Customizing the Look of the OS

I forgot what post online got me thinking about this stuff, but I really don’t customize my computers’ desktop environments much.  Generally, I tend to change the background image and leave it at that.  I took a look over my desktop image gallery here on the blog to confirm my suspicions.

Starting at the bottom with Windows, you can see that until 2009 I was just going with the default look.  I tended not to add launchers to my panel because, with Windows XP, it ended up really limiting the space for listen the open programs.  I also didn’t have too many launchers on the desktop.  I tend to always have programs maximised if I’m in front of the computer, so the only programs shortcuts I’d leave on the desktop are programs I’d be likely to launch upon starting up the computer.  In fact, whenever I pay attention, I tell the installer not to put icons on the desktop.

Around 2009 I read about a themer for XP that I thought about trying because the default panel was starting to feel a bit Playskool.  It was OK, if a bit incomplete.  It caused some dialogs not to display properly, but I didn’t care too much, at least it wasn’t full of primary colours anymore.

And, with Windows 7, I haven’t done any customization either, other than removing some of the pinned icons that I didn’t care for (like Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer).

Windows 7 22 Oct 2010
Windows 7 22 Oct 2010

When it comes to Linux, there’s a lot more room for customization, but, for the most part, I didn’t do much.  With my Gnome desktops, the default install provides two panels, so I tend to fill up the top panel with tons of launchers.  Although I have tons of programs installed on my Linux computers because programs are free and storage is cheap, I tend to use the same programs daily.  So I added those programs’ launchers to the top panel.  Also, because I have more space and because, on Linux, they aren’t riddled with adware/spyware, I tend to have weather notifications and other things on my panel.

Gnome Desktop 22 oct 2010
Gnome Desktop 22 oct 2010

There was a time when I was really into KDE (which I’ll get to in a moment) and so I looked for a widget system on Gnome.  I found gDesklets, although they were never quite as supported and varied as SuperKaramba on KDE.  My first attempt produced chaos on the desktop:

I had RSS feeds, daily Bible verses, the weather, and flickr photos.  After realizing that I pretty much never look at the desktop, I trimmed it a bit.

But, as you can see a few images above, I don’t have any of that on my current desktop.  I just haven’t found any that provide any important info or justify taking up compute cycles.  A quick mention of Xfce where I just added a few launchers and mostly kept things the same.

KDE was my Linux desktop environment of choice for a number of years.  Because it’s so easily customisable, I did the most customising here.  Even then, you’ll see, it wasn’t all that much.  The earliest screenshot I’ve preserved has a modified icon theme (easy as a few clicks in the settings menu) and some SuperKaramba widgets.

There are TONS of widgets (or were) for SuperKaramba on kde-look.org.  ( http://kde-look.org/ )  But it seemed, to me, that 90% of them were weather and system monitor widgets with different themes. As you can see, I picked the ones that I liked and just stuck with those during my entire KDE tenure.  I found the system monitor to be mostly pointless – although, at the time, I was using Linux on a very resource limited computer, so seeing the RAM usage was very important at times.  I didn’t get into system monitors again until I discovered Conky with CrunchBang (more on that later).  I never added too many launchers because KDE, having one panel, had the same problem as Windows.  It was somewhat lessened by having multiple desktops.  (There’s no reason why I couldn’t have had at least four panels….I just never customised it, and that’s the whole point)  About six months after the first KDE screenshot, I had made a few modifications:

I made the taskbar transparent (something that took until Windows 7 for MS to enable) and shrunk it a bit to be more like Xfce.  I don’t know why I cared, but basically this was the essence of cool at the time.  All the kitted out KDE desktops I saw had this reduced taskbar.  I also switched to the default KDE icons.  I did like that my home folder was a house.  And, when I temporarily went back to KDE in 2006, I pretty much left it the same.

KDE 4 has the extra benefit, that the plasmoids tend to actually do something rather than just be passive information presenters.  They can be microblogging clients, periodic tables and tons of other useful things.  Here’s what I’ve setup.  I haven’t customized it too much since I don’t currently use KDE on a daily basis.

KDE 22 oct 2010
KDE 22 oct 2010

For a time I switched over to using Fluxbox.  As I mentioned before, I was on a very low powered box for my first Linux desktop, so using Gnome or KDE made my other programs crawl.  This tendency carried over when I first moved to my eMachine box.  At first my only frill was the gKrellm system monitor.

Later I thought it would be cool (and probably l33t) to run everything from the commandline.

I also, made sure to use eterm so I could have a transparent terminal and a neat background (not pictured in any of my screenshots) And that was the pinnacle of what I did.  Eventually, I put Crunchbang Linux on my laptop and used Conky.  That system manager was actually useful because I configured it to tell me about the wifi networks I was connected to and whether I had an IP address.  That made it very convenient when I was using wifi networks while traveling.  I never took a screenshot while I had Crunchbang customised, but if you take this image from the installation:

and this Lubuntu screenshot from my current laptop installation.  The only thing I’d change is to install and customize Conky.

Lubuntu 22 oct 2010
Lubuntu 22 oct 2010

So, before I go any deeper, I thought I’d give some examples of how others *do* customise their desktops.

First some Windows desktops:

Now Some Linux Desktops:

So, it’s quite possible to take things to the extreme.  A lot of those look cool – to me anyway.  So what keeps me from doing something like that?  One part of it is the fact that I’m ADD when it comes to desktop configuration.  I like to change things up all the time (which used to piss off my dad back when I was a kid and there was one computer for the family) so I tend to favor things that aren’t too complex to set up.  So, I enabled the desktop background switcher in Windows and I’ve used similar things on Linux before.  I also like reversibility.  I’ve been burned before by customization programs that were nigh impossible to revert back to the defaults.  This, coupled with point one helps to discourage customization – especially on Windows when you’re often depending upon a third party programmer.  Finally, because customization programs tend to be very powerful, they also tend to be a little complicated if you want to achieve something awesome.  So it sometimes seems a bit daunting and a bit of a waste of time when I have so many other things calling for my attention.

Author: Eric Mesa

To find out a little more about me, see About Me