Five Compiz features to boost Linux productivity

By   |  January 14, 2008

The Ubuntu desktop may look a little brown and boring to first-time Linux users but beneath that conservative skin lurks a powerhouse of desktop features just waiting to come out, if you are using Compiz Fusion. Here we look at five of the better Compiz features that actually make us more productive as well as looking good.

When you have multiple windows open on your desktop, all piled on top of one another, it’s hard to find what you want. With Scale you simply hit a key … and all the open windows are scaled down and tiled across the screen. Clicking on one of them brings it to the front. It’s a real time saver.

Most Linux distributions today include Compiz by default (in their distro-specific repositories or third party repositories). Compiz is a compositing window manager for the X Window System that uses 3D graphics to add special effects to the desktop. (See Wikipedia for in-depth details).

In Ubuntu Gutsy the Compiz core is installed by default. To see that in action use the System->Preferences->Appearance menu option and look at the Visual Effects tab. In base mode Compiz provides a few simple features such as fading windows, shadows around windows and the, infamous, wobbly windows. All good fun in themselves but they don’t really make us any more productive.

What you need to do to get the full power of Compiz is to install the compizconfig-settings-manager.

To do this in Ubuntu Gutsy:

sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager

That’s it.

(HowToForge has instructions on installing Compiz on Fedora.)

Once installed, open System->Preferences->Advanced Desktop Effects Settings and behold the many useful (and some not so useful) options.

Scale

Scale is perhaps my favourite, and most useful, of the Compiz effects. When you have multiple windows open on your desktop, all piled on top of one another, it’s hard to find what you want. With Scale you simply hit a key (or in my case mouse-over the top right hand corner of the screen) and all the open windows are scaled down and tiled across the screen. Clicking on one of them brings it to the front (in real size). It is a real time saver.

Desktop Wall

The Cube effect that people most often associate with Compiz is pretty impressive and always wows newbies. But perhaps a more useful, even if a little less flashy, alternative is Desktop Wall. Hitting the Meta(Windows)-E key combination scales all your desktops down and pans them across in a single row. Again, clicking on one desktop makes it the primary one. One of the features that makes this particularly useful is that windows can be dragged from one desktop to another.

Shift Switcher

If you’re looking for a slightly cooler way to move through your open windows then take a look at the Shift-Switcher add-on. When enabled you can tile all open windows on the screen in a 3D-like display not unlike a Rolodex card list. Use the Meta(windows)-tab key combination to cycle through the windows. In the settings manager you can also choose whether to include windows from all desktops or just your current one. The former is particularly useful although the transition switching between desktops is not perfect, but does work.

Window Previews

Sometimes you need a little more information than just a title to remember what each window on your desktop is being used for. This is where Window Previews comes in handy. When enabled, thumbnails of each open window is displayed as you hover over the panel at the bottom of your screen. Making the previews just big enough to read makes it easy to get a quick overview of your current work.

Cube

The cube is perhaps the most hyped feature of the 3D desktop. And, surprisingly, I found that once you actually start using it Cube is actually quite useful, and not just flashy. When cube is enabled you can use the Ctrl-Alt key combination together with mouse to rotate the cube and display all the desktops you have active. It is remarkably easy to use and actually makes it easier to switch through desktops rapidly.

If you’re going to use the cube then at least pimp it out to the max. Make sure you enable transparency as well as the cube gears (shows working gears inside the cube as it rotates) and then top it off with cube caps which can have a customised image on the top and bottom panel of the cube.

Got a favourite Compiz feature? tell us about it in the comments.


Comments

14 Responses to “Five Compiz features to boost Linux productivity”

  1. lunamystry
    January 14th, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

    i agree with the list but i find i use scale more than all the other features. ring switcher also looks cool

  2. passersby
    January 14th, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

    i don’t know… this looks more like a justification to me (*provoke*)
    i don’t think any of these improve productivity. have you looked at how metisse handles copy and paste-actions? now thats helping… but to each his own.

  3. lenooh
    January 14th, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    I think the most useful thing are shadows, because they let you easily distinguish overlaying windows, and window previews.

    All others are just fancy looking but not that useful. Using multiple desktops without the cube effect is much more convenient. Just make a good keyboard shortcut, and get used to using them. Have at maximum 2 windows per desktop, and you never need to minimize windows again, use scale, or shift switcher (or similar).
    In the end you end up doing just 2 things: opening windows, and switching desktops. Maximum efficiency …

  4. twilight
    January 15th, 2008 @ 12:37 am

    I like all the above features just for fun I dont think they increase productivity directly.

    For me transparent windows and the dynamic oracify features are very important. Enhanced desktop zoom is a very invaluable feature in terms of accessibility.

  5. isecore
    January 15th, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

    I’m a big fan of the Put and ADD-plugins. I like the Put-plugin since then I can easily move windows about without having to take my hand off the keyboard, and the ADD-plugin is excellent for when I need to focus on one window without being distracted by others.

  6. brian
    January 15th, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    I don’t like the cube, it confuses because when you rotate it, all the desktops shift positions. I cannot use it when i’m doing serious stuff and shifting desktops alot.

  7. GoatTuber
    January 15th, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

    The enhanced desktop zoom is by far my favorite feature. My friends are impressed yet intimidated by the desktop cube, but the zoom is the feature that’s made most of them say “wow, I NEED that on my computer!”

  8. Chris Lees
    January 16th, 2008 @ 1:44 am

    Best feature: Dimming windows that are not responding. Makes it easy to see if a program has crashed, even if it’s in the background.

  9. Psypher
    January 17th, 2008 @ 5:50 am

    All of the above except for maybe the window preview is very useful. I personally use the zoom feature to death, failing eyes. Just hold windows key and use mouse wheel to zoom in and out. Being zoomed in and clicking right mouse, still holding windows key, will zoom out to normal view again. I also sometimes use the fading option. I play a full screen video and the open another window like browser and fade it out a little, holding down alt and using mouse wheel, so that I am able to watch something and browse at the same time. Application grouping is useful too but it crashes my compiz every now and again.

    All in all compiz rocks and makes for such a more enjoyable desktop experience. And also to show off how well OSS dev’s can program, because if all these awesome graphics can run on old hardware, I have tried and succeeded, and vista can barely run on the same hardware with NO fancy graphics then they must be doing something right. or then again, maybe M$ is just doing things very wrong and in my experience that is quite possible.

  10. L French
    February 5th, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

    You mention moving to a corner to activate scale, could you please tell how you do that? I can’t find the setting anywhere

  11. Alastair Otter
    February 5th, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

    @Leon

    To set the “hot corners” to activate the Scale feature do the following:

    In the Compiz Advanced Desktop Effects Settings click on the Scale icon. Then click on the “actions” tab and under the General section double-click the “Initiate Window Picker” option. This brings up a dialog that includes a “Screen Edges” setting. Set your choice here.

    Al

  12. cjoe
    February 21st, 2008 @ 1:31 am

    You wrote: “When cube is enabled you can use the Ctrl-Alt key combination together with mouse to rotate the cube and display all the desktops you have active. It is remarkably easy to use and actually makes it easier to switch through desktops rapidly.”

    What I have is a cube for each desktop, rather than a cube displaying all desktops. Should i be able to change that? How?

    Thanks

  13. tchalvak
    January 9th, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    Ring-Switcher, it lies over the alt-tab functionality that I (and perhaps you) have grown so used to using, and which you’d be able to fall back to using on any other computer as well.

    The advantage over shift-switcher is that it shows all your open windows all at once, and it doesn’t require a mouse scroll wheel to make use of it, so it can be used on a laptop without the usb mouse, and doesn’t even require leaving the keyboard.

  14. tchalvak
    January 9th, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    Oh, and I forgot to argue that there’s really no reason to -have- window previews on a “taskbar” any more, you can just hotlink the bottom of your screen to calling scale, and all it’ll take is pulling the mouse to the bottom of the screen to get the “thumbnail previews” that would otherwise have to pop off of the bottom taskbar.

    Scale and Ring Switcher finally bring to linux the two killer features of OSX and Vista, respectively.

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