Windows 9x/ME Customization Guide

Windows 9x/Me Customization Part Two: Advanced Customization

Alternative shells make a great impact on Windows 9x/Me, mainly because the default shell Windows uses is so horrible. The following section of this article is for more advanced tweakers who prefer to meddle with their shells. Iíve covered the old program manager, and everyoneís favorite, Litestep. Other shells such as darkstep are not covered, mainly because I found them to be user unfriendly & not easily customizable.

A general guide to alternative shells is that they can be changed via a file called system.ini, located in your windows directory. If you ever need to change back to the default windows shell (explorer), simply boot up into dos (you may want a boot disk if you are using Windows Me), and type in edit windows\system.ini, if you installed windows to that directory. Simply change the shell= entry back to shell=explorer.exe. If you ever get the warning "CANNOT FIND <shell file name> PLEASE REINSTALL WINDOWS." do not reinstall windows. Just follow the instructions above.

Program manager

Program manager (program.exe) is the other shell provided by Microsoft for use on windows machines. It is considerably faster than explorer, however it is a lot simpler. Some may recognize the name from Windows 3.x, and indeed it is practically the same shell design, but it has been dragged into the 32 bit GUI of Windows 9x/Me. There is no set install program for it; so youíll have to tell windows to load it manually. Click on start, run, and type in sysedit. Move to the system.ini window. Look for the entry shell= under the [boot] section. By default it will be shell=explorer.exe. Change it to shell=progman.exe. Save changes & reboot.

Youíll need to create your own program groups (*.grp). Functionality other than that is limited to run. Itís a very fast shell, but not one I can easily recommend. If you grew up in the world of 16 bit windows you might prefer this to any other shell. Remember, it is only a shell, you are not reverting to an old operating system. All other aspects other than your operating system other than your desktop interface will remain the same.


Litestep is possibly the best alternative shell for windows, based loosely on the designs from NextStep. It is the most configurable shell around & has been gaining popularity ever since it was released for Windows 95. You are not only able, but positively encouraged to change any/all settings at will. At the time of writing, the old litestep site was not up and running. Therefore all downloads are linked to a new litestep site. You can find a list of downloads with preset themes here. Donít even think about going for one of the newer ďLSD4PĒ builds.

For the purpose of this article, I will be using an old favorite of mine, Bluesteel. Bluesteel was originally a theme created by Daniel Erat for a Window Manager called Enlightenment. It has seen a lot of action under X-Windows for Linux, and now for litestep.

The downloadable file should be either a compressed zip archive, or self extracting .exe. In the event you download a file with the .php3, they are basically renamed zip files, so you can use WinZip. If you are given an archive, you will need to run the install program. If you are already supplied with an install program, all you need do is launch it.

If the file has an install program, it should guide you through the process & should edit system.ini for you. If it does not, extract all files to c:\litestep and follow the steps above to edit system.ini, but edit the shell= line to shell=c:\litestep\litestep.exe, substituting the directory if you chose a custom one.

Once you have rebooted, you should face a desktop like this:

Quite bland-looking. Your theme should have its own background. The marble background from Bluesteel can be found in c:\litestep\images.

All changes central to litestep can be made from the step.rc file, although changes will not take effect until you recycle or restart windows, more details on this later.

For starters, if you canít seem to find a way to get into display properties, context click on the desktop and click on run. Type in control.exe desk.cpl.

Now the default litestep menu configuration doesnít include much, especially with Bluesteel, so thatíll be the first thing youíll want to change. Open up the file c:\litestep\step.rc in a text editing program of your choice. Notepad is sufficient, but you can open it in Microsoft Word should you choose. If a shortcut to it is not on the menu, click on run on the menu & browse to your program.


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