'm a very, very picky person when it comes to user interfaces. I like to be the one who decides what goes where -- configurability is very important to me. That's one of the reasons I'm so fond of OS/2: the Workplace Shell is one of the most configurable user environments available for any operating system on any hardware platform, anywhere today.
Sadly, it's also not terribly attractive to look at. Dialog boxes are far too large, buttons are terribly oversized, fonts are ugly, and much of it looks as though it was cobbled together at the last minute. Warp 4 is a definite improvement over the previous versions in many respects, but it's still not what I'd call comely. If operating systems were cars, OS/2 would be a Volvo station wagon with a jet engine strapped under the hood -- powerful, but really, really boxy.
There are, of course, some applications that improve OS/2's appearance. Object Desktop adds a number of enhancements to the OS/2 UI. There are a few programs available on Hobbes that make Warp 3 look like Warp 4 -- even going so far as to support the new WarpSans font. But these applications only go so far: Object Desktop only modifies DLLs, so anything that's hardwired to look a certain way doesn't get changed. And the applications that make Warp 3 look like Warp 4, well -- they only make Warp 3 look like Warp 4. They don't fix any of Warp 4's problems.
None of the current issues I have with the Workplace Shell user interface are terribly easy to fix. In fact, fixing them would involve someone sitting down, specifically targeting a problem, fixing it, and moving on to the next problem, specifically targeting it, fixing it, moving on the next problem, and so on. This is time consuming, maddening work; work that requires extensive dedication to detail and patience that would put Job to shame.
And Richard Castle is doing it.
Richard Castle has created an impressive shareware utility called "Dialog Enhancer." It radically changes the way many of OS/2's dialog boxes, file menus, message windows and widgets are displayed. Richard has painstakingly altered OS/2's resources so that its dialog menus are, well, enhanced.
Dialog Enhancer replaces the System Proportional font used by most dialog boxes with the newer, cleaner WarpSans font. It reduces the footprint of most dialog boxes by making the buttons and text smaller. It also rearranges many of the dialog boxes so they are more logically laid out.
A good example of this is the Open File dialog box (.GIF, 8.4K). Without Dialog Enhancer, the open file dialog takes up a fair amount of space but is a bit cumbersome to use. Specifically, the Directory and File areas are too small to see any more than 4 or 5 files at a time. With Dialog Enhancer installed, the Directory and File areas are extended, letting you see more actual directory structure. Overall, the entire dialog is cleaner and easier to use, while at the same time taking up less space.
In recent releases of Dialog Enhancer, this feature has even been extended into Win-OS/2, with the "file open" (.GIF, 5.1K) and "save as" dialogs mimicking the new and improved OS/2 dialog layout.
Another nice touch in many of the dialog boxes and message windows are their use of descriptive icons (seen here at the right). Andrea Resmini (well known for his graphics design in the OS/2 world) has created a wonderful set of icons that have been included in many of the file dialogs. For example, when a dialog box appears that asks you a yes or no question, a sculpted question mark icon is included with the dialog box (.GIF, 3.6K). Error messages display the universal "forbidden" symbol (.GIF, 2.3K).
Dialog Enhancer comes as two separate files. One file is the installation program, one file is the part of the program that actually modifies your code. Warp 3 and Warp 4 use the same installation file, but they require different programs to actually make the changes to their respective environments. After downloading both the installer and the actual program into the same directory, you simply unzip them and run the install program.
The install program itself is gorgeous -- it has been crafted as carefully as the new dialogs themselves -- but it's a bit slow. First it archives all the files it's going to change (you can uninstall the program at a later date), then it begins modifying your system. This took 7-9 minutes on my machine. During the install, it asks for your registration number and other such information (if you don't register, you don't get all the enhancements). When it completes, you need to reboot your machine, and from then on OS/2 will use the new dialog boxes, file menus, and other goodies.
There are a few caveats, however. Dialog Enhancer messes up Star Office's file menus for some reason. The author is aware of the problem and has mentioned that there is a fix in the works. Older versions of X-File are incompatible with Dialog Enhancer (but the latest version works just fine).
Also, not all of OS/2's dialogs and controls are replaced. For example, OS/2's help system is completely untouched -- a shame, because it needs updating badly. Also, any dialog box or file dialog that deviates too radically from the norm -- for example, Photo>Graphics PRO's "Save Rendered" file dialog -- will not be affected.
You have to uninstall Dialog Enhancer before applying any FixPaks. After the FixPak is installed, however, you can reinstall Dialog Enhancer without any problems. Choosing to install a FixPak over Dialog Enhancer is a bad idea -- some of your dialogs will revert to the default mode, and you won't be able to reinstall them. In fact, you will be unable to either reinstall or use the uninstall program -- though you can uninstall it manually (a somewhat tedious process).
If I have any complaint about this application at all, it's just that I want it to do more! As I mentioned earlier, I'd like to see the OS/2 help system changed into something more useful. I'd also like to see more support for Win-OS/2 -- happily, it looks as though that is in the works for a future release. The Dialog Enhancer web site states that Castle wants to make Win-OS/2 sessions look more like OS/2 sessions, which I strongly support. (If you know anything about undocumented entries for the win.ini and system.ini files, the developers would like to talk to you.)
There's also a "Sister Project" being undertaken to add even more features to commonly used OS/2 dialog boxes. This application, called "Feature Enhancer", will run alongside Dialog Enhancer and add new controls, menus, animations and options -- many of which have been pulled in from the requests of various users. You can submit your own feature requests at the Dialog Enhancer web site.
At times the installation program can be a little flaky, but the application itself hasn't affected my computer in any adverse manner that I can tell. It is a very stable program, probably because it is not a program so much as replacement resources, and other than the incompatibility with Star Office and older versions of X-File, it doesn't get in the way.
Dialog Enhancer isn't a mission-critical product that will save your data from destruction, but it is a wonderful addition to your OS/2 environment. It's a high-quality shareware product that will add elegance and functionality to many of your old, ungainly dialog boxes. Strongly recommended.
Dialog Enhancer 3.07
Christopher B. Wright is a technical writer in the Richmond, VA area, and has been using OS/2 Warp since January 95. He is also a member of Team OS/2.
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