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  ( )  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.

One last, good look at KDE 3 Part 2

Some little updates on my KDE experiment.  First of all, I run an rsync script semi-daily to backup my home drive to an external hard drive in case the main one fails.  It’s already happened to me once before and I was really glad to have had backups.  However, as you can imagine, this is a huge drain on my computer’s resources while the backup is being performed.  Since I have it running from a cron job so that I can just forget about it, I tend to forget when it’s set to run and I get really annoyed if my computer starts slowing down and I can’t figure out why.  So I put a wall command into my script.  This sends a message to all terminal emulators and everyone logged into the computer via terminals or ssh.  Usually in Gnome I can only see the message if I happen to have Gnome termnal open.  However, KDE does something very awesome and useful.  Here’s a screenshot:

KDE Wall Info

That is REALLY useful if you want to send info to all users and they happen to be in a GUI without any terminal emulators open.  Say, you are administering the household machine and want a message to appear for the kids to see.  So kudos there, KDE development team!

I’ve also found KDE 3 to be much, much more stable than I remember it.  I think the last time I seriously used it before it got messed up by my Compiz Troubles, it wasn’t yet in the KDE 3.5 series, so it used to crash a lot.  But now it hasn’t crashed on me once.

So far my biggest complaint is that Kopete seems to lack one bit of functionality that Pidgin has – namely the ability to remain connected to AIM when Away for long periods of time.  Now, it may be the case that Kopete is doing the right thing and that Pidgin is violating AIM protocols or something.  I don’t know because I haven’t used the AIM client for about five or so years now.  But, even so, I wish Kopete would not disconnect from AIM whenever I am away for a long amount of time.  When I leave an away message for a number of hours, as opposed to just signing off and shutting down Kopete, it’s because I want to collect messages from friends who may be on while I’m off and will drop me an IM to say, “hi”.

Other than that, I’m thoroughly enjoying KDE.

One last, good look at KDE 3 Part 1

As you can see, by trawling through this, I have gone back and forth between KDE and Gnome a lot. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I initially loved KDE over Gnome. It looked more like Windows, it had more neat options, and great programs. Not only is Amarok the best media player out there (although Rhythmbox is not far behind), but the KDE programs feel so much more tightly integrated than Gnome. That’s one part where they’ve always had a huge lead over Gnome, although Gnome has been catching up recently. Still, I hope that KDE continues to evolve its KParts and KIOSlaves infrastructures. (Or whatever they evolve into in KDE4) KDE programs also just seemed to fit together visually so much better, I don’t know why because Gnome has the HIG.

But I left KDE for Gnome for a few reasons. First of all, as Gnome has been getting leaner and leaner on system resources, the KDE 3 series remained bloated as a blue whale sloshing around in my RAM as though it was just a kiddie pool and not the ocean. Also, I have had KDE programs crash on me orders of magnitude more often than Gnome programs. Finally, KDE has always been treated as a second-class citizen within Red Hat. That’s why Mandrake was original started! It was originally just a KDE version of Red Hat before branching off and losing RPM compatibility.

But now I want to look at KDE again because a few things have come together to change some of the reasons why I left KDE. First of all, with KDE 4 by basing the desktop on QT4 plus other refinements it’s supposed to be light as a feather on RAM. Sure, it still won’t equate to Fluxbox, but I have a modern system, I just don’t want it to swallow up my RAM like that Kobiyashi at the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest. Also, ever since Fedora 7, The Fedora Project has had the KDE Special Interest Group to make sure that KDE is treated well within Fedora. It finally has integration with the updatesd program, responsible for notifying me when there are updates to download. It was really a pain to see that in Gnome and not in KDE. I also wanted to look at KDE 3 now to document what it looked like and how it worked for me so that I can compare this to my experience with KDE 4.

So, I logged into KDE from a fresh startup in Mario. It loaded up a little bit slower than Gnome, but not by too much. And, it’s not fair to look at that because KDE saves the state of your desktop when you logout so I have it automatically loading SuperKaramba, Kopete, KGPG, Kerry Beagle, KGet, and Tomboy. Recently I’ve switched to accessing my Gmail via IMAP vs POP3. This allows me to login via KDE or Gnome and have access to the same emails in my inbox. So, since I always have Evolution and Rhythmbox open in Gnome, I opened up Kmail and Amarok.

So here’s what my main desktop looked like:

Main KDE Desktop

Before I continue, let me say that the developers of Konqueror have some work to do. Apparently they don’t support AJAX very well because I am not able to use any of the advanced features of my blog nor does Gmail work with full functionality. So who cares if it passes the Acid2 test if it doesn’t work on the sites that I need it to.

Amarok is my favorite media player for all of the work it does with your metadata. Whereas other media players stop at using the music’s metadata to sort the music or, if it’s more advanced, to create auto-playlists, Amarok does SO much more! For example, here’s the data it shows on each song as it plays:

Amarok Artist info

The info on how many times you’ve played the song and the last time you’ve played it is nothing special, but beneath lies the power of Amarok. You can add labels to each of your songs and then use that to create dynamic play lists. Amarok then consults to figure out which artists are similar to the one you’re listening to. So you can use this to acquire music by other artists that may be similar to the one you’re listening to. Then, it also lists all the music in your current music library that are by similar artists. And it also shows the rating each song has. After all, you may have songs by similar artists which you don’t like. This is a good point to mention that I really like Amarok’s rating system. Unlike others which are on a 5 star scale, Amarok is a 0-100 scale so it gives a lot more room to tell how much you like the song. Also, their auto-rating system works better than any other I’ve ever used. Anyway, under that is a list of your favorite songs by the same artist. So if you can easily jump to any of those songs by double-clicking. Then it shows each of your albums by the same artist and if you click those you can see the songs on those albums. Tell me you’ve seen another media application that makes such a good use of the metadata it has on your music! But it doesn’t stop there.

Amarok Lyrics Tab

If the song you’re listening to is reasonably popular, clicking on the lyrics tab will bring up the lyrics to the song. You can learn them or just use it to sing along to one you don’t know as well. And there’s one more bit of nice integration thanks to the use of KParts, Amarok can integrate Konqueror into it and you can see the Wikipedia page for the artist you’re listening to.

Amarok Artist Wiki

And sometimes I start up a media player and I’m not sure where to go; what I want to listen to. Here Amarok is also helpful.

Amarok Opening Tab

What I like here is that it lists your newest five albums.  For Rhythmbox I had to create a dynamic playlist to hold my newest albums.  It also lists your favorite albums.  So if you want to quickly jump to listen to some music you know you’ll love, you can just double click on those and get the songs.  Or you can drag the album over to the right into the playlist.

I’d also like to look at Kopete for this look at KDE 3 because I think it’s very, very good.  It has a very different aesthetic than Pidgin, so it’s hard to say objectively which one is best.  However, Kopete *does* have many, many more configuration options.  Check out how many plugins it has:

Kopete Plugins, Options and Main Window

My favorite is the Now Listening plugin.  Pidgin has a similar one, but it doesn’t seem to actually ever work.  The other really great thing about Kopete is how you can customize it to suit your style.  Unlike Pidgin which is mostly an AIM clone, Kopete lets you pick everything from your Smiley Style to Chat Window style.

Kopete Visual Configuration - SmiliesKopete Visual Configuration - Emulation Style

And here’s how I have my chat window:

Kopete Chat Window

So far KDE hasn’t been too unstable.  I’m glad I finally fixed the problem where Compiz kept starting in KDE as it was having a huge detrimental affect.  So far I could potentially go back to KDE.  More in a future post.