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Customize Your Linux Desktop

Updated: 20-Jun-2013

In this article, we'll describe some of the ways you can customize your Linux desktop. We'll start with the simple, and progress to a few of the more advanced things you can do. Well actually, for veteran Linux users, what we call "more advanced" will be more "intermediate" than truly advanced. Even so, we're sure we'll have something in here for everyone. For our audio episodes discussing this topic, and for links to some of the ideas we discuss, take a look at the show notes for Episodes 203 and 212. You might also look at our article on Customizing the Ubuntu 7.10 Gnome 2.20 Desktop.

Customizing the Linux desktop

Although you can do some basic tweaking out of the box with other operating systems, Linux is infinitely more configurable than Mac or Windows. Sure you can get add-on software to customize your Windows desktop quite a bit, but Linux provides the tools right out of the box, with additional utilities just a few clicks away in your distribution's repositories. What makes Linux so much more flexible is that is is designed to be that way, and there is so much that you can do, we'll only be scratching the surface. So feel free to search on your own for other articles from other sources, like your distribution's forums to get more ideas.

So, what can you do with Linux? From simply changing the background image (wallpaper) or menu position, to making your desktop a virtual "dashboard" for displaying the health and performance of your computer's hardware, Linux can do it. You can even revamp the Linux desktop to make it look and behave convincingly like Max OSX or Windows 7. We're not sure why you'd want to, but you can.

Before we can describe how to make the changes on your desktop, we need to know WHICH desktop you have. That's right! There are many desktop environments for Linux and each is configured in a different way. We can't cover them all so we'll limit our discussion to some of the most popular desktop environments. If we miss your favorite, this article will at least give you some ideas as to what can be done, and it will be up to you to expore on your own how you can configure your system to make it look and work they way you want it to. We'll limit our discussion to KDE4, MATE, and Cinnamon. Of course, since you can install multiple desktop environments simultaneously, you can have an entirely different desktop experience by simply logging-out, and logging-in with a different desktop.

The basics: Changing the desktop background

Most desktop environments allow you to change the background image (wallpaper) by right-clicking on the desktop itself, then selecting the appropriate option from the context menu that appears. Changing the desktop background on KDE: The Plasma desktop is not a static background, but more like a canvas, where a picture, and many different widgets co-exist. You can have one or more desktops, all looking the same, or each desktop may have a different background and a different set of widgets.

MATE and Cinnamon:
  1. Right-click the desktop and choose "Change Desktop Background"
    (Or on MATE: Menu > Control Center > Appearance > Background)
    (Or on Cinnamon: Menu > System Tools > System Settings > Background)
  2. Select the image you want to use. Note that you have the choice to get additional backgrounds from online repositories.
  3. If you have a picture on your computer's hard drive you want to use, click the Add button, locate the file and click Open.
  4. Your background changes immediately. Click Close.

When using MATE, you can use the link on the lower left to download more images from the Internet. (Make sure you use only trusted sites.)

Change your background with MATE. Change your background with Cinnamon.
KDE:

(Thanks to Carlos F Lange for this section)

  1. Menu > Configure Desktop > Workspace Behavior: set the number of desktops and their layout and set if you want different widgets for each desktop.
  2. Right-click and "unlock widgets", if they are locked. (I always lock them, so I don't change things by mistake, while I am working.)
  3. Right-click on the desktop background and choose "Default Desktop Settings". Here you can change not only the wallpaper, but also the layout of the desktop, as mentioned above.
Change your background with KDE

The basics: Changing the theme

The desktop theme can include the set of fonts and colors used on the desktop, the size and style of icons, the size, shape and color of the borders of each window, whether there are 3-D or animation effects, and even whether the buttons have icons. Changing your theme is just as easy and changing background wallpaper.

MATE and Cinnamon:
  1. On MATE: Menu > Control Center > Appearance > Theme
    On Cinnamon: Menu > System Tools > System Settings > Themes
  2. Select the theme you want to use from the list. Note that you have the choice to get additional themes from online repositories.
  3. On Cinnamon you must also click the Apply theme button.
  4. Your Theme changes immediately. Click Close
Change Themes on Cimmamon
KDE:

(Thanks to Carlos F Lange for this section)

    Menu > Configure Desktop > Workspace Appearance > Desktop Theme Select the theme you want and "apply" You can also change the window decorations (windows frames, buttons and distinction between active and non-active windows), cursor theme(type and color of mouse cursor), and the login splash screen.
Change the KDE Theme

The basics: Changing the panel

The panel, known as the "taskbar" in Windows, can usually be moved into a different position, and you can also have more than one panel if you wish.

MATE:
  1. Right-click a blank space in the panel and choose "Preferences" from the menu.
  2. From within the dialog box you can edit "Orientation" to choose whether you want the panel at the top, at the bottom of on one of the sides of your screen.
  3. You can increase the size of the panel, and its corresponding icons.
  4. Choose the "Expand" checkbox to make the panel go completely across the screen. Uncheck it to make it behave more like a dock.
  5. Use the "Show hide buttons" setting with "Expand" unchecked to make buttons appear at either end of the panel to let you adjust its size.
  6. The "Autohide" setting causes the panel to vanish when you move the mouse cursor away from it and reappear when your mouse reaches the edge of the screen where you placed the panel.
  7. The "Background" tab gives you more options on the appearance of the panel, including the ability to make it completely transparent, a solid color, or add a graphic background image to the panel.
  8. To add an additonal panel, right-click an existing panel and choose "New Panel".
  9. Right-click the new panel and choose "Add to panel" to add launchers, monitors and other panel items.
  10. Now start over at step one, above, and edit the preferences for your shiny new panel!
Change the Panel on MATE
Cinnamon:
  1. Right-click a blank space in the panel and choose "Panel Settings" from the menu.
  2. The "Panel layout" setting lets you move a single panel between the top and the bottom of the screen, or to have one panel on the top, and one on the bottom. Currently in Cinnamon, there is no option to put panels on the left or right edge of your screen.
  3. As with MATE you can auto-hide the panel as your mouse approaches and leaves the edge of the screen where the panel is located. With Cinnamon you also have control over how quickly it vanishes and reappears.
  4. You can manually set the panel size or let it be controlled by the theme you have chosen.
  5. To add or remove items from a panel on Cinnamon, you must put the penel into "edit mode". The checkbox in Panel Settings lets you do that, or you can use the selection on the menu that appears when you right-click a panel to enter edit mode.
Change the panel on Cinnamon
KDE:

(Thanks to Carlos F Lange for this section)

  1. Right-click and "unlock widgets", if they are locked.
  2. Click on the golden bean, called Panel Tool Box.
  3. You can change the panel size by sliding the "Height" arrows.
  4. You can change panel location by clicking on "Screen Edge" and dragging the panel in the direction of the screen edge you want.
  5. Change panel visibility and hiding controls by clicking on "More Settings".
  6. Click on Add Widgets and you can select from a wide variety of widgets (or active icons, if you prefer) to add to the panel. These widgets can also be added to the plasma desktop simply by dragging anddropping them where you want.
Change the KDE Panel

The basics: Editing the menu

The main menu can be edited from within many desktop environments. This can be very helpful if you have a bash script that you want to use from the menu, like any other application. You can even give it a custom icon.

Cinnamon
  1. Right-click on the menu button on the panel.
  2. Select Edit menu from the context menu that appears.
  3. In the left panel, select the category under which you want your menu item to appear.
  4. Click the New Item button to start creating your new menu item.
  5. Select "Application" in the Type: field.
  6. Enter the text that you want to appear in the menu in the Name: field.
  7. Click the Browse button and navigate to, and open the application or script you want to run. Alternatively, in the Command: field, you can type a command as you would enter it in a terminal to run the application. This could be the name of the application, or a command like the one in the screen shot, below, where I'm running a python script.
  8. To change the icon for the menu item, click on the icon that is displayed. It's a button! Navigate to, and select the icon you want to use and click Open.
  9. Click OK to create you menu item.
  10. Click Close to finalize your edits to the menu.
Add Menu Item with Cinnamon

A little more advanced

In this section, we'll be describing some modifications you can make to your desktop that are a little more advanced. Since most of these involve using configuration tools or utilities that are not part of the desktop environment itself, the instructions for making many of these tweaks will be the same regardless of your desktop.

Advanced 3-D effects

Have you seen videos of windows in Linux that jiggle like jelly when they are dragged across the screen? What about painting fire on the screen with the mouse pointer? Or this one: When a window closes, it burns up from the bottom like a piece of paper, or dissolves and vanishes like objects in a science fiction "transporter?" Try Compiz. It is the ultimate desktop customization tool. Compiz has a bewildering array of animations and effects for the Linux desktop. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compiz


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