Issue #15 January 2006

All future, no shock: Customizing your Linux desktop

by Michael Behm

At the beginning of the 1970s, Western society thought that there was a lot to worry about. There was a war in south-east Asia that wasn't going at all well, there was something called a Cold War that—at any moment—could cause the third great extinction of life on the planet, the kids were out of control, every piece of technology you purchased was obsolete pretty much immediately, and there was a new book out, written by Alvin Toffler, called Future Shock.

Toffler said, in brief, that all of this change is only the beginning; the rate of change is accelerating and there is literally no end to it: people will go into a state of shock, the "future shock" of the book's title, unable to cope with the novelty of life in the technology age.

Now, a few decades later, we have an opportunity to judge Toffler's bold vision. There's a war in central Asia that isn't going at all well, there's something called asymmetrical warfare that at any moment could spread, the kids are out of control, every piece of technology you purchase is obsolete pretty much immediately...and yet we cope. We do not fear technological change; in fact, we seek it out.

Toffler possibly confused different types of novelty. Certainly there is the frustrating novelty of new technologies that do not behave the way that you expect, but there is also the novelty of expression that reflects you as an individual, and the novelty of customization by which you adjust your environment to make it comfortable to you, and your technologies to help you achieve your goals. It is the latter type of novelty that we will look at here: how you customize Linux to meet your needs.

The instructions that follow are for the GNOME desktop. In some cases the KDE desktop has similar, but not identical, functions.

Changing the background

The most obvious way to personalize your system is to change the system's background:

  1. Right-click on the desktop, and select Change Desktop Background.

  2. In the dialog that appears, you may choose one of the available backgrounds, or click Add Wallpaper to add a picture of your own.

    If you add your own picture and it does not match your screen's aspect ratio (which is probably 1280:1024 or 1.25:1), choose Style: Centered. If the picture does match the aspect ratio, you can experiment with the results of setting Style: Centered and Style: Fill Screen.

  3. Click Close.

Making applications readily available

When you click on Applications you take the first step towards finding applications on a dozen submenus. Inevitably, some of the applications on those submenus will be tools that you need on a regular basis, so you will likely want to make them more readily available.

Adding an application to the desktop

One way to make an application easy to launch is to drag it from its Applications submenu and drop it on your desktop. For example, I have selected Applications → Graphics → GIMP Image Editor and dragged that menu item to my desktop.

It works perfectly. Well, perfectly—except that I don't like the "don't pencil" addition to the icon, and when I right-click on the icon and select Properties, I discover that I cannot edit the name of the icon. It seems that I do not "own" this application launcher.

One solution is to create a new launcher, make it look the way I want, and configure it to launch GIMP. To do that, I:

  1. Right-click on a blank area of the desktop and choose Create Launcher.
  2. In the dialog that opens, I fill in the Name field ("GIMP") and the Command field, the contents of which I took from the original icon's Properties → Launcher → Command field ("gimp-remote-2.0 %U"). If I intended to ever move the icon into the task bar at the top of the window, I would also fill in the Generic Name and Comment fields (the text in these fields appears when you hover over an icon in the task bar).
  3. Click on the No Icon button and in the dialog that appears, select gimp.png.
  4. Click OK. This places the launcher on the desktop.
  5. Right-click on the previous launcher and select Move to Trash.

Adding an application to the toolbar

There might be applications that you use as a group, but infrequently. For example, say that you are a web designer and you design for Firefox, but want to test your pages on other browsers. Ideally, you would put these browsers on a submenu that you could access easily. Here is one way to do that:

  1. Right-click on a toolbar and select Add to Panel.
  2. In the dialog that appears, select Drawer and click Add.
  3. Right-click on the new Drawer on the toolbar and select Add to Drawer.
  4. Select Application Launcher, then click Forward.
  5. Click on the arrow beside Internet, select Firefox Web Browser, and click Add.
  6. Click on the drawer, then click on the Firefox icon.
  7. When Firefox launches, click Help → About Mozilla Firefox. Note the release level.
  8. Click on the drawer to display the Firefox icon again, right-click on it, then select Properties.
  9. In the Comment field, replace Browse the Web with the release level (say, 1.0.4).
  10. Click Close.

Next, add another application. If you have downloaded the Opera Web Browser v. 8.51:

  1. Right-click on the Drawer on the toolbar and select Add to Drawer.
  2. Select Custom Application Launcher, then click Add.
  3. In the Create Launcher dialog, type:
    1. Name: Opera Web Browser
    2. Comment: 8.51
    3. /usr/bin/opera %u
    4. Click the button labeled No icon, select the opera.xpm icon, and click OK.
    5. Click Close.

    The drawer now contains two browsers. You can add other applications as required.

  4. Right-click on the Drawer and select Move. You can drag the icon anywhere you want on the toolbar. Click to place it there.

Making useful applets available

There are some useful single-function applications (applets) that you can add to your toolbars:

  1. Right-click on a toolbar and select Add to Panel.

  2. Choose the applets you want to put in your toolbar:

    • A customized set of characters Inserting accented characters: If you have a US-layout keyboard, you cannot easily insert accented characters. If you want to be able to write résumé rather than resume, and naïve rather than naive, select Character Palette and click Add. To insert a character from the applet, click on the character, then middle-click in the application where you want to insert the character. (To "middle-click", press the left- and right-mouse buttons at the same time.)

      You can display other accented characters by clicking the down arrow at the left of the character display. To learn how to edit the default display, right-click on the applet and select Help.

    • Searching for systemtap on Google Having a command line without opening a terminal: If you do not always have a terminal window open but want a fast way to access a command line, select Command Line and click Add.

      This applet also enables you to enter:

      • google:topic  to search for topic using Google.
      • yahoo:topic  to search for topic using Yahoo.
      • dictionary:word  to look up word.

    • Looking up a word Dedicated dictionary lookup: If you access a dictionary frequently, you can have a dedicated dictionary field, rather than just the general-purpose command line described above: select Dictionary and click Add.

    • Making a note Sticky Notes: If you need temporary reminders on your desktop ("Haircut at 6:00"), select Sticky Notes and click Add. If you would prefer a note color that is different than the default, right-click on the Sticky Notes icon and select Properties. In the preferences dialog, de-select Use color from system theme and click on Note Color. Use the color wheel or type in a value (such as #FBFFDD) and click OK, then Close.

    • The weather in Toronto Weather: If you want to know what the weather is like outside, you will probably just look at a local web cam. However, if you want a more detailed understanding of local conditions, select Weather Report. To configure this applet for measurement units and location, right-click on the applet and choose Preferences. The General tab's settings enable you to select the measurement units, and the Location tab enables you to choose the place. Click Close when you are done. When you hover over the applet, it reports the location and gives a brief summary.

      If you are planning to travel, you may want to open a second weather applet to monitor the weather patterns at your destination.


If you are not the system administrator for your machine, it is possible that there have been configuration changes that prevent you from implementing the changes described here. To see if this has happened:

  1. In a terminal, enter the command:
  2. Where you look to see configuration settings varies according to the problems the system is experiencing:

    • If applets do not appear in the panel: in the Configuration Editor dialog, select apps → panel → global, then see if the right panel shows disabled_applets OAFIID:GNOME_ShowDesktopApplet. This would prevent applets from appearing in the panel, but may not prevent them from appearing in the Add Applet dialog.

    • If only the command-line applet is not available: in the Configuration Editor dialog, select desktop → gnome → lockdown, then see if the right panel shows disable_command_line as checked.

  3. If you see either of the above settings, talk to your system administrator.

About the author

Michael Behm is a technical writer at Red Hat.