Gnome desktop overhaul guide

May 25, 2009 at 10:55 pm 3 comments

The Gnome desktop environment is pretty cool. It’s simple and solid. Unfortunately a default Gnome desktop is not very appealing to the eyes. We all come to the point where we wonder, “Can I make my Gnome desktop look super l33t?” And then when we see screenshots of awesome Gnome desktops, a burning desire flames up in our hearts. That’s how it was for me, anyways. So I set out to transform my desktop into something that looks cooler. Note that although I did all this in Ubuntu (and therefore this is Ubuntu-oriented), I’m pretty sure it’ll work in any distro running Gnome. If you use KDE… you can try it, but I don’t know if all of it will work.

It took three days and lots of failure and frustration to make my desktop look just right. It was worth it. ^^

There it is. (That stuff in the bottom right is Impulse, a sound visualization screenlet. Beauty in its purest form.)

There it is. (That stuff in the bottom right is Impulse, a sound visualization screenlet. Beauty in its purest form.)

1. cool effects

This one’s simple, but I’ll mention it just for the sake of completeness. To get nice effects and eye candy, open up the CompizConfig Settings Manager (under Preferences in the menu) and configure away. But first you have to enable your proprietary video driver, under Administration > Hardware Drivers.

2. a nicer theme

GTK themes are the basic themes in Gnome. You can find tons at If you’re like me at first you might wonder, “How the heck do I apply this theme??” After you download it, go the Appearance preferences and go the Theme tab. Then just drag your new theme file into the Appearance window, and presto! You’ve got a new theme.

One annoyance I encountered is that Synaptic and other applications that are run as the root user look terrible and don’t use new GTK themes. To change this, run these commands in a terminal, then restart any root applications that are open.
sudo ln -sf /home/<username>/.icons /root/.icons
sudo ln -sf /home/<username>/.themes /root/.themes

sudo ln -sf /home/<username>/.fonts /root/.fonts

Emerald themes, which can be found at, provide window border decorations like shiny title bars. But first you need the Emerald Theme Manager. You can get it in Synaptic, and then after you install it open up a terminal and run emerald —-replace. Note that you still need a GTK theme for the inside of windows. The key is finding Emerald and GTK themes that fit well together.

Icon sets can also be found at GNOME-Look. Like GTK themes, to apply them just drag them into the Appearance window.

Mouse cursor themes are a little harder to set up sometimes. The way it’s supposed to work, you just drag a downloaded cursor theme into the Appearance window, click Customize, go to the Pointers tab, and choose your desired pointer theme. In the best cases, you do this, re-login, and your new cursor theme works. In the worst cases, dragging a file into the Appearance window doesn’t install the cursor theme. If this is the case, you have to install it manually. Here’s how:

First, extract your theme file. Then move the extracted folder to /home/<username>/.icons. Now try choosing that theme in the Appearance preferences (in the Pointer tab in the Customize window). If it’s there, select it, close, and re-login. If it’s not there, run gconf-editor in a terminal. For these two keys, enter the name of your desired theme: /desktop/gnome/peripherals/mouse/cursor_theme, and /apps/compiz/general/allscreens/options/cursor_theme. Now re-login. Hopefully you’re new theme works now, but if not, contact you’re nearest Linux guru and plead for assistance.

Finishing touches. Finally, get a nice desktop background to complement your sweet new theme. And a Firefox theme to match it too, if you use Firefox. (Ironically, the FF theme that fit my desktop the best was a Vista-like theme.)

3. a stylish dock bar

Want to use a cool-looking dock bar instead of boring panels? It’s easy!

Avant Window Navigator and Cairo Dock are the most popular “normal” docks. These are the traditional, drag-your-shortcuts-there dock bars, and they also have cool widgets, and they show open windows like in the bottom panel. They’re not perfect, and each has its strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll have to try both to see which you like better. Both are available in the repositories (Synaptic).

Docky is a different kind of dock. It’s part of Gnome Do, an awesome search/launcher program that allows you to do stuff  really fast with the keyboard. Docky is simply a dock interface for Do that shows any windows you’re running and optionally your most-used programs.

Want to make the Gnome panels autohide? Open up gconf-editor, find your panel(s) under /apps/panel, and then turn on and tweak autohiding. There is one little problem though: the panel never hides completely even auto_hide_size set to 0. When the panel hides there remains a tiny thin line that bugs the heck out of some people (like me). That’s why I chose to…

…Remove all Gnome panels. For some reason Gnome doesn’t let you delete the last panel through the right-click menu, so again we’ll do a trick with gconf-editor. In gconf-editor, navigate to /desktop/gnome/session/required_components. Set the value of the “panel” key to blank. Then re-login and all your panels are gone! If you ever want your panels back just go to that key again and set its value to “gnome-panel”.

4. moar screenlets!

No, they’re not miniature screens. Screenlets are little apps that stay on your desktop. They can be anything from a music visualizer to system information displays to clocks. Like Google Gadgets or Yahoo Widgets. Before you go on a screenlet spree, you need to install the “screenlets” package, available in the standard repositories. After installing it, open up the Screenlet Manager to… wouldn’t you know… manage your screenlets. Many screenlets come pre-packaged, but if you want more (and I think you will), go the the Screenlets section at GNOME-Look, download the ones you want, and then in the Screenlets Manager add them via the Install button.

It takes a while to learn how to set up screenlets just right, and a lot of trial-and-error, but here’s a tip. If you like using the “show desktop” button/keyboard shortcut, you’ll run into a problem: by defualt all screenlets will minimize along with windows. That’s not good, screenlets are supposed to stay on your desktop! Again we will use gconf-editor. So open it up and navigate to /apps/compiz/general/allscreens/options. Uncheck hide_skip_taskbar_windows. Now your screenlets won’t minimize anymore.

Another tip: if you want screenlets visible alongside windows all the time, put your screenlets in a sidebar screenlet. Then set the sidebar’s alignment to one that says “Reserved”. Note that as of May 2009 there is a bug with this alignment; whenever you move, edit, or add screenlets in the sidebar, they get pushed out of the sidebar. So you have to set it to a regular alignment, do your stuff, and finally set it to reserved again.


I hope whoever reads this (if anyone) learns something. If not, I still have a nice set of notes for myself for the future.

[poetic mode activated] May you enjoy the newfound sweetness wafting to your eyes, may your life be spent in blissful beauty, and may your powers of desktop-customizing be always used for good, never for evil… [unless they give you cookies. Then it’s okay.]



Entry filed under: howto, Linux. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Junior  |  May 26, 2009 at 1:49 am

    Much better. Looks like a KDE desktop.

  • 2. Articles Collection of May’09 « Dako-Tux  |  June 24, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    […] Gnome desktop overhaul guide […]

  • 3. WinMacLinUser  |  February 23, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks for the tips…. I learned how to have my screenlets visible all the time.


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