Thursday, June 24, 2004

Blackbox for Windows

It's not a big secret that I dislike Microsoft Windows. Not because Microsoft is an "evil empire based on world domination" or other such nonsense, but because compared to Linux, I don't think Windows delivers much bang for the buck. However, after years of working daily on a Debian GNU/Linux system, a recent job change has forced me back onto a Windows machine. The feeling of booting up a Windows 2000 desktop was only slightly less crippling than what I would have experienced if the machine had booted up to a DOS prompt. Instead of the Linux power user tools that have become and integral part of how I use a PC, I had nothing to work with except the standard inflexible Windows desktop. Not a recipe for productivity. So my quest for enhancements began.

First stop, the desktop! On a Linux box, the "desktop" (the software that manages the windows on the display and gives you a way to launch applications) is not a "one size fits all" arrangement. Users can choose from a wide variety of desktops (or window managers as they're called in the Linux world). Choices include KDE, Gnome, WindowMaker, Sawfish, EvilWM, FVWM, and the list goes on and on. One popular window manager is called Blackbox and is prized for it's ability to pack a lot of functionality into a small, efficient piece of software. And though Blackbox doesn't focus on "eye candy" (fancy graphical effects that don't add any function), it does manage to present a visually attractive user interface. Once I discovered that some enterprising souls had created a version of Blackbox for Microsoft Windows, I finally saw hope that I might survive this Windows experience after all.

So what does Blackbox give you that the standard Windows desktop doesn't? The list of extra features is short, but their importance to someone used to having them can not be overstated. They include the following:

  • Virtual Desktops - The ability to spread your open windows amongst several desktops and then switch between groups of applications with a single click. No need to do the minimize/restore shuffle or dig through a dozen running apps in the task bar to find the window you want to work with.

  • Floating Start Menu - No need to move all the way down to the "Start" menu button to launch a new program. Simply click on any open area of the desktop and your start menu pops up.

  • Focus Follows Mouse - Simply putting the cursor over a window makes it active (so you can enter data) but doesn't force it to come to the foreground. This may not seem like a big deal, but it really does streamline working with multiple windows.

  • Window Shading - Double clicking on a window's title bar makes the body of the window disappear but leaves the title bar in place. Double clicking again restores the window. I find this much more effective than minimize/restore because with many apps running, finding the right one to restore in the jungle of icons on the task bar can really be time consuming.

  • Window Skins - I find the default "theme" for Windows 2000 title bars and window borders quite unattractive. And to me, Windows XP is even worse. "Skins" alter the appearance of the window to something a bit more attractive and consistent with the Blackbox desktop.

The following steps will get you up and running with Blackbox for Windows (a.k.a. BB4WIN) quickly and painlessly:

  1. Download the following files from BB4Win Download Page

  2. Unzip to C:\ (it will create a Blackbox directory and put everything in there)

  3. Unzip to C:\ (let it overwrite any existing files)

  4. Create the directory C:\BLACKBOX\PLUGINS\BBHOOK

  5. Unzip to the C:\BLACKBOX\PLUGINS\BBHOOK directory

  6. Create the directory C:\BLACKBOX\PLUGINS\BBWINSKIN

  7. Unzip to the C:\BLACKBOX\PLUGINS\BBWINSKIN directory

  8. Edit the file C:\BLACKBOX\PLUGINS.RC and add the following lines:

    • Plugins\BBHook\BBHook.dll

    • Plugins\BBWinSkin\BBWinSkin.dll

  9. Open a DOS shell and do the following:

    • cd C:\BLACKBOX


  10. Log out of Windows and then log back in.

When your desktop appears it will look much different! Note that your "Start" menu won't appear on the desktop anymore but you can get to its contents by simply right-clicking on any open area of the desktop. The two row toolbar at the bottom center of the desktop lets you see what's running and switch between applications and virtual desktops (by default Blackbox gives you four virtual desktops).

Use Blackbox -> Config and Blackbox -> Styles from the desktop popup menu to control how Blackbox looks and works. Some of the nice things you can do are turn on "focus follows mouse" (no more click to focus) as well as changing to a different color scheme (I don't like the default but there are some very good alternatives).

Pretty decent documentation is available on the Blackbox for Windows website.

I've only been using BB4Win about a week but so far it's been very stable for me. The only minor problem I've noticed is that some InstallShield based setup programs crash on startup if you have window skins enabled. The solution is to simply double click the skin "enable/disable" icon on your BB desktop to turn of skinning while you run the setup program.

My thanks to the BB4Win developers for a truly great piece of software that has gone a long way toward making life with a Windows PC tolerable!


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