Do you want to try Windows 7 but don't want to shell out the upgrade price? Or do you long to give Mac OS X a test run but don't particularly want to buy a Mac? There's a way to do that (although the OS vendors won't love you for it): Use a 'transformation pack'.

These software packages go beyond changing the graphical user interface to make it resemble that of a different OS. Most of the technically sophisticated transformation packs will tweak or patch the native operating system's code and add startup applications to more accurately simulate the functionality of another OS.

It's important to note that the changes these packs do to your computer's operating system are only superficial. Just because a transformation pack makes your OS look and play like Mac OS X, for instance, doesn't mean you can then install Final Cut Pro on your not-a-Mac. You may get the look, but not necessarily the full performance, and certainly not the software compatibility, of the operating system being mimicked - for that you need to run the actual OS on your system using virtualisation software such as VirtualBox.

But even virtualisation software won't let you run Mac OS X on a Windows or Linux machine, and such gaps are where transformation packs come in. They're also appealing to inveterate computer tweakers - and to anyone who doesn't want to shell out for a second OS just to give it a quick spin.

Be warned, however: These OS makeovers are all unauthorised. Apple in no way endorses any of the transformation packs that turn Windows or Linux into an ersatz OS X, nor does Microsoft support those giving Windows XP a facelift to make it look like Windows 7.

These packs are basically works of fan art, and their creators give them away for free. Most directly appropriate (translation: rip off) the icons, wallpaper and other copyrighted art of the actual operating system that they turn your computer's original OS into, which means that by using them, you could be held liable for violation of copyright law. Use them at your own risk. (It goes without saying that you shouldn't install one on a computer you don't own.)

I took a look at four of these transformation packs. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather an overview of some of the most popular. I tested how easy each was to install (and to uninstall), how useful it is in practical terms (i.e., would you really want to use it for your day-to-day computing?) and, very importantly, whether the pack can adversely affect your computer's original OS. (Remember, many of these packages will alter system files and add programs, which can bog down your computer's performance or even lock up your operating system. Always back everything up before installing one.)

I ran all four packages on a very basic 2GHz Pentium Mobile notebook with 2GB of RAM and no built-in 3D graphics. It dual-boots Windows XP Home and Ubuntu Linux. Even on this unimpressive machine, most of the transformation packs ran reasonably well. Keep reading for my assessments of each one.


Transform Windows XP/2003 to Windows 7:

Seven Transformation Pack

This software comes from the same developer (going by the nickname "Windows X") who assembled and put out a popular transformation pack that remade Windows XP into a pretty convincing facsimile of Windows Vista. In fact, his Vista Transformation Pack established how extensive an OS makeover can go. Beyond merely redoing the theme, Vista Transformation Pack hacked system files and incorporated mini-applications to add features to the user interface.

Just as Windows 7 is a refinement of Vista, Seven Transformation Pack builds on Vista Transformation Pack to create a faux Windows 7 interface for XP and 2003 users.

Ease of installation

Seven Transformation Pack comes as a single executable file. A few, slightly scary reading notices pop up before the actual installation to inform you of the usual possibility that this pack could slag your system's performance. Once you're through those screens, it takes Seven just a few minutes to transform your OS.

What's to like

Seven Transformation Pack is mainly a compilation of various third-party programs, each of which replicates a specific UI feature of Windows 7: ViGlance emulates the Vista/Windows 7 taskbar, WinFlip clones the Windows Flip feature, ViStart duplicates the Vista/Windows 7 Start menu and so on.

The taskbar looks and works very much like Windows 7's, and the credit for this goes to ViGlance. It provides some (but not all) of the features of the Windows 7 taskbar. These include showing multiple, stacked preview thumbnails when you have more than one window open in an application, the ability to pin application shortcuts to the taskbar, and the ability to rearrange the order of the shortcuts on the taskbar. (Other Windows 7 features such as Jump Lists are not included.)

What's not to like

The multiple mini-apps that Seven Transformation Pack uses to pull off its look sometimes conflict with your computer's native Windows OS. On a few occasions (not a common occurrence but not rare either), one of these programs would crash. Once, ViGlance - or was it ViStart? It was hard to determine since so many programs were running at once - froze and locked up my notebook.

Additionally, feedback from clicking the Start/Windows logo icon button was noticeably glitchy (graphically and in response speed) on the lower-end notebook I used for testing.

Windows 7 Tranformation Pack

Ease of removal

It takes a few minutes to remove Seven Transformation Pack by clicking the uninstall option on the pack's settings control panel (which is a separate program). Afterward, most of the theme settings for Windows XP or 2003 are restored as they were prior to the transformation, and you can manually reset or readjust anything else.

Bottom line

Seven Transformation Pack will make your computer as a whole look and feel a lot like Windows 7 with its basic, superficial features, but don't expect a rock-solid stable system. And the feedback from clicking through the Start menu can be laggy, especially on a lower-performance computer.

You might be better off separately downloading and installing just a few of the mini-apps (such as ViGlance) that simulate certain features of Windows 7 you would really like to have on your system, rather than running them all at once, in order to ensure things remain stable.

Transform Windows XP into Mac OS X:

FlyakiteOSX

FlyakiteOSX hasn't been updated for several years. Thus, it replicates the Tiger version of the Mac operating system, not its more recent incarnations. Many of the download links for the package on its official site are dead. So it's questionable whether FlyakiteOSX's creator, Chris Kite, will ever resume development.

Nevertheless, it remains one of the most popular XP-to-OS X transformation packs out there. It's hosted on other sites besides the developer's, and its user forum remains active.

Ease of installation

FlyakiteOSX is a self-standing executable, and it took about 4 minutes to install (during which an awful lot of programs were installed). Right off, I noticed a problem.

After a restart, the Windows taskbar was supposed to look and act like the Mac OS X Dock, but its appearance remained in the Windows XP default theme. It turned out I had to first install another program, UXTheme Multi-Patcher, to circumvent the protection scheme in Windows XP that prevents uncertified code from altering its visual style. Once I installed UXTheme and restarted again, the taskbar finally turned into something resembling OS X Tiger's.


What's to like

The OS X skin theme appears to be consistent throughout most applications and Explorer windows, accompanied by the familiar icons and sound effects of OS X Tiger.

FlyakiteOSX incorporates a couple of third-party mini-apps. The standout is Stardock's ObjectDock, which plays the role of OS X's Dock here. The application icons on the dock animate and flow smoothly as you move the mouse arrow over them, even on a lower-end system.

Another app to note is Aqua-Soft.org's clone of the OS X desktop search engine, Spotlight, which is saddled with the adware-sounding name SearchSpy.

What's not to like

The OS X look doesn't go too deep: There's an Apple icon in the upper-left corner of the desktop, but if you click it you'll be presented with the usual Windows Start menu layout. There's an OS X-looking System Preferences menu, but this comes across as superficial - clicking most of the selections simply leads to their counterparts already grouped under the Windows Control Panel.

What's more, FlyakiteOSX doesn't include an application to simulate the Finder Bar, the standard OS X menu bar that appears just to the right of Apple icon in the upper-left corner and includes options for whatever application you're using. (A third-party Finder Bar app by developer Cyrelle Donair, which you can install separately, is available from deviantART.)

FlyakiteOSX


Ease of removal

You can choose to remove everything associated with FlyakiteOSX, or keep whatever applications you want on your system. After a reboot, settings are returned to the default Windows XP theme.

Bottom line

Unless you really want the overall look of OS X on your Windows XP system, you might be better off downloading and installing ObjectDock and SearchSpy separately. Besides the OS X Tiger theme, these are the only two obvious OS X-like features of FlyakiteOSX.

Transform Linux into Mac OS X:

Mac4Lin

Skin themes, such as Look XP, and even whole user interfaces written from scratch that simulate another OS, such as XPde, have been fairly common for Linux distros. One justification cited by their creators is that presenting Linux newbies with a UI they are already familiar with helps ease them into the world of the open-source OS.

Mac4Lin is by far the most extensive transformation pack for turning Linux distros into clones of Mac OS X Leopard. (It requires that your distribution use the GNOME or Xfce user interface.) It was a finalist in the 2009 Sourceforge.net Community Choice Awards.

Ease of installation

After unpacking the Mac4Lin download, you have to enter the Linux terminal and run a script to install the initial components to start the transformation process. From that point on, many more things, including the program that simulates the ever-recognizable OS X Dock, need to be installed separately, and other variables of the UI must be manually set.

If you're familiar and comfortable with using the Linux terminal and GNOME or Xfce, the entire transformation process will take around a half an hour to complete. If you're not already familiar with this environment, it could easily take hours.

The program does provide a detailed set of instructions, but it would be much more convenient if Mac4Lin bundled all these things together and installed them at once for you. For copyright reasons, the package doesn't include an Apple logo icon - you'll have to hunt one down yourself on the Web if you want to include it.


What's to like

If you manage to get through all the typing in the terminal and the tweaking of settings, the end result runs surprisingly well, even on a slow machine.

Mac4Lin comes with instructions to install either of two application managers that simulate OS X's Dock: Avant Window Navigator (AWN) and Cairo-Dock. AWN works competently on lower-end machines. Cairo runs much more smoothly (similar to the way ObjectDock does for Seven Transformation Pack) but requires a more graphically powerful system.

Mac4Lin's stand-in for the OS X Finder Bar, GlobalMenu, works just about as well as its original inspiration, and I quickly found it useful in its own right.

Even if you're not a fan of the look of Mac OS X overall, you might still want to consider installing any of the above three UI apps to spruce up and enhance the usefulness of your Linux distro.

Mac4Lin


What's not to like


The OS X theme doesn't look as polished on a Linux distro running the lightweight Xfce GUI as it does on one using GNOME, which suggests that Mac4Lin was developed mainly with GNOME in mind. Some applications, such as OpenOffice.org and those built upon the Mozilla engine (including Firefox), don't interact flawlessly or function fully with GlobalMenu. And there is no equivalent of Spotlight on Mac4Lin.


Ease of removal


If you think installing Mac4Lin is tough, just wait until you try to uninstall it. Although a script is provided to delete the installed components of the package, you'll still have to remove several other things and return the system settings manually.


Bottom line

The documentation for this transformation pack is 44 pages long. Getting Mac4Lin fully working may be more of a challenge than installing a typical Linux distro these days. The resulting interface does look and operate a lot like the real thing - if you're willing to go through the pain to install it.

Transform Windows XP into Ubuntu:

Ubuntu XP

This one is a bit of an odd bird. Why bother transforming Window XP's interface into that of an OS you can download and install for free? In fact, you don't even have to install Ubuntu Linux to give it a test run on your system - you can run it from a LiveCD.

Mabye you really like Ubuntu's burnt-orange-and-brown theme, or perhaps you're running XP within a virtual box on Ubuntu and would like to keep the user interfaces between the two OSes alike. Regardless, Ubuntu XP should satisfy.


Ease of installation

This package is actually a collection of components - such as icon sets, wallpapers, skins and cursors - and free, third-party applications that redo the Explorer windows and boot screen and add UI eye candy, such as Ubuntu's 3D graphical window manager. But each application has to be installed separately, and the components (icons, wallpapers, etc.) must be dragged to the appropriate folders within the Windows XP file system.

Like FlyakiteOSX, Ubuntu XP requires that you first install UXTheme Multi-Patcher, which is not included. Transformation packs that require this program to bypass the security protecting Windows XP's UI from being changed by unauthorized code typically do not include it. So it's up to the user to download and install separately.


What's to like

Once you get everything put in, Ubuntu XP gives Windows XP a smooth-running skin of the popular Linux distro. The taskbar across the top of the screen shows you a thumbnail of the window of a running application when you mouse over its icon.

And the 3D graphical desktop manager gives you four separate desktop workspaces, rendering them all together as a cube which you use to switch from one workspace to another. It spins slickly even on a lower-end system with minimal graphics capability.

Ubuntu XP

What's not to like

Ubuntu XP is basically just a Ubuntu-themed skin applied to XP. The UI isn't changed into one that works like GNOME, Ubuntu's graphical user interface. The taskbar previews of running applications and the 3D graphical desktop manager are really the only Ubuntu-like interface features. Otherwise, the taskbar still operates like the original XP taskbar.

The lack of a single program to install all of the components in this package at once is the biggest pain. Having to plug in each thing separately made me wonder if installing Ubuntu itself would be less troublesome.
Ease of removal

As with installation, it takes quite a bit of work to remove Ubuntu XP completely. You'll have to uninstall each component one at a time.


Bottom line

Be aware that this package is not a complete renovation tool to turn XP's UI into one that functions like GNOME's. If you're just curious about trying Ubuntu, you're better off running Ubuntu from its LiveCD. It's less of a hassle than installing Ubuntu XP.