My Linux User Interface Explained

One of the things I like about using Linux is the flexibility and level of control you have with the interface.  If you have the know-how, or the will to learn, then you can customize to your hearts content.  I still change mine around occasionally, but have more or less settled on a functional setup.

First of all some basic information about software I’m using with this interface that enables it.  My window manager is called “Openbox”  It provides a right click menu with hand-picked applications on it.  Openbox also gives you window decorations (the handles and title bar that lets you drag and resize windows with the mouse), control buttons like close, maximize, minimize, etc, and virtual desktops.  Openbox doesn’t provide a system tray or panel showing open applications so I use a program called “tint2” for that.  The slightly transparent bar at the top with the chromium-browser icon and a home folder is tint2, as is the clock and little icons in the top right.  My background image is displayed using a program called “nitrogen”, as wallpapers also aren’t provided by Openbox by default.  Lastly, I use a system monitor called “conky” to display my uptime, CPU load and temperature, and RAM usage statistics.

This setup is basically pre-configured by a few different distributions including Crunchbang and Semplice.

Many people familiar with Windows will not immediately know how to open programs, as there is no “Start” button or Dock like in OS X.  I launch programs one of three ways, with emphasis on the first two.  By right clicking on an empty part of the desktop or panel a menu just like what shows up in the windows “Start” menu appears.  I can then click to open programs.

openbox right click menu

Alternatively I can hit the “alt” and “f2” keys simultaneously to open a program launcher similar to the old windows “run” prompt.  The alt+f2 launcher uses tab-completion, meaning I can start typing something, like “chro” hit the “tab” key, and all existing programs that start with “chro” will be listed.

alt+f2 menu

The third way I open programs is by launching them in a terminal window.  This works the same as the alt+f2 method, except in the case that something isn’t working right, the terminal will give me information about it.  I only use this when I suspect there’s a problem with some program I’m trying to run.

Virtual desktops are old news for Linux, but they’re a new thing for Mac OS X as well as Windows.  Virtual desktops just provide you with as much screen space as you want for organizing your windows.  It’s one of a dozen ways to help you organize your programs that you have open.  You don’t need to use them, but many people find them helpful.  They’re a bit hard to explain if you’ve never used them before, so the best way is just to dive in.  In my interface, I can change virtual desktops by clicking on the “1” or “2” areas of my panel, or by pressing ctrl+alt+right, or ctrl+alt+left.

Another way I get around is by using alt+tab to switch windows, just like I used to in Windows XP.  The difference is that alt+tab will only switch between windows in the same virtual desktop.  If I want to switch to a window in another desktop, I have to switch to that desktop first.  This can be pretty useful for organizing your programs, but it could be confusing if you’re not used to it.  So it’s a good thing to know right off the bat.

There’s another menu that I almost never use.  It’s there because Openbox doesn’t offer a panel to show you the programs you have open.  If you middle click on an open part of your desktop it shows you a list of all the programs you have open on all the virtual desktops.  I personally prefer using tint2 for this, but Openbox can be used without any other applications as a stand-alone environment for those who like a really minimal graphical interface.

openbox middle-click menu

From a basic use point of view that’s about the extent of my user interface!  It’s pretty simple and very powerful, and best yet it runs super fast on my 6+ year old laptops.

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6 Comments

Filed under linux, technology, tutorial

6 responses to “My Linux User Interface Explained

  1. anthonyvenable110

    I got so excited reading this! It just goes to show that Linux is awesome! I am always looking for ways to bring it to others attention.

  2. anthonyvenable110

    Reblogged this on anthonyvenable110 and commented:
    I had to reblog this it was that good!

  3. You leave out the best part of Openbox.
    What you forgot to mention is the most important way to start programs in openbox; it is with keybindings that you define in one rather simple rc.xml file.
    For instance Super+w start webbrowser; Super+t starts terminal etc.
    I also use keybindings to manipulate my windows: http://stillstup.blogspot.com/2010/06/keybindings-to-manipulate-windows.html
    Dmenu is my second program starter; its advantage compared to gmrun is that you get a list with all the installed programs and if you don’t know the name exactly you can select it from the list.
    This all together makes you super productive as you don’t have to use your mouse anymore like before. Not only will that reduce RSI risk but you will notice how disabling the mouse use is compared to keyboard driven pc use.

    • I left it out somewhat intentionally, but thanks for bringing it up here. Pretty much all desktop environments have a way of binding programs to launch on certain key combinations. I’m not super keyboard oriented, as I do a lot of visual work which requires the mouse anyway. But yeah, thanks for the link.

      Also, as this tutorial was fairly beginner oriented, I didn’t want to add an extra layer of confusion. Discussing keyboard shortcuts usually requires an explanation of the super key, meta keys, etc, and I’d rather leave that for another day. Maybe I’ll do a feature on it.

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