How to Apply and Safely Use Custom User Interface (Shell or Explorer) in Windows?

If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you might be knowing that we love Windows customization. We have shared so many customization stuff in past for Windows and other software.

We also post articles about UI modifications such as customizing dialog boxes, text strings, menus, images, etc using Resource Hacker program.

Customizing Windows UI (user interface) involves editing system files such as EXE, DLL, CPL, etc. You first edit the required file using Resource Hacker and then you replace existing default system file with your modified file. To replace the default system file, you need to take its ownership before replacing it. Sometimes you also need 3rd party software Replacer to replace the files easily and safely.

But replacing system files is very dangerous task. If you made a mistake while modifying the system file and you replaced default system file with it, chances are your system will no longer boot and you'll have no other option left except reinstalling Windows.

Many times we need to edit "Explorer.exe" file which is present in "Windows" directory of the system drive where Windows is installed in your system. We might edit it to customize Start button text in Windows XP or to customize Start ORB look in Windows 7.

Today in this tutorial, we are going to tell an easy and absolutely safe way to apply and use your customized Explorer.exe file in Windows without replacing default Explorer.exe file present in Windows directory.

This method requires you to set a custom shell or user interface for Windows. You just need to edit a key in Windows Registry which tells Windows to use your mentioned shell program instead of default Explorer.exe file when you log into Windows.

You might have seen many companies and cyber cafe having different shell when you log into your user account. They also use the same technique which we are going to share in this tutorial.

So using this tutorial, you can not only use your customized Explorer.exe file without replacing default file but also you can set any other program such as Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Notepad, Microsoft Word or any 3rd party shell program as default shell or user interface in Windows.

One more use of this tutorial can be found in Windows 8. As we know Microsoft has added new Start Screen in Windows 8 which replaced good old Start Menu in Windows 8. Many Windows 8 users are trying to find ways to skip this new Start Screen and directly boot into Windows Desktop. There are ways such as scheduling launch of Show Desktop shortcut on startup using Task Scheduler but all those methods are waste of time because they need some extra time to launch the shortcuts. You can better click on Desktop tile in much less time.

So you can use this method to set different shell in Windows 8 to skip Start Screen and directly boot into that program.

Phew!!! We have shared lots of details and benefits of this tutorial in above paragraphs. Now we should share the tutorial without wasting time:

PS: This tutorial will work for all Windows versions including Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8.

STEP 1. If you want to modify Explorer.exe file, first modify it and save it at some different place such as E:\MyExplorer.exe.

If you want to set a different program as Windows shell instead of default Explorer.exe, check 2nd step.

STEP 2. Now open Registry Editor. Type regedit in RUN or Start Menu search box and press Enter.

STEP 3. Now you'll need to tell Windows which EXE file should it use as default Windows shell or user interface. There are 2 ways to do it:

  • You can set your customized shell for currently logged in user only (Step 4)
  • Or set the customized shell for whole system including all user accounts (Step 5)

STEP 4.a. If you want to set the customized shell to currently logged in user only which is also recommended, go to following key:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies

4.b. Under "Policies" key look for another key named "System". If its not present, create it manually.

4.c. Now select "System" key and in right-side pane, create a new String value Shell and set its value to the full path of your desired program. For example, if you modified Explorer.exe file and saved it somewhere else such as E:\MyExplorer.exe, then set value to E:\MyExplorer.exe. If you want to set a 3rd party program as default shell, set the value to the full path of that program's EXE file.

Set_Custom_Shell_User_Interface_Current_Windows_User.png

4.d. That's it. Once you finish the steps, restart your system and you'll see your desired program once you log into Windows.

=== === === === === === === === ===

STEP 5.a. If you want to set customized shell for whole system including all user accounts, go to following key:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon

5.b. In right-side pane, look for String value Shell. Its value would be set to explorer.exe. Double-click on it and change its value to your customized Explorer.exe path or to desired 3rd party shell program's full path as mentioned in step 4.c.

Set_Custom_Shell_User_Interface_All_Windows_Users.png

5.c. Restart your system and get ready to boot into your desired shell program.

NOTE: If you face problems after changing the shell or you want to restore default user interface, don't worry. Press Ctrl+Shft+Esc keys together to launch Task Manager. Click on File -> New Task option and type regedit and press Enter. It'll open Registry Editor. Now you can safely remove Shell string value created in step 4.b to restore default Explorer.exe file as Windows shell. Or if you modified value of Shell string using step 5.b, restore its value to explorer.exe and restart your system.

PS: To better understand this tutorial, check out following video in which we applied Internet Explorer as default shell in Windows 8 and then restored default Explorer.exe as shell in the end:

Feel free to follow this tutorial and share your feedback about it in your comment...





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Posted in: Windows 7, Windows 8 / 8.1, Windows Vista, Windows XP


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Comments

  • Thanks VG! for the safe Tips...

  • Nice!

    Excelent tuto VG!

  • VG

    Thanks guys. :)

  • Wow, you've got great tutorials all the time, but this one is just incredibly useful! Thanks!

  • Thanks for safety tips.

  • VG

    ^^ Welcome.

    @Rtyh-12
    Thanks. :)

  • Is it possible that someone may come up with a way that modifies explorer.exe to remove the Start Screen?

  • VG

    ^^ Wait for some time and there will be ways to completely bypass Start Screen in Windows 8. ;)

  • Will it work for.DLL files ?

    Thanx in Advance

  • VG

    ^^ No.

  • Thanks VG. It is a lot safer then the old way. thanks again:)

  • If you own the professional edition of Windows, you can also use the Group Policy Editor for this:

    1) Type gpedit.msc in RUN or Start Menu search box and press Enter
    2) Go to "User Configuration"
    3) Go to "Administrative Templates"
    4) Go to "System"
    5) Go to "Custom User Interface"
    6) Set "Enabled" and enter the full path to your executable in the text input field.
    7) Press OK

    To disable: simply disable the rule again in the Group Policy Editor.

  • Having installed the standalone 'Group Policy Editor' available elsewhere on this site I can confirm that Paul's suggestion sadly does not work for Windows 7 Home Premium. Still it was worth a try...

  • I knew about that. I set shells in XP that way.

  • Does this work with Windows 8.1?

  • VG

    ^^ All Windows versions.

  • This has worked if I make the shell iexplorer.exe or calc.exe; but not for regedit.exe or a home written program. Both regedit and the home written program require admin privileges even with being logged in as an admin. I tried to turn off Account Control but this did not help. I get a blank screen and no program is running.
    Any thoughts?

  • Hello
    I have 2 computers, 1 running XP and 1 running Win 7
    In win xp i ran
    gpedit.msc
    Changed the setting in Administrative Templates/common user Interface to Cubic Explorer and when i turn my computer on it will boot up with the regular windows desktop but when i for example click on my computer it uses the cubic explorer instead of the regular windows file manager. This is the way i wanted it.
    However when i do this in Win 7 the system boots up with the Cubic explorer interface rather than the regular windows interface.
    Is there a way to set Win 7 so it will use Cubic Explorer as the default file manager ?
    Regards
    Windsurfer

  • Hello
    I am using this system to launch my Application on a Windows 8 Tablet. But when I close the application, there is a blank black screen. All I can do is switching it off by pressing the On/Off button.
    Is there an action I can set?
    Thanks
    JP

  • How I can add more then one program ??

  • In Windows 10 I get a 0xc0000142 error. Any way around this?

  • If I create a windows form application and change the settings to open it, will my program still be able to read/write files, like in my Documents folder?

  • VG

    ^^ Yes. It should.

  • Hi,

    I've done this with gpedit.msc to run Kodi Media Center.
    But problem is now when launching an App the error massage shows:

    explorer.exe
    Class not registered

    Do you have an idea to handel the problem?

    Thanks in advance!!

  • what should I do If I want to run universal apps?As I know,universal apps do not have .exe file.

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