Aston ShellI am really on a roll. I have found BeyondCompare that allows me to keep my laptop completely in sync with my desktop. I found w.Bloggar that allows me to maintain and post to my weblog much faster and thus allow me to focus on other things. The last area that I needed to address was the desktop itself. About a year or so ago, I moved to using multiple monitors on my desktop.

I currently use two 17″ monitors and I’d love to move to using three in larger formats. Once you go multi-monitor, it’s hard to go back. The workspace is just too addicting and the more the merrier. So moving from my desktop to my laptop has become a bit of a jump. For one, the top resolution on my laptop is 1024 x 768 and I run my desktop at 1280 x 2048. The other issue is that you can’t run dual monitor in a mobile environment.

The culmination of these two factors is that I found myself putting off work because I found it too confining on my laptop. I’d think, “Oh, I’ll just wait till I get back to the office.” instead of using my time more wisely while I was mobile. Hal Schechner swears by virtual desktops and I tried several of them, but I always found them confusing. Multiple desktops are common in Linux, but in Windows you have to run a separate application. These multi-desktop apps then allows you to have multiple desktops on one PC. You navigate between them via the mouse, or hotkeys.

Call me simple, or slow, but I found that I would get lost as my mouse moved from one workspace into another. It usually happened by accident and then I’d have to figure out where I wasn’t and how to get back to what I was doing. Clearly not everyone has this problem, but I do, so it’s a bit surprising that I fell in love with AltDesk. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What started me down this path was the fact that I saw a desktop created by an artist that I follow on DeviantArt. His name is adni18 and he did the Aston desktop Glint. Prior to this, I had never heard of Aston Shell, nor would I have even given it a second glance.

What’s a shell?

Typically when you load windows you’re using Explorer as your shell. It’s the graphical container that all of your programs run under. Alternative shells run in place of Explorer and give you a different user interface and usually some unique tools or customizations. I’ve tried alternative shells in the past, such as Lightstep, or Hoverdesk, but I found them too disorienting. I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for when I needed to do something. That coupled with the fact that, in the past, they tended to be too difficult to switch back and forth from.

For example, I would try a new shell and when I wanted to switch back to Explorer to get my bearings, or simply perform a task that I was used to in Explorer and didn’t’ know how to do in the alternative shell, it was too cumbersome and usually required a reboot. Do that enough times and you’ll abandon the devil you don’t know for the one you do. At least that’s been my experience.

With this past experience in mind, I was quite taken with adni18’s Aston Shell theme, so I decided to give it a shot. The installation was simple and in no time I had his theme running on my desktop in the alternative shell. Adni18’s theme didn’t fit my resolution, so I switched to the default theme and that’s when everything just fell into place. For some reason, the layout and implementation just made sense to me. I especially liked the top menus and how they functioned. I tend to put shortcuts up there, but the top menu system made more sense. I also liked how the system tray functioned and how you could choose to truncate it and not be forced to use auto-hide, like in Explorer.

I also liked how you could embed little icons into the wallpaper. I’ve always liked the idea of wallpaper that had functionality beyond just a pretty picture. So, having a cool “My Computer” icon part of the wallpaper was pretty neat. However my favorite feature was the fact that you can have quotes, or other random text appear in the toolbar when it’s empty. There’s a special text file that you can customize to include any text that you want. So I instantly grabbed my memo of Demotivators and copied them into the file. Now wherever the toolbar is empty, I can laugh at a choice De-Motivator quote like “Get To Work – You Aren’t Being Paid To Believe In The Power Of Your Dreams” 😀

After being so pleasantly surprised by Aston Shell, I tried another of their products called AltDesk. It’s a virtual desktop app that can run in Aston or Explorer and allows you to have multiple desktops. I instantly took to this app because it keeps the desktops in distinct “sandboxes.” Instead of being able to drift from desktop to desktop with the mouse, you have to click on the desktop window itself. Granted, I’m sure you can set up other virtual desktop managers to do this, but AltDesk does it by default, so I don’t have to learn how to use the program.

The other cool thing is that it shows the active applications running on each desktop by icon. The number of icons displayed depends on the skin you’re using for the app. What’s nice about this is that you can be in one desktop and then click on the app you want to access on the other desktop and go immediately to it, as opposed to having to select the desktop and then the app. I have it setup to have in a 1 x 3 configuration with #1 being my main working area, #2 contains The Bat! and #3 has Trillian.

With all that running, I can easily toggle between each workspace and stay productive with minimal clutter. I can’t tell you conclusively that Aston Shell runs faster than Explorer, but it feels that way. Perhaps it’s just a result of the more efficient way of navigating the desktop, but having Aston and AltDesk has been a real boost to my productivity on my laptop. It feels more responsive and spunkier and I’m able to fly through my work which is really, really nice.

Even if you’re not keen on switching shells, I encourage you to try AltDesk, it’s an easy to use program that you may find indispensable in just a few minutes. If you’re a multiple monitor user, AltDesk can help wean you from multi-monitor heaven when you’re using a laptop.