Supercharge your desktop with Rainmeter widgets

You may have heard that Windows 7 widgets and other desktop gadgets could go the way of the dodo in Windows 8. According to Microsoft, you shouldn't even be using desktop gadgets in Windows 7 or Vista because nefarious hackers could use them to gain control of your PC. So what's a poor, lazy computer user who wants to track CPU usage and local weather at a glance supposed to do?

Simple: Install Rainmeter, a free desktop widget utility that's superior to the native Windows gadgets in almost every way.

Of course, Rainmeter's not that simple. In fact, it isn't especially user-friendly, though you'll find that it's fairly straightforward once you get your sea legs under you. That's where this guide comes in.

The first thing to consider is vocabulary. Rainmeter lingo differs a bit from the terminology commonly used by techies: for example, what most people would call a widget or a gadget, Rainmeter calls a skin. In Rainmeter parlance, a group of skins with a similar visual theme is a skin suite. And finally, Rainmeter calls a particular group of skins and their layout a theme.

Got it? Good. Let's go!

Getting started with skins

First, head over to the Rainmeter website and download the latest stable version of the software (as of publication, it was Rainmeter version 2.3.3, so we'll be using that version as our example.) When you install and run Rainmeter, several skins appear on your desktop: a few down the right-hand side along with a big Welcome skin in the middle of the screen. All share the same look and feel—no surprise, since they're all part of the introductory Illustro theme included with Rainmeter.

The Enigma skin suite, courtesy of Rainmeter.

The Welcome skin contains some useful information for getting started with the program; but for repeat visitors, it's more of a space-consuming annoyance than anything else. To make it disappear, right-click a skin and select Unload Skin at the bottom of the context menu.

As you probably noticed, the context menu contains a long list of options. The default skin configuration works well enough, but you probably have your own ideas about how best to customize your desktop, so let's walk through the process of adding new skins.

Right-click any skin on your desktop, and then hover over the Illustro option to bring up a list of additional skins. (They have obvious names like 'Clock' and 'Recycle bin'.) Hover over the name of the skin you want to activate; a third contextual menu will appear, showing the .ini file of the skin in question, such as clock.ini. Click it to activate the skin. After it loads, you can deactivate the skin by repeating the process.

All skins appear in the upper-left corner of the screen by default. From there you can drag and drop them to your heart's content. If you unload a skin, and then reload it later, it will reappear in its last position.

Right-clicking a skin merely brings up contextual options for activating or deactivating other skins from the same skin suite. So right-clicking an Illustro skin will allow you to activate other Illustro skins, but if you download another skin suite (such as the popular Enigma suite) the right-click contextual menu for its skins will permit you to activate only other Enigma skins. For more skin suites, visit the Discover section of the Rainmeter website.

The ABP skin, courtesy of Rainmeter.

The Settings options in the right-click contextual menu are well named: Transparency affects the skin's transparency; Position affects how the selected skin behaves in relation to other windows; and the various 'Snap to grid' options affect how the skin moves around.

We'll talk about editing, managing and refreshing skins later. For now, let's start digging into Rainmeter's visual customization options.

Playing with skin suites: making Rainmeter your own

Illustro has some handy skins, but they're fairly utilitarian. Meanwhile, countless Rainmeter skins are out there, just begging you to customize your desktop—though you have to look for them.

The Rainmeter website offers three complete, top-notch skin suites—including the aforementioned Enigma—but that's it. On the plus side, the suites available through Rainmeter.net have been screened for both quality and safety.

Anyone can create a Rainmeter skin, and plenty of people do, as you can see by browsing the Rainmeter sections of Customize.org and Deviant Art. Not only does that mean that the quality of the available vitems varies considerably, but skin suites downloaded via third-party sites could contain malware. So be sure to scan download suites with an antivirus program before installing them. And ber in mind that Rainmeter skins have the .rmskin extension, not .exe.

The author's PC desktop customized with Rainmeter.

If a skin comes compressed in a .zip or .rar collection and includes images and .ini files rather than a .rmskin extractor, simply move the complete folder to the Rainmeter > Skins folder that has appeared in My Documents, then open Rainmeter's management options by activating Rainmeter (the raindrop icon) in your system tray or right-clicking a skin and selecting Manage Skin. Rainmeter's management options appear in a new window. Open the Skins tab and click Refresh All in the bottom left-hand corner.

Look through the offerings and find a suite or two you like; I took a shine to the Aranea and Mass Effect skins, myself.

Mixing, matching and activating skins

Activating a newly installed Rainmeter suite is simple: if it doesn't prompt you to activate the suite when you install it, get things going by opening up Rainmeter's management window.

To replace whatever skins you have active with a new suite, click the Themes tab in the management options. Click the name of the skin you'd like to activate in the Saved Themes box, and then click Load. Just like that, you're done.

But wouldn't the Seven Dock app-launching dock look great alongside Illustro's system info? If you want to mix and match skins from several different suites and create a truly custom desktop experience, click the Skins tab. From there, the branching menu located on the left-hand side—beneath the Active Skins button—lets you dig down into the individual skins for each suite. Once you find a skin you want to activate, click it to bring its details up in the main portion of the window; then click the Load button at the top to activate it on your desktop.

Editing skins

Many skins have some sort of customizable information aspect; for example, Illustro's Reader skin displays the RSS feed of your choice, while Enigma lets you display your Google Calendar or Gmail inbox on your desktop. Seven Dock's dock is completely customizable. This information can all be changed with some tinkering of the skin's .ini file.

To open a particular skin's .ini file, right-click it and select Edit Skin, or find the file in the Skins tab of Rainmeter’s management tool and select Edit.

From here, things get a little tricky. You'll need to read through the file and look for the attribute(s) you need to change. Such attributes often appear as a Variable or feedURL listing, and most suite developers include notes in the .ini file to guide you through the process. After making the appropriate alterations, save the file, back out to your desktop, right-click the skin, and select Refresh Skin to activate the change.

If the Skin Settings menu doesn't offer enough control, you'll need to edit a skin's .ini file directly.

The first time you open an .ini file in Notepad and see the lines of text, you may feel intimidated, but don't worry: Editing the feeds that serve a customizable skin isn't as hard as it seems.

Advanced users can edit virtually anything about a given skin, but that's a big subject that deserves its own article.

Saving themes and backing up Rainmeter

So you've spent hours fiddling, futzing and tweaking customizable skins from several different suites, and your desktop is finally buzzing along nicely. Wouldn't it be horrible if some sort of calamity—a busted hard drive, say, or an errant mouse click or an inquisitive child finding your unattended computer—wiped out all your work? Fortunately, thanks to Rainmeter's robust saving options, you don't have to live in fear of such disasters.

Once your setup is perfect, open Rainmeter's management window and head back to the Themes tab. In the 'Save New Themes' section, check any boxes that contain options you'd like to apply to the theme, give it a name, and then click Save. The theme appears in the 'Saved Themes' box, ready for you to reactivate it at a moment's notice.

If you accidentally load another theme before saving your current work of art, all is not lost. Just click the @backup theme in the 'Saved Themes' box, and load it; your last set of customizations will reappear instantaneously. Be warned, however, that this maneuver saves only your last unsaved configuration.

Finally, take it with you! You can move your Rainmeter setup—or just protect against disaster—by manually backing up the Rainmeter folders located in both your My Documents folder and at C:\Users\%YourUserName%\Appdata\Roaming\Rainmeter. You'll have to enable hidden folders to see the App Data folder.

Your turn

What tips, tricks and themes do you use with Rainmeter? Share your secrets with your fellow customization fans in the comments below!

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