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Ximian GNOME: Welcome to Your Desktop

by Daniel Solin

Long time, no see! At the end of July last year, I wrote Helix GNOME: Unix For Humans to help you get started with the Helix GNOME desktop. Since then, the HelixCode company has changed its name to Ximian and is now calling its product Ximian GNOME.

In the last article, we looked at what the Ximian GNOME desktop is and why you would want to use such a thing. But that article only took you through the installation process. In this article, we'll go through the different features of Ximian GNOME and teach you how to customize the desktop to suit your specific needs. We'll then review some of the applications that come with Ximian GNOME.

Getting to know Ximian GNOME

The last screenshot shown in the first article showed a standard Ximian GNOME desktop with the hints window running. For those of you coming from the Microsoft world, GNOME hints work just like the hints that are shown the first time you install Windows. And, just like Windows hints, the Ximian GNOME desktop will feed you useful tips and hints about using GNOME until you explicitly tell it to stop by unchecking the "display this dialog next time" checkbox. For now, we'll just close the window.

So, there you have it -- a nice, clean desktop. Now let's look under the hood and see if this beautiful shell has any useful features to offer.

Overview of Ximian GNOME components.
Figure 1: Overview of the Ximian GNOME components. (Click on the image for a full-size view.)

We'll go through the core utilities one by one to make sure we know how they work and what they're there for.

The GNOME Panel

Opened GNOME menu.
Figure 2: Click on the foot and the GNOME Menu pops up!

The GNOME Panel is usually found at the bottom of the screen. This is the "heart" of the Ximian GNOME Desktop. It contains the GNOME Menu (see an opened GNOME Menu in Figure 2), the Quick Launcher menu, the GNOME Tasklist, and the GNOME Deskguide, making the GNOME Panel an invaluable part of the desktop.

The GNOME Menu works just like the Start menu in Windows. You use it to launch your applications, and can add and remove items from the list as you install and deinstall software. However, if you're dealing with GNOME-compliant software, items will be added and removed from the GNOME Menu automatically!

The quick-launchers, usually found at the right side of the GNOME Menu, are a set of icons that give you easy access to your favorite applications and utilities. In contrast to the desktop icons, the quick-launchers located on the Panel are always accessible -- even if you have a large application running. Later, we'll learn how to add our own quick-launchers to the Panel.

At the right side of the quick-launchers you see the GNOME Tasklist. Well, "see" maybe isn't the right word, because it's more or less invisible. In Figure 1, the only trace you actually see of the GNOME Tasklist is the dragging bar, which is only there to let you drag the Tasklist around on the Panel. However, when you start applications, each one will get it its own icon on the Tasklist. By clicking on these icons, you can easily change the active window and yes, you're absolutely right, it works just like the Windows Taskbar.

If you take a look at the left side of the panel, you'll see the GNOME Deskguide. This is a neat utility that gives you a selection of virtual desktops. A virtual desktop is a desktop that exists in your computer's memory -- you need to click on the icon to see it. By default, the Deskguide is configured to create four virtual desktops. Try it out yourself: Start an application on the upper-left desktop (and wait until it appears onscreen), then click on the upper-right desktop. Voila! You have a whole new empty desktop to work with. If you click on the upper-left desktop again, you quickly get back to the application you just started. Believe me, this feature is useful!

The desktop icons

Like any other modern desktop, GNOME allows you to create custom icons on the desktop. This can be an icon for launching an application, for opening an Internet URL, or for opening a directory on your local hard drive. If you are migrating from Windows, you're probably used to desktop icons and will find this feature very useful.

The fast-access menus

At the top of your desktop, there is another panel. At the left side of this panel, you see the Fast Access menus. These include the Programs menu, the Favorites menu, the Setting menu, and the Desktop menu. All these menus can be accessed via the GNOME Menu as well, but this solution makes it even easier for you access the most commonly used menus because you'll have less sub-menus to search through.

The GNOME calendar

The calendar menu.
Figure 3: This menu pops up if you left-click on the clock.

This GNOME calendar might first look just like a simple clock. However, while the clock function is very useful, the main feature is a built-in calendar. To open the calendar, click with your left mouse-button somewhere on the clock. When you do this, the menu shown in Figure 3 will pop up.

From this menu, you have three calendar options, the fourth item, "Format", is for setting the format of the clock. So, if for example you click on "Today", you will see the window presented in Figure 4.

The current date window.
Figure 4: This window represents your calendar for today.

As you see, this utility offers a full-featured electronic calendar. And, because it's easy to access the calendar from the Ximian GNOME desktop, it's even faster to check things in this calendar than in one that needs newly-licked fingers to become browsable! I personally use this calendar every day. It does everything I need without being too advanced and so feature-rich that you get a serious headache every time something needs to be looked up or written down. I have had that problem with other electronic calendars.

The GNOME web site shortcuts

The GNOME shortcuts menu.
Figure 5: Menu with shortcuts to different GNOME-related web sites.

If you click on the small bug (no, I don't mean a software-bug!) at the upper-right corner of the desktop, a menu with shortcuts to various GNOME-related web sites pops up.

This is a convenient feature -- you just click on one of the items on the menu, and in a pinch, the selected web site will be opened in a new browser window.

Feature summary

These features form the Ximian GNOME desktop. It's very easy-to-use and has all the features you would expect from a modern desktop environment. Now, that you have a basic understanding of how Ximian GNOME is put together, we'll learn how to tweak it to make it perfect for our own needs.

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