After a spending a couple of years with it, the standard Windows desktop can get pretty boring. If you're looking for something a little more exciting, Rainmeter is a tool that will help you get there. It's been helping PC users customise, tweak, tailor and enhance their desktops for years. The cool thing is that it walks you through the process every step of the way. Before you start tinkering with Rainmeter, it's important to understand a couple of key terms: You should know that "skins" are essentially widgets; "skin suits" are groups of skins with the same aesthetic; and "themes" are set positions for skin suits and typically a matching wallpaper.
Installation and getting started
You can gab the latest version on the Rainmeter website. The beta version should be reserved for more adventurous users. The standard version is for the rest of us. Once you've clicked through the typical setup process, a light and basic set of widgets will appear on your desktop.
The default skin suite, Illustro, is designed to help beginners find their way around. The actual number of customisation options you get depends on the creator of the skins. Once you get more comfortable with Rainmeter, you can start modifying the look to an even greater extent.
You'll see some simple widgets called "skins" on the right of your screen immediately. Click and drag to reposition them. Right-click on any skin and you can add new ones to the desktop via the Illustro menu (their names should be enough to clue you in to what they do); choose Unload skin from the menu to remove one.
Also on that right-click menu, you're going to find settings for the skins, like position, transparency and visibility. If you ever find yourself struggling to find Rainmeter behind all your other windows, there's an icon in the notification area (system tray) too that gives you access to all the same options.
Right-click on any skin and choose Manage skin for a more detailed look at the widget and its settings. A number of extra options are available, and you can save skin positions as a batch in case you want to return to the same layout again in the future.
Skins can also be loaded, unloaded and refreshed from this more detailed menu. At this point, you're getting into the more advanced options in Rainmeter. For example, you can make some skins draggable and some not. You have the flexibility to create a layout that's all your own.
Adding skins and switching between suites
You can install entire skin suites created by other users to transform the look of your desktop in an instant. You can find suites on the Rainmeter forum, on DeviantArt, through our good friends at Lifehacker and in various other places.
If you see something that takes your fancy, it's simple to install. Open the .mskin file you've downloaded, and Rainmeter should do the rest. While some skins come in packs, others don't, and you can combine multiple skins from multiple packs to create your own mix (though most of the time you'll want to stay inside the same pack).
You don't necessarily jump abruptly from theme to theme (like you might with an Android launcher) and the program lets you work skin by skin if you want to. Right-click on the Rainmeter icon in the notification area and choose Manage to take control.
If you open up the Layout tab, you'll see all the skin suites and themes you've installed. Use the Load button next to the Saved layouts section to switch between the different desktop configurations. Of course you can also save a new layout you've made yourself in the window.
If you go back to the Skins tab, you'll see all the skins you've loaded into Rainmeter. Individual skins appear on their own, while those assigned to suites are split up into subfolders (which means the list can quickly build up).
Note that you can't edit skin properties like window transparency or where they appear until they're loaded. To completely remove a skin from the program, you need to delete its folder. You should be able to find it inside the Rainmeter folder in the Documents folder of your Windows account.
Editing skins and getting creative
Skins themselves can be edited, and sometimes, the creator may have left controls behind to make it easier. If so, you'll find them listed in the documentation that came with the skin. If not, you can right-click on a skin, then choose Edit skin to make changes.
The skin variable list will open up, usually in Notepad. Some skin authors will leave notes and tips to help you work out which values do what, but you may also be able to figure it out yourself through trial and error. Save the file then refresh the skin using the right-click menu, and it should update with any changes you make.
You don't really need any coding knowledge to do this The Disks skin in Illustro, for example, includes instructions for adding a new drive to the list. You basically duplicate the existing text and then update the numbers accordingly.
On skins that show clocks, meanwhile, you can usually adjust the time format, while RSS skins will obviously let you specify a feed. Most skins will let you change colours and the dimensions of the widget, and sometimes even let you load in an image of your choosing.
You can also create skins of your own quite easily using Rainmeter, a text editor and an image editor. The official instructions should help get you started, and you'll find plenty more help on the web with a quick search.
It can take some time to both find your way around Rainmeter and find skins and suites worth installing, but any time and effort you invest is guaranteed to pay off. In the end, you should end up with a completely custom desktop.