Skins: What are they?

Skins and Themes Explained

You might have heard about all these cool "skins" and "themes" and lots of other crazy words, involving programs called "WindowBlinds" or "AlienGUIse" or Aston. But what does it all mean? What's the difference between a theme and a skin? Is there a difference? If all this is confusing you, it's time you read my hub and found out about the newest craze in GUI-styling madness.

A skin, in simple terms, is the way your operating system looks. Whenever a window opens, the OS (such as windows or mac) has to know how to display the window--where it goes, how big to make it, and what it will look like. Sometimes it is created using images, and other times software "renders" or creates the image, similar to a freehand drawing. Little do most users know, however, that you can actually change what these windows look like, as well as other features of the operating system. Linux comes with a built-in skin manager that I'll not discuss here--if you're into Linux, chances are you either know about skinning already or are not interested enough to learn. Macs do not allow users enough freedom to change skins. Windows, on the other hand, does, although you have to coax it quite a bit to get it to do so without using a commercial program.

SKINS

Skins are very different from themes, so do not get the two confused. The words skin and theme are often used interchangeably, and wrongly so. The word skin has a more precise, specific meaning, which applies to how your windows, start menu, right-click menu, and other graphical elements, such as the shutdown/logoff screens, look in windows. Windows XP is the best version to have for skinning; however, it can be done in earlier versions. I've heard that Vista is not stable enough to bother with skins, and frankly, I think it looks great without them. In fact, some of my favorite XP skins look exactly like Windows Vista. I'm not going to cover Vista though, since I've never yet used it myself. Both of the skinning techniques I'm about to share with you are based on Windows XP. I think there's a "Classic" WindowBlinds that supports versions earlier than XP, but I would recommend that you don't try using the other method, called Windows Visual Styles, on any pre-XP machines.

THEMES

The word "theme" has a hodgepodge of meanings, and in fact encompasses the aspect of "skins"--that is, when you talk about a theme, it usually includes a skin in its settings, as well as many other settings that get changed. Themes can be anything from sound settings to icons, from animated cursors to wallpapers, and a whole lot more. It can mean any of those I mentioned, none of them, or any arbitrary mix of them. I don't know a whole lot about themes, and don't prefer to use them myself. I find them much too distracting; however, I imagine that kids might get some enjoyment out of them.

I will not cover themes at all in this hub, although I might devote a later hub to them. For now, I'm going to talk about all the different ways to "skin" your computer, if you're tired of the "fisher-price" look that XP defaults to. Of course, you can pick from three different-colored versions of it, but that's not skinning. That's just color modification, with the same drab look to it.

WHY SHOULD I USE SKINS?

Skinning can change how EVERYTHING looks--the windows, start menu, taskbar, system tray, and all sorts of other stuff. What can it do? It can make them transparent, gradient, font-styled, bigger, smaller, flashy, glow-over, and even animated. The quality of the skins you can get depends on the authors of those skins, the skin's format, the way you accomplished the skinning, and the performance of your computer. Skinning is not recommended for "light" computers; that is, computers with little memory and/or weak video cards. Skinning requires a lot of resources, so unless you have a macho machine capable of handling a lot of extra load without much of a slowdown, skinning probably isn't for you. Of course, you could always give it a try, just to see what it's like. It certainly won't hurt your computer to try it once and then uninstall it later.

Previews of Skins

Below are some examples of what skins can accomplish. I've got pictures here of both methods of skinning I'll be covering later in the hub, which are WindowBlinds, and Uxtheme hacking (also called Windows Visual Styles), the two methods I have the most experience with. In case you're interested, I prefer WindowBlinds because of the quality, although the other method is completely free. Also, note that some of the pictures below are of desktops that have had more than just their skin changed, such as the cursor and the default windows icons. That's not what skins do, so don't be disappointed when you click "apply skin" and those things don't change. Those other things are not how windows looks, and are therefore not part of skin, but are part of a larger theme which may or may not include the skin you're looking at. It's just that whoever designed the skin had those settings on his or her computer when they took a screenshot of the skin.

WindowBlinds Examples

Windows Visual Styles Examples

Skinning With WindowBlinds

The first way to accomplish skinning, at least on Windows XP, is using the program WindowBlinds. There is a 30-day trial version that you can download for free. To get the full features and benefits, it costs 40 dollars, but I believe it's worth it. There are so many awesome-looking skins that the quality just can't compare with Windows Visual Styles. The latter tend to look more rinky-dink and toy-like similar to just the normal XP look, or maybe a few color changes. But WindowBlinds is a whole different story. It can do transparency, alpha-blending, spot and variable color, animated images, and a host of other neat stuff. I also hear that version 6, which is now available, supports Vista-like "glass" effects such as blurring and distortion, and a lot more neat stuff.

All that aside, what actually happens? How does WindowBlinds do all this cool stuff? There is a certain system file called Uxtheme.dll that contains code that draws the windows, the start menu, and all the other items that we want to change. In order to change how these things look, WindowBlinds does a virtual "load" of this DLL file, except it loads a different DLL file of its own, which is custom built for the skin that is currently selected. If you want to go back to normal XP (but why would you?) then WindowBlinds simply loads XP's old Uxtheme.dll file. This is a much different way than Windows Visual Styles, which you can also read about below. Using this method allows you to "redo" the entire DLL file, and do some really neat stuff that XP normally doesn't support. This accounts for the excellent quality and smoothness of the WindowBlinds (WB) skins.

The procedure is really rather painless. You don't have to do much once WindowBlinds has been downloaded and installed--it will automatically install any new skins that you download in .wba format (which stands for window blinds archive and is standard for skin transfer). Other formats you might have to install yourself, but they are few and far between. The other method requires you to do most of the configuration and installation of the skins yourself, which is explained along with that section below. That's mainly why I like WindowBlinds so much, it does all the work for you.

If you don't know how to download and install WindowBlinds, there's no easy way to explain it other than "keep clicking the 'OK' buttons". Go to http://www.windowblinds.net/ and it should be a self-explanatory process once you've downloaded it. To save yourself the trouble of finding the installer file when the download is complete, you can click "Run" or "Open" instead of "Save" when the download dialog comes up. Or if you prefer to save it, just save it to your desktop and then you'll be able to open it from there.

Once you have WindowBlinds, before you go downloading a bunch of skins, there will be five or six sample skins that come with it (which are all very nice skins). I would recommend that you play around with these sample skins and get used to using WindowBlinds before downloading new skins. There are plenty of good sites to download skins from once you have WindowBlinds:

http://www.skinbase.org/

http://www.wincustomize.com/

http://www.maxstyles.com

You can also just do a google search for "windowblinds skins" and you'll find more sites to download skins from. There are plenty out there, so any one site should keep you satisfied for quite a while. I have more skins on my computer now than I'll probably ever get to use, but it's hard not to keep downloading more. There's so many good free skins out there! Most skins are free, but the ones that cost money are the absolute cream of the crop. They look simply amazing, and are of such high quality that I'm surprised they don't cost even more than they do. If you're interested in buying high quality skins, you can find them here:

http://www.stardock.com/products/windowblinds/themes.asp

That about wraps up the WindowBlinds section. If you don't quite have the 40 dollars (or don't want to spend it on something so aesthetically pleasing) then you might want to check out the other option--Windows Visual Styles.

Skinning With Windows Visual Styles

This version works quite differently than WindowBlinds, but it uses the same file to accomplish the skinning (because that file is really the only way to change how the windows look, as it controls that aspect of windows). This file is Uxtheme.dll, which contains code that tells your computer how to draw everything that makes up Windows XP--that is, the start menu, the taskbar and system tray, the logoff and shutdown screens, and all the windows.

Believe it or not, Windows XP actually has a built-in skin manager. The problem is that this Uxtheme.dll file is "locked" by Microsoft so that you can't use any skins that haven't been approved by Microsoft. The dumb thing is that there are only three skins so far (correction: there may now be a fourth that was never publicly released called Royale Noir, I read a hub about it the other day but haven't investigated it myself). These three skins, which are Default (Blue), Olive Green, and Silver, look EXACTLY the same except for minor color changes. How drab is that? What's the point in building such a system where there are only three skins, and no one but Microsoft can build any more?

The answer is, there isn't a point to it. It makes no sense whatsoever, which is why some clever people hacked into Windows XP, figured out how it all worked, and began making their own skins for XP, exactly the way that XP's own skins work. This allows you to not need any other program to accomplish the skinning, because it's built right into windows. Then there's the other problem: the Uxtheme.dll file is still "locked", right? Well, they solved that problem, too. To accomplish skinning through Windows Visual Styles, you are going to need a patch that the clever people developed that "hacks" your Uxtheme.dll file so that it isn't locked anymore, and can be used with non-Microsoft-approved skins.

Although this patch isn't 100% safe, especially on non-XP machines, you can rest in the fact that on every XP machine I've tried it on, there was no problem whatsoever. I've never had any difficulty with the patch myself. I'm not saying there's no risk involved, but realize that to get something neat like this, there will always be some risks, as well as a lot of effort on your part. If you hang in there and read the rest of this guide, you'll have skins almost as good as WindowBlinds, for free.

Okay, first you need to download the hacking patch. It can be run again to reverse the hack, if that makes you feel any better. There are several places to download it, but here is one of them:

http://www.softpedia.com/progDownload/UXTheme-Patch-For-Windows-XP-SP2-Final-Download-2802.html

Once you have downloaded the patch, double-click on it to run it. Windows File Protection will notice that Uxtheme.dll has been modified or replaced with unknown versions, and it will ask you if you want to keep the new version, or revert back to the old, stable version. Make sure you ALLOW this (and KEEP the NEW version), otherwise you'll have to run the patch again. The patch MODIFIES your Uxtheme.dll file which is necessary to proceed any further with Windows Visual Style skins.

From here on out it gets a bit involved, so pay close attention. What you need to download are files with the extension "MSSTYLE". Note that it has two S's in it, not one. So for example, if you find a style called LunaGreen, then you need to download a file named LunaGreen.msstyle in order to use the skin. It won't always be named exactly the same as the style's name, but it's usually similar. If its name is exactly the same as one of your other skins you will NOT be able to use both, and I'll explain why in a minute. Just delete one and keep the other, trust me.

Now that you've hacked your system and learned about the skins, it's time to download them. But now what? You need to really know this next part, because if you do it wrong it'll cost you lots of time and effort to fix. Once you have the MSSTYLE file, then you can use the skin. First, you need to move it to the correct location, however. This location is different for every skin, and you may need to make a folder for it yourself. This can get a bit tricky, but I'll cover each of the three possible scenarios separately because the differences are important. It also isn't helped by the fact that about half of the MSSTYLE skin developers out there don't know how MSSTYLE skins are supposed to be installed, and design their installers incorrectly, or are inconsistent in how they archive or zip the files for web transfer. Guess what? I learned how they're supposed to be installed by doing it all the wrong ways that are possible, so if you follow my instructions, you shouldn't have any of the problems I had, at least (of which there were a lot).

If you DO NOT have a zip file or archive manager you need to get one before you proceed any further. This is because most MSSTYLE skins will come with a lot more than the MSSTYLE file, and this is okay. It just means it will probably be a better-quality skin. You need to know exactly where all these files go, however. There are two cases that involve receiving a zip file instead of the MSSTYLE file all by itself, and they are:

CASE 1: The Zip File Includes Path Information

If you know nothing about zip files, let me explain real quick. A zip file is a bunch of files all bunched up and squeezed together to save space, kind of like stuffing a bunch of your clothes into a suitcase. Some zip files contain not only files but folders as well, just like real files can be in folders. This means that the zip file has stored "path" information about what folders each file goes in, and when the zip file is "extracted" or emptied onto your hard drive, these folders will automatically be created. This is case 1, which makes things really easy for you. However, there are two subcases of case 1, case A and case B. Look carefully in the zip utility and you will be able to find the path information for each file, if it exists. If you can't find it, proceed to case 2.

CASE 1A: The Path Information Has A Root Folder

If all of the path information for the files begins with a folder of the same name as the MSSTYLE file, then you're good to go. All you need to do is extract the entire archive (zip file) into the folder C:\Windows\Resources\Themes (note that even though this folder is called themes, remember that themes are an umbrella under which skins fall, so this folder is where skins go, as well as all the other stuff that themes change). Once this extraction is complete, you should have a folder with the same name as the MSSTYLE file in C:\Windows\Resources\Themes, and within that folder should be the MSSTYLE file itself, as well as other files and possibly other folders. The main thing is the MSSTYLE file. You need to MAKE SURE that the name of the folder EXACTLY MATCHES the name of the MSSTYLE file. For example, if the name of the file is LunaGreen.msstyle, then it needs to be directly in a folder with this path: C:\Windows\Resources\Themes\LunaGreen\LunaGreen.msstyle. If this is not the case, RENAME THE FOLDER so that it matches the file. DO NOT RENAME the file itself as this will not work.

CASE 1B: The Path Information Does Not Have A Root Folder

If the path information does not include a folder that everything goes in, you need to make one and then extract the contents of the archive into that folder. For instance, if you have a file named Luna_Green.zip which contains a file named LunaGreen.msstyle, you need to create a folder named LunaGreen (the exact same as the name of the MSSTYLE file) and extract the contents of the archive to that folder. This is the only way it will work.

CASE 2: There Is No Path Information

If there is no path information, or you can't seem to view it, then there are one of two things that could cause this. It could be that you are looking at file-based contents rather than archive-based, which means you will see the files AS IF they were on your hard drive, even though they ARE NOT. They will not be on your hard drive until you have extracted them from the zip file or archive. If your archive is showing you a file-based perspective, use that to determine what kind of path information there is, and go back to case 1. If you are being shown an archive-based perspective (where all the files are listed in a table with other information) or you can't see any folders in the file-based system, then you will need to create a folder in C:\Windows\Resources\Themes that has the exact same name as the MSSTYLE file itself, which you can see just by looking through the archive for it. Once that folder has been created, extract the contents to that folder, and make sure that the MSSTYLE file is directly inside the folder you created. If the MSSTYLE file's name does not match the name of the folder, or the MSSTYLE file is not directly in that folder, you will not be able to use the skin, no matter how many other files were included with the skin. This same thing is true for EVERY skin you will download. If you have to rename something to get it to match, ALWAYS rename the folder, never the file. The file knows its own name, so to speak, and renaming it will cause you problems.

CASE 3: The MSSTYLE File Is Not In An Archive (Or Is The Only File In It)

In this case, you simply move the MSSTYLE file from wherever it is (or extract it from the archive) to the folder C:\Windows\Resources\Themes. However, it can't stay there. You need to make a new folder that has the exact same name as the MSSTYLE file, and put the MSSTYLE file in that folder. Once you have done this, the skin will be ready to use. For instance, if you download LunaGreen.msstyle, you need to make a folder in C:\Windows\Resources\Themes named "LunaGreen" and put the MSSTYLE file in that folder.

APPLYING THE SKINS

Now that you've got your skins all set up, you can begin trying them out. Right-click on an empty spot on your desktop, and go down to "Properties" then click on it. The display settings control panel will open up. Click on the "Appearance" tab at the top, and wait a minute or two for it to load. Note that when you click this tab, Windows must load every single skin in the Themes folder mentioned above. Depending on how many skins you decided to download, this could be a lot. It can take upwards of a minute to load them all if you have over 50 skins, depending on the size and quality of the skins.

Once it has loaded, select the skin you want from the top combo box, select the substyle (if it has one) from the middle box, and then click "Apply" to see the changes take place. This new skin will remain as long as you don't change it, and will only work for your profile. If anyone else logs in, they will either see their own skin (if they have set one up) or will just see the normal, XP skin (which is called Luna, by the way, although I would call it Fischer-Price, agreeing jovially that it does look a bit looney).

If you don't see a skin you installed here, either it's a bad skin, or you didn't install it properly. Remember, you need to make sure of these two things:

1. The MSSTYLE file must be in a folder that is exactly the same name as it. For example, a file named LunaGreen.msstyle must be inside a folder named "LunaGreen". The folder can't be named "Luna_Green" or "lunagreen" or something SIMILAR, it must be EXACTLY THE SAME. If you have to, always rename the folder. Renaming the file will only cause you problems.

2. The MSSTYLE file must be DIRECTLY inside that folder. That is, it can't be inside another folder or two. The exact path of the file should end in the the folder, a slash, and then the name of the file. For example, this is a CORRECT file path:

C:\Windows\Resources\Themes\LunaGreen\LunaGreen.msstyle

These are INCORRECT file paths:

C:\Windows\Resources\Themes\Luna_Green\LunaGreen.msstyle

C:\Windows\Resources\Themes\LunaGreen\Style\LunaGreen.msstyle

Once you understand how this needs to be set up, things will be a lot easier because it's exactly the same for all skins you download. If you want a few good sites to begin downloading from, look at the ones I mentioned in my explanation of the WindowBlinds method, but make sure to navigate to skins under the heading "MSSTYLE", "Windows Visual Styles", "Visual Styles", or "Styles" rather than "WindowBlinds". WindowBlinds skins will NOT work if you set it up this way. You MUST have WindowBlinds in order to use WindowBlinds skins.

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Comments 3 comments

JenEEE profile image

JenEEE 8 years ago

Yeah, you can get cool skins for other programs - chat programs like window's messenger or social networking sites like bebo skins from a site like http://www.bebostation.com/skins


Cybermouse profile image

Cybermouse 8 years ago from Bentonville, AR Author

While that's completely true, those skins are of a much smaller scale than WindowBlinds. If you have a WindowBlinds skin applied then it will affect all of your programs, not just chat windows but any program that you have running. A true full-fledged "skin" affects every aspect of an operating system's appearance. Some programs do have special code that allows them to override the OS skin, but these are the exception. Skins are in fact a common feature of many popular programs and other things now days, but I wrote this hub only about operating system skins.


jessica23 8 years ago

Awesome! Thanks for the info! This would be great in a presentation- on a display stand! http://www.displaystandworld.com.

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