SacRat's Windows Customization blog
Published on August 3, 2004 By sacrat In OS Customization

Aston Shell. New experience.

A couple of days ago Gladiators Software has released the version 1.9.1 of their excellent application, Aston.
Aston shell is a powerful and flexible shell replacement application... Well, OK, you can read this description on their site without any help from my side, so we better stop on the program itself, not its declared features.
Insignia by Frozzzen/A.R.T.

Aston is a Windows shell replacement. So What is a shell? Basicly shell gives you basic interface elements you're already familiar with: Desktop, System Tray, Taskbar, Start menu and so on. Natively Windows is configured to operate with its default shell, Explorer (yes, right, the same Explorer you may use to browse files on your home PC). Most Windows users simply cannot imagine, that one could work with a completely different Desktop, which can be done by one of two ways:

Aston Shell belongs to the second kind of applications. By installing it you get numerous advantages over the default Windows shell, which are not often obvious, but could be more, than useful.
N-SyS eXTaZy by Frozzzen/A.R.T.
By its nature Aston is designed to work fast even on out of date PCs. For example, it excellently works on Celeron 300 Mhz with 64 Mb RAM and works fast even on Pentium 100 Mhz/32 Mb RAM. Can you imagine Windows Blinds run smoothly on the same PC? No? Me too. Surely, the amount of RAM needed depends on a certain configuration, but default Aston themes (by applying themes you can change the program's appearance) require as small as 2 Mb RAM. By applying more animations and transparent objects you may need up to 10 Mb RAM (GUI applications memory usage worths another article), but that's still much lower, than Explorer in Windows XP.

Aston is a user friendly shell. Unlike some free alternatives (e.g. Litestep) it does not require you to learn compilcated configuration scripts or dig the depths of Windows registry. Every setting can be set by using quite a simple GUI.

Aston provides you the same GUI elements, as Explorer, adding even more. For example, it has the same Taskbar, Desktop, Tray Area and Start Menu, but each element is usually more flexible, than its precursor. Here are few examples: by default Aston Main Menu (Start button) can be either placed on its normal position (Left bottom corner) or floating, so you can access it by clicking any free space on the Desktop. Quick launch menu can be as small as a single button: click it and the whole menu appears. Aston Taskbar buttons fill th whole Taskbar space, utilizing it more efficiently. Aston Tray (just like Windows XP Explorer tray) can show and hide needful icons, no matter what Windows version you use. Aston Recycle Bin can have as many intermediate states as you need, not just filled and empty. I could continue this list long enough...
Duality theme by SacRat/A.R.T.
Nevertheless there are other useful GUI elements worth mentioning. For example, Toolbars. Toolbars (or side bars/panels), appearing on the right and left sides of your screen are used to store links to the elements you use frequently. For example, you can put there links to the web sites, shortcuts to your favorite office applications and whatever else you need. Aston even allow you to place some plugin elements on Toolbars. For example, you can use Toolbars to access a simple notepad, CPU usage meter or screen Zoom. Panel, introduced in Aston 1.9.1 and previously known as a Toppanel is another way to keep shortcuts to the programs, documents or URLs you use frequently. Panel elements are easier to sort and access, than groups of shortcuts, which are usually placed on one's Desktop.
Dominant Negative AS theme by Mrbiotech/A.R.T.

Plugins I already mentioned can greatly increase your new Desktop's functionality. You can use them to add analog or digital clocks, weather forecast, shortcut panels, Winamp controls and much more.

It also worths mentioning, that Aston has a good build-in shortcut manager. For example, you can create shortcuts to access needful elements (buttons, links, panel items, plugins), close and restore windows, run screensaver, close/restore tray icons and more... It's powerful enough, so you won't need another keyboard shortcut manager.

So, what for may you need a to replace your shell?

  • Stability: intensively tested on thousands of computers, Aston is more stable than Windows 9Xsacrat default shell and much more stable, than most competing applications;
  • Speed: in order to run Aston you need at least Pentium one (sic!) or compatible processor plus 16 Mb of RAM, most competing products require much faster machines;
  • Efficiency: Aston has numerous features missing in Explorer, which make work on your computer more efficient;
  • Eye-candy: Try one of those excellent themes you see on the shots or get even more on Aston homepage;

... to be continued...

So, "what are you waiting for? Christmas?" © Duke Nukem.
Check all this yourself...

Gladiators Software is a Russian software company, specialized on creation of Desktop enhacement tools. Its two main products are: Aston and AltDesk.

Comments (Page 1)
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on Aug 03, 2004

Aston is a shell. It doesn't compete with WindowBlinds.

Also, no one claims that WindowBlinds uses no memory. So please don't write misleading things about it.

Aston is a nice shell. But that's what it is. A shell.

on Aug 03, 2004
Well, Draginol, you're true here. These programs have quite a different target groups. WB is first of all a decoration tool while Aston is often used because of its small resource usage and stability. Probaly upcoming A2 would compete with DesktopX, but not with WB (as far as I know Gladiators are not going to reproduce Stardock's deed of making a window decoration tool for Windows). At present time Aston is mainly competing with the Talisman 2 (which has some nice features, but which is less stable) and Hoverdesk (has some excellent themes, but now seems to abandoned).
As for WB resource usage... You often mention, that its memory footprint is very small (2Mb IIRC) and CPU usage is nearly zero. Let me disagree with that. I tried numerous versions of WB since 1998. None of them worked flawlessly and they all vere consuming too much resources of my machines (both old Celeron 333 Mhz/192Mb and new Athlon 1800/512Mb) to let me work with other software. Unfortunately many other people (friends of mine) had the same experience.
Aston is a shell. No one says the opposite But it may also serve the purpose of Desktop decoration and in this field Aston and WB slightly interfer (WB skins shell elements, right?) People like nice looking skins and themes, you know
on Aug 03, 2004
Aston is primarily used, like WindowBlinds, for decoration. Let's be honest about that. Sure, Litestep, Talsiman, Hoverdesk, and the other shells can use fewer resources than Explorer but that's not the main reason people are using them in 2004. It's the customization features.

The amount of memory wbload.exe uses is not a matter of opinion. It's a stated fact. Also, if you're going to throw past WB performance then let's do the same with Aston which was very buggy and unstable when it first came on the scene. TODAY, WindowBlinds is very fast and uses very little memory. Do you want to claim publicly now that Aston 1.0 was problem free? Heck, you couldn't even use Aston with Windows XP until 1.4. And when I tried it I ran into problems with some of my apps (mainly Corel Photopaint and Corel Draw) which both got fixed in a later version.

You came on here and claimed that WindowBlinds advocates "lie" and claim it uses no resources. I take offense at that because we never make that claim. Its COMPETITORS of WindowBlinds such as TGT Soft that make claims like that.

More to the point - WindowBlinds and Aston don't overlap at all. They're analogous to Word and Excel. They don't compete which is why I couldn't understand the reason you'd bring up WindowBlinds.

WindowBlinds would work WITH Aston, not instead of it.

I think Aston is the leading alternative shell presently. My only beef with it is that the developers of it are bandwidth bandits (they silently link the themes on skin sites without giving credit rather than hosting the themes themselves, that's why WinCustomize won't support Aston, if we're going to have a library for it we expect users to visit WC to get them, not go to and just leech the file from our site undre the covers).
on Aug 03, 2004
Interesting article. Aston looks cool, though I am really happy with the way Windowblinds+Desktop X+Object Dock Plus make my desktop look and work. Very, very cool.

Anyway, I just have to chime in on the idea of Windowblinds hogging resources. Let me state the facts as they are on my computer. The process wbload.exe is using 0% of CPU (and only uses CPU power when in that instant I change themes), 640 K of memory and 39 handles. Looks pretty resource lite to me. There are only a couple processes using less resources, and I don't even know what they do.
on Aug 04, 2004
Draginol, let me argue a bit. Believe or not, but the number of people, using Aston because of its small resource usage is larger, than you think Yes, you're right, customization features are important (but don't mix adding usability features and adding eye-candy features).

I'm not goint to blame WB for its bugs in the past, rather than I won't argue with the fact, that Aston had troubles with Windows XP until the 1.7 release. I'm talking for myself and my personal experience. Some time ago, when writing an article about Windows customization in one Russian computer magazine I tested numerous skinnable and skinning tools (had to confess, that most of them were done by Stardock). And during these tests it turned out, that while running WB on MY machine I was unable to perform some tasks with acceptable speed. I may believe, that on certain computer configuration WB is nearly "transparent" (its resource usage is negligible), but in some resons the versions I tested on computers I tested (not only my personal PC) were actually slowing down the system. That's mot a flame. That's MY PERSONAL experience through the years. i might be the unlucky one...

BTW, we're not going to judge graphic application's resource usage, relying on Windows Taskman, right? It actually shows almost nothing useful.

As for competing... The only place where they cross (as i already mentioned) is shell skinning.
on Aug 04, 2004

But your article above talks about WindowBlinds in the present tense.  How isit relevant what your experience with WindowBlinds was years ago?

That's like the linux guy who insists that Windows crashes every 5 minutes because the last version they tried was Windows 95?

There is a fundamental difference in performance and reliability of any desktop enhancement when running on Windows 9x vs. Win2K/XP.

WindowBlinds ALWAYS ran very well on the NT based OSes because those OSes don't have GDI resource limitations whereas Win9x ones did.  It wasn't some bug in WindowBlinds. it was that most peple were already running their Win9x systems close to the edge and WindowBlinds would push them over.

Windows XP came out 3 years ago.  And Windows 2000 came out a year and a half before that.  WindowBlinds always worked well on those OSes. 

You made untrue statements about WindowBlinds:

Install a Desktop decoration tool, like Windows Blinds. What you get: the look of your Desktop can be changed by applying skins, but still this approach is not too much flexible. You can change the look of your Desktop, but its functionality remains unchainged. You may like this or not, but you can do nothing with it. Besides, Desktop decoration tools usually consume a considerable amount of additional system resources. Don't believe anyone saying, that Windows Blinds or MSStyles has no memory footprint or consumes no CPU power. This is just a blatant lie (and developers know about that).

First, WindowBinds can add new functionality.  It can add new title bar buttons. You can put plugins.  Heck, pretty much anything you could do with Aston could be done with WindowBlinds except that functionalty has to be tied into the existing GUI.  You could have an RSS feed or weather checker or whatever.

But what really annoyed me was the implication that WindowBlinds is purely decorative which is not true.  I use WindowBlinds for productivity as well.  I have it so that when I right click on the title bar the app will minimize.  My skins tend to have roll-up buttons on them as well as a push-pin button to keep them always on top.  That's new functionality that isn't part of the OS.

You then go on to make the false claim that WindowBlinds users/developers say it uses "no memory foot print".  Sorry but don't lump WindowBlinds developers/users in with msstyles advocates. We've never made such a claim.

You were basically trying to build up Aston by tearing down WindowBlinds.  At least, that's how it came across to me.

on Aug 04, 2004
I just don't get it. Windowblinds has what to do with Aston? Anyone could use both at the same time without any problems, Aston to change shell and look of OS, but windows would still look like native Windows. I could then use Windowblinds to change the look of windows itself to match the shell.

In other words, You just said that your car's wheels is better than Brad's steering wheel, car gas display, speed indicator, etc area. Simply different aspects of car.

I have used Windowblinds for over a year now, and I have had no problems with it at all. I remember when it was less stable years ago, which was the reason I stopped using Windowblinds years ago. Now? I doubt I will ever stop using Windowblinds again.
on Aug 04, 2004
BTW, we're not going to judge graphic application's resource usage, relying on Windows Taskman, right? It actually shows almost nothing useful.

Then educate me please. I understand that it certainly doesn't tell me all that it is doing, but surely knowing how much memory and CPU usage a program is accessing is at least a little important, right?
on Aug 04, 2004
BTW, I do want to say that overall, tihs is a really good article.  I wish more people would write articles on other shells and software.
on Aug 04, 2004
All the garbage about memory usage comes from us greyhairs that started griping in the mid-90's. When Windowblinds used 10 megs of your ram in 1999, and you only had 32 or 64 megs, then yeah, that wasn't woth the aesthetics. Now, I have a gig of ram in my machine, and my I have games that eat 300 megs of it with ease. Apps like Windowblinds aren't even an issue any more.

I used Aston a long while back, and I didn't like it. I'm sure it has changed a lot since then, though. Talisman is my shell of choice, but of late I have been leaning toward DesktopX running alongside explorer.
on Aug 05, 2004
Draginol, I didn't want to offend you, but as you can clearly see I DON'T like WB and have my resons to do that, already described. When saying, that WB is buggy (in my experience much more byggy, than MSStyles) and consumes too much system resources I talk about recent releases I tried (I should confess the older versions vere even worse). And yes, I'm running Windows XP and know, how many features it gives to GUI developers. I may change my opinion (and, maybe, even write a new article about that) if you give me a version of WB, that works flawlessly on MY PC. 'till now I saw none...
As for usability... As the article is mainly referred to shells, additional features to windows doesn't matter much. Still its my fault: WB can still help a little here
For myself I personally prefer MSStyles (I'm not talking about a known pruduct of a known company, which uses them) over WindowBlinds (actually use none of them) because the first caused a way less problems on MY computer configuration.

BlueDev, Taskman can indicate almost anything. It's also possible for developers to make it show zero memory or CPU usage while running a program (luk, zat program uzez no RAM, they r 3l334). That mostly refers to applications, which use a lot of graphics. Depending on a kind of bitmap allocation RAM usage values can jump in huge leaps. Example: if you use BMP/JPG pictures in Aston (no matter how large and numerous they are) Taskman RAM indicator doesn't move, but as only you load it with PNGs, indicated RAM usage jumps ahead. Another sample with the same Aston: Taskman indicates 20Mb RAM usage (zey suxxx), from which nearly 19Mb belong to an attached Explorer process (soneome was lazy to set a single checkbox). These were just 2 samples...
on Aug 05, 2004
A) Buggy: what bugs? What happened? DId you look into customer support? When I have run it I have had no issues at all. Considering the thousands upon thousands of people that use WB every day with no problems, I find it difficult to believe that you couldn't straighen it out. Talk to customer support folks, they'll tell ya when people gripe, it is never THEIR problem, then after they find out it was their fault all along they never apologize or go back onlne and retract all the idiotic rants they've posted all over the internet...

System Resources. Now that is an easy one to address. How much did it use? You can say "too much", but I have gotten into discussions with people that swore Winamp was a resource hog, only to find out it was using less than 10 megs on their system at the time.

Maybe you shoudl be more specific if you want to responsibly complain. This is just the same, tired arguement I have heard about apps like this since 1998, and it always ends the same way. The person obstanantly insists the program has too many problems for them to enjoy using, and thousands of people keep right on using it with no problems.

on Aug 05, 2004
I'm glad you're happy with WB, BakerStreet.
In case you need some samples, OK, I'll give them:
A) System crashes. Somehow WB managed to crash the whole system (I'm using Windows XP, so this is not a trivial task) when applying a certain skin (checked trice: you press a button on the skin and then must reboot your PC). Had absolutely no such problems with MSStyles, eFX, etc... Window skinning bugs: on certain windows headers and window elements thend to climb or shift, causing a very unpleasant feeling of garbage. The same applies to MSstyles, though I have much less problems with it. I don't write any bugreports because I don't like this application and don't use it (thousands of happy customers better do it instead). And such a behaviors was seen by me on numerous machines and numerous OS and program's versions, INCLUDING (underline!) recent builds. I don't care if it works good for someone as it doesn't work good for me and numerous friends of mine (many of them are tech. specialists).
If you find an objective good way to measure such an application's resource usage (read above), then I'll tell you exactly. From MY EXPERIENCE even simple work in Explorer (switching between many windows, moving windows, etc...) was VISUALLY a way slower, than before. The same refers to heavy tasks (rendering, working with larde bitmaps, encoding files, etc...), which were nearly impossible to operate while running WB. That's what I call slow. And if such things happen i don't care what Taskman shows me.
IMHO bugless window border skinning in Windows is a kind of utopia. In order to make it work flawlessly MS has to rewrite the whole Windows engine and in its current state both MSstyles and WB are just hacks (the same can be told about many other aspects of Windows customization).
on Aug 05, 2004
Aston looks a ecxellent and powerfull desktop tool. One thing i would like in Aston is a possibility to work together with Windows Explorer. And about Windowblinds, I LOVE IT and i started to use it from version 2.12 and i never had any problem it's uuse only 1.800 k of memory here, but i can live with this cause Windowblinds bring a lot of ECXELLENT featurings like animations, sounds, extra buttons like minimize to tray, transparence, players controls, custon menus and more.
on Aug 05, 2004
danilloOc: Talisman and DesktopX are good choices if you want to run your desktop enhancement over explorer.

sacrat: You aren't interested in fixing your problems, nor can you even tell us how you come to the conclusion that WB uses excessive resources. It could be theme related, it could be an application conflict, who knows? Not you, anyway, so you can't really make the those claims responsibly. You prefer just to blame the app and go on. No offense, but I'm not buying the "numerous friends of mine" stuff.

It would be easier to believe it it wasn't for the fact I have seen that argument almost word-for-word for the last 5+ years, and oddly no one can ever "put up or shut up". Granted, flaming WB seems to be the L33T thing to do in some circles. Whatever makes you feel cool...

"I don't write any bugreports because I don't like this application and don't use it"

'nuff said.
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