General desktop enhancement
Advanced (power)tweaks and a couple of tools to change some general stuff regarding your desktop environment:
Virtual desktops
Running out of space, you might consider a virtual desktop tool, creating more - virtual - desktop space for you:
Wanna keep it simple ? You can have just 2 desks, switch easy by an icon in the systray. DoubleDesktop is very effective (and free, for Win 9x/2k)!
VirtuaWin works much like VWM for Litestep. 4 or more desktops, accessible by the systray or just move your mouse over the edges of the screen (free, all versions). Has a module to add a skinnable control panel, here.

JS Pager (free, Win 9x/2k) goes up to 6 desktops, which are accessible by a little skinnable control panel.

DesktopPlus has up to 9 desktops, accessible in many ways, an overall professional utility with loads of options, shareware though (shareware, all versions).

And there's WinScroll (Win 9x/2k, free), which doesn't really create new - virtual - desktops, but instead puts a scrollbar at the right side of the screen, make the desktop much, much heigher and lets you scroll the area. There's some advanced features too, but since the application is Japanese (homepage of author is here), link points to the English introduction/download by Interface Workshop (translation done by Angus Johnson from Resource Hacker).

DVWM, meant to be part of the Dimension shell once, is also a skinnable classic. Unique feature, besides complete skinnability (..) - it displays a cropped screenshot of the desktops as last seen, very smooth... working on all platforms, free, and although abandoned, available at skinnables.
Save your settings
Recognize this ?? You've got all your windows sized, icons placed the way they look great.... explorer crash! (Or, the thing crashes not that much anymore, but it seems to forget sometimes...) And there you go again.. but, there's a way to recover all your settings, that's windows placing, sizing and icon positions, with just one click (Win 9x/2k).

First, make it all look, once more, just the way you want it to be. Choose about 30 folders you access frequently to look good (don't forget your win- and system dir, program files etc.).

Now these settings are in the Registry, open it and go to:
Select the folder 'Streams'. Choose 'Registry' in the toolbar, and 'export registry-key'. The information in the key is being stored in a .reg file, which is a simple textfile. Name & store where you want. Then do the same with the folder 'StreamMRU'.

Close RegEdit and open the last file with notepad. Remove the first line (REGEDIT4) and copy the rest. Then open your first file and paste it at the end. Save, close and make a shortcut to your desktop. And then, have fun and mess up all your favorite folders. Once exhausted (double)click your shortcut and confirm you wanna enter this info into the Registry. Rejoice!

A lot of graphic cards come with some software to save your desktop icon layout. If yours didn't, alternatives:

Softwarium Restore Desktop "magically restores icons' positions after display resolution changing. You can also restore saved icons' positions manually by rightclicking on the desktop" (free, all versions).

(!!) An even more integrated solution, that works in all versions, is using layout.dll/layout.reg from the NT 4 Resource Kit. Put the .dll in your (9x) \Windows\System, (2k) \Winnt\System32 or (XP) \Windows\System32 folder, import the .reg file and have the option to save and restore (one configuration) in the rightclickmenu of My Computer and the bin (14 kB, source: Jorge Walker at Axcel216).
Setting a workspace
To complete control over the desktop, have a look at WorkTop. Coded by neophile. This great app seperates an "icon-area" and "work-area" from the desktop, allowing you to set them different.
While neophile never got to adding options to make a preset being applied at startup, there is also..

[*toptool:] Hawkeye ShellInit. A small, scriptable application that "creates any number of margins on the screen that maximized windows wont cover (much like the taskbar). In these margins, you can put applications that you always want visible, for instance Winamp, SysMeter, console, chat window, or whatever." Can run automatically at startup, has transparancy options and more, advanced tool. Free.
Active Desktop
Active desktop is an integrated feature in windows since IE4 that allows you to have html on your desktop. Most info has been covered on other parts of the site, so this topic mostly links to them.

To set Active Desktop go to Control panel -> Display settings. Two possibilities there:
  • "Wallpaper" tab: directly setting an whole html page as your wallpaper (and place the scripts in it) or,
  • "Web" tab (in Desktop -> Customize desktop for XP), adding new html objects to your desktop that you can resize and close when your mouse goes over them.
If you chose the first way, what you have to do is set your html page to have your wallpaper as a background, then add object over them. Here is an example using css.
Might go for the first way though, as resize and close functions give an ugly border to the objects, and you could still use dhtml to have objects on your desktop this way.

Note: active desktop has the reputation of being slow, but it has improved a bit and is not that buggy or slow as it was before.
But as this is basicaly an html page you have tremendous functionality and can add about anything you want like a custom app launcher, a calendar, a clock etc...

You'll probably wonder how you can run programs from a webpage. Check the html in the UI page for the info on that. Also check out the rest of the page for other info, ideas and possibilities. A note concerning launching apps using active desktop: use <a target="_self" href="run:x:\path\executable.exe"> (notice the target="_self") to launch your apps from active desktop, or a blank Internet Explorer window will appear.

Angel333 did a full website dedicated to AD, some cool scripts, check it out: there. Also, many related html menus and stuff can found on web developers sites, check out scripts examples at WebFX, including a ToDo desktop item. Note, if you want to send us some, we'll gladly accept and post them here, just .
Desktop Themes
We're not very fond of working with 'themes', as introduced by the Win95 plus package (integrated in Win98/2k). They're limited, don't customize enough. There's some (free) utilies available to add this theming control on your machine, if you don't own it, or extend it a little...

Here's one that controls your conventional theme's, but adds a lot more, like control over your logo's, screensaver and more. Desktop Architect (page gone, but as it's still the default, a download link (2 Mb)) lets you change a lot more colors than Windows lets you (like 3d effects), and can also change the 'webview' of your windows. Note, not compatible with XP.

An alternative could be Theme Studio 99, also freeware (Win 9x only).

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