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Friday, March 16, 2007

Tweak XP and Mobile Part 2

Last week (or was it the week before?), I posted on tweaking XP and your device themes to make them look similar and just all-around cooler (check that full post out here). I gave some basic tips on patching the theme engine in Windows to allow custom theme packages to be used. This allowed you to incorporate theme elements that reproduce things like the Vista transparent window effects in Aero, or brushed steel finish of I-Tunes or Mac, for example. Finally, I outlined some basic tools for editing themes for your mobile device. Now let's expand on that a bit, and tweak XP/WM even further...I never liked that stupid "Start" thing in XP, so I changed it--and guess what? You can change it in WM too (sort of)...Read on for more tweakin fun...

Hacking the Windows Start Button
The first thing you need to do is to read up on using a tool called Resource Hacker. When I got it, it was a freebie, and appears to still be. It was written by Angus Johnson, and is a very useful utility for hacking into 32-bit executeables and changing certain application resource elements (like icons, and bitmaps). Resource Hacker then gives you the ability to re-compile the executeable with your changes. Sounds scary, and it isn't really, but please back up your system first (or at least the file itself). It turns out, the ugly default Windows Start Menu text and image is simply one of many resources compiled into "explorer.exe", which is the program that presents the Windows desktop. Using Resource Hacker, you can edit the ".bmp" images used in the Start menu, and even change the "Start" title itself.

My "tweaked" Start menu

Resource Hacking the Start Icon

Once you learn a little about Resource Hacker, and tweaking Windows system files, it's a cinch to add your own custom images and text to the Start menu as indicated, or even tweak the appearance of some of your favorite applications. Explorer.exe is considered a special file worthy of protection by the operating system, so you have to go through some acrobatics with Window's built-in system protection, and then boot to safe mode to force your changes. See the following overclockersclub article on hacking the start menu for more information and a step-by-step, and check out my article on tweaking Windows Mobile application icons in this manner as well here.

Tweaking the WM interface
To do this kind of thing on your handheld is not quite so easy, so to keep it simple and easy I use a combined task manager/theme tweaker program called Wisbar Advance. Wisbar was one of the first interface tweakers you could use to dress up the boring default look of Windows Mobile, and it runs on PPC 2002 though WM5. I shouldn't actually call it a display tweaker, because it's more of a WM display wrapper that runs on top of the default WM display. It has a lot more bells and whistles than it's skins, and is practically a complete interface replacement in it's own right, but I'll focus just on the skin capability for now. It's major drawback though, is that it eats up extra resources. There are a ton of on-line skins and themes available for Wisbar, and it's popularity has spawned a cottage industry of themes to go with it. In addition to the themes that come installed, and available for download from Lakeridge, you should check out these sites, as well as the WA skins forums:

1. DeviantArt
2. piXel's themes/skins
3. Juni's themes/skins
4. Lightman's themes/skins

Even with WA eating up some extra resources, it becomes apparent from the shots that the enhancement to WM is worth it.

Before WA...boring

After WA...better

Tweaking Wisbar Skins
The really cool thing about Wisbar is that the displayed interface elements and settings are a collection of easily identified image files and a single property file (a ".skin"), all located under the theme main directory. The property file maps the images and settings to be used in the interface. The skins are accompanied by sounds as well (in a separate folder). The Wisbar site has a handy skinning guide to help you get started, and it really is pretty easy to take an existing skin template and modify it for your own taste (although, remember you are editing someone else's work, so don't try to claim it later as your own). The WA settings allow you to easily import a custom theme, and it would be awesome if WM natively supported these kinds of changes.

Setup a whole new custom theme by tweaking the images/config, etc...

Pick a pre-defined theme or import a custom one...

So, we can now pimp out our desktop and handheld displays with ease. Next week, we'll look at even more desktop/device gizmos like Object Dock (for those Vista-like widgets), Mobile Shell, and more tweakers...Stay tuned!

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