Open Source

Five tips for a more efficient Linux desktop

Linux offers scads of ways to keep your desktop organized, efficient, and under control. Jack Wallen shares a few simple -- but incredibly effective -- efficiency tricks.

For me, the Linux desktop is all about being efficient. Yes, I do enjoy the eye candy as well. But having an incredibly efficient desktop just makes for much faster, more reliable work. And much to the surprise of most users, Linux should be hailed as the king of desktop efficiency. There are many ways to have an efficient desktop in Linux, but I have narrowed the list down to these five tips. Even if you employ only a couple of these techniques, your desktop experience will become far more efficient.

1: The pager

I am always shocked at how few people actually use the Linux pager. It's been around forever and has always served the same functionality -- it offers the user multiple desktops to keep the desktop better organized. I employ the pager like this: With four workspaces, I dedicate each workspace to a different use. My layout looks like this:

  • Desktop 1 is for networking tools.
  • Desktop 2 is for writing/office tools.
  • Desktop 3 is for graphics or video.
  • Desktop 4 is for miscellaneous items.

This layout pretty much covers it for me. I'm sure you could find a four-desktop scheme that would better suit your needs.

2: Window management

The desktop can get cluttered with windows. You can minimize open windows, but then you wind up with a window list full -- sometimes to the point that you can't even read what minimized window is what. I like to take advantage of the Shade (or roll up) feature of my window manager. All I have to do is double-click the title bar of the window manager and the window rolls up like a window shade into the title bar. This way I always know what window is what and can better organize those windows so it's easier to work.

3: Keyboard shortcuts

If you haven't taken advantage of keyboard shortcuts on Linux, you don't know what you're missing. Both major desktop environments (GNOME and KDE) offer plenty of preconfigured keyboard shortcuts, and you can create your own keyboard shortcuts, too. As any power user will tell you, the less your fingers leave the keys the more efficient your work will be.

4: Drawers

One of the nice features of the GNOME panel is that you can add drawers. These drawers are slide-out menus where you can place just about any icon or applet you need. Do this instead of having a desktop full of icons, and you won't be wasting so much time searching. You can take this one step further and create different drawers for different types of apps. You can have a drawer for your most-used office apps, a drawer for most-used social apps, etc. This scheme is often more efficient than going through the menu hierarchy.

5: Folder organization

This one gets away from users all the time. Modern Linux distributions have the HOME directory (~/) laid out in perfect, logical sense. You will find:

  • Desktop
  • Documents
  • Downloads
  • Pictures
  • Music
  • Public
  • Templates
  • Videos

If you maintain this hierarchy and actually put files in their proper place, you'll find yourself spending less and less time relying on search tools. A poorly organized folder/file system will lead to more wasted time than you can image. I even like to add subfolders to the hierarchy that will help me keep my system as organized as possible. This standardization on the Linux desktop has come a long way and it's where it is for a reason: It works.

Easy improvements

There you go. Five quick and dirty ways to keep your Linux desktop efficient and organized. Give these tips a try and see how much they help. You'll be surprised at how little you have to do to make your Linux desktop experience amazingly efficient. And if you have any favorite tips of your own, share them with other members in the discussion.

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


Most of these recommendations apply to Windows as well. Following them will require adding a couple of pieces, but there are no-charge equivalents to pager, shade, and drawers. Keyboard shortcuts and proper folder management apply regardless of OS from netbooks all the way to mainframes.


Coolris is a handy web page previewer for Firefox. I've added my OpenSuse "Application Browser" app that lists a number of applications not on the menus. I do like folder organization. I create sub-folders under the main folders Documents/Playlists, Music/Podcasts, etc, I've kept some old folders as needed Progams/, Projects/MySQL, ToDo/Linux, Downloads/ISOs, etc.


We usually work on one type of thing at a time; I write blog posts, letters or documentation when I'm in a verbally creative mood, quite different to doing research on the Internet or coding. I find it best to use: 1: whatever I'm working on (primary) 2: Internet stuff (browser, IM, IRC) 3: file mngmt (file manager, Terminal) 4: background stuff I want to push out the way for a while When writing a letter, for example, I'd have a word processor on 1 and some other document open on 4 to flip back to. The file manager I opened it from would be left on 3 while chats to someone in the background on 2. It's the 1-to-4 flip that works particularly well, and if I want anything else the occasional 3-to-4 flip. That may sound really anal, but it's how I roll...

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

0- general internet; email, browser.. 1- longterm; system stats windows, long processes like a running John job.. 2- variable; multimedia stuff if watching/listening, OpenVAS and similar GUI windows if doing security stuff, whatever other adhoc collection makes sense 3- shells and cli stuff; usually four open and waiting if not in use, whatever tasks work best with multiple visible cli Less than four desktops feels restrictive and cluttered for me though I've never really had reason to go beyond four desktops. This may be due to my use of the arrow keys to switch desktops. I can easily push myself between a four way split with a max of two arrows. The mouse is inherently slow. crtl+tab means more than a command key and two directional taps. command+num usually means odd hand gymnastics.


I used Ubuntu as my exclusive home OS for about three years before finally figuring out what the switcher was good for, and having once done so, I quickly found I could hardly live without it. So, at work (with the help of Vista-XP Virtual Desktop 0.91, since they still insist on using Windows there,) I split: 1: Outlook & Firefox, occasionally IE or Chrome. 2: Lotus Notes (Yes, we are still supporting Lotus Domino databases) 3: SQL tools (Toad, Oracle SQL developer) 4: Application tools (Eclipse, Oracle Forms etc.) At home (on Ubuntu) I generally make do with two: 1. Firefox & Thunderbird 2. Open Office, the GIMP, Audacity etc. Switcher works way better than the Windows add on, 'cause it is way easier to move a window to a different desktop, if it gets opened on the wrong one. With the Windows add on, maybe it moves and maybe it doesn't. Still, it's better than being stuck with a single desktop.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I've yet to find a virtual desktop utility that didn't have issue with opening multiple browser windows. I've seen IE jump from where the first window was opened to the current desktop and similar.. it works if it's all you got but it's still an after market kludge. Mind you, few things don't work better as integrated design decisions; virtual desktops, security.. At work I end up with a full taskbar and stack of windows to alt-tab through. At home, the virtual desktops help.

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