SolutionBase: Getting to know GNOME

Linux has come a long way from the early, oft-crashing days. GNOME is now one of the primary desktops for the Linux operating system; not only is it highly customizable, but it is amazingly stable. Jack Wallen explains why Linux -- running GNOME -- is a viable desktop alternative.

I was present at the very first unveiling of GNOME at the Linux Expo at Duke University; it was pretty amazing at the time to see a new Linux desktop. This was version .30; as of this writing, GNOME is at 2.18.1. It has come a long way from the early, oft-crashing days. Even though GNOME doesn't have the same look and feel as it did in its early, ground-breaking days, GNOME is now one of the primary desktops for the Linux operating system. If you've never given GNOME a try, I'm confident that you will after reading this article.

Author's note

For the purposes of this article, I'll be running GNOME from a fresh install of Ubuntu 7.0.4 (Feisty Fawn) with the following hardware specs:

  • AMD 2800+ processor
  • 528 MB RAM
  • Via Technology integrated VT8378 video

Obviously, this machine is no powerhouse, but GNOME is as snappier than any Windows install that has been on the same machine.

What's GNOME?

If you're of the 95 percent of the world that uses Windows, you know what a GUI is, but because you're running Windows, you're stuck with only one -- the GUI Microsoft forces you to use. In the Linux world, you can choose pretty much any GUI for your desktop. GNOME is one of the most popular desktops available, although you've probably heard of other ones such as KDE or Enlightenment.

GNOME is the default GUI for most of the major Linux distributions, including Red Hat, SuSE, and Ubuntu. Even if your chosen distribution doesn't natively come with GNOME, you can easily install it. It rides on top of the Linux X Windows services, so almost any product that uses X can run GNOME.

If your distribution uses KDE or another window manager by default, you can switch to GNOME by simply logging off. When the login screen appears, select Session and then GNOME; then, log in as normal. You'll get the default GNOME screen, just like other Linux users.

The Desktop

Take a look at Figure A: this is the default GNOME desktop (with a few minimized windows). The layout is simple: At the bottom of the screen, you'll see a GNOME panel configured to serve primarily as a window list where minimized windows can live. You will also see the Show Desktop button, the Workspace Switcher, and the Trashcan. At the top of the desktop, you will see another GNOME panel configured to serve as an application launcher, menu system, and system tray.

Figure A

This default desktop is somewhat reminiscent of the Apple desktop, but much more configurable.

Let's take a look at the GNOME panel. I'll show you how it's configured.

GNOME panel

The GNOME panel is, for the most part, a typical panel application. You can add items to the panel, configure, remove, and even report problems with the panel. All of these actions are done via a right-mouse click on the panel. When you right-click the panel, you'll see a new menu open, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

Ensure you click on an empty space in the panel to get this menu.

Let's take a look at the properties of the panel. Select Properties from the Panel configuration menu. The Panel Properties window allows you to configure the look, location, and action of the panel.

Suppose you want to configure your panel to be transparent. You can do this by pressing the Background tab, selecting Solid Color, and then sliding the Style slider all the way to the left. The changes happen in real time, so there's no need to preview or press an OK button. Figure C shows the results of having a transparent panel.

Figure C

The panel is still there, right-click on it to bring up the configuration menu.

From the General tab within the Panel Properties window, you can also change the arrangement of the panel (Top, Right, Bottom, or Left), change the size of the panel, or change the hiding options.

Now take a look at the bottom panel. You can configure the bottom panel in the same manner you configured the top panel. The only difference between these two panels is the applets added to each. You could, effectively, create an identical panel on the bottom as you have on the top. That is one of the most appealing aspects of GNOME -- its configurability. Granted, the GNOME developers assume their default setup is the most usable setup.

There will be instances when screen real estate might dictate only one panel on your desktop. This is simple:

  • Remove the bottom panel by right-clicking the panel and selecting Delete This Panel.
  • Right-click the top panel to open up the Add To Panel window.
  • Press the WindowList button and drag it to the Panel.

The WindowList applet is now a part of the top panel. Do the same for the Show Desktop button, the Switch Workspace applet, and the Trashcan, and you have all of the default attributes in one panel.

You can also add application buttons to the panel by pressing the Application Launcher button. Once in this window shown in Figure D, navigate to the application you want to add and press the Add button.

Figure D

Press the arrow to expand the categories to locate your application.

The Desktop

One of the first things you'll notice about the GNOME desktop is how clean it is. If you're used to looking at a Windows XP desktop, you expect to see My Computer, My Documents, and other icons. With GNOME, there are no icons, but that's easy to resolve. Right-click the desktop to reveal the only desktop menu available, shown in Figure E. Select Create Launcher from that list.

Figure E

This same menu is where you would line up your desktop icons once they are created.

Once the Create Launcher option is selected, the Create Launcher window will open. You can create three types of launchers: Application, Application In Terminal, and File. The Application is exactly what you would think it to be: a launcher to open up an application. The Application in Terminal creates a launcher for an application that must be run within a terminal session (top for example). The type File allows you to create a launcher to open a file.

Let's say you want to create a launcher for The Gimp. To do this, create a launcher with the following details:

  • Type: Application
  • Name: The Gimp
  • Command: gimp
  • Comment: Manipulate images with The GIMP

Figure F shows what this looks like in the Create Launcher window.

Figure F

You could use the browse button to find the application you want to associate with your icon.

Once your icon is complete, it will appear on your desktop.

GNOME applications

There are a number of applications unique to GNOME; one such application is the Nautilus file browser, shown in Figure G. Although this browser is not nearly as powerful as KDE's Konqueror browser, it does have its benefits.

Figure G

It will take a while to discover all of the nifty options available with this file browser.

One of the best options available to Nautilus is the ease of burning CDs: Much like OS X's ability in iTunes, simply drop your items into the Burn folder and press the Write to Disk button. There are two ways to do this. The first -- and more troublesome -- way is to open a second instance of Nautilus. On the first instance of Nautilus, select the Go menu (from the top) and then select your CD (or DVD) burner. You will now have a Nautilus instance open for burning. Now go to the second Nautilus instance and navigate to the folders you want to burn. Drag-and-drop those folders to the other instance of Nautilus in the Burn window. Now, with a writeable CD (or DVD) in the drive, select Write To Disk to burn the disk.

There is an easier way: Open up an instance of Nautilus and open the burn window; navigate to the files you want to burn (via the tree view in the left pane); right-click the file (or folder) you want to burn and select Copy; right-click in the Burn window and select Paste; and select Write To Disk to burn the disk. You are effectively doing the same thing, but are bypassing the need to have the second instance of Nautilus open.

Here's a brief description of other GNOME packages:

  • Evolution: Evolution is an amazing application. It's the Outlook of Linux.
  • GNUMERIC: GNUMERIC is the GNOME spreadsheet application. It's fully featured, but not as much of a resource hog as a full office suite.
  • gThumb: An outstanding thumbnail image viewer.
  • gFTP: One of the best FTP clients available.
  • Pan: Feature-rich newsgroup reader.
  • GAIM: GNOME AOL Instant Messenger client. You can use it to communicate with friends who are running AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Jabber, and other instant messenger programs.
  • Rhythmbox: Music player used to play and organize your music collection.
  • GQView: Image viewing application with support for nearly every image type.

Beautifying GNOME

You probably like to customize your GUI environment to fit your aesthetic needs. You can do this easily with GNOME, and will have more options than a Windows user.

Select the System menu (from the Panel) and then select Preferences. From the Preferences menu, select Theme, which opens the Theme Preferences window, as shown in Figure H.

Figure H

Naturally, the Ubuntu default theme is named "Human".

If you select Customize, you'll notice a number of options. The difference between Controls and Window Boarder is that Controls configures what is inside the window and Window Board configures the boarders and title bars around the window.

To install a new theme, go to the official GNOME Theme site, download a theme, and drag it into the Theme preferences window. Once the theme is installed, it will appear at the top of the list and be labeled Custom Theme. Save that theme -- and rename it -- by pressing the Save Theme button. You can then go in and customize to your heart's content.

Final thoughts

GNOME is one of the best Linux GUIs; not only is it highly customizable, but it is amazingly stable. The widgets are stable and fast, the applications are robust and user friendly, and configuration couldn't be easier. So if you're using the Linux operating system, or just trying to decide if the Linux OS desktop is for you, give GNOME a try; it just might sell you on Linux as a viable desktop alternative.