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10 must-have Linux desktop enhancements

Among the variety of enhancements for the Linux desktop, there are a few gems that will really blow you away. Jack Wallen pinpoints some additions you'll definitely want to try.

If you haven't experienced the Linux desktop as offered by one of the more recent distributions, you don't know what you're missing. Not only is the default desktop a thing to behold, it also allows for the addition of some amazing enhancements. From eye candy to tools that make your work more efficient, the Linux desktop can be expanded to include just about anything you want. I'm going to share some desktop enhancements that will make your Linux desktop experience far better. Some of these tools you might already know (or use) and some of them you might not -- if you find one listed that you haven't tried, install it and let us know what you think.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Compiz

Compiz is to the Linux desktop as HiDef is to the world of television. Is it necessary? Not at all. Will it enhance your experience? Absolutely. Compiz is a compositing window manager that adds tons of functionality to the desktop -- from the stellar Desktop Cube to the various window switchers and everything in between, on top, on bottom, and around the corner. If you haven't experienced Compiz, you have no idea what the PC desktop can really do.

2: Screenlets

Screenlets are tiny applications that live on your desktop and provide extra functionality. Some of these applets do little and some do quite a bit. My personal favorites are the ring sensors (various sensors for your PC) and CopyStack (a stack of clipboards that allow you to select from your clipboard history as well as drag and drop a "page" of your clipboard onto a document).

3: Emerald

Emerald is a window decorator written for the Compiz compositing window manager. This window decorator allows you to extend the look and feel of the Compiz window manager out to the borders of your windows. Why have such a cool looking/acting desktop when your window decorator is the boring old default? You can also use this decorator to fool your users into thinking they're using Windows 7. It will take a bit of work, but it's possible.

4: Cairo

If you like the OS X dock, you will love Cairo. This handy dockbar lets you add plenty of launchers and applets, as well as giving you the option of running with OpenGL effects. It's theme-able, clean, smooth running, and much more stable than some of the other available docks.

5: Top Shelf

Top Shelf is a great little GNOME panel applet that gives you quick access to files you include in the "shelf." With this tool, you can take related files (from completely different directories), add them to the applet, and have immediate access to either the file or the containing folder. It's a great way to work on a project where files are coming from different locations and you want quick access to all of them.

6: Tomboy Notes

Tomboy Notes is a simple note-taking applet that resides in the GNOME panel. Tomboy gives you instant access to all your notes via a table of contents and uses a WikiWiki-like linking system so notes can easily refer to one another. The development team is also working on a system that will allow Tomboy to interact with ALL desktop objects, so notes will not be limited to text or links.

7: KDE Plasmoids

KDE Plasmoids are small widgets that live on the KDE desktop. Many people argued that KDE 4.x was going to fail and that the plasmoids were not the way to go. However, this doesn't seem to be the case, as numerous plasmoids actually enhance your desktop and your work. Some of my favorite Plasmoids are Twitter Microblog, Superkaramba, and File Watcher.

8: GNOME Do

GNOME Do is one of those tools you just have to experience. It allows you to search all of the files on your desktop machine and then perform useful actions on the results. This tool also has plenty of plug-ins that allow you to send emails, files, IMs, Twitter and Facebook updates, and much more. If it can be done, GNOME Do can do it.

9: Guake Terminal

Guake Terminal is one of the coolest additions to your terminal arsenal you will find. I do still use the terminal a lot (I'm old school, so I like the command line), and I like to have a terminal that's not in the way. Guake is a drop-down style terminal you open and close by hitting [F12]. The terminal simply drops down from the top of your desktop and then rolls back up when you are done. It's out of the way, quick to use, and will have you running commands faster than you can say grep!

10: Nautilus Actions

Nautilus Actions is an extension for the Nautilus file manager that allows programs and actions to be run from drop-down and right-click menus from within Nautilus. You can create custom actions to do just about anything. This is one of those enhancements that is limited only by your imagination. Once installed, you will find the Nautilus Actions Manager in System > Preferences > Nautilus Actions > Configuration. Once you start taking advantage of this tool, you will wonder how you ever survived using a PC without Actions.

More favorites?

There are so many ways to enhance the Linux desktop. Some focus primarily on aesthetics while others focus on functionality... and some even focus on both. If you are new to the Linux desktop, you should take your time and give some of these a try. If you are an old-hat Linux user but you have yet to try some of these add-ons, you owe it to yourself to see how far the Linux desktop can go. Either way, jump into the discussion and share your opinions on the ones you try.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

23 comments
no.no.no
no.no.no

Uh.. No.. "10 completely pointless GUI add-ons to a linux system that only a Windows user would give a damn about".

bruce.edge
bruce.edge

Forgot screen - that should be #1

Hamsjael
Hamsjael

Not very fancy, and no 3d effects and the like , but "CTRL + ALT + V" (gets the list at mouse cursor position) saves a LOT of time if you havegot a lot of strings (passwords etc) to throw around between diffrent apps. A real production enhancer, as opposed to all the eye-candy nonsense. regards Brian Simonsen

jhernandez
jhernandez

What about Real Sync with Smartphones? Like BB, I have to do several Ropes and tricks via google and finally isn?t Reliable.

e_ecruz
e_ecruz

When I read this comment I knew this guy was drinking some sort of kool-aid..."Not only is the default desktop a thing to behold" A thing to behold? The Louvre is a thing to behold, Machu Pichu is a thing to behold, The Vietnam Memorial is thing to behold, but a desktop? Really, your life must be very small whne you express your feelings in such a way. My boy, it is just a tool, an operating system, it is not the Mona Lisa. I am so sorry if you are a married man, your wife misses you!

lefty.crupps
lefty.crupps

These are all GNOME apps and options, other than the KDE Plasmoids at #7; Plasmoids maybe can be run under GNOME (not sure), but many of the others won't run under KDE, such as Cairo and Screenlets (afaik). Plus, in KDE there is no need for Compiz and Emerald, as KDE has KWin and plenty of theming options. So, if these are *must haves* yet we can only run some of these or others at the same time... Here is what you need: KDE4 KWin from KDE4 Plasmoids in KDE4 Yakuake for dropdown terminal Basket for notes KRunner [Alt][F2] for launching apps

zn_jf
zn_jf

This is a great list. Well done.

oz.n
oz.n

PLEASE DON"T RECOMMEND TOMBOY. IT'S A BLOAT WARE MADE IN MONO! There ARE many applications that do the tomboy tricks with out mono - examples are: 1. Gnote 2. ZIM 3. Red Wall and more ...

contrast
contrast

Nice article. One thing I think you left out is in order to get the full Compiz experience, users will need to install all the additional Compiz plug-in packages their distro offers, and more importantly, CompizConfig Settings Manager. Also, you might have mentioned KRunner, if only under Gnome Do's entry since it's basically the KDE equivalent; it offers a plethora of very useful plug-ins as well.

coprenicuz
coprenicuz

What is the problem with calling a spade a spade, or in this case a nice UI implementation a nice UI implementation. GIMP is a tool, and Photoshop is a tool. One is more elegant and helps get work done faster. UI matters and when people like me are trying to get Windows (and Mac) users over to Linux, it's programs like the ones listed that we use to show them that it can be a mature operating system. Go back under your bridge please.

Jaqui
Jaqui

GNOME or KDE doesn't matter, install both bloated U.I.'s and use the apps from both. no conflict. you can use gnome apps in KDE and KDE apps in Gnome. [ at least, KDE < 4 apps will run in GNOME for sure, KDE 4 should also. ] the problem is some people will not install anything from KDE others won't install anything from GNOME. apps need to be 100% desktop agnostic to be usable by everyone. and GNOME and KDE both have to different ways of doing just about everything for apps to be completely agnostic.

zeke123
zeke123

It would have taken a few words to mention that Kwin is what KDE uses instead Compiz (and its basically the same effects)

zeke123
zeke123

Gnote has been used by default on fedora since last year. Tomboy is an average app but the mono is not necessary and could easily be written without. Its funny that Gnome was started by radicals like De Icaza who didnt like KDE then because it thought the underlying Qt wasnt 'free' enough. A decade later, its now ok to do the same for hypocrites.

Hamsjael
Hamsjael

Not very fancy, and no 3d effects and the like , but "CTRL + ALT + V" (gets the list at mouse cursor position) saves a LOT of time if you havegot a lot of strings (passwords etc) to throw around between diffrent apps. A real production enhancer, as opposed to all the eye-candy nonsense. regards Brian Simonsen

lefty.crupps
lefty.crupps

You must not have read the article; very few of these are actually apps to use in both DEs.

Jaqui
Jaqui

Jack loves ubuntu, which is gnome centric. and KDE 4 made KDE a joke. no-one really appreciates KDE any more, it just isn't anywhere near as usable as it was.

Jaqui
Jaqui

garbage to the taskbar? or another of the idiotic plasmoids to the desktop, CLUTTERING IT EVEN MORE? not likely.

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

KRunner is so practical to launch application that I only use the menu (or kicker, or lancelot) to launch infrequently used applications. KRunner with all its plugins is a great time saver. I use it to do quick calculations, spell check words, type a persons name in my contacts list and open kmail' email editor to send a email to that person, search files, etc.

pgit
pgit

I add apps I use frequently (but not every day) to the "favorites" section of the menu. Stuff I do use every day I add to the panel. I have konsole, kwrite, firefox, thunderbird and pidgin down there. There's also several plasmoids to launch or organize apps with. For instance all the custom apps I have installed get a launcher (icon) in a single folder. (~/apps) Then one desktop has a folder view plasmoid on it set to show the contents of that folder. The result is a little window containing several icons for launching special-use or testing type apps. Numerous ways to skin the cat. I agree the option to put frequent, rather than recent apps on the top of the menu is desirable. I suspect if you filed a 'bug' requesting the feature it might be reinstated. But that alone doesn't look like a show stopper to me.

Jaqui
Jaqui

not when it won't allow you to set it to WORK FOR YOU instead of against you. case in point, the idiocy of not allowing the start menu to list most FREQUENTLY used apps any more, only the most recently used. that alone is a deal breaker. just because I had a once in 4 month need for an app does NOT mean it needs to be in the app list for ready use. instead, the apps used every day should be pin able there. oops, KDE > 3 doesn't let that happen any more. it has not made a single change that benefits my work, it has actually made work harder, just like GNOME itself does.

pgit
pgit

I agree KDE 4 is definitely headed in the right direction so far as innovating the use of a computer. But Gnome 3 blows the whole thing out of the water. Gnome 3 is as revolutionary as was windows was when released on a DOS world, it is that good. (of course in my opinion, and I'm a die hard KDE fan) Curious as to what distro you're on that uses that slightly 'older' KDE version? Sounds like something suse or debian might have in 'stable.'

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

I, no-one, like the KDE4 (using 4.3.5 now) very much, and consider it the best desktop environment I ever used. Current KDE4 versions are more usable than KDE3 ever was.