I use these 3 apps to completely customize my Windows desktop

A Nest Wifi Pro on a desk next to a monitor and PC
(Image credit: Future)

Microsoft has made a lot of changes to Windows over the years and while some have been for the better, others have certainly been for the worse. While I loved the addition of multiple desktops in Windows 10, the Start menu redesign in Windows 11 has just never felt right to me.

Although the software giant gives you a few options to customize the look and feel of your desktop when you right click and select Personalize, they are few and far between. Sure you can change your wallpaper and choose an accent color but what if you really want to customize your desktop to make it your own?

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different ways to customize my own Windows desktop and in the end, I finally found the perfect setup for me. In fact, I use these same three programs across all of my Windows machines so that no matter what computer I’m currently working on, everything looks and works the same way.

If you’ve ever grown tired of having a boring old Windows desktop that’s cluttered with icons and want a way to get to the programs and information you need even faster, two of these programs are free while one is paid but they all work on both Windows 10 and Windows 11.

Taking back control of the Start menu with Start10/11

A screenshot of the Style menu in Start10

(Image credit: Stardock/Tom's Guide)

The changes Microsoft has made to the Start menu from one version of Windows to the next have really divided its customers with some welcoming them and others wishing they could revert them. For instance, while Windows 8 added tiles, Windows 11 moved the programs shown in the Start menu from the left to the middle of the screen.

If you want to have complete control over your Start menu instead of just going along with Microsoft’s latest vision for it, Start10 or Start11 from Stardock is one of the best programs for customizing your Start menu. The version you need depends on whether you’re running Windows 10 or Windows 11 but they both work the same way.

As I haven’t upgraded to Windows 11 yet on most of my PCs, I’m still using Start10 which lets you use either a Windows 7 style, modern style or Windows 10 style Start menu while Start11 also lets you use a Windows 11 style Start menu. I also like how I can get rid of my user icon at the top of the Start menu and even change what the Start menu’s icon looks like on my desktop.

A screenshot of the Configure menu in Start10

(Image credit: Stardock/Tom's Guide)

At the same time, Start10’s Configure menu lets you hide the Windows shortcuts you don’t really use and display the ones that you do as a link just like you could in Windows 7. You can also expand how many programs are in your Start menu or lower how much room is allocated for them which gives you a more compact Start menu.

A screenshot of a Windows desktop with Start10 replacing the Start menu

(Image credit: Stardock/Tom's Guide)

The finished result is a much cleaner Start menu that only has the programs and shortcuts you want to be there without any tiles or pre-installed apps from Microsoft. It’s also easy to go back and change things if you want to try out a different Start menu style later on.

Borrowing a page from macOS with RocketDock

Besides a much simpler Start menu, I also like to have a clean desktop without any icons. While you can easily delete the icons for programs you’ve installed and move any files on your desktop somewhere else on your computer, hiding system icons like “This PC” and “Recycle Bin” is a bit trickier but we do have a guide on how to hide desktop icons in Windows 10.

A screenshot of a dock made using RocketDock

(Image credit: Punk Labs/Tom's Guide)

While I could use the Start menu to open my most frequently used programs, I actually prefer having a dock on my desktop since I was once a Mac user well before the best MacBooks were as popular as they are today. To recreate the dock from macOS in Windows I use a program called RocketDock.

A screenshot of the RocketDock settings menu

(Image credit: Punk Labs/Tom's Guide)

RocketDock lets you customize every aspect of your dock including its position on your desktop and whether or not the icons pop up when your mouse cursor is over them. You can also pick a theme for your dock though I prefer using a blank one. RocketDock even allows you to use custom icons for your favorite programs or folders.

A screenshot of how you pick icon packs in RocketDock

(Image credit: Punk Labs/Tom's Guide)

For the icons on my dock, I’m using an icon pack I found on DeviantArt years ago called Lucid Icons created by James Lee Chiahan. Thankfully, someone uploaded them to GitHub and you can still download them today. While they are available with text underneath them, I prefer the ones without each program’s name as they give my dock a much cleaner look.

Adding a clock and more with Rainmeter

If you ever tried customizing your Windows desktop before then you’ve likely heard of Rainmeter. If not, this Windows program lets you add all sorts of custom widgets or skins to your desktop.

While there are Rainmeter skins that show your system stats like CPU and GPU temperatures, weather widgets and even audio visualizers, I actually use the program to have a simple clock with the date and year on my desktop.

A screenshot of the Elegant Clock widget for Rainmeter

(Image credit: Rainmeter/Tom's Guide)

The Rainmeter skin I use for my clock is called Elegant Clock and it’s available in either a dark or light version. It’s really easy to go overboard with widgets when using Rainmeter and I’ve found that I prefer something simpler and cleaner as opposed to having a desktop covered in widgets.

Making your Windows desktop unique

A wall mounted monitor in landscape mode

(Image credit: Future)

Although you don’t have to customize your Windows desktop if you don’t want to, I always like putting my own spin on the operating systems I use everyday — likely why I prefer Android over iPhone. This gives them a more personal feeling and helps set your devices apart from those used by your family, friends or even your co-workers. Who knows, you might really enjoy tweaking the look of your desktop and trying out new widgets and icon packs along the way.

Anthony Spadafora
Senior Editor Security and Networking

Anthony Spadafora is the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to password managers and the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. Before joining the team, he wrote for ITProPortal while living in Korea and later for TechRadar Pro after moving back to the US. Based in Houston, Texas, when he’s not writing Anthony can be found tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home. 

  • SavageSeraphim
    Sorry but I’m wondering why you have not upgraded to Windows 11 yet? I should think as someone writing technological posts that you should at least acknowledge and recognise that most users will pretty much use what is on their machine as standard and currently that is the most up to date software out there, Windows 11. tomsguide used to be the goto place for cutting edge hardware (and software) news but I feel like I fell into a dusty old book containing knowledge that may have been interesting and relevant once a long time ago but is of little to no importance today. At least set one of your desktops to the more modern versions of software so that you’re up to date on an everyday regular user basis at least, otherwise you will become another dinosaur offering pointless outdated advice which can all honestly be done for free without the paid option. Anyway I hope this is taken as constructive criticism as I’m only saying what I see from what I just read, and if you want something more up to date then you should check out the handheld PC scene which has really fired up. Have a great day
  • rgd1101
    did you mean this? "As I haven’t upgraded to Windows 11 yet on most of my PCs,"
  • Teh Tech Penguin
    What wallpaper is that?
  • boatriger
    Teh Tech Penguin said:
    What wallpaper is that?
    I literally read this article because I've used that wallpaper for years... LOL.

    It is a color variation on one of the default AOSP wallpapers from Android 6 Lollipop. That was when they first released the "Material Design" design language back in 2014. This specific design was changed to a bunch of different colors, I always liked this dark grey red combo. The original was light grey and an almost neon green. You can still find it if you Google: “Android Material Design desktop Wallpapers“
  • grants04
    Thank you for this article. I just downloaded and set up RocketDock and Rainmeter and love the new look of my homescreen.
  • Corb06
    LoL! I almost have the exact same setup. But Im using Stardocks Objectdock instead of very old Rocketdock. Also using StartMenu 11. And on top of that I have Auto Dark Mode with wallpaper change at sunset and sunrise.