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What is Windows Shell?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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Windows™ shell refers to the graphical user interface (GUI) program that displays the Windows desktop, its icons, system tray and taskbar. Windows shell acts as the face Windows presents to the user, making programs and files accessible through a point-and-click landscape of icons, pop-up menus and toolbars. It might be news to learn that the Windows shell can be replaced with a third party shell that can be used to radically customize the desktop and its elements, drastically changing the look and feel of Windows.

Since Windows 95 Microsoft™ has used explorer.exe as the Windows shell program. This program is also known as Windows Explorer™, different from Internet Explorer, a Web browser used for cruising the Internet. Some readers might be familiar with Windows Explorer as being the program used to bring up the resident file manager in Windows, unaware that it also functions as the Windows shell.

Explorer boots with Windows automatically, but can be closed down by using control + alt + delete to bring up the Task Manager. Find “explorer.exe” within running processes and end the task to take down the desktop and all of its elements (something you probably don’t want to do if you don’t have a replacement shell). You can start the Windows shell back up by clicking the Applications tab in Task Manager, then clicking the New Task button. Enter “explorer.exe” in the field and click OK. Your desktop will reappear.

A third party shell takes the place of the Windows shell while providing a world of options for customizing the desktop. Several third party shells are closed-source programs, meaning their source code is not available for public scrutiny. Some of these include Desktop3D, Talisman Desktop, Aston Shell and SphereXP. Open-source third party shells are also available, and include choices like, Emerge Desktop, Geo Shell, LiteStep, bbLean and BB4Win, among others.

A replacement Windows shell is not necessary but tweakers who enjoy customizing their computers will likely enjoy giving a few alternative shells a ride. Before deciding on a replacement shell, check out screen shots from the shell’s home website. A good shell should have the customizing features you want without bloat, and uninstall clean. Some programs are made to lay over Explorer rather than replace the Windows shell, and many shell programs are free.

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Discussion Comments
By anon350895 — On Oct 09, 2013

Very nice tutorial.

By anon75788 — On Apr 07, 2010

Nice work.

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