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Make-over: Win to *nix
Part 1 - The GUI

The term *nix refers to the OS Unix and its clones, Linux being the most popular at the moment. Originally beginning as a server OS in 1970, Unix evolved over the past three decades, spawning free clones such as Linux and FreeBSD, and outlasting Microsoft's meteoric rise in the early 90s - most internet sites run on some form of *nix. Now, a *nix variant has become the OS of choice for many users who tire of Windows' instability and restrictions; but what about those of us who have to use Microsoft products, for work or compatibility purposes? The solution: recreate as much of Unix as possible on a Windows desktop.

The look? There is no generic X-Windows look, as it depends entirely upon the Window Manager you run. Popular variants are WindowMaker (recreating the NextStep look), Blackbox (minimalism in the extreme), and Enlightenment (pure eyecandy). On top of this, we have the two "desktop environments" KDE and Gnome, which provide a generic visual template for all apps, and run on top of a WM. KDE is heavily similar to Windows 95, whereas Gnome has developed a largely individual look.

The feel? Powerful software, much done from the command line, designed for more technically savvy users; yet now more efforts are being poured into GUIs and ease of use. Customisation and flexibility is all.

Some background: I have tested these utilities under Win95 OSR2 and Windows 2000, but I can't vouch for their performance under 98 or NT. Where possible, I have warned of any known issues. Recreating the *nix feel is a large project indeed - not only are there ways of simply recreating the look, but there are also many Win32 ports of popular GNU apps available. There are varying levels of difficulty, but let us start with the easiest route - emulating the GUI.
Other shells
An obvious choice might be to use a replacement shell; many people have ported X Window Managers and their themes. "Litestep" in particular has numerous X ports - there are many beautiful examples of Enlightenment ports, such as BlueHeart and Arctic. The huge archive of themes at ls.net is gone, but check lsthemes.com and most skin archives have an extensive section. Litestep is also particularly useful in recreating the look window managers like WindowMaker and Afterstep, check around for relevant themes.

There's also a BlueSteel (the default Enlightenment look) theme for Graphite, a beta shell by thirty4interactive. Reasonably stable, and very powerful (uses python, perl and java scripting to design the themes - though this makes it quite difficult to get started!) Abandoned, though. Notable new shells here are Blackbox for Windows and bluebox.

Gary Waugh has created two themes for Hoverdesk, based around KDE and Gnome. They look efficient, and recreate the basic look very well. Not too many bells and whistles, but they serve as a good base for expansion using other apps. Gary doesn't seem to have a homepage, but both skins are available on skinz.org.

But, this is Virtual Plastic, and our main concern is customizing the default Windows shell. What other options are there?
Most Window Managers possess what is known as a VWM (virtual window manager). This allows you to have multiple desktops, which you can switch between by a keypress or mouseclick; a very useful feature, especially for those running at low resolutions. There are several standalone VWMs for Windows - DVWM by Nivenh is one of the best, skinnable and very stable. It displays minature pictures of your desktops in a small grid, allowing you to see exactly what you have open on each desktop.

Another alternative is Byron Montgomerie's Desktop Manager, which, whilst not being skinnable, possesses a host of options, including icon text transparency, turning icons off altogether, and different resolutions and colours for each desktop. There are some stability issues under Win95 OSR2, concering a memory leak - however, a RAM manager is included to flush memory at specified intervals. Other than this, I found it very stable, and a very small executable. If you are less concerned with being able to skin your VWM, and more interested in configuration, this might prove a good choice.
Window decoration
Different WMs have different window looks, which are often very different to the Windows default. One option is to use Windowblinds, as there is a reasonably large libary of *nix skins available. Wincustomize is a good place to start: there are many KDE skins there, two good ones being "KDE" and "KDE2Pillbox" (based on old style and new style KDE respectively). Gnome doesn't really have a fixed window style, instead using GTK+ themes, which vary considerably in look, size, and design. Windowmaker fans could try "NeoNEXT", which is a compromise between the Openstep and WindowMaker look.

You could also try tweaking the standard Windows appearance, without using Windowblinds. I've made a few windows schemes based on screenshots of KDE, WindowMaker, and Gnome (note: not for NT/2k, yet).
We have a page here at VP that describes how to convert Unix icons, normally in xpm or tiff format. With the exception of the default KDE set, they do tend to be larger than the standard 32x32, so be prepared to resize and edit.

A few links to nifty Linux icon sets:
 Orava's Icon Store - Mainly dock icons
 Largo's WindowMaker Pages - again, icons intended for dock use, but some nice themed symbol sets.
 Marco's WindowMaker Icons - not just for Windowmaker, a whole load of application icons here.
you're looking for more of the default KDE and Gnome sets, try downloading the core tar.gz files for both environments (see their main pages for details). Most apps and tools also come with their own icons. As a Linux user, I have access to a lot of icons, and will hopefully soon provide some in .ico format here, once I check the legality/morality of such a conversion.

If, however, you prefer the easier route, there are some Linux-inspired icon sets available - for example, copland's gnome/kde-style icon set.
There are other tricks we can use to emulate the X Windows look. For example, there are some skins for the old style Sysmeter available, such as GnomePanel and GnomeSys2, which recreate the Gnome panel as a system monitor - you can find them over at some of the skin archives. But, better yet, there's several system monitors emulating the look of gkrellm, a beautiful and very well featured monitor for X-Windows. Sysmeter2 emulates the look, so does Inhotus and WkrellM is a full port. Visit muhri.net for an idea of what can be achieved.

Running Winamp? Grab some skins for XMMS (the Unix equivalent, formerly X11amp) from xmms.org. All XMMS and Winamp skins are compatible, and there's some interesting ones out there, often tied to X themes (e.g. the Blueheart, Arctic, and Chaos skins).

Tclock, as usual, proves very useful. Most of you will know this app allready - it allows you to skin your start button/menu, as well as the system tray. I've designed a few Tclock skins with logos for KDE, Gnome, and WindowMaker. Admittedly, WindowMaker doesn't actually have a Start-Menu style menu - but the logo looks good anyway :). There we have it - a good start on the *nix customisation route. We can go further than this, but this provides a solid base to build on. Of course, this section is far from finished - your input is very much welcome, your suggestions. Hopefully there will also be a few more icon sets and themes here soon. Now, lets move on to the second part of this article - *nix style apps and tools to suit your new desktop :).

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