaimer, common sense dictates you can apply tested registry tweaks on sites you trust without much hesitation. Like, I don't even think of making a backup when I find something cool at the ntfaq or the registry guide. Just browse the huge tweak archives and get familiar with editing the registry.

There's lots of tweaking tools available, most centered at applying a lot of registry tweaks for you. Lots of shareware, but we believe anything being talked about here and elsewhere can be done by just some free tools:
  • IE and explorer throbbers and toolbar background, window titles, zone icons can be set in the registry. Toolbar Control is the tool you need here;
  • Also doing icons, but lots more controlled in the registry, the English translation of a great Japanese tool, WinBack Scratcher;
  • The most complete overall tweaking utility, with even more plugins available, Xteq X-Setup;
  • And finally, let's not forget MS unofficial tweaking utility, TweakUI (1.33) for 9x/2k and TweakUI for XP.
Modifying system files
With the tools (and read the instructions there too) here it's not that hard to make some changes to system files and/or other program files. Lots of .dll and .exe files around contain the bitmaps and other stuff you encounter daily when working with Windows. Most of it can be replaced and/or altered some other way. Risky ? Yes, if not done with caution. But once you studied it a bit, not that hard.

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