Stardock ObjectBar

By Gerry Blackwell
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Since the early days at Xerox's research labs in Palo Alto Calif., where the now ubiquitous graphical, point-and-click PC user interface was invented, operating system designers have sought to make their products easy, convenient — intuitive — for users to learn and use.

The user interface doesn't just defines the "look and feel" of a personal computer. It also determines how productive users can be with it. Anyone who remembers the bad old days of text-based personal computing knows what a revolutionary productivity booster the computer mouse was.

But personal computers are — well, personal. No two PC users work alike. No two use the same applications, or have the same routines, skills, or tastes. Recognizing this, Microsoft does allows users to modify and customize the Windows user interface, but only within fairly narrow limits.

To really make Windows your own, to tailor it to suit your work style and habits and to squeeze every drop of personal productivity out of the interface, you'll need a tool like Stardock's ObjectBar ($19.95), billed as "the ultimate Start Bar replacement." It works in Windows 98, Me, NT, 2000 and XP.

ObjectBar lets you replace the bar at the bottom of the Windows screen with a totally customized bar sporting a different look — it's "skinnable," meaning you can change the look without changing its functionality — and different sections, buttons and functions, many not be available with the standard Windows bar.

ObjectBar is also faster than the real Start Bar. And it allows you to create additional all-new bars and menus and configure and customize the interface in a bunch of useful ways.

The program is one component of Stardock's Object Desktop suite of products ($49.95). Most of the others components have more to do with look and feel — personalized buttons, screens, visual design features, and the like. They're great if you're slightly obsessive about such things. ObjectBar, however, can actually have a real impact on productivity, by uncluttering the interface and making often-used tools more easily accessible.

Ironically, we found the ObjectBar interface itself somewhat less than intuitive, but once you get the hang of it, it does have a certain inner logic, and is very easy to use. The only serious flaw we found: ObjectBar doesn't play nice with some memory resident programs under Windows XP. On our test system, ObjectBar's presence in memory caused components of a legacy personal information manager (a href="http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/P/personal_information_manager.html">PIM) to freeze in some situations.

The vast majority of users will likely never experience this problem, however. Generally, with only a few minor quibbles, ObjectBar works very well.

The program lets you create and modify Themes, collections of visual and functional components — button bars, menus, etc. ObjectBar ships with a few sample themes and bars which you can customize in the Theme Editor, the program's main work area. Or you can start from scratch. The program also provides some skins or visual design schemes.

A few top-level options help define ObjectBar environments and give some idea of the flexibility the program offers. For example, you can choose to hide all desktop icons — or not. Imagine if you could just push a button and unclutter your real desk this easily!

Most users place clickable icons on the desktop for launching often-used programs, files or folders. But you have to minimize open programs to reach them. And desktops can get cluttered. ObjectBar lets you organize the icons you really need in button bars and menus, either hidden until needed or always visible, so that you don't need icons visible on the desktop — unless and until you want.

A Theme can also hide the Windows Start Bar or leave it in place. So you can create a replacement Start Bar, or keep the Windows one you're already accustomed to, and augment it with additional hidden or always visible bars. A theme can also have its own customized desktop menu — that's the pop-up menu you see when you right click on the desktop.

Button bars are the main elements in an ObjectBar Theme. Some are Docked — to top, bottom or one side. Docked bars are typically visible all the time and always on top — though they don't have to be. Floating bars, on the other hand, are bars that only appear in response to some action — a mouse over their hidden location on the desktop, or a click on a button on another bar.

To create a bar, you work in the Theme Editor with its Windows Explorer-like hierarchical display on one side showing the current Theme at the top and under it, bars, bar sections and discrete "items" as subfolders. To start building a Theme, click Create/New Bar and choose Docked or Floating. A series of tabbed dialog windows pop up on the right side of the Theme Editor window. You just fill in the blanks.

A bar can include a mix of types of items. Shortcut Items launch programs, files, Web sites (i.e. launch browser and surf to specified site) or folders (folders can display in standard folder windows or as menu lists.) Pop-up Items launch Floating bars or menus, which can include any of the same items as a Docked bar. System items execute commands such as Shutdown, Restart, the Find and Run dialogs and so on.

You can also add Start Bar components such as Taskbar sections to display currently running programs, SystemTrays and Clocks. This is most useful if you're replacing the Windows Start Bar with an ObjectBar version, but even if you're not you could use a Clock item in a secondary bar — to show the date instead of the time, for example.

A bar can show any component as text only, text and icon, or icon only. In fact, you can customize just about any imaginable aspect of the way anything on the bar looks and behaves.

I will probably use ObjectBar — if I can resolve the memory contention problem with my PIM. It's not a huge productivity enhancer, but over enough time, the tiny bits of time saved will add up and provide a return on the slight investment.

I will not to change the Windows Start bar, though — I've grown accustomed to it, with all its flaws and pokiness. I did create a new top bar, however. It's always visible, extending about 24 pixels down from the top of the screen — not much desktop real estate to give up for the convenience it provides.

(Note that always-visible Docked bars automatically shrink maximized application windows to fit under them. Auto-hide bars that appear when you mouse over their hidden location display over top of open program windows.)

My bar includes Shortcuts for launching the programs I use most often — or at least the ones I use next most often to the ones I already have in the QuickLaunch section of the Windows Start Bar. The ObjectBar bar also has Shortcut items that launch Internet Explorer and go to prime Web sites such as Google and Yahoo. And it has Pop-up Menus populated with items that launch less-frequently-used programs and Windows system features.

At the right-hand end of the bar, I inserted a Clock item that shows the date, spelled out. Now I don't have to move my mouse over the Windows Start bar clock anymore to get the date. Cool.

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This article was originally published on April 17, 2003
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