Living with Ubuntu 10.04

In my last post, I documented the upgrade of my laptop from 9.10 to 10.04. That was almost three weeks ago. In the meantime, I’ve been living with my new system and using it daily to do my work on, so here’s my thoughts and post-upgrade modifications of the clean system.
First I must apologize for not being completely throughout in my last post. The installation of the rotation support required a bit more work than documented.

Specifically, the daemon failed to start automatically, and instead of fixing it, I simply added the daemon to my startup programs in Gnome. This meant that I had to grant my own user sudo access to setkeycodes instead of the video group, as the daemon was now running with my user information. Other than that, no problems.

The modifications

I’m in a constant war with the small (12.1 inch) monitor on my laptop, and the fact that its maximum resolution is a mighty 1024 x 768 doesn’t make things any better, so I’m always on the lookout for new ways to get most out of my screen. Especially vertical space.

Given that we finally got a magic combination of X, compiz and Gnome that seems to handle a rotating screen without any major problems, combined with the fact that my computer can actually run compiz without any major lagging, means that I want a dock. Sure, they hail from the evil depths of Apple, but just because they were used somewhere else first, doesn’t make them bad.

Docking

I tried several docks, and consulted Google a lot on the matter (it seems to be a hot topic on several blogs), but finally settled on Avant Window Navigator, or awn for short. For reference, I also tried Gnome-Do in dock mode (Docky) and Cairo dock.

Docky was actually quite nice, especially the fact that it was still gnome-do, just with dock features, but the lack of configuration options bugged me. I’m still using gnome-do, but with the classic skin. More about that later. Cairo dock was also really nice, but paradoxically, it had too many configuration options. Not that I don’t like those, but I seemed to get stuck trying to get what I wanted. Finally, it seems like awn is a bit more stable than Cairo-dock, or at least handles crashes better. Also, awn is the only dock who has a good “stack” plugin for showing the contents of a folder directly in the dock.

So, when I had the dock configured as I wanted it, placed at the bottom of my screen, and containing both the main application menu, desktop switcher, a list of running programs, a clock and a systray, I realized that the gnome panel at the top of my screen was just sitting there, taking up 24 precious pixels of my vertical screen estate, without any function.

Getting rid of gnome-panel

It turns out that the panel has grown more tenacious over the years. Just a few versions of Gnome ago, it was possible to get rid of the panels by just right-clicking and selecting the “remove this panel” option, but that function has  been slightly capped. It is now impossible to get rid of the last panel.

Or, not impossible, but absolutely not easy. In order to get rid of it, you need to open

gconf-editor

navigate to /desktop/gnome/session/required_components and clear the value for “panel”. Then you need to log out and in again for the change to take effect, but you should be greeted by a nice, panel-free, desktop.

The only caveat with disabling gnome-panel this way, is that with it goes the run dialog that was previously available at Alt+F2, which can be seen as a loss if you use it much.

Finishing touches

Even though my dock has a main menu, which is the same as the gnome-panel had, I really like other ways of getting applications to run. First of, there is the now-disabled Alt+F2 run dialog. This has been completely replaced by Gnome-do. There is a slight problem with infrequent crashes, which makes me thankful for the previously mentioned menu, but other than that, it just works! Running applications, opening files, taking quick notes, looking up word definitions, connecting to ssh hosts and controlling Virtualbox VM’s are just some of the things that Gnome-do makes easier.

But when you want fine-grained control, there really isn’t anything like a command line. In that department it doesn’t hurt to have a terminal hotkeyed, but the best thing is really an always-active terminal that can be summoned and dismissed at the press of a key. I give you Tilda!

It is most often described as a Gnome version of YaKuake, which itself is just a ripoff of the terminal in Quake. It is a terminal emulator that is always running, and slides down from the top of your screen at the press of a key (F12 in my case, can be customized). And when you don’t need it anymore, the same key will make it disappear (but not close) again, meaning that you can start a program in the terminal, dismiss the terminal, and the program will continue to run. And just like Gnome-terminal (or just about any other terminal emulator out there),  tilda has tabs, which means that you can have as many terminals as you want hidden away at the top of your screen.

Oh, and while I’m on the topic of terminals, do yourself a favor and install the xfonts-terminus packages and use that as default font in your terminal. Your eyes will thank you later.

Conclusion

I’m one of those geeky persons that will probably never stop customizing my desktop environment, but for now, it seems like I’ve found something that I can actually just use without messing around with it all the time. It doesn’t get in the way of my work, doesn’t take up any screen space at all and I have easy access to everything. This one is a winner.

More about window managers

As a response to my last post, it seems that I have found a way to save just a
few more of my desktop pixels, specifically by removing the title bar of my
windows.

The Ubuntu Netbook Remix is a collection of packages that, together, creates a
desktop environment more suitable for small screens. These packages can,
however, be used out of their intended context to make the title bar
unnecessary.

Specifically, by installing the packages window-picker-applet and
maximus, I can get the characteristic maximized windows without title
bar, as well as the title bar in my gnome panel.

maximus is a small program that forces windows to be maximized and (I
guess) removes their title bar in the process. window-picker-applet is
the gnome panel applet that shows the open windows as icons, as well as the
title of the current focused program.

For those interested, the application launcher that replaces the usual desktop
is provided by the package netbook-launcher, and the whole remix can
be installed with the package ubuntu-netbook-remix.

A small note on the launcher: It competes with nautilus in drawing the desktop, so
anyone looking to use this (I don’t use it) will want to prevent nautilus from
drawing the desktop by setting /apps/nautilus/preferences/show_desktop to false in their
gnome configuration, either using gconf-editor or one of the command-line tools.

On Window Managers and File System Browsers

My main work pc is a Lenovo X61 tablet running Ubuntu 9.10 (right now…).
This poses some restrictions on my choice of desktop environment. First of
all, I don’t want to spend too much of my 12.1″ screen on cruft.
Furthermore, as the system isn’t the fastest in the world, I need to be a bit
careful about how i spend my clock cycles and ram.
Finally, the computer being a tablet laptop, I tend to rotate the screen often.

The result is that I want a fast, light-weight window manager that can handle changes
in desktop dimensions dynamically, and I’ve tried a few, but I always return to
the Gnome desktop environment, but with the old Metacity window manager instead
of the new, fancy, Compiz-fusion.

I was using fluxbox for a while, and generally liked it. Configuring it wasn’t
too hard, but it took a while getting used to. However, it had trouble coping
with a rotating screen, and had to be restarted to cope with a change in
desktop dimensions. Not too much of a problem, though, as fluxbox supports
restarting without restarting X, which means that the running applications are
kept running.

Recently, I tried e17, and that too appealed to me. Configuration was even
easier than fluxbox, and it looks great. However, it kept crashing on me. This
might be because I was experimenting with a lot of modules, but it looked like
e17 really wanted me to use composition, which is a no-go due to hardware
limitations.

File System Browser

But the thing that really keeps me coming back to Gnome is Nautilus, the file
system browser. And yes, I know I can use Nautilus with both Fluxbox and e17,
but there are a caveat to that. Nautilus has a preference for drawing a desktop
background and desktop icons on the desktop, which clashes somewhat with
the general consensus among alternative window managers that the main menu
should be accessed by a click on the desktop.

And yes, I know I can just run Nautilus with the --no-desktop
parameter, but it isn’t the same. I want Nautilus to draw the desktop
icons. So far, it has done the best job of it, compared to other solutions,
like the EFM module in e17 or custom icon applications for Fluxbox.

Some of the things I think Nautilus does better than EFM or Thunar (the
alternative window manager file browser of choice), is the context menu for
files. It presents the options I might want. All of them. And it allows me to
edit Samba shares right there in the GUI.

Some might call this (GUI) blasphemy, especially used in a Linux context, but
there is a reason for its popularity. It is easy! If I want to browse file
shares, doing it in a gui is a lot easer than digging around in command line
tools. Similar, if I want to set up a folder for sharing, clicking a few times
is easier than editing /etc/samba/smb.conf and restarting samba
manually. It is not that I don’t know how to mount a share on the command line,
it’s just not worth it.

Conclusion

So, in the end, I must accept that I cannot have fancy graphics on my laptop
due to hardware restrictions, and that I’m just too much in love with Nautilus
to replace it with Thunar.
BUT! If I should ever get around to run linux on a desktop computer, I would
love to experiment with especially Enlightenment again, as it shows a lot of
promise, perhaps configuring it so I could easily access Nautilus without it
capturing the desktop. Right now, however, I stick to my Gnome setup.