Redesign Gnome for a better looking desktop

23rd Nov 2008 | 09:00

Redesign Gnome for a better looking desktop

How to tweak the look and feel of Gnome to your heart's content

Gnome typically comes with a bar across the top of the screen with the clock, notification icons and menu items and a second at the base of the screen containing window lists, workplace switchers and, in the Ubuntu incarnation, a trash can/recycle bin.

But, unlike OS X and, to a lesser degree, Vista, there's nothing to stop you playing with the way things look.

In this tutorial we're going to take a vanilla Gnome desktop, strip out a few things, add a new dock to the bottom of the screen and reinstate the recycle bin to its rightful place (in our opinion) on the desktop. We'll also take in a few other desktop tweaks as we go along.

Note that we're not concerned with cuboid animations, wobbly windows or transparent toolbars here (that's for another time), but with the general appearance of the desktop.

Changing backgrounds

Our first step in making a change is to alter the window decorations. This aspect of the desktop can be edited by doing System > Preferences > Appearance. Look under the Theme tab to see the available looks. Select the desired theme to have the screen updated immediately.

If nothing here floats your boat, take a trip to Gnome Look to find a ton of other themes. Download one of these, then go back into the Appearance window and select the Install button. Navigate to the previously downloaded file and select it. The new theme will be added to the list and can be selected immediately.

We've gone for calm wateriness of the Glossy theme. While we're at it, let's also change the background image and toss out the (admittedly very nice) heron screen. Again, Gnome Look offers hundreds of different desktop images on various themes under the Wallpaper section, and there are many more on the wilds of the internet.

Try to find an image that matches the resolution of your monitor so that it doesn't look odd once installed (you can find your monitor's resolution by doing System > Preferences > Screen Resolution).

To bring up a new desktop image, right-click anywhere on the desktop, select Change Desktop Background and then click on Add to launch the file browser. Find the image you want and select it, and the desktop should update immediately.

One of the things that annoys many users is that the Ubuntu developers have removed the recycle bin from the desktop. This doesn't have to be a permanent omission though, as putting it back is not a difficult task, though it does involve a trip to one of Gnome's slightly hidden settings. This is the GConf editor, and it can be accessed by typing gconf-editor into a terminal.

You can now remove the trash can from the bottom panel by right-clicking it and selecting Remove From Panel, and you can rename the bin something a little more exciting by right-clicking it on the desktop and selecting Rename – just the same as with any other folder.

Paint a pretty panel

We're going to take things a little further now and make a radical change to the way Gnome works. Surgery begins by removing the bottom panel from the screen. Right-click on any vacant space on the panel and select Delete This Panel – it's a drastic move that make the screen look oddly lost, but we'll fix that next.

Now we're going to install an application called Avant Window Navigator (AWN). This is one of a number of available task bar replacements. You could get a basic edition using Ubuntu's standard package manager (System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager), but this version doesn't include lots of the nice additions that the third-party does.

Unfortunately, we'll need to add a couple of repositories to Synaptic to get the better version. With Synaptic open, go into Settings > Repositories and look under the Third Party tab. Click the Add button, select Binary from the Type drop-down menu and enter the following piece of text in the URI space:

In the Distribution space, type 'hardy', 'feisty' or 'gutsy', and in Components type 'main'. Click on OK and the close the Repositories window. Back in the main Synaptic window, hit the Reload button, then select Search and enter AWN as the search string.

From the results, select the most recent version of AWN (0.3.1 at the time of writing) and also select awn-extras-appletstrunk, which should have the same version number. Hit Apply and wait as the software is installed

The dock of the bay

AWN can be launched from Applications > Accessories > Avant Window Navigator. When it's launched a sparse OS X-style dock should appear at the bottom of the window and the configuration toolbox should open. If the toolbox doesn't open, right-click on a blank space on the dock and select Dock Preferences.

There is a lot going on inside this toolbox, so we'll go through the most important jobs here and leave the more esoteric options as happy surprises. The main configuration sections are listed down the left of the window. Selecting one of these will display options or more tabs on the right Click on the General section.

In here we can ensure the application starts on launch (a good idea), hide the bar when it's not in use, and make it so that ordinary windows don't go into the dock when maximised – basically making applications aware of the top of the dock.

We can also choose one of the many 'hover' effects for icons, which will change the icon on the dock in some way to make it clear that the mouse is on top of it. OS X has its fisheye-type magnification, but there are quite a few different ones in AWN – LXF is particularly partial to the Spotlight effect, which puts a shaft of light over the icon when the mouse hovers.

The Task Appearance tab enables us to define the text labels that appear on hovered-over icons and also to add a small arrow beneath active applications. The Bar Appearance tab, meanwhile, allows us to set the colours and borders of the dock background.

There's also a 3D Look checkbox which, when clicked, will angle the dock into the screen so the icons look like they're sitting on it, complete with reflections. You can also give this 'platform' rounded edges and, under the Glass Engine tab, change its opacity.

Add more apps

There are many different small programmes in the Applets section, which you can add to the dock. Select one from the list and click the Activate button. The selected applet will shift to the bottom section of the window and appear on the dock.

To remove an applet, select it from the bottom and hit Deactivate. One of the useful applets is the Stacks Applet which can display the contents of a folder in different ways, including the OS X-like fan. Once you've added a Stacks Applet, right-click on it and select Preferences to define the folder it should relate to. You can add as many Stacks Applets to the dock as you like.

The third section, Launchers, provides tools for adding any application from the system to the dock. As we're retaining the main Applications menu on the top bar, the dock will be home to our most frequently used applications.

To add an application, click on Add, provide the requested details, then click on the icon button. If you don't know these details, do System > Preferences > Main Menu, find the application in question, right-click on it and select Properties to see the required values.

Need software? Then read 25 killer Linux apps and 20 Linux apps you can't live without

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