How to Add a New Desktop Environment to Windows 11 

Shell replacements are software packages that add new graphical user interface designs to Windows. There are precious few actively supported shell replacements currently available for Windows. Classic Shell is a popular one that remained actively supported until about 2017.

However, Cairo Desktop is one active shell replacement with which you can add a new desktop environment to Windows 11. That software adds a new menu bar, taskbar, and browseable desktop to Microsoft’s latest desktop platform. This is how you can transform Windows 11 with Cairo Desktop.

How to Download and Install Cairo

Installation of Cairo is quick and straightforward. Note that .NET Framework 4.7.1 or higher is a system requirement for Cairo. This software is also compatible with Windows 7, 8, and 10 platforms. These are the steps for downloading and installing Cairo:

  1. Open Cairo Desktop’s GitHub download page.
  2. Click the CairoSetup_64bit.exe option for the latest Cairo Desktop version.
  3. Open the tab in your web browser that displays downloaded files. You can access the Downloads tab in Edge, Chrome, Opera, and Firefox by pressing Ctrl + J.
  4. Then click the CairoSetup_64bit.exe file in the Downloads tab.
  5. Select Next in the Cairo Desktop Environment Setup window.
  6. Click I Agree for Cairo’s terms.

  7. Make sure the Cairo Desktop checkbox is selected. You can also optionally select Run at startup if you want Cairo Desktop to automatically start.
  8. Press Cairo’s Install button.

  9. If it’s not already selected by default, click the Start Desktop Environment checkbox.
  10. Then click Finish to launch Cairo Desktop Environment.

A “Welcome to Cairo” message will appear when you first launch the software. You’ll also notice a new menu bar along the top of the desktop and a taskbar dock at the bottom. Choose your language on the drop-down menu, and click the Start Tour button. That tour will tell you a bit about Cairo before you jump into its new desktop environment.

Cairo’s menu bar along the top of the desktop is something akin to the menu bar on Mac computers. Seeing such a feature on the Windows 11 desktop is a pretty radical change. Programs is the most important menu on that bar that includes shortcuts for opening any software added to it. So, that’s kind of like Cairo’s alternative to the Start menu.

You can add programs to that menu and organize them with Cairo’s App Grabber tool. Click the Programs menu and select App Grabber. Then you can add software to the menu by clicking Browse, choosing a program EXE file, and selecting the Open option.

To organize apps on that menu, press the Continue button. You can add new program categories by clicking the Plus button and right-clicking Untitled on them to input titles. Left-click programs and hold the mouse button to drag them between categories. Then click Finish to update the menu. You’ll see the new categories added on the right side of the Programs menu.

You’ll find Cairo’s top menu bar even more useful when you’ve added some folder stacks to it. Then you’ll be able to access files directly from their folder stacks on the menu bar. Cairo’s menu bar already includes Documents and Downloads stacks by default from which to access files.

To add a folder stack to the menu bar, click the Choose folder button on Cairo’s navigation bar. Select a folder to view in Cairo, and click the OK option. Right-click anywhere on the desktop area and select Add to Stacks. Then you’ll see a stack for the folder appear on the menu bar.

Clicking a folder stack on the menu bar displays its contents across the desktop, like in the screenshot below. You can click the left/right arrows to scroll through the files. Press the Open desktop button to view the folder’s contents on the desktop.

How to Browse Through Folders With Cairo’s Desktop Navigation Bar

Cairo displays folders’ contents on its desktop area, which makes File Explorer a little redundant. You can view folders on the desktop and browse through them with the navigation bar. Clicking the Choose folder button there opens a directory selection window from which you can choose a folder to display on the desktop. Then you can click the Back and Forward buttons to flick through opened folders.

How to Add Shortcuts to Cairo’s Taskbar

Cairo has a taskbar that includes software windows, much like the one in Windows 11. However, Cairo’s taskbar looks more like the macOS Dock (users can also add a Mac-style Dock to Windows with WinStep Nexus). You can pin a shortcut to that taskbar by right-clicking a software window on it and selecting Add to Quick Launch.

The Task List on that taskbar is another cool Cairo feature. That feature includes a menu of all the open software windows on the taskbar. You can switch between windows by selecting them on the Task List menu.

How to Further Customize the Cairo Desktop

You can customize Cairo Desktop’s features from its settings window. To view that window, click the small circle on the far left of the menu bar. Then select Cairo Settings on the menu.

The Menu Bar tab includes customization settings for Cairo’s menu bar. You can deselect the Clock, Action Center, or Search checkboxes there to remove those items from the menu bar. Or select a different category for the Programs menu on the Default programs category drop-down menu.

If you want to change the desktop’s home folder, click the Desktop tab. Then click the Desktop home option’s button to choose a different home folder for Cairo Desktop. You can also change the wallpaper by clicking the ellipsis button for the Path option.

The Taskbar tab enables you to change the appearance of Cairo’s taskbar. You can resize its icons by selecting one of the three radio buttons for the Icon size option. Deselect the Show badges, Show labels, and Show window thumbnail options if you prefer the taskbar not to include those things. Enabling the Full display width checkbox will extend that taskbar across the whole screen like the one on Windows 11’s default desktop.

The Advanced tab includes a Set Cairo as Shell option. Click that button if you want Cairo to replace the Explorer shell. Then Windows 11 will automatically start up in the Cairo Desktop environment. Note that you can’t select to exit the Cairo Desktop when it’s set as the shell. However, you can always undo that setting by selecting the corresponding Set Windows Explorer as Shell option.

You’ll need to log out for some customization changes to take effect. To do so, click the circle on the menu bar and select Log Off. Then click Log Off on the confirmation prompt.

Transform the Windows 11 Desktop Environment With Cairo

You can step into a whole new Windows 11 desktop environment with Cario installed. Cairo effectively integrates folder navigation into its desktop environment, so you’ll seldom need to access File Explorer. Its navigation and menu bars make folders and files more directly accessible from the browseable desktop, which is a notable enhancement. So, many users may prefer Cairo’s more dynamic desktop to the default one in Windows 11.

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