Building The Perfect GNOME Workstation

Wednesday Mar 8th 2006 by Carla Schroder

If you want to use Linux for your network command post, GNOME is flexible efficient. Here are some tweaks to get you started.

Last week we took a look at some interesting and useful tasks to perpetrate upon an unsuspecting Fedora installation, including how to do a bare-metal network installation. Excellent reader Earl Robinson pointed out that this works all right for a single PC, but multiple installations need a local mirror, so he sent this great suggestion for easily setting up multiple local installations:

"Download the DVD iso, preferably using bittorrent... Once you've got the whole thing, check the md5/sha1 sig... Then mount it using the loop device on /var/ftp/pub on your second machine. All you †have to do is turn on the vsftp daemon, and you can use the network installer to install over your LAN."

Mounting .isos is easy:

# mount -t iso9660 -o ro,loop FC4-i386-DVD.iso /var/ftp/pub

Slick and quick, and less work than maintaining a real Fedora mirror. See the Red Hat Installation Guide (Resources) for more information.

Customizing GNOME
GNOME is customizable in hundreds of ways, so you can set it up to be both aesthetically pleasing and efficient. You don't have to be stuck with the stock installation; that's just a starting point. Sometimes all it takes is a few tweaks to increase your productivity and comfort.

The Easy Way: Ubuntu
The Ubuntu team has done a marvelous job of customizing GNOME into a pleasing, useful configuration. There are a large number of small refinements, such as menu organization and package selection. For me the #1 nice thing is how it morphed the Nautilus file manager into a useful default state, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1. Ubuntu's Improved Nautilus
(Click for a larger image)
It's in a proper tree view, with directories on the left and files on the right, proper toolbars and menus, and none of this "Spatial Mode" guff where every directory opens in a new window. Turning this on or off easy to manage, once you know the secret configuration method. Go to System Tools -> Configuration Editor and find apps/nautilus/preferences/ and un-check the always_use_browser key to turn on the Spatial Mode. Log out of GNOME, then log back in to activate the change.

What if you want it both ways, so you can open some directories in a separate window, but not others? Turn on Spatial Mode, then double-click with the middle mouse button to open folders in the same window. Double-left click to open a directory in a new window.

Alacarte Menu Editor
Having customized menus can be a real time-saver, plus it's good to have a tool for fixing broken menu items. Ubuntu comes with Smeg, Alacarte's ancestor. Get rid of Smeg and install Alacarte. On Ubuntu, download and install the .deb:

# sudo dpkg -i alacarte_0.8-0ubuntu1_all.deb

It removes Smeg for you. On Fedora, Alacarte is included in Extras, so all you need is yum install alacarte.

Creating a custom menu is easy. Fire up Alacarte (Accessories -> Alacarte Menu Editor), then File -> New Menu. Enter whatever name you want, like Carla, then click Icon. This browses /usr/share/pixmaps. If you don't find something you like, do a Web search for "gnome icons", or use something like Babygimp to create your own. You may use any image you want, as long as you export it to .png format and make it 48x48 pixels in size. Place it in /usr/share/pixmaps, and the menu editor will find it.

Figure 2. Custom menus in Alacarte
(Click for a larger image)
Your new menu will not go live until you put at least one program in it, so make sure your new menu is highlighted in the left pane, and click File -> New Entry, and add a new program, like in Figure 2:

You don't have to enter the full file path to the executable, as long as it's in your path, but I like to anyway. How do you find the filepath? You can use the Alacarte "Browse" button, which is slow if you don't already know where to look. A quicker way is to open a terminal and use the which command:

$ which mahjongg

Alacarte does not yet have a way to copy existing items from other menus, but you can move them easily enough, just drag n drop.

How do you fix broken menu items? Right-click any menu or individual item, then click Properties.

Selecting A New Theme
Both Fedora and Ubuntu's default themes are OK, but what fun is sticking with the defaults? Put your own mark on your computer. Preferences -> Theme lets you preview, select, and install new ones. The Internet is cram-full of themes of all kinds; a couple of good sites to start with are and

You may use any picture for your desktop background- right-click anywhere on a blank spot on the desktop and click "Change Desktop Background."

Changing Fonts
A surprising number of users don't know that you can adjust screen font sizes. Use Preferences -> Font to adjust window and menu fonts. In Nautilus, Ctrl+ makes fonts bigger, Ctrl- makes them smaller, and Ctrl0 (zero) takes you back to the default.

All Web browsers can adjust font sizes on the fly. In Firefox it's just the same as in Nautilus.

Customizing the Panel
GNOME's panels are great for customizing a number of useful tasks, like program icons and various system monitors. Anything already on the panel can be removed by right-clicking it and selecting "Remove from panel." Adding items is done by right-clicking a blank spot to bring up the panel menu. You can even add new panels, until your screen is full and there is no room to work.

Startup Programs
When you use the same applications all the time, why not have them start at login? Use the Preferences -> Sessions -> Startup Programs tab. If you don't know the right command, for example you want Firefox to startup when you login, remember to use which firefox to find it. Or you can right-click to see the Properties on existing menu items, and copy them.

Removeable Media
Some folks like completely automatic behavior for USB storage devices, cameras, printers, scanners, drawing tablets, and CD/DVDs. Some folks would rather click a button. Suit yourself by configuring Preferences -> Removeable Drives and Media.

Linux Riches
For all the Linux users out there who haven't yet taken the time to explore the riches that are already in your hands, you're missing out. Linux is thousands of times more customizable than any other computing platform. Don't be afraid to experiment- it's a lot of fun, and the worst you can do is bork your installation so badly it needs to be re-installed. Which is no big deal, because on Linux you don't have to phone home to massa for permission to use your own stuff. Be sure to visit the Web forums and mail lists for your distribution; that's where you'll find the best help, and tips and tricks.


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