Shell game
Sally distributes C shells as open-source
My righteous campaign against Microsoft is... well, not heating up, exactly, but not cooling down either. At its core it boils down to this, an open question to Microsoft: "Why can't you make anything that doesn't suck?" Again: I speak as a Redmond loyalist. But the reality is that every Microsoft product I've had has crashed within my first month of having it.

Flight Simulator. Rise of Nations. Age of Empires. Office. My freaking Zune. Windows. Windows, Windows, Windows. More Windows. Office again. My phone. Do you suppose Apple people often have to make calls twice because they had to reboot their iPhone halfway through the first one? Mm? The first time I had to reboot my phone it was kind of a chuckle--"ah, look, you have to power cycle phones now, just like computers". Now it's just sad. And irritating.

My latest act of rebellion has been to ditch Explorer as a shell. It's slow, it takes up a fuckload of memory, and it crashes. I suppose we should forgive Microsoft for this, since it's not like they've had freaking forever to develop it. Shells are hard; just ask clams. Or snails. Explorer is a snail shell.

Anyway, getting rid of Explorer sort of leads us to the overwhelming question: what next? Sawdust restaurants and oyster shells, to continue the Eliot reference? Turtle shells? Shellac?

It's easier than you think to get rid of Explorer, and you have plenty of options. Some of them are free, some of them are not, but they are out there. Coupled with a new file manager (though Explorer, if slow, is at least a reasonably decent file manager) you can completely remove the dreaded "explorer.exe" from your process list. I've tried out two. Mostly.

First, I started with Blackbox, or rather bblean, a Blackbox variant for Windows. Blackbox is small, and fast. It still hooks into the file system fine--for instance, it treats Vista's semantic folders as being normal, allowing you to browse through them. It can use the Windows Start Menu folder to generate a list of your available programmes. Since it doesn't have an integrated file manager, it does lack things like, for instance, thumbnails of images, or selecting multiple folders in a directory. But that's fine; that's what you have Explorer for.

My install of Blackbox was dark and minimalistic. A taskbar, at the top, hidden by default, lists the time, some elements in the system tray, and my running applications. You can get plugins for Blackbox--everything from resource monitors to new text editors--but I didn't. Simple, clean, easy. It lends itself well to customisation to the nth degree.

On the other hand, it has some problems, most of them involving the system tray. In Vista, you have a network connections indicator. It's easy to just right-click this indicator to, say, join a new network. It's easy to click the volume button to bring up the volume control. And so on--Blackbox sheds this. Compatibility with Vista is "imperfect," though the imperfections are limited to things like that. But eventually it got too much-ish, and I abandoned it.

SharpE was my other experiment. SharpE is like Vista, but more Vista-y. It's pretty, it's glossy, it's translucent. It believes in Vista's system tray icons, so the network status indicator returns, as does the volume dude. It comes with a suite of built-in plugins, with which you can do such fascinating things as... uh. Divining the weather. It comes with a system monitor that lets you know how hard you're taxing your system.

It has a built in notes system that lets you keep little memos about, which is terminally handy. It also has easy support for multiple desktops (technically Blackbox does too, but it's a bit clunkier).

On the other hand, it's undeniably slower than Blackbox and maybe slower than Explorer. It's still a beta, so there are weird hanging bugs--sometimes. It's not quite as customisable, even if you can edit all the fonts and colours and things. Rather than being one element, it's split across five or six different executables that lurk in the task manager. Taunting you. Eventually, this gets to be too much.

What it comes down to, really, is that Blackbox is for "power users" (this is the phrase reviewers like me employ that doesn't really mean anything but is supposed to signify a class of computer user who tinkers and knows how many gigahertz are in his or her processor) and SharpE is for everyday, non power users. You know, who have somehow stumbled onto a replacement shell. And know what that means.

Since I already know what my computer can do, and what I want it to do, Blackbox is a logical choice. I miss the tabbed memo capacity of SharpE notes. Right now I'm replacing it with NotePad++ set to "always on," which mostly replicates it but is far too complicated for my needs or tastes. So I am soliciting new suggestions on that one.

Otherwise, though, it comes highly recommended. Between it and Opera, I'm managing to squeeze the absolute most out of the few hundred pixels HP saw fit to bless this computer with, and that's what really counts.

-Alex
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