You may have heard that Windows 7 widgets and other desktop gadgets could go the way of the Dodo in Windows 8. According to Microsoft, you shouldn't even be using desktop gadgets in Windows 7 or Vista, because nefarious hackers could use them to gain control of your PC. What's a poor, lazy computer user who wants to check CPU usage and local weather at a glance supposed to do?

Simple: Install Rainmeter, a free desktop widget utility that's superior to the native Windows gadgets in almost every way.

Singing in the rain(meter)

Actually, Rainmeter's not that simple at all--at least not at first glance. To put it mildly, Rainmeter isn't the most user-friendly program, although it's actually fairly straightforward once you get your sea legs underneath you. That's where this guide comes in.

Before getting down to work, let's make sure we're on the same page when it comes to the vocabulary. Rainmeter lingo is a bit different than the terminology commonly used by techies: For example, what most folks would call a widget or gadget, Rainmeter calls a Skin. In Rainmeter parlance, a group of skins with a similar visual theme is called a Skin Suite. Finally, speaking of themes, Rainmeter calls a particular group of skins and their particular layout a "Theme."

Got it? Good. Let's go!

Getting started with skins

First, head over to the Rainmeter website and download the latest stable version of the software (as of publication, it was Rainmeter version 2.3.3, so we'll be using that version as our example). When you install and run Rainmeter, several skins appear on your desktop: a few are on the right-hand side, along with a big Welcome skin smack-dab in the middle of the screen. All share the same look and feel, which makes sense, as they're all part of the introductory Illustro theme included with Rainmeter.

The Welcome skin contains some useful information for getting started with the program, but after you click the links and drink deep from the fountain of knowledge, it's more of a space-consuming annoyance than anything useful. Here's your first lesson: Right-clicking on a skin and selecting Unload Skin at the bottom of the context menu makes it disappear.

While you were busy making the Welcome skin disappear, you no doubt noticed the long list of options in the context menu. The default skin configuration works well enough, but you probably have your own ideas about how best to customize your desktop, so let's add some new skins!

Right-click on any skin on your desktop, then hover over the Illustro option to bring up a list of additional skins (all of which have obvious names like Clock and "Recycle bin"). Hover over the name of the skin you want to activate; a third contextual menu will appear showing the .ini file of the skin in question, such as clock.ini. Click on it to activate the skin. (After it loads, repeating the process deactivates the skin.)

Wait! Where is it? Worry not; all skins appear in the upper left corner of the screen by default. From there you can drag and drop them to your heart's content. If you unload a skin and then reload it later, it will reappear in its last position.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, note that right-clicking on a skin brings up contextual options only for activating or deactivating other skins from the same skin suite. (See why we started with a vocabulary lesson?) So, right-clicking on an Illustro skin will allow you to activate other Illustro skins, but if you download another skin suite (such as the popular Enigma suite), the right-click contextual menu for its skins will only let you activate other Enigma skins. For more skin suites, visit the Discover section of the Rainmeter website.

The Settings options in the right-click contextual menu speak for themselves; Transparency affects the skin's transparency, Position affects how the selected skin behaves in relation to other windows, and the various "Snap to grid"-type options affect how the skin moves around.

We'll talk about editing, managing, and refreshing skins later. For now, let's start digging into Rainmeter's visual customization options.

Playing with skin suites: Making Rainmeter your own

Illustro has some handy skins, but they're fairly utilitarian in both functionality and flair. A whole world of Rainmeter skins are out there, just begging you to customize your desktop--but you have to look for them.

The Rainmeter website offers up three complete, top-notch skin suites--including the aforementioned Enigma--but that's it. On the plus side, the suites available through have been screened for both quality and safety.

Anyone can create a Rainmeter skin, and plenty of people do, as you can find by browsing the Rainmeter sections of and Deviant Art. Not only does that mean quality varies, but skin suites downloaded via third-party sites could have malware; be sure to scan download suites with an antivirus program before installing them. Rainmeter skins have the .rmskin extension, not .exe.

If a skin comes compressed in a .zip or .rar and includes images and .ini files rather than a .rmskin extractor, simply move the complete folder to the Rainmeter\Skins folder that has appeared in My Documents, and then open Rainmeter's management options by activating Rainmeter (the raindrop icon) in your system tray or right-clicking on a skin and selecting Manage Skin. Rainmeter's management options appear in a new window. Open the Skins tab and click Refresh All in the bottom left corner.

Go ahead, find a suite or two you like--I've taken a shine to the Aranea and Mass Effect skins, myself-- then come back. I'll still be here, promise.

Mixing, matching and activating skins

Activating a newly installed Rainmeter suite is simple: If Rainmeter doesn't prompt you to activate the suite when you install it, get things going by opening up Rainmeter's management window.

To replace whatever skins you have active with a new suite, click on the Themes tab in the management options. Click the name of the skin you'd like to activate in the Saved Themes box, then click Load. Bam! Done.

But wouldn't the Seven Dock app-launching dock look great alongside Illustro's system info? If you want to mix and match skins from several different suites and create a truly custom desktop experience, click on the Skins tab. From here, the branching menu located on the left side--underneath the Active Skins button--allows you to dig down into the individual skins for each suite. Once you find a skin you want to activate, click on it to bring its details up in the main portion of the window, then click the Load button at the top to activate it on your desktop.

Editing skins

Many skins have some sort of customizable information aspect; for example, Illustro's Reader skin displays the RSS feed of your choice, while Enigma lets you display your Google Calendar or Gmail inbox on your desktop. Seven Dock's dock is completely customizable. This information can all be changed with some tinkering of the skin's .ini file.

Open a skin's .ini file by right-clicking on it and selecting Edit Skin or by finding the file in the Skins tab of Rainmeter's management tool and selecting Edit.

From here, things get a little tricky: You'll need to read through the file and look for the attribute(s) you need to change. It's often found as a Variable or feedURL listing, and most suite developers include notes in the .ini file to help guide you through the process. Save the file after you make the appropriate alterations, back out to your desktop, and then right-click on the skin and select Refresh Skin to enable the change.

The first time you open an .ini file in notepad and see the lines of text, you may feel intimidated, but don't worry; editing the feeds that feed a customizable skin isn't as hard as it seems.

Advanced users can edit virtually anything about a given skin, but that's a big can of worms that could be a whole article in and of itself. If that's a guide you'd like to read, please let us know in the comments section.

Saving themes and backing up Rainmeter

So you've spent hours fiddling, futzing, and tweaking customizable skins from several different suites, and your desktop is finally buzzing along nicely. Wouldn't it be horrible if some sort of disaster--be it a busted hard drive, an errant mouse click, or an inquisitive child finding your unattended computer-- wiped out your hard-earned work? Of course it would. But thanks to Rainmeter's robust saving options, you don't have to worry about the worst coming to pass.

Once your setup is perfect, open up Rainmeter's management window and head back to the Themes tab. In the "Save New Themes" section, check any boxes that contain option's you'd like to apply for the theme, give it a name, then click Save. The theme appears in the "Saved Themes" box, ready for you to reactivate it at a moment's notice.

If you accidentally load another theme before saving your current work of art, all is not lost. Just click the @backup theme in the "Saved Themes" box and load it; your last set of customizations will reappear instantaneously. Be warned, however, that it saves only your last unsaved configuration.

Finally, take it with you! You can move your Rainmeter setup--or just protect against disaster--by manually backing up the Rainmeter folders located in both your My Documents folder and at C:\Users\%YourUserName%\Appdata\Roaming\Rainmeter. You'll have to enable hidden folders to see the App Data folder.

Your turn

What tips, tricks, and themes do you use with Rainmeter? Share your secrets with your fellow customization fans in the comments below!