SacRat's Windows Customization blog
Published on August 12, 2004 By sacrat In OS Customization

Aston vs. Explorer: comparative review

In this article I'd liked to name all the pros and cons of both shells.
What for? First of all, some users think, that alternative shells have less features, than Explorer and thus less usable. Next, I know no comparative reviews of both shells as there are not really many alt shell fans (and the existing ones don't write reviews too often).

So, what's different in Aston and Explorer?

  • Both shells are pretty stable nowadays;
  • Aston is more stable, than Explorer in Windows 9X/ME;
Resource consumption:
  • Aston typically consumes about 2 megabytes of RAM, Explorer may need from 5 to 30 Mb (Explorer XP)
  • Aston: Taskbar buttons' width is dynamic. In other words, a single task button would fit the whole task; two tasks would fit a half of its width each and so on. Aston task buttons have three states (active, inactive, minimized), while Explorer has only has two basic states.
  • Explorer: Explorer in Windows XP has a useful task grouping option, which is sometimes quite useful;
System tray:
  • Both Aston and Explorer XP have a two state system tray (minimized tray and restored tray) and both allow easily moving icons from one group to another;
  • Aston: these features also work under Windows 9X/ME/NT and tray closing/restoring can be done by a hotkey as well;
Quick Launch:
  • Aston: QL items can be stored on Taskbar or hidden under a small button, saving lots of space on Taskbar, one can easily define the number of visible tray icons;
  • Explorer: a certain number of QL elements must be always visible on Taskbar.
Start menu:
  • Aston: menu includes (by default) easy access to control panel items; first level menu items can be easily configurated; menu items are always sorted.
  • Explorer: menu items sometimes need to be sorted manually (a changeable behaviour), drag'n'drop inside main menu excellently works in recent versions of Explorer; main menu can have two looks: default XP (barely useful) and classic;
  • Both shells allow users store icons on their desktops;
  • Aston: uses its own Desktop system, but allows accessing Explorer Desktop folder through the main menu (or any other way, defined by user), Aston Desktop cannot store documents and folders on it (shortcuts, buttons and plugins only), which is done to organize and educate users; shortcut buttons can have any size up to 255x255 px, can be animated; icons are recommended to be stored as Panel items.
  • Explorer: wide support for dag'n'drop, can store documents, folders and objects (recycle bin, My Computer, etc...).
Desktop objects and items:
  • Aston: allows having buttons (multistate shortcuts) and decorative elements on desktop; some plugins can be placed on Desktop, enhancing its functionality; Aston Recycle Bin and Disk links can have an unlimited numer of intermediate states (explorer Bin uses two, no intermediate fill states for disks at all);
  • Explorer: Active Desktop allows using HTML pages as Destktop background;
  • Both shells allow activating links by shortcuts;
  • Aston: allows accessing applications, links, URLs, special items, plugins, have basic windows manipulations and so on with the shortcuts; has a basic set of predefined shortcuts;
  • Explorer: allows activating links (documents, applications, URLs), has a set of build-in (unchangeable) shortcut combinations to access Taskman, My Computer's properties and so on;
  • Aston: has two side panels (Toolbars), which can be used to store plugins, shortcuts and items;
  • Explorer: no build-in analogs;
  • Aston: has a set of build-in plugins (clocks, Panels and so on), allows using third-party modules;
  • Explorer: allows using third party extensions (mostly affecting the file management part);
  • Aston: appearance and behaviour can be changed by using one of available themes;
  • Explorer: Explorer XP has three build-in Windows Styles, three optional styles may be ordered or obtained from the MS site; in order to use third-party styles one must iether use a hacked version of system library or any third-party application (like one of Stardock products);
  • Aston: $28 (common price, a license can also be obtaineed for free);
  • Explorer: $0 (you buy it with a copy of Windows);
So, now you know both programs' pros and cons. What to choose? Judge yourself.

Comments (Page 1)
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on Aug 12, 2004

You're missing quite a bit.

Aston uses more than 2 megabytes of RAM. When I ran it it was using around 10 megs. It does use less but it's not nearly as much of a difference as you say.

Both are "stable" but Aston themes are fairly resolution dependent. So if you change resolutions a lot, Aston may not be very suitable.

Aston has not system tray filtering either. Its taskbar doesn't support ActiveX controls. It's Start menus don't support drag and drop. And the taskbar in Explorer is skinned by programs such as WindowBlinds so you have a lot of control how they look and how much space they use.

Aston also does not have any sort of most frequently used program functionality. It has recent but no MFU like the Windows start menu has.

Explorer allows the creation of toolbars. Just right click on the STart bar, choose "Toolbars" and then create another one which you can then dock to any edge and accepts drag and drop.

Explorer supports industry standard ActiveX controls. Virtual desktops, media players, battery meters, and many other things can be put into a Windows toolbar (Start bar or one that you create).

As you mention, Explorer requires a third party program to change its appearance.  There are approximately 10X more "visual styles" / skins available for those third party Explorer enhancements than there are Aston themes.

That isn't to say that I think Aston isn't a good shell. I do think it is. I just think that you're not as familiar with Explorer as you should be to make this comparison.  Some of the things these shells lack aren't trivial things. MFU and taskbar grouping, to name two, are big deals.

on Aug 12, 2004
Greetings again, Draginol;
Memory: that depends on several things. First of all: a theme. The second: icon cache size. The third: the way of handling Explorer process. Depending on these three factors the memory usage is ususlly between 2 and 15 Mb. It's especially big if you don't deattach Explorer process from Aston in Shell Swapper. Being absolutely honest I have to say, that typical memory usage is about 8 Mb on the most recent themes (we, themers became lazy). Using simpler themes Aston really runs 2-3 Mb (the lowest limit I had was as low as 1.5 Mb).
Stability: themes don't refer to stability. As for the resolution "issue"... This highly depends on the way a theme is constructed. Aston 1.9.1 allows building themes, which are suitable for a very wide range of resolutions. So overall, the designer's guilt is quite a big here
Taskbar. Hint: click the "A" icon on the tray As for the list of recently used programs... You're right here: my fault. Just I never understdood it
Toolbars: missed. Still these "toolbars" are hard to compare
Plugins: I noted that.
Appearance: sure, as Explorer is more popular.

btw, thanks for correcting me. I rarely use Explorer now (mainly one the work), so I have really forgotten some stuff.
on Aug 12, 2004

Just so that we're clear: We are on the same page  - Aston has low overhead. But when you say it uses 2 megs of RAM that's really not being fair. The typical theme is going to use 8 to 12 megs depending on its complexity. 

Explorer Toolbars do a lot of what users want.  In fact, if MS had a menu class built into them, we'd all be in big trouble (we as in us developers that make software to customize the shell).

I want to also add that I really like Aston. I've been using it a lot. I just think it needs more meat before it's ready for the masses. Just my 2 cents.

on Aug 12, 2004
Draginol, let me disagree with toolbars. I personally know no users, who ever tried them
I myself used them a couple of times only...
on Aug 12, 2004
I did try setting up multiple toolbars in XP. I had my Quicklaunch and then built one with all my game shortcuts. I tried some others, such as "My Computer", "My Documents", and some other stuff, but they just never did what I wanted them to do and I never stuck with them. So while you can use them I never liked them and found them to be a poor substitute to really functional stuff.
on Aug 12, 2004

Draginol, let me disagree with toolbars. I personally know no users, who ever tried them

Do you think the average person has met someone who has replaced their entire shell? Do you realize how your statement sounds?

on Aug 12, 2004
This was helpful to me, who knew little details about Aston.

I'd like to see a comparison of system performance under the two shells. Knowing memory consumption is helpful, but how about questions like Which shell has less of a hit on performance of other programs? Which has fewer video problems on a given system? and so on.
on Aug 13, 2004

They should be about the same in those areas.

The biggest problem I think the average person would have with Aston is that Aston tends to be resolution DEPENDENT.  The theme author has to "make" their theme support your resolution. If they don't, you're out of luck.

on Aug 13, 2004
Aston typically consumes about 2 megabytes of RAM, Explorer may need from 5 to 30 Mb (Explorer XP)

Yeah? Not counting any resources from the theme, I'll bet.

Besides, My computer got 1.5 GB ram, (result of amazing sale of 512 mb sticks at 40 bucks each, years ago) so it don't really matter how much MB it uses.

I get concerned only when some very small program uses over 100 mb or so.
on Aug 13, 2004
Draginol. Once again:
Resolution is an issue for the most applications, supporting themes (Litestep, Hoverdesk, Aston, etc...)
BUT as i already told you, there are two basic ways to solve the problem:
1) create resolution independent theme (as much independent as possible)
2) create native support for each resolution. the second approach is more flexible.
It's also possible to invent some kind of resolution independent theme format (might appear in A2), but it's simply impossible for a certain theme/skin to support all resolutions by nature.
And thanks for pointing me the resolution issue theme: I should pay it more attention in my skinning tutorial. BTW, what resolution are you using?
As for my "statements" about Explorer toolbars... That's a fact: I know no single person (even from the skinning/shell comunities) who uses them.
on Aug 13, 2004
You can count one. I use Explorer toolbars regularly. I use the Quicklaunch area for show desktop/command line/browser/editor/etc. immediate applications that I need everywhere. Next to it I have an expanding "My Computer" that works as a systemwide file browser. Next to it I have a bar of VNC shortcuts to all systems on my network. On a seperate bar I keep less immediate applications in an autohide mode, along with the multiple desktops powertoy and occasionally the Winmedia player bar. I'm planning on migrating my Samurize config to it as soon as I settle on a good layout.

I salute developers everywhere attempting to improve the experience, but I toss Aston, Litestep, Talisman, Geoshell in the same category of "getting closer". A default Explorer isn't sexy because it's ubiquitous, but it works better than anything else out there. I have never run a third party shell that didn't show its bugs within a day or so.
on Aug 13, 2004
Sacrat: Yes, I mentioend that that is the problem with these kinds of programs in general (resolutions dependence).  But Explorer  is resolution independent.
on Aug 13, 2004
Bill Reid: you seem to be quite an interesting person. Really.

Draginol: Still explorer has no kind of "themes". Don't start it again: I've replied
What makes a theme to be resolution dependent?
1) Wallpaper: some wallpapers cannot be stretched without visible distortions.
2) Element placement: the biggest issue. If Explorer ever had themes it would run into the same troubles. Solution: stick elements to certain "hot-spots" of the screen, using relative coordinates: this way themes would support nearly all resultions, starting from the default one.
3) Element's size. EVERY skinnable app (including explorer) has this "issue" as nowadays there are no adaptive skins, which resize, depending on the resolution.
I don't think, that you're too stupid not to see, that it's impossible to create a theme engine, supporting ALL resolutions. At present time properly designed Aston themes even having a single resolution work flawlessly under a range of resolutions, which covers at least 95% of users.
In general a support for 1024x768, 1280x1024 and 800x600 is enough.
on Aug 13, 2004
In general a support for 1024x768, 1280x1024 and 800x600 is enough.

Ah, good to know that. I will be avoiding Aston then since that certainly is not enough for me.
on Aug 13, 2004

Resolution dependence is a very big sacrifice for a lot of people in exchange for eye candy. I like eye candy a lot (obviously) but I'm not willing to lose functionality for it.

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