One of the best features in Windows 7 is its revamped taskbar and its program-pinning. Combining the utility of customization, big and legible icons, and stylish preview windows, it radically changes the Windows interface. Until it's released, Windows XP users will have to get by with third-party docking programs.
One of the most popular Windows dock replacements, ObjectDock, replaces the taskbar with a colorful, animated dock similar to the taskbar in Mac OS X. It displays icons for currently running programs and hosts quick-launch icons for your favorite programs. As you pass the cursor over each icon, ObjectDock magnifies it. An attractive clock rounds out the toolbar. It comes with skins, and users with slow computers can reduce the animation quality to increase speed. You can also customize nearly every aspect of the dock, easily maximizing its hefty resource usage to your best advantage.
Besides being a bit sluggish, it lacks a system tray replacement. You can also upgrade to the Plus edition for $20, which includes system tray support, tabbed docks, support for multiple docks and multiple monitors, and other features.
Another well-liked taskbar replacement, RocketDock soars. The Mac-style program dock and launcher for Windows 2000, XP, and Vista has it all, from a smooth installation to mostly flawless icon transitions, and an unobtrusive footprint. If you're looking for something similar to ObjectDock that isn't ObjectDock, RocketDock might be for you.
It can live on any of the four edges of your monitor; you can set it to be always on top of other programs, or on the bottom; it can autohide or be ever-present. Twenty skins, customizable fonts and colors, and icon replacements give you the features you'd expect. A growing online community offers more icons, widgets, and skins, so there are tons of customization options. The main settings menu is not logically placed. Configuring extras happens in one menu, while another menu hosts your main options.
XWindows is a slick approximation of the OS X dock. It sports several improvements that ObjectDock and RocketDock don't have, such as stackable files that telescope out when you click on them. Of course, you have to manually build the stacks, but it's useful if you edit the same few files regularly. You can also stack folders and watch their contents telescope out from the bottom of your screen when you click on one.
That leads to a minor problem: XWindows can't be docked elsewhere on the screen. It must live at the bottom, which I found irritating since I prefer my taskbar and programs to live at the screen's top. It's not the biggest problem with the program, though. XWindows crashed on me several times during testing. It looks great, and the icon resizing was smooth, but be prepared for bugginess.
MobyDock DX comes loaded with icons, so as soon as you start using it you can get going. It's a good, solid, basic dock. You can customize icons and programs, use it to launch folders or documents, and place it anywhere on your screen. It can also be configured to notify you of new mail.
The weather indicator didn't work for me even when configured, and the despite its smoothness, the dock is a bit of a slow responder. It comes with a clock, too, but if you're addicted to your system tray don't plan on using MobyDock to wean you from it. It's a strong supplement, but not a replacement. The lack of skins is annoying because you can only choose from three Windows XP-default color backgrounds--blue, olive, or silver; but at least you can hide the background altogether by making it transparent. Even with these problems, and the fact that MobyDock hasn't been improved since 2003, it still works well enough for many XP users.
RK Launcher is another dock that hasn't seen an update in years, but works well enough to make it onto the list. It's very similar to many of these docks: you can position it anywhere on the screen; it uses little notification arrows when a docked program is running; you can customize icons and programs. It struggles a bit with responsiveness, but not as much as MobyDock. It does use the Mac split-face icon by default, so if you're trying to skin Windows XP to look like OS X, this dock might appeal to you.
Yz Dock--"wise" dock, I'm assuming--feels like the fastest "traditional" dock of the group. Yet another dock that hasn't seen an update in nearly half a decade, it loads stripped down and ready for you to drag-and-drop your icons onto its translucent pane. It's got the basics: adjustable placement and customizable icons. You can also choose from several in-use notifiers and dock skins. It froze in the magnified position several times, but it didn't actually crash and cease functioning. If you want a dock that's lightweight and fast, this might be what you're looking for.
The two nonlinear docks that I tested were Circle Dock and Slider Dock. Circle Dock might bother people who are used to the traditional, linear-dock style, and you might miss the animation of icons zooming. If you don't care about either of those, Circle Dock will run elliptical shapes around other docks. It's fast, customizable, and can be dragged to wherever you need it on your monitor. The center of the dock is a button that can be configured to open the Start menu, or hide the dock. You can toggle the dock's visibility with the F1 key or your center mouse button. When you bring it up again, it will appear wherever your mouse is--saving you the extra wrist movement of getting to the dock.
Users can configure the dock behavior so that it's locked to a position, and you can set the number of icons per circle. Any spillover will create an ever-larger second circle of your files, folders, and programs. If you're looking for something fresh, Circle Dock is an excellent choice. Slider Dock isn't bad, either, but it's a bit weird.
It places your icons on an ellipse, with the nearest icons the largest. It's even more atypical than Circle Dock, though. When you click on an icon, it orbits the icon around the ellipse until it's located in the foreground position. From there, you have to click on it again to launch it. You can use your mouse or arrow keys to rotate the icons, but it's still fairly strange behavior for a dock, because it makes you work more to get your programs running.
Unlike Circle Dock, there's only one ring of icons. If it gets too cluttered, you can adjust it with sliders in the control panel. It's smooth and fast, though, so if you can get beyond the unusual behavior it could make for an excellent dock.
If you have a favorite dock that I didn't mention here, let me know in the comments below.