My almost perfect desktop

Ubuntu 12.04, the way I like it.

ONE of the things I like best about Linux is the ability to customize the desktop.

This isn’t about adding extraneous bells and whistles, but about getting the place where I work looking and behaving the way I want. It’s about being productive.

Notwithstanding the view of the tablet-toting, finger-sweeping set, the metaphor of the desktop is still relevant today. On the computer where I work, I want a clean desktop on which I can quickly call up applications, documents and folders. I also want to find my docks, menu bars and task bars where I expect them, because I don’t enjoy scrolling through a grid of icons, no matter how colorful or attractive they are, simply to find the program I need.

Functionally, I don’t like clutter on the desktop. I prefer to keep my shortcuts and launchers in an organized dock at the bottom of the screen, much like the Mac does. I also like to have a panel with system indicators at the top of the screen, but I don’t like the way Mac OS X puts application menus on this top panel because I find it unwieldy and confusing. Call it old school, but I think it makes more sense for applications to have menus in their own windows.

Up until recently, my desktop of choice was a heavily customized XFCE system running on Ubuntu 11.10. Ubuntu’s native Unity interface, which was clearly designed with tablets in mind, didn’t fit the way I wanted to work, so I simply switched it out.

Again, this is the neat thing about Linux. If you don’t like the interface, you can change it, and on Ubuntu, this is as easy as installing the new desktop and choosing it when you log in.

When I upgraded to Ubuntu 12.04 (Precise Pangolin), I tried a number of alternative desktops, including Gnome 3 (still sucks), Cinnamon (almost like Gnome 2, which is good, but it wouldn’t work with Emerald, my favorite window decorator) and XFCE, which is rather ugly out of the box and needs a lot of customization to meet my functional and aesthetic requirements.

In the end, I decided to give Unity another try—and was pleasantly surprised.

Ubuntu’s default interface still won’t let me move the launcher from its fixed position on the left side of the screen, but I figured I could work around that by adding a dock, Avant Window Manager, at the bottom of the screen. Then, using a tool called MyUnity, I customized Unity’s panel by reducing the icon size so my screen didn’t look like a learning tool for preschool children, and I chose to hide the launcher so that it would only show itself if I scroll my mouse pointer off to the left side of the screen.

To give my individual windows their menus back, I installed another utility called Unsettings and turned off Unity’s global menu. Like MyUnity, Unsettings will also enable you to customize other aspects of the Unity interface.

The most difficult part for me was to restore my beautiful glass-like windows decorations (X-C Backlight F) because Ubuntu 12.04 still doesn’t have Emerald in its repository. To install and use it, I had to follow some fairly involved instructions from the DeviantArt Web site, but the results were well worth the trouble. I’m not sure why Emerald isn’t in the 12.04 repository, but it ought to be. The visual impact is so stunning it makes all other windows look drab.

To gain greater control over my desktop special effects, I installed CompizConfig Settings Manager – thankfully, still available through the Ubuntu Software Center. I also installed compiz-plugins-extra just to give those effects an extra kick.

For some strange reason, Ubuntu 12.04 doesn’t come with a decent screen saver. If you lock the screen, Unity simply blanks it, which can be pretty boring. Fortunately, several sites show you how to install Xscreensaver in Ubuntu 12.04. This will give you tons of screen savers to choose from; my own favorite is the GLSlideshow, which puts on a stylish slide show of the photos in your chosen directory of images.

Finally, since I get bored looking at the same wallpaper all the time, I installed Wallch, which lets you cycle through any number of wallpapers in a user-determined time interval – as short as 10 seconds, if you have a short attention span.

Ubuntu 12.04 – and Unity – have some really cool features but you don’t have to stick with their standard look-and-feel. With a bit of tweaking, there’s no reason you can’t have your desktop working just the way you want it.

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  1. David says: - reply

    Thanks for explaining about the desktop. I am a novice user of Ubuntu and I like it except for upgrades (seldom smooth).
    Would MyUnity work for 11.10?
    I often ponder other distros. My needs are so simple (e.g. Chromebox)and Ubuntu is quite sophisticated.

  2. Chin says: - reply

    Hi David,
    Yes, MyUnity will work with 11.10. Here is a step-by-step guide to installing it: