Get a Linux desktop to make Windows and OS X users weep with envy

18th Dec 2009 | 13:00

Get a Linux desktop to make Windows and OS X users weep with envy

Now who has the prettiest OS?

Compiz and Emeral

Good looks was never supposed to be a priority for Linux apps. It wasn't so long ago that we seemed to be struggling to get even basic eye-candy such as anti-aliased fonts to work on the Linux desktop, but things have changed almost beyond recognition.

It's now fair to say that the Linux desktop is at the forefront of visual effect, a cornucopia of eye-candy overflowing on to your desktop. And with a few tweaks, it can look even better.

With both Windows and OS X continually upping the ante in what the average desktop user expects from their desktop experience, it's vitally important that Linux stays ahead of the game – even if that only means turning on a genie effect for minimized applications when your friends come over, or using a more usable version of virtual desktops when you lend your machine to someone.

Adding eye candy should never be about purely cosmetic changes. Instead, it should enhance the usability of the desktop and make the average session more productive and more streamlined.

We're going to show you how to do just this, and in the process we'll help you turn your Linux desktop into the envy of your proprietary OS-loving friends.

Run the best window decorator on the Linux desktop

When the Compiz project began it marked a real turning point for desktop Linux, but the project has been through many transitions and hardships over the years.

Suffering a fork, community alienation and a lack of development, it has re-emerged as the standard graphical enhancement for Gnome and many other Linux desktops, and it's a technology that finally combines maturity with some excellent productivity enhancements.

If it's not installed already, most distributions will offer packages that can be installed easily, and you'll need only a moderately powered 3D-accelerated graphics card to get the most out of it.

Emerald 01

One of the best additions to Compiz is the Emerald window manager. It replaces the border around your applications, and its big advantage over the default is that is isn't tied to a single GUI such as Gnome, KDE or Xfce. It's also the most easily configurable window manager we've come across, as well as being the best-looking.

Running Emerald

If you've already got Compiz installed, Emerald is available as a single additional package. If you're using Gnome with the extra effects enabled, Compiz will already be running, and you can launch the Emerald window manager by entering emerald in a terminal.

If you're using KDE, or Compiz isn't running, run decorator first followed by the compiz.real --replace command. You should see the window borders change to the current Emerald theme, and you can edit the current theme by launching the Emerald Theme Manager application, which you should be able to find in your distribution's launch menu.

By default, the theme manager will contain only a single theme, and that's the theme that has changed the window borders on your desktop. To get the most from Emerald, you really need to get hold of some new themes.

The best way to do this is to point your browser at, find some themes you like and download them.

They're normally packaged as .tar.gz files, and you'll need to un-archive these into a directory. You can then point the Emerald theme manager at the .emerald file within these directories to import the file. Some themes are plain .emerald files that don't need any messing around with.

Fine-tune your themes

It's worth fine-tuning your theme from the theme manager's editing pages. Click on the Edit Themes page and you'll see the main parameters for each theme split across five further pages.

The most influential parameter to change is the rendering engine, and this can be changed from a drop-down list. As with all Emerald parameters, each change updates the display in real time so you can see exactly what kind of effect your changes are having.

Our favourite effect is called 'trueglass', but 'oxygen' and 'vrunner' are good options too.

Each engine will have it own set of parameters, and these will mostly change the colours used by the rendering engine on the window border. Use the Frame/Shadows window to adjust the size of the window border and to edit the size of the drop-shadow, and the 'Titlebar' page to adjust the size of the border, where the text is located and the kind of glow or shadow used to render the text.

Don't forget to save your theme when you've finished.

Step by step: Get Emerald running

1. The easy way

Step 01

With both Compiz and Emerald installed, open a terminal and type emerald --replace. This will launch the Emerald window manager.

2. The harder way

Step 02

If you're already running Compiz, you won't need to follow this step. Otherwise, type compiz.real --replace into a different terminal session.

3. And you're done!

Step 03

You should now see the window decoration change on your desktop. To edit this decoration, launch the Emerald Theme Manager from your distro's menus.

Configuring KDE

Probably the most configurable desktop in the world

The development of Windows and OS X continually ramps people's expectations for what a desktop environment should look and feel like, and this point hasn't been missed by the KDE developers.

It's the only standard desktop environment that includes gratuitous effects and eye candy that can be turned on with just a few clicks of your mouse.

Common to KDE's philosophy, it's also a desktop that lets you get deep into the theming engine. You can change almost anything about the way various components are drawn – from the types of icons and effects used on them to the window border and the rendering of the scroll bars. You can spend days experimenting with the results. But the best place to start is with the effects.


KDE 4.3 includes a massive range of effects that can be used to enhance both usability and visibility. For most, you will need a 3D-accelerated graphics card. It doesn't need to be powerful, and any card from Intel, Nvidia and ATI/AMD will work as long as you're running recent drivers.


All of KDE's effects options are tucked away within the Configure Window Behaviour menu option that appears when you rightclick on a window's title bar. From the first window, you can enable compositing effects and choose the main transitions effects for window and desktop switching.

It's here that you'll find the perennial desktop cube, but our current favourite desktop switching effect is called Slide. This emulates the Spaces switching on OS X, smoothly gliding the windows from one virtual desktop into the next. It's not as nice to look at, but it is more logical and, importantly, more useful.

This being KDE, there's a lot more you can change about these effects and a lot more effects to choose from if you switch to the All Effects tab in the Desktop Effects page. Click on the spanner icon to the right of the Desktop Cube, for example, and you can adjust the amount of zoom and opacity, as well as specify a hotkey for starting the effect.

Then there's pervasive desktop shadow, which KDE decides to paint blue. This can be tamed by reconfiguring the shadow effect, changing its colour to black and the opacity, fuzziness and size values to around 10.

Other effects worth a look include the Magic Lamp, Minimise Animation and Explosion for added impact when you minimise or close windows, and we also like the Wobbly Window effect if you keep the wobbliness slider set to Less.

Enabling Sheet will fold file requesters into and out of the vanishing point, and we also enable the Dim Inactive effect, which subtly changes the colour of inactive windows on your desktop and highlights the currently active application. We set the strength of this effect to 10 and only enabled the Apply Effect To Groups option.

After Effects, the biggest change you can make to the desktop is to switch the icons that are used. KDE uses a pool of the same icons for every application, which means you only have to change them once to see the effects across every compatible application on the desktop.

Icons for backwards, forwards, file requesters, web browsers, lists, previews, fonts and applications will all change as long as the new icons you use include replacements.

New icons can be downloaded, installed and activated through the Icons panel, which itself can be found within the Appearance panel of KDE's System Settings application. But we couldn't get the automatic icon install to work. Instead, we browsed the icons library at, downloaded those we liked as tar.gz files and used the file requester that appears when you click on Install Theme File to point to the location of the download.

This process will depend on the icon package containing a KDE theme configuration file, and if it does, you should see the new icon theme listed in the Icons pane. Just select and click on Apply to make the change.


Colours play an important role, and it's a bit of a pity that they mostly stay rather static. Most distributions, and desktops, like to play it safe, leaving it up to the user if they want to try something a little more Vivienne Westwood.

This may explain why KDE has been stuck with the blue that the developers seem to have been keen on for so many years, and nobody seems to have come up with a better idea. You can see much the same inertia in a certain brown distro we could mention…

Of course, unlike most of the desktop, the palette used to colour things on your screen is going to be as subjective as the colours on your bedroom ceiling, so maybe they've got point, but it's still worth investigating some of the possibilities.

The various colour options can be found on the perennial Appearance page, and you need to switch to the Colours tab to get to the list of components that share a specific colour. Getting the correct part of the UI can be a little hit and miss, and setting so many colours at once can feel a little like browsing a catalogue of paints, but it can be worth the effort.

When you find a principle tone you want to copy to the other widgets, click on the Add To Custom Colours button, as this will make selecting the colour a point-and-click operation rather than having to redial the same parameters.

Three awesome window-switching effects

1. Cover Switch

Cover switch

A good replacement for the standard box switching with some additional eye candy.

2. Present Windows

Step 2

This is the best solution if you often have a large number of widows open.

3. Flip Switch

Step 3

A different take on Cover Switch but laborious if you've got lots of open windows.

Configuring Gnome

Get the most from a desktop that isn't as tame as it first appears

Gnome is a fantastic example of minimalist design. Over the last few years, the interface has become increasingly refined and uncomplicated. You only have to take a look at the Visual Effects page of the Appearance Preferences panel to see this.

In contrast to KDE, which has an effects page that seems to scroll forever, Gnome has just three options – None, Normal and Extra, and it's here that we'll make most of our changes.

To change the background colour of the panel to a colour that's in sympathy with the background colour, for example, choose an appropriate colour then move the opacity slider so that the colour from the background combines with the colour of the panel.


The overall effect is much nicer than the standard grey, and you can do this on any panels on your desktop, including the one that's on the lower border by default – though this doesn't look so great when window titles start appearing, as these don't take on the new theme.

One distribution that does a particularly good job with the Gnome desktop is Linux Mint. This desktop has taken two particularly brave steps: it's removed the top bar from the display, and drastically changed the default colour palette.

To learn from this, you can examine exactly what has changed using Gnome's Appearance panel. This rather neatly encapsulates each different configuration option for the Gnome desktop, and packages everything you see into a theme.

Those themes are listed when you first open the window, and clicking on another theme can change everything from the type of fonts and icons used on the desktop to the background image and the colour palette.

As with KDE, there are now plenty of different desktop effects to choose from on the Gnome desktop, and where KDE wins on the number of effects on offer, Gnome has the advantage of smoother integration with Compiz.

But to get the most out of it, you need to install the ccsm package, which is an abbreviation for Simple Compiz Config Settings Manager. With this installed, you can select extra option in the Visual Effects page – Custom.

The shiny made simple

The Simple Compiz Config Settings Manager is much like the All Effects list in KDE. Switch to the Effects tab, for instance, and you can choose between five different kinds of application switcher, including all the options that KDE provides.

Move on to the Desktop tab and you get to the menu where you can choose the desktop cube, although this is set to Desktop Wall by default. With the Cube enabled, further Cube Effect options appear on the Effects page, so you can contort the cube into a cylinder or a sphere from the Deformation drop-list. Press Alt and cursor left or right to see the effect. If you've got two screens, you'll see two.

Another clever addition is the Screen Zoom effect, which can be found on the Accessibility tab. With this enabled, hold down the Windows key on your keyboard and scroll your mouse wheel to make the screen smoothly zoom in to your cursor. This is obviously great if you have difficulty with reading on-screen text, but it's also handy when you quickly need to make an image or movie larger.

Before you close the CCSM window, take a look at the last page. It features a configuration panel that can be used to trigger actions when your mouse falls into a specific region of the screen. Just click the area you're interested in and select the action you'd like to trigger from the drop-down list.

Expo Edge works well from the top-left corner. This will zoom out from the current desktop and show you an overview of each of your virtual desktops. Right-click on one to zoom back in again.

Another good option, perhaps for the top-right corner, is Show Desktop. Similar to Apple's Exposé mode, all open windows on the current desktop will slide out of view so that you can access files and folders on your desktop.

Window Picker does the opposite, sliding in thumbnails of your open apps so you can preview the app you want to switch to.

Dock regeneration

Let's face it, Gnome's desktop panel is losing out to the festival of features that seems to be happening on the lower edge of the KDE desktop. The Gnome equivalent just hasn't changed all that much in the last few years, and the answer, as with so many things to do with Linux, is to replace it with something better.

Cairo dock

There are a surprising number of viable alternatives, but without a doubt the best panel replacement we've found for the Gnome environment is Cairo-Dock. There are plenty of reasons why this is deserves your attention, but it's the only dock that it has a 'sobriety' rating for the themes you can download. And amazingly, it needs it!

Most distributions, with the exception of Ubuntu, can install Cairo-Dock through the package manager. Ubuntu users will need to add the '' repository manually, update their package list and install Cairo-Dock and cairo-dock-plug-ins.

Aim for version 2.1, released on 10 October 2009. Any version older than this won't give you the same features, and will miss the point entirely.

When you first run the application, it will ask whether you want to enable OpenGL. If your machine runs Compiz without difficulty, you should say yes, but otherwise you'll only miss a few scaling effects and transitions.

If you have a dual-screen setup, you'll initially see a terrible Christmas-themed dock appear in the middle of both screens. This problem is easily solved by holding Alt and click-dragging the dock to somewhere more suitable.

To change the theme, just right-click on the dock, select the Cairo-Dock menu followed by Manage Themes. The window that appears will list all the themes available on your system, and you can find plenty more as a single package on the website.

There are almost too many to choose from – from the ideas that are obviously thieved from other operating systems to the Gnome-friendly, colourful and subdued – but our favourite is called 'Bret' by Benoit2600.

It uses roughly monochrome icons in an arc across the doc, and as your mouse rolls over them, they turn into little spinning cubes. It even embeds the Cairo-Dock equivalent to OS X stacks. As you hold your mouse over a list, they curve out of the original icon.

Add this to a selection of well-drawn desktop widgets and a silly fish that splashes its way across the bottom of the theme, and you've got a winning combination.

Three awesome 3D desktops

1. Cylinder


Slightly more intuitive than the Cube and not as jarring. The cylinder effect is half eye candy and half practical.

2. Wall


This is the most usable virtual desktop effect, which is probably why it's the default transition in Apple and Gnome.

3. Sphere


The ultimate in eye candy, but we can't help thinking the sphere should be a little lower. We'd add a little bounce too.


First published in Linux Format Issue 126

Liked this? Then check out Remix Linux: how to customise your install

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