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Tweaking the Linux desktop

NO operating system is perfect and Linux is no exception.

In contrast to Windows and Mac OS X, however, Linux gives you a lot of choices—some might say, too many choices. DistroWatch.com lists more than 200 active distributions (or flavors) of Linux—and what’s more, each of these distributions allows you to customize the desktop environment.

Although I have dabbled with a few distributions, I have long settled on Ubuntu for a number of reasons, the foremost of which is its user friendliness. These days, other distributions that are based on Ubuntu, such as Linux Mint, are becoming popular as well. I have stuck with Ubuntu, however, because there’s still a lot more online about it than Linux Mint, and this is important when you want more information or help with a particular problem.

Ubuntu is easy to use out of the box, but if, like me, you’d like it to look and feel more like a conventional desktop environment (also called WIMP for windows, icons, menus and pointer) with some pizazz, then you’ll want to use some of the tweaks highlighted here (in bold text). Most of the items can be installed straight from the Ubuntu Software Center. If not, a quick online search ought to point you to a useful guide to installing them.

Like many longtime Ubuntu users, I’ve dumped the built-in Unity interface and opted for something better suited to my needs. Again, there are many choices available, with Gnome, KDE and Cinnamon being among the more popular choices. Since Unity became the standard interface on Ubuntu, I’ve been using Xfce, a streamlined desktop environment that is highly customizable and that does not use up a lot of system resources.

Because I like a combination of flash and function, I tweak Compiz to jazz up my desktop with some cool special effects and Emerald Theme Manager to dress up my windows. Use the Compiz Config Settings Manager to add cool animated effects such as a 3D cube that spins when you switch workspaces or virtual desktops.

I also chuck out the rudimentary bottom panel of Xfce in favor of Cairo Dock, which gives me a dock that looks and feels much like the one I use on a Mac. Drag your favorite applications to the dock to add them; drag a program’s icon out of the dock to remove it. Nothing could be simpler.

Xfce comes with its own applications or start menu that you can add to the top panel, but I prefer the more sophisticated and more visually pleasing Whisker Menu. Aside from looking prettier, Whisker also integrates search and run commands into the menu.

The dock and menu are easy and intuitive ways to launch a program, but if you want speed, you can’t beat Synapse, a launcher you can use straight from the keyboard without having to go to your mouse. Synapse works much like Spotlight does on a Mac. CTRL-Space calls it up so you can type the first few letters of the application you want. Then hit enter when Synapse shows the program that you want.

If you want a more heavy duty search utility, try Recoll, which can find key words inside documents as well as file names. It will take Recoll a while to index your hard disk the first time, but once it’s done, it will cough up your search results in a snap. From the search results, just click on the “Open” link to open a document.

To get a quick report on the processor, graphics card, storage, and other hardware information as well as the operating system version on your system, get Sysinfo. If you want even more detailed information , go for hardinfo (which shows up as System Profiler and Benchmark in the main menu). This will enable you to conduct six common benchmarks to test the speed and performance of our system, and generate a report as an HTML or plain text file.

Finally, you might want to keep your system in top running condition by installing and periodically running Bleachbit, a utility that frees disk space, frees up cache memory, deletes cookies, clears your Internet history, shreds temporary files, deletes logs and discards junk that you didn’t know was there. Chin Wong

 

Column archives and blog at: http://www.chinwong.com

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