Running Windows without explorer.exe - Or running Windows whilst using as little of the windows shell as possible.
I've been trying to minimise Windows for years, and I don't mean the little application windows but the windows operating system shell. I want a lot of what the windows operating system offers but without all the pain and all the junk that Microsots (sic) gives us. One of the biggest pains for me has always been the Windows file explorer, explorer.exe.
It isn't the file explorer functionality that I dislike, in fact I quite like it. It is the total integration of explorer.exe into the operating system as part of the command shell. For those that don't know the Windows shell is a piece of software that provides the interface to the operating system, ie. the taskbar, the desktop, file explorer and the start menu.
So why don't I like the Windows shell? Two main reasons spring to mind. The first is personal preference and the second is technical.
When XP was shipped it came with a look and feel (luna) that I can only describe it as "windows for teletubbies". As well as being a waste of resources it somehow manages to be condescending in graphical form in a way that only software manufactured by corporations can be. It has ended up imposing a corporately-neutral GUI on all desktops throughout the world.
Windows theme-ing is not its strong point, in fact Windows themeing was deliberately crippled my Microsots (sic) and the O/S does not allow easy transfer of its functions to another method or skin. The end result is that most windows XP desktops are the default luna theme and most vista boxes use the default aero skin. Boring, boring, boring. My opinion is "if you are going to waste resources with a GUI then at least make it interesting".
However it is the technical reason that is the most pressing, there are faults built into explorer.exe that can make your system inaccessible. For example, when you have a file on the desktop that is too big it can cause explorer to consume 100% cpu. When you use explorer to open a CD or device that is faulty, unwritten or slow to respond it can lock up the whole GUI.
The result is that killing explorer.exe can be a regular task and a chore.
I have resorted to alternative file explorers like Q-Dir, Freecommander or Explorer2. The latter two aren't as good as the in-built windows file explorer with regard to functionality but they have the significant benefit of not causing the whole o/s to lock up when it has a 'wobble'. These 3rd party file managers can be deleted easily enough when they go 'rogue' and there is no further impact on the o/s. Conversely, when you kill explorer.exe you lose the desktop, taskbar, start menu and then you are simply stuck.
So, what is my solution? Well, I have previously installed RocketDock as a replacement taskbar along with a suite of customised icons. This gives me the ability to initiate my processes without using the windows taskbar. One of the icons on the rocketdock initiates JetStart a very good alternative to the Windows launcher.
I use Q-Dir as an alternative to Windows Explorer. It looks and acts just like explorer but allows tabbed and multi window browsing. Other than that it almost seems like Windows Explorer. No crashing though and no taking the o/s with it. I also have the yahoo widget engine which runs without needing explorer.exe, giving me access to a whole raft of operating system tools for showing the date/time, cpu temperature and usage &c &c. I can change volume, start the task manager, open the control panel, the lot, all without explorer.exe.
I use the Microsoft coolswitch task switcher allowing me to alt+tab between processes with an image of each process. All these apps give me functionality over and above what windows explorer provides. It still works without explorer.
I had installed these tools to enhance the windows GUI, to provide a customised look and feel to the O/S but there was a unexpected and positive side effect. It started like this - something happened while I was using my laptop, explorer.exe had another wobble and hung - again - and it started using 100% cpu, locking up the whole GUI. Temperature was climbing, I could do nothing. I typed a quick CTRL+ALT+DEL and up popped the task manager and I killed explorer.exe just before it overheated my laptop.
Just before I restarted explorer I realised that with all these tools running I might not actually need explorer.exe anymore. I tried running all my apps from RocketDock and the whole shebang worked. The realisation came, I don't need it, I can run without explorer.exe executing. I do not need the explorer shell. Many people know this already (especially here) but it is a realisation that I had not quite been willing to accept or try.
My desktop is now far more like the Mac desktop, clean and tidy and free of windows clutter. It seems more reliable and it works, so I am going to give it a go for a while. I will even kill explorer.exe the next time the laptop starts and see how it goes then too. I may even do some research on running an alternative shell...
Limitations, the desktop is gone but the wall paper is still there, the icons are not accessible as they aren't there anymore, the side effect is that it leaves a clean desktop. In their place I have widgets that I can resize and assign functions to. They look and act just like icons and I can move them around my desktop. They are no longer limited to tiny sizes...
Another limitation, the windows key does not work, meaning you can't minimise all your apps to the desktop as easily. Ctrl/esc does not fire up the menu bar. I am working on getting an alternative to the system tray working but at the moment it doesn't. That's all the negatives I have encountered at the moment and I aim to have workarounds in place for most if not all.
What has this got to do with blackbox? Not a lot except it proves you don't need explorer and with a little bit of ingenuity it can be 'almost' done away with, except for booting that is. I even installed a little yahoo widget kill switch so that I could kill explorer.exe at will if I wanted to.
Below is my desktop as of 2014, it all works, nothing is purely eye-candy. Oh yes, I didn't just install them, I designed and wrote them. My graphics, my icons, my widgets, my code, my desktop, my goodness. Happiness at last.