Openbox – a lightweight uber-flexible desktop for Linux

Yes, I did describe Openbox as uber-flexible, and that’s because it really is uberly flexible.

Out-of-the-box Openbox is very minimalistic, but that also means it is very fast! Uber-fast you might say.

You get the window manager and a right-click menu and that’s about it.

Aside from these, the desktop is yours to embellish as you wish.

Obconf is the application included with Openbox to configure the window manager.

The menu has to be edited in a text file, but you can add any application you want to it, even crazy command lines or  shell scripts which launch a complex series of commands if you really want to.

Install Obmenu and you have a funky little menu editor that returns you to the world of point-and-click.

If you have even a just skerrick of artisitic creativity, then the Openbox environment provides a blank canvas for you to prettify your desktop with the likes of Conky and Covergloobus.

Observe below the works of Openbox-based desktop art created by some very creative computerators – all linked from Deviantart.

Browse under Customizations – Desktop Screenshots – Unix & Linux and filter your results with the keyword ‘Openbox‘ to see many more examples.

While you’re browsing, you’ll undoubtedly be flabbergasted, as I was, at the fact that the presumably nerdy guys who are making this desktop art all seem to have hot-looking girlfriends on their desktops in various states of undress.

I really don’t know how they get away with that – my hot looking wife wouldn’t be so keen to let me put a piccy of her in only a bra ‘n’ panties on my desktop, and then post a screenshot online for gazillions of teenage nerds to drool over, but maybe that’s just me eh?

Wait a minute, maybe those girls aren’t really their girlfriends!

Maybe those nerds look as scruffy as I do and have as much chance of finding a hot girlfriend for their desktops as I did before I became rich, famous and uber-suave.

Ah, the fickleness of youth…

But back to Openbox for a moment longer.

Browse the Openbox website for cool things to add to your desktop.

Experiment a bit to find the panels, pagers, desktop icons, launch bars, docks, widgets and wallpaper switchers which sit best with your visual style.

I’m fond of Tint2 as a panel, Stalonetray as a system tray which integrates with the panel, BBPager as a desktop pager/switcher, Nitrogen as a wallpaper switcher and Conky for my desktop clock.

But I’m constantly experimenting with my setup to try to make it look ultra uber-nice.

That last desktop above might look the plainest, but, to my mind, it has the nicest layout and aesthetic of the four.

Most popular distros of Linux will have Openbox and an assortment of panels, pagers and so on in their  repositories, but if you want a dedicated Openbox-based distro, check out the Debian derived CrunchBang Linux.

The strength of Openbox is its ability to be customized. This comes at the price of swift changes, though, with most configuration details still confined to the manual editing of text files.

But the investment required to build the the desktop of your dreams, is well worth it. Just switch wallpapers, icons and fonts every now and then if you crave variety.

The result is a beautiful, fast, light-weight and extremely personalized environment for you to work in.

Rather than being dictated as to how you should use your desktop, you can decide on a workflow that best suits your own needs and pimp it out to reflect  your personality.

In my opinion, Openbox drives users to develop a closer affinity with their machine.

Forget about Apple Zealots, bring on the Openbox uber-zealots!

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Oh Gnome 3, you’re beautiful!

I’m sorry to say it for all of you Unity/Gnome 3 haters out there, but following up on my post about Ubuntu Unity, I have to make the public statement that my favourite Linux Desktop is now Gnome 3!

It’s just SO DAMN EASY TO USE!

Yes, I’ve had to adjust the way I use my desktop, but now I virtually don’t have to click my mouse anymore – at least I click it far less than any other desktop I’ve ever used.

I’m not talking about becoming a devotee of the purely keyboard driven interface paradigm, either.

I’m so used to just sliding my mouse to the top left corner of the screen in Gnome 3 that I do it automatically in whatever environment I’m working in – Unity/Windows/Mac OS X.

  • I wanna change to another app – slide to top left, click on app.
  • I wanna change to another desktop – slide to top, left click on desktop.
  • I wanna launch an app – slide to top left, type app name, hit enter.

Slide, slide, slide – sliding has smoothed out my workflow. It has changed in these major ways:

1) I hardly use Alt + Tab anymore to switch between windows – instead I slide to the top right & click OR I slide to the right and click on the app in the right hand dock.

2) I use multiple desktops HEAPS more than I ever have before. I group similar applications on a desktop and switch between them using the methods above.

When an app has focus, I use Shift + Ctrl + Alt + Up or Down to move the app to the desired desktop.

I know many of you will have used this methodology for years, but for me it is just so much easier to do in Gnome 3.

3) I hardly ever use the Menu anymore. Yes I installed the Applications Menu extension to make it easier to find apps in a menu interface, but it is just as quick to slide top left or hit the Alt key and enter the text of the app if I know it.

Drawbacks

Having sung Gnome 3’s praises, I do have to admit that all is not sunshine and lemonade, folks.

Gnome 3, in Ubuntu at least, pops up message boxes announcing that something has crashed very frequently, usually upon first startup.

These crashes do not seem to affect my ability to use Gnome 3, though. It rarely actually freezes the whole system. Only Firefox seems to freeze up at all regularly, and I think that is usually because of the Adobe flash player plugin.

I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always judge something by your first reaction to it.

Ubuntu Unity has won me over at last!

I’ve been a Linux user since about 1999. Good old Red Hat Linux eh? KDE 1, Gnome 1, WindowMaker, compiling my own kernels, Linux From Scratch, despairing because there used to be no drivers for sound cards, or video cards etc, (not so anymore).

Eventually I stopped fiddling with Linux as a toy and I just wanted a computer system that I could install easily and where everything just worked. No I didn’t buy a Mac, I tried a few Linux distros and finally settled on Ubuntu 4:10 Warty Warthog.

It was great. All my hardware just worked out of the box, no configuration necessary. I had all of the free apps I needed to do the stuff I do with a computer. With some tweaking I could even get rid of the ugly browns of Ubuntu and make it look real pretty too.

And Ubuntu uses Gnome, or at least it used to, until Natty Narwhal Ubuntu 11.04, where Gnome was replaced by the default Ubuntu Unity interface.

My first impression was: “Yuck! They’ve ruined Ubuntu. Those doomsayers were right when they said Linux would fracture and destroy itself just like Unix did.”

I love Gnome. I’ve tried KDE, but every single time I’ve tried it, I would have at least one application crash, sometimes even the whole desktop would hang irretrievably. Guys at my work use Kubuntu and they said it was now really stable, so I tried the latest Kubuntu (11:10). It must be my hardware, but nope, KDE still had an app crash within my first half hour of using it. I still don’t like KDE.

So I Tried the new Gnome 3 Shell in Ubuntu 11:10. Again, My first impression was: “Yuck. What have they done? They’ve dumbed it down so much that only pensioners can appreciate it!”

Then I read a little about why they had made the changes and one thing struck me. On the Gnome 3 website it has this to say:

“Every part has been carefully crafted to give it a harmonious, beautiful, look and to make it simple and easy-to-use.”

The philosophy for the changes to Gnome are, in part to give it a consistent look and feel across the board, like users experience when they use Windows or OS X.  This made me stop and think. I guess that’s a good idea. So I gave it another try. Nope, still horrible to use. Where are the menus? I hate the way you have to find apps by clicking multiple buttons or typing the name of the app into a search box. What if I don’t know its name?

I guess I would have to use the fallback mode in Gnome with its classic menus, but Gnome has changed so much that even classic mode is now annoying to use.

Then I discovered Gnome Shell Extensions.  Damn these are a good idea! They include an old style Applications Menu too!

Wow! Actually Gnome 3 might be OK after all. All I really wanted back was my old style menu system so I can quickly access apps with 2 mouse clicks instead of 4, or 5 or having to type in text. Once I had my menu back, I started to relax a little and look around at the changes.

Surprisingly, I liked what I saw. And I thought to myself. I think I’ll give Gnome Shell more of a chance.

So I logged off my Ubuntu 11.10 with Gnome Shell plus extensions for the night. Next Morning I logged in again and Gnome Shell would not work at all.

Blast! I’m sick of this. I just want a desktop that is easy to install and just works WITH A MENU!

So I installed Ubuntu 11:04 again and decided to try the Xubuntu Desktop. But before I did, I played around with Unity one more time. The first thing I did was look for a menu to add to the panel. I found one and then I played around with Unity.

And by golly, once I had my menu, it was as if my eyes had been opened for the first time to a wonderful new world.

After a little fiddling about and playing with configuration settings, such as making the Unity sidebar smaller (32 pixels wide instead of 48) and setting it so that it does not auto hide, I quickly started to feel at home.

Results. Unity is really nice!

Ubuntu have gone out on a limb with Unity and at first I hated it – but that was because my precious Applications Menu had been removed. Give me that back and I am as happy as a pig in mud. And trust me, I’ve lived on a small hobby pig farm and pigs do like mud.

I’m even of a mind to try Gnome Shell again. I think these new interfaces have a lot to offer and I’m now a convert.

So if you’re an Ubuntu user and you don’t like Unity or Gnome Shell, my advice to you is this: ask yourself why you don’t like it, and try to find a solution to your dislikes in Unity or Gnome Shell. There are a lot of new features to be found now that these desktops are a bit more mature. If you find a suitable solution, your initial prejudices may be swept away like mine were.